Fixing child welfare is going to take a complete overhaul of the system, as well as a major shift in public policy. Unfortunately, we see the prospects of that happening somewhere between a chance in hell and the Jacksonville Jaguaars winning the Super Bowl. (Hey, it could happen) Whether or not we can get legislators to make changes, we want to illustrate to readers how the welfare of kids could be overseen without resorting to interventions that cause trauma and family destruction.
1. Change the meaning of foster care
Instead of pulling a child out of their home to place them with alternate caregivers, bring the alternate caregivers to them. Localize foster care within the community instead of diverting kids all over the state. Then change its nature. The foster family should be a support family, not a replacement family. Someone who can step into the child’s life and share in their care to prevent abuse. The problem now is that CPS is run under a confrontational approach, rather than a support approach. This adversarial attitude is what creates most of the problems. When a parent is suspected of abuse, their ties with the child are instantly severed. Once abuse is suspected or substantiated, the parent is treated like the child’s enemy rather than an important caretaker. Foster care and the child’s family (which is to say, everything important in their life) become adversarial, not complimentary. This attitude does not serve anybody except the District Attorney’s office. It certainly doesn’t help the child.
The entire system is set up on a false premise. As insensitive as this may sound at first, a child who has been abused will not suddenly be dealt irreversible scars should one more incident take place, or even a few more. As we’ve shown, cumulative, uncomforted and unresolved experiences are what lead to permanent hurt. We need to intervene to disrupt and limit abuse or neglect to create a better environment, but this is not an immediate, all-or-nothing type scenario. Even a partial improvement would be favorable to removal. As the data reveals, 60% of foster care kids eventually return home anyway. (USDHHS, 2006) That’s 60% that never should have been removed in the first place. Adding a catastrophic injury to attachment is not helping their situation, but adding one more scar on top of the abuse. As we’ve shown, children are not necessarily saved by being removed from their home anyway. Nor do they usually benefit from it. Even when a child is being legitimately abused, merely interceding in the situation and letting parents know they are being observed is usually enough to prevent that abuse from escalating and becoming more serious.
We must remember that removal comes at a price. Even getting the prevalence of abuse down to an incident or even a few per year is favorable to the scars that will be left by removal. We have plenty of room to work with the family, even allowing for missteps or transgressions here and there as we work to improve the child’s home environment.
In situations where foster care became necessary and unavoidable, there would be plenty of time to transition a child into a foster home so that it wouldn’t be such a shocking and traumatic experience. If foster care is necessary at all, it should be a substantially better environment that the child chooses to transfer to, not one that’s forced upon them suddenly by people who can’t understand that they still love their parents and want to be with them, even if they are abusive. Such a relaxed approach does not mean a lack of caring. Quite the opposite. It merely means caring enough to acknowledge the child’s feelings and the enormous harm removal exacts, and taking the time to assess the situation and act appropriately. This is true caring.
This wouldn’t be all that difficult to switch. You could still supply foster parents with payments for their services. You could then even do short term removals when necessary with minimal damage, because although the child would be receiving supplemented care, it would not be a total separation from their home. Their original caregivers would still be allowed access. Each foster family would be assigned two or three kids, the usual caseload now; only their role would be to support the abusive or neglectful family instead of replacing it. They might visit the child’s home and interact with them there, serve as regular overnight or after school care for the children in their own home, and otherwise step in for support and stability. While the details would need to be worked out, such a scenario is more than manageable. Often times 2 or 3 kids are from one parent and they enter the system together. Switching foster families to a support role instead of replacement role could ensure one-to-one or one-to-two family caseload, with the foster family serving as a hub for the children, not a replacement.
The advantages of this are numerous. Separation trauma would be eliminated. By switching focus from policing efforts to support efforts, conflict from the situation is removed. It could do a better job preventing abuse than our current system, because A) Support limits abuse, B) There would be regular secondary interaction, and C) When a parent is stressed or on the verge of abuse, they could drop the child off at the foster care home or call them for support. In-home foster parenting provides another major benefit: It rubs off. By bringing the appropriate love and attention to the child instead of shipping the child out to what you hope (but seldom is) a better environment, you end up bringing people into the home who will inevitably shape those parents for the better. So many children are removed unnecessarily, often for minor things such as a messy house, when a little bit of support would go a long way towards improving the child’s environment. Finally, by eliminating the adversarial nature of the system, participation and cooperation of abusive parents, which is notoriously low at the moment (because parents feel judged and condemned,) would be vastly improved.
2. Change the nature of caseworker’s duties
We currently make our welfare workers a police force. So much time and resources are poured into paperwork, record keeping, court visits, and numerous other wasted endeavors of force, (see the chapter on Cost Of Force) Simply changing their role from a police force to a support force would free up their time enormously. You could hire 3 to 4 times the number of caseworkers without spending much more money. This would alleviate the problem of overcrowded caseloads. You could assign workers to a much smaller demographic area, thus eliminating a lot of drive time and gas money, freeing up their resources further. Average caseloads could go down to 5 or 6 families instead of thirty. Caseworkers could then serve as a support force, spending a great deal of time with every family. This changes our current army of social workers from a force of destruction to a coalition of help. Under the current arrangement, not a single minute of their time is spent productively. It would be under such an alternate arrangement.
3. Increase funds for family support
If you were to take the money currently being poured into the legal system for court costs associated with removal alone, and redirect that to family support programs, it would go a long way towards improving the family environment. Abuse and neglect is frequently a result of financial strains and other stressors. (Auge, 3-2-08) Children are currently being placed in foster care for being left at home alone while the parent goes to work to support the kids, and often has no other options because they can’t afford child care. We’ll snatch their kids away, pay the salaries of the police and the courts and the judge to do it, potentially put them in prison at a cost of 30k/year, but we won’t offer any support that costs a fraction of the cost and could have prevented the situation to begin with. It’s absurd. In many states, parents can’t even access mental health care for their children without having to first place the kids in foster care. (Koch, 10-1-08) “Families are in crisis and don’t have enough resources. There’s no safety net,” remarks Eve Bleyhl, executive director of Family Support Network, a private group in Lincoln, Nebraska. This type of failure is inexcusable.
4. Establish Secondary Agencies or Buddy Systems
Organizations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters already do a wonderful job providing adult interaction to kids in need. Yet there’s room and need for similar systems. The establishment of a similar program that not just interacts with the kids but provides social and emotional support to the parents of at risk kids would be enormously useful. Some sort of buddy system of adults who would do basic things like hang out with the kids, babysit on occasion without charge, or take the family (including parents) to the park or other outing for a play date. Basically, be a friend of the family for at-risk households.
5. This one is for you: No fussing over what can’t be changed. A person can strike a child and in one blow kill them without ever having any run-ins with the system. Not every child death can be prevented. When tragedies are averted, it is always through prosocial support and not reactionary policing efforts. When tragedies happen, the public debate and outcry needs to go towards proven efforts, not placebo pills like removal. Let’s get upset in a way that helps. One tragedy does not mean we should respond with another.
All of these things attack abuse at its causes, rather than taking a reactionary approach. Much better results are achieved when we work to solve abuse in proactive ways. The consequences of the alternative shouldn’t be something we can live with. The current child welfare system is in reality little more than state sponsored child abuse, and child abuse of the most destructive kind at that. It’s our responsibility as caring citizens to change that.