Why The Child Welfare Establishment May Not Want to Know About Child Torture

Turpins toilet
Image: CNN

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), one of America’s most venerable child welfare organizations, issued its weekly update on January 21 with something conspicuously missing.  “Last Week in Child Welfare, January 14 -21” contained updates on Mississippi’s lack of representation for families involved with child welfare, a recent report from New Jersey’s court monitor, and an opinion piece in the Indiana star about Indiana’s struggles with opioid abuse and its impact on the foster care system.

You would never know that on January 14, a starving seventeen-year-old escaped from a house of horrors where she and her twelve siblings were being starved, beaten, chained to beds, and kept prisoner. The teenager told police that her parents would kill her if her escape plan failed. During the week after the children’s rescue, public and press around the country and indeed the world were fixated on this story, trying to understand why it could happen and what could be done to prevent similar occurrences in the future. But this event apparently did not figure in CWLA’s “week in child welfare.”

One might think that an organization with a self-described mission “to advance policies, best practices and collaborative strategies that result in better outcomes for children, youth and families that are vulnerable” would be concerned that 13 children were allowed to suffer for so many years. You’d think that they would be putting out information  about the warning signs of child abuse and neglect and an admonition to make the call that might save a life. But you’d be wrong.

CWLA is part of what I think of as the child welfare establishment–the group that dominates the national conversation around child welfare. These organizations’ resources have enabled them to dominate the national conversation around child welfare by funding materials, conferences, and technical assistance to state and local child welfare agencies.  Since the 1970s, this group has been preoccupied with keeping families together and children out of foster care–with scant concern about the costs to kids in families that are so dysfunctional and dangerous that foster care is clearly a better alternative

Like the other members of the child welfare establishment, CWLA believes that “children fare better in their own homes compared to children in foster care who have been similarly maltreated, suggesting that social services should promote therapy, education, and treatments to increase family stability instead of relying on removals. ”

Of course child removals should should be minimized unless absolutely necessary, but it is difficult to imagine that parents like the Turpins could be helped through “therapy, education, and treatment” to love and nurture their children. The child welfare establishment appears not to want to believe in the existence of such parents who are so bad as to be beyond rehabilitation.

The child welfare establishment also fears that publicizing cases like that of the Turpins will result in a flood of calls to child abuse hotlines, resulting in the type of “foster care panic” that sometime occurs after a tragic case. Perhaps they would rather not encourage members of the public to report suspicions of child abuse that might save children in the future, because they believe such reports must increase the foster care rolls.

Of course we don’t want the public making frivolous, malicious, or fallacious reports. Nor do we want investigators responding to tragic events by sweeping kids up into foster care who don’t need to be there. In some cases, we can help children by monitoring their situation and providing services to their parents without removing the children. But in other cases, the children can only be protected by removing them from their toxic families.

The desire to avoid publicizing extreme cases of abuse and neglect might also explain why the child welfare establishment was not part of the coalition that supported the establishment of the Commission the Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. And it might explain why, as I wrote in an earlier post, child deaths and other tragedies that are missed by CPS are often followed by the comment from system administrators that “systems should not be judged by one case.”

During the week the Turpins were uncovered, CWLA thought it was more important to cite an op-ed piece that criticized Indiana’s highly respected former child welfare commissioner, who resigned with warnings that children would die if more funding was not provided. CWLA assured readers that “Even infants who have been exposed to narcotics fare better when they are kept with their mothers, assuming the mother has access to government resources and drug treatments.”

Unfortunately, the child welfare establishment’s obsession with keeping kids out of foster care may be condemning more children to suffering, physical and emotional injury, and death at the hands of their own parents.

This post was updated on January 29, 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Why The Child Welfare Establishment May Not Want to Know About Child Torture

  1. Some people can see that therapy, education, and treatment often don’t work to keep children safe. Others see that we spend the bulk of our time and resources in child welfare rescuing children from bad families. Those children grow up and have children. Some do well, but others get reported into the system, and in spite of all that was done for them, they tend to be even higher risk parents than the parents they were rescued from. The only thing our child welfare system is doing well is making more work for the next generation of social workers.

    Yet, for more than 30 years we’ve known from research on resilience in children that those who do well in the face of significant adversity have safe, stable, and committed adults around them, they have some sense of control over their lives, the adults are teaching them adaptive skills and self regulatory capacities, and they have faith, hope, and cultural traditions. The Turpin children had none of these things. Apparently nobody noticed! If we want a child welfare system that works we have to get over the disagreement between saving families and rescuing children and start making sure every child is surrounded by relatives and kin who will notice and do what’s necessary.

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    1. But how do we ensure that “every child is surrounded by relatives and kin who will notice and do what is necessary?”

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  2. Right now when we get a child protection report, we spend our time trying to decide if the report is true. If we think it is, we either take the children away or throw services at the family. Instead, or even while we’re messing with this reckless idea, we can insist that the parents bring around some other adults who know what the worries are, whether true or not, who will help the parents make a safety plan to demonstrate the children’s safety and well-being, and who will figure out ahead of time what they will do if the children aren’t getting good enough parenting, which usually comes to getting all the people the parents brought around their children back together again and making the plan better.

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