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Child welfare crazes follow a familiar pattern: Something horrible happens to a child that gets a lot of media attention, and the public demands that the government do something to better protect children. (This, in fact, is how the agency came into existence in the first place.) This usually leads to a spike in children removed from their homes for suspected abuse. But do the actions of child welfare agencies actually do anything to prevent these horrible cases? Just how much power do social service workers actually have to prevent abuse? The answer to these question isn’t very encouraging.

Does CPS Protect Children From Abuse?

Chid Protective Services has one tool at their disposal to try and prevent abuse: The ability to remove a chid from an abusive home. But there is a serious wrinkle: Removal is itself an abusive and dramatic act that is typically far more damaging than whatever abuse a child might be experiencing at home.

In a select few cases, the home environment may be so bad that removing a child is worth the cost and provides obvious relief for the child. But these cases are rare, and Child Protective Services has an abysmal track record at discerning between the most seriously threatened children and those who would be far better off left in their own home.

Hundreds of thousands of children are needlessly traumatized every year when they are removed from homes where no abuse or neglect actually occurred. And year after year children end up dying from abuse and neglect despite being known to the system. At best you could say it’s a 50/50 wash where social workers are no better than flipping a coin when it comes to determining which children are truly at risk.

Once you factor in the trauma of removal enacted on victims and non-victims alike, it’s clear that child welfare agencies commit more abuse than they protect children from. The reason this perverse reality exists is because we take a combative rather than supportive approach to child welfare, which leads government officials in the position of harming far more children than they help.

Does CPS Save the Lives of Children?

Removal could be argued as a necessary action if it saves the child’s life. The question is, does it? Sadly, the answer to this question seems to be a laundry list of further tragedies whose blood is on the hands of state welfare workers. In fact, it’s all too common for a child to be removed from their original parent and then be murdered while in foster care or under CPS custody. See Children Killed in Foster Care for some recent examples.

In fact, if you compare the number of children per capita killed while in state care to the number of kids killed among the general population, the results show that children are in far more danger of being killed while in foster care than they are in their natural homes. With a foster care rate of 3.7 children per 1,000 (Doyle & Peters, 2007), and around 1,500 deaths each year from abuse and neglect, if foster care was assuring even average safety, we would expect death from abuse and neglect among children in state custody to be no more than 5 1/2 kids murdered per year. We’ve documented a rate exceeding that many times over merely by loosely following news reports. Actual numbers are inevitably much higher than even high-profile cases indicate, suggesting that foster care placement in general puts a child in a high risk situation with a higher likelihood of being murdered, with little or no safety improvements gained versus their natural homes.

“A great percentage of children who die from abuse or neglect are known to the system,” says Adoree Blair, a child advocate who heads Integrated Family Services in Denver. “They are put there by social services.” (Migoya, 5-13-07) Wayne Holder, executive director of ACTION for child protection, also weighs in: “There is now growing recognition that even removing children from their homes doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe.” (Osher, 2-17-08) If you factor in other risks such as suicide and the potential criminality leading to death, the picture becomes even darker. Children are just as likely to be killed or murdered while in State Custody as they are in their natural home.

Meanwhile, as states are busy snatching kids away and putting them into abusive situations all their own, they’re frequently not performing the most basic duties that would help those children who really need it. In one such case, a 4-year-old girl was allowed to be beaten, bitten and tortured to death despite the state receiving at least 6 complaints about the child’s safety. (USA Today, 7-22-08, p. 6A) Adriana Lytle was known to the system, but apparently never investigated.

In D.C., a social worker was fired following the death of another child who was reported but never investigated. (USA Today, 7-9-08, p. 7A) The case followed a similar incident earlier that year in which four young girls were found dead in a Southeast row house, after repeated failures by CPS to investigate complaints. Such utter failures happen way too often to be considered atypical. Which is why it wasn’t surprising when an investigation by a local paper in Orlando, Florida, revealed more than 70 state child welfare workers falsifying records about their work within the past two years, including making up reports about mandatory visits. (USA Today, 7-13-09, p. 8A) Other inquiries have shown agencies merely failing to keep any paperwork or documentation of their cases at all. (Haynes, 11-8-08) These are not chance occurrences folks. This is widespread systematic failure on the most fundamental level.

Finally, in addition to the deaths caused by abuse & neglect, children in foster care have higher overall rates of mortality in general, both while in placement and after aging out of it. (Osbeck, 2006) Young children are especially prone to increased morbidity by removal.

More Intervention, Less Removal

We want to stress that what is needed is not more removal, but more intervention. If anything, these cases and the instances of children murdered in foster care show that it’s a foolish endeavor to expect strangers to come into a situation and properly assess the risk for abuse with anything even remotely close to accuracy.

More often than not, merely making contact and letting parents know they are being monitored is enough to stop the abuse from escalating and prevent these fatal situations. Follow up visits can then substantially reduce any abuse or neglect that is going on. Adrian Lyle (mentioned above) could have been saved if someone had merely taken the time to intervene. In her particular case, she had another caretaker vying for custody who could have taken over.

What children of abuse and neglect need is intervention that will interrupt the pattern of abuse. That intervention needn’t (and shouldn’t) mean snatching a child away, merely stepping in to improve the situation. In most cases, that will not mean foster care. But because of misguided aims, resources are being utilized everywhere else except where it truly matters. Children who desperately need intervention aren’t even afforded a preliminary visit, while others become ensnarled in a system of abuse that they never should have been placed in. It’s all a byproduct of a system built upon force and confrontation rather than cooperation.

All told, the evidence is clear: CPS does not protect against life-death risks. They actually increase them.

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