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We’re not advocating that people ignore the problem of child abuse. Far from it. But trading up one form of child abuse for a more severe form of child abuse certainly doesn’t help the child. Several fundamental flaws in the system prevent us from helping kids and doom our efforts to a fate worse than failure.

The effort to sever the destiny of needy children from the fate of their unworthy parents repeatedly slams against unyielding truths of child development: the need for intensive human attachment, the traumatic effect of childhood separations, and the rapid transformation of yesterday’s children into today’s child bearers. It defies hard economic realities, too, like the fact that even mediocre substitute care for children (whether in foster home or institution) costs much more than family subsidies.

– Nina Bernstein (2001)

Flaw #1-Government DOESN’T know what’s best

What do you suppose might happen if we allowed the lives of children to be run by the same people who have brought us trillion dollar debts and massive, money gobbling bureaucracies? If the kind of competent concern hurricane Katrina victims came to know were also shown towards our children? It is. Child welfare assumes that when a family environment breaks down, better results can be achieved by the state. It’s a false assumption.

For starters, there simply isn’t the time or resources to implement this current system correctly. Welfare agencies are routinely under-staffed and over-budget. (Updike & Cooper, 3-23-08) But this is only the start of the problem. No matter how much money and time we threw towards the situation, it would be virtually impossible to achieve truly accurate assessments.

A number of factors go into determining a child’s overall environment. It simply isn’t possible to make educated decisions based on an hour visiting with a family and an allegation of abuse. Moreover, it isn’t possible for a complete stranger to that family to have an idea about the complex relationships that exist within that family, and so it’s impossible for them to assess how healthy/unhealthy the environment really is. So the bottom line is that decisions which can devastate the entire family and destroy the child are made in haste, with little information, and even less understanding about the situation. This amounts to a shot in the dark. A review of fatal abuse cases shows that agencies grossly mishandled the situation in at least half the cases. (Hubbard, 5-16-07)

Whether or not a child is removed can depend on the particular welfare worker a family gets, the state they live in, and even the mood of the official. Several studies have shown that case managers differ greatly even when assessing the same fictional cases. (Natus & Pecora, 1993; Rossi, Schuermand & Budde, 1996) Also not a big revelation: the government doesn’t like to spend money, (just big agencies that employ many people) so it cuts corners in terms of care. As noted by Doyle & Peters (2007, p. 14), “simply put, the state does not want to pay the full cost of child protection.” Because of this, government will never know what’s best. When you’re talking about something so devastating and damaging as removal, one better be sure that child is going to die if you don’t take them away, and be basing it on more than guesses, because there is no other form of child abuse except death that is as harmful as removal.

Flaw #2- Attachment is A Childs #1

Somewhere along the line child welfare got their priorities all screwed up. They put the abuse above the attachment. In actuality, it’s only because abuse can potentially harm attachment that there is a reason to worry so much about it to begin with.

Forget about the past abuse. It means nothing. Who did what? So what? It matters not one iota. Childhood abuse is but a means to the harmed attachment with the caregiver. If a caregiver abuses a child often enough, it harms attachment, which is what harms the child. But if we jump in and harm that attachment without the formalities of striking, hitting or humiliating, we’ve done the equivalent of several years of abuse or neglect in a single action. Focus needs to be on what harms attachment, and abuse over time harms attachment, not a single assault or incidence of neglect. Children should not be placed into foster care merely on account of confirmed physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance use or neglect, as is now the standard, because the separation trauma inflicts a bigger injury to what’s really important than does the abuse.

Flaw #3- It’s a Highly Political Agency

Child welfare is a highly politicized organization. They are usually more concerned with appearances than they are concerned with the best interests of the child. A high profile case of abuse makes the news, and so the agency scrambles to save face. Children are removed more hastily thereafter in response, pandering to the public outcry. (Osher, 2-17-08; Bernstein, 2001, p. 436-437) But this also means that many more children are abused by the state unnecessarily. They’re going to be taken away and put in a situation that is just as dangerous.

Removal is little more than a public placebo designed to cater to community scrutiny. The realization is that occasionally a child will die, and nothing can be done. To remove more children on account of a few missed opportunities isn’t actually saving them, because children die at higher rates once the state gets their hands on them than they do in their natural homes. In this manner, the agency is currently little more than a facade; aimed at tricking the public into thinking something is being accomplished. To date, the agency has yet to stand up against public opinion in such situations to do what is right for children. Unfortunately, public opinion tends to be irrational and ill-thought-out.

