Putting the Child Back in Child Welfare

It was the dead kids who inspired me to leave my comfortable, well-paid job as a researcher and become a child welfare social worker. Kids like Adrian JonesZymere Perkins and Yonatan Aguilar, who were killed by their parents after months or years of abuse.

The dead kids were out of their misery. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other kids living in fear of the next beating, watching child protective services (CPS) workers leave after accepting the mother’s or stepfather’s explanation of their bruises, and facing the now-angrier adult eager to punish them.

So I went back to school and added a Masters in Social Work to my Masters in Public Policy from Princeton and my B.A. in Sociology from Harvard. I was thrilled to be accepted as a CPS trainee at the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

But my CFSA trainer told us we were not there to save children. I learned that the family, not the child, was at the center of child welfare policy. Our business was to find the strengths in each family.

We learned that “safety” meant simply the absence of “imminent danger.” A child could be “safe” but at high risk of abuse or neglect in the future. Such children should remain at home with monitoring and supervision by the agency, but since this is usually voluntary, the family can refuse to participate.

I later learned that even if the family agrees to participate, these in-home cases often closed quickly with little evidence of reduced risk to the child. I also learned of cases around the country, such as that of Yonatan Aguilar, in which these high-risk but “safe”kids died from abuse.

I never ended up being a CPS worker. I ended up instead in a private agency that provided foster care and case management to D.C. children.

Working in foster care, I learned even more about how the child is not the center of child welfare practice. Compliance with requirements, meeting benchmarks and saving money were much more important than helping children.

Assuring that a child had her physical exam on time, her two visits with the social worker within the month, her “Youth Transition Plan” every six months was paramount. But no problem if I did not have enough time to explore summer camp options, or talk to a teacher or therapist, because there was no benchmark for that.

These benchmarks could have perverse results, like the time I had to take a client for an extra physical because her placement had changed its designation from “respite,” so it was treated as a new placement. Working 60 hours a week to see my clients’ needs met, I could ill afford the time.

I learned that the field adheres to simple, feel-good policy reforms that just happen to save money and often have perverse effects on kids. Non-family residential placements are anathema in the current climate. But many excellent group homes and residential schools are far more nurturing than some of the uncaring foster homes I’ve seen.

Because of the virtual elimination of group homes in the District, social workers have to repeatedly find new placements for traumatized teens whose behavior results in repeated rejection by foster families in search of easy money with no behavior problems.

It is also accepted as gospel that children must achieve “permanency” rather than aging out of care. To increase the numbers of “permanent placements,” and reduce the number of kids aging out, workers often urge youth to accept adoption or guardianship with foster parents, relatives, or other available adults, even if they are uncaring or inappropriate. Never mind that some youth might do better staying in foster care until 21 and benefiting from continued case management and services, rather than being at the mercy of paid guardians who may divert their subsidies for their own purposes.

Once a child is off the foster care rolls, there is no mechanism to ensure that the “permanent” placement works out. And with subsidies being paid to adoptive parents and guardians, there is reason for concern. Of course, the results are not usually as catastrophic as the murder of two girls by the woman who adopted them from D.C. foster care, who collected subsidies while their bodies remained in her refrigerator.

In my experience in child welfare, I’ve learned that too many things take precedence over the welfare of children.To share what I’ve learned, I’ve blogged for two years as part of The Chronicle of Social Change blogger co-op. Those postings can be found here. With the end of the co-op, I am continuing my blog under the new title of Child Welfare Watch. I hope you will follow me as I continue to comment on child welfare developments from a child-centered perspective.

An earlier version of this column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 21, 2017.

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