Once a government agency is created, it becomes its own collective brain of people who work to justify, legitimize, and expand that agency, because their jobs and livelihoods depend on it. Its actions usually become politically motivated, and the purpose for which they were originally organized (helping children) gets lost in the process.

A recent display of this is when Marleigh Meisner of the Texas Department of Child Welfare hastily removed hundreds of kids from an entire community, without so much as a shred of credible evidence about any abuse taking place. She left far more kids drowning in tears than a molester could ever do with a few ‘bad touches.’ After months of being traumatized and shuffled around in foster care, there wasn’t anything suggesting they were being abused and a judge finally did the right thing and ordered all 400+ kids returned. But wouldn’t you know, a private mediator team of child psychologists hired to monitor their care found that these kids were being abused in foster care, as well as being subjected to unscrupulous tactics by state workers. (Koch, 6-5-28; USA Today, 6-3-2008; Koch, 6-3-2008; Koch, 5-23-2008; It would come to light that CPS workers were denying kids food and treating them harshly when they would not tell them about their “abuse” at home; abuse which was later found never to have occurred.)

This case was a publicity stunt and an attack against a group whose lifestyle is unpopular, not a move to protect children. If this move was about the welfare of children, then every single person within the Texas Department of Child Welfare should be fired on the spot for having not even the slightest clue about what is in the best interest of children. Shame on Ms. Meisner for devastating kids in order to play political games. I wish we could say that this was an isolated case of one rogue social worker, but sadly, it’s just the latest episode in a long-standing Shakespearian tragedy.

Flaw # 4- A Child’s Life in the Balance of a Bureaucracy

Like all government agencies, child welfare is caught up amongst a bureaucratic mess. It’s become a jumbled web of paperwork and court actions and different agencies interacting (or not interacting) with each other as the child’s life hangs in the balance. As John Landsverk, Ph.D., notes: “Each of these sectors are organized under different legislative mandates, have different funding streams, and exhibit different cultures and historical development that impact upon delivering preventive or treatment services related to violence. This multi-sector complexity of service delivery impacts the access to and use of preventive and intervention services and also is likely to impact the implementation of evidence-based interventions.” (Add ref)

In other words, the different agencies involved don’t work well together. They don’t have the same goals in mind. They all operate under different rules. This means they can’t actually implement “evidence-based” interventions, a fancy way of saying that they can’t intervene in ways that actually help the child. They become a tangled bureaucratic mess that children become ensnared in. One child was simply lost in the system. No, that’s not an analogy. She was removed from her mother and then ‘misplaced.’ When it was time for this mother to get her back, they couldn’t find her. To date, nobody knows where this child is, who she’s with, or even whether she is alive or dead. Chances are it’s the latter. When a child’s life hangs in the balance of a bureaucracy, they are usually hung by it.

Amongst this bureaucracy, despite massive funding the department doesn’t even have the capability to do the most basic of its responsibilities properly. Around half of all abuse and neglect calls are never pursued. (Auge, 3-2-2008) Caseworkers are over their recommended caseload around the nation. “There is a serious shortcoming,” says David Finkelhor, in regards to the way child welfare agencies are functioning. “Inadequate documentation, underreporting and contradictory information” is common. (Koch, 4-30-0 8) Inquiries into Child Protective Services repeatedly show an agency riddled with numerous problems. One such study found that the department had met only 37% of the state laws and regulations they were required to follow, and adhered to a mere 13% of best practice recommendations. Documentation problems were rampant, and it was impossible to know whether or not required steps were ever taken. (Haynes, 11-8-08)

Furthermore, workers in the agency showed low morale and high burnout, something else that tends to be a signature of CPS departments around the country. Another quick blurb from another state reveals: “State auditors said the agency responsible for protecting children often fails to meet the deadline for a follow-up review of a child’s death. The Department of Children and Family Services is supposed to conduct a review within 90 days of the formal investigation being completed. But the average wait was 200 days after the child died.” (USA Today, 6-26-09, p. 5A) Even when a child dies, they seem none too concerned to even investigate why.

We could continue with reports like this all day. What’s important is not the particular shortcoming but the realization these flaws point to: children are caught up in a massive bureaucracy that can’t even keep its most basic of responsibilities in order. How is this same entity then going to do what’s best by the individual children in its care? It doesn’t, and that’s precisely the problem.

Flaw #5- Quotas

In a little known fact that should terrify the living daylights out of anyone, the way funding is set up, state and county agencies actually receive bonuses based on the number of children they remove from their homes. The more kids they snatch away, the richer and more powerful the department gets. Think a child has never been removed unnecessarily to meet a budget quota? Experience would tell us otherwise.

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