What can happen when “Family First” goes too far: a Wisconsin story

On October 1, 2021, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) took effect for all states that had not yet implemented it. But many jurisdictions had already been realigning their systems in line with the family preservation emphasis of FFPSA before that time – many with great fervor. An article about one Wisconsin county piqued our curiosity, and further investigation suggests the state may be encouraging a disproportionate emphasis on keeping families together at the expense of child safety. Wisconsin is certainly not unique; the focus on keeping families together at almost all costs has been increasingly prevalent in state and county child welfare systems since long before the passage of FFPSA in 2018.

On August 13, the local Gazette published an article reporting that that foster parents and others in Rock County Wisconsin were asking for an investigation into worker turnover and leadership in the county’s child welfare system. Rock County is a county in southern Wisconsin with a population of 163,354 in 2018 and home of the city of Beloit. The article reported that at a recent meeting of the county board, local foster parents complained about employee turnover and a change in philosophy in the County’s child welfare system since the passage of the Family First Act by Congress in 2018. The foster parents alleged that changes in the child welfare system “have led to a mass exodus of longtime county CPS staff.” According to the speakers, the exodus in turn has resulted in a curtailing of investigations and delays in finding services and permanent homes for foster children.

County reports obtained by the Gazette showed that turnover among Child Protective Services (CPS) investigative and ongoing support workers increased from 57 percent in 2016 to 88 percent since that time. The Gazette found that 56 workers had left these jobs since 2016, leaving only three workers still in place who had been there in 2016. In open letters to the board, CPS workers expressed fear that they would “be fired, demoted or marginalized if they voice[d] ideas that run contrary to the county’s shifts in the foster system.” (The county’s Human Services chief later challenged the information about turnover, telling the Gazette that it had been 70 percent since 2016.)

The Gazette also reported dramatic growth in the backlog of completed investigations. According to data from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) dashboard, the county had a 94% rate of timely completion of initial child screenings (child maltreatment investigations) in 2016, placing it close to the top of all counties in Wisconsin. But by this year as of September 28, 2021, Rock County had completed only 44.7 percent of initial screenings on time, placing it near the bottom of all counties.

Current trends in child welfare suggest that the change in philosophy to which parents and workers were referring was the increased focus on family preservation incorporated in the Family First Act, which had already been taking hold in many states before they actually implemented it. Information available on the website of Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families supports that assumption. According to a page titled Child Welfare Strategic Transformation in Wisconsin, [s]ince 2018, Wisconsin has been progressively working toward transitioning the child welfare system to become more in-home, family-focused, and collaborative.” The website also indicates that DCF had “partnered with” a company called Root Inc. (a “change management consulting firm”) “to understand how Wisconsin counties were progressing toward achieving the 4 strategic priorities listed above.” A slide presentation from DCF and Root Inc. indicates that the purpose of the partnership is to “dramatically increase the number of children/families served in home.”

In the first phase of the partnership, according to the slides, Root’s ethnographic researchers studied 13 counties (including Rock County) through interviews, focus groups, and observations and came up with “a set of 17 behaviors that differentiated counties along a continuum of change and transformation.” In choosing the counties for the study, the researchers identified counties that they characterized as “on the way” or “advanced” based on the decline in the rate of their foster care populations, the ratio of entries to exits, and the percentage of calls that lead to removals of children from their families. (They left out counties on the bottom of the continuum of change). The authors of the slides did not provide the classification for each county, but Rock County’s inclusion means it was classified as advanced or at least “on the way.”

The first set of findings about “advanced” counties refers to “Mindsets and Decision-Making.” In these counties, one slide indicates that the “culture prioritizes and reinforces the importance of keeping families in home.” There are six bullets under that heading, which are displayed below. Two are of particular interest. “Decisions to remove are met with critical questioning and even pushback. And in “observation, individuals apologize to their peers when pushing for a [court] petition [for removal of a child].”

Source: Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Child Welfare Transformation. Available from https://dcf.wisconsin.gov/files/press/2021/wi-dcf-root-insights-03-12-county-detailed.pdf

This language raises some serious concerns. Obviously it is best to keep children at home when it is possible to do it safely. But some children cannot be kept safe at home. And to say a worker should receive pushback, or even apologize, for trying to save a child’s life or prevent injury seems excessive, to say the least

In terms of worker-family relationship, the slides state that advanced counties are “[n]on-judgmental towards actions and optimistic in the belief that families can change.” Specific behaviors cited include that “[w]orkers discuss severe forms of maltreatment with a desire to understand the root causes without passing judgment.” Workers in advanced counties are also said to “easily identify strengths of a family.” In fact, teams in advanced counties “hold each other accountable for negative or pessimistic views of families and work hard to avoid anything that could be perceived as disparaging of a given family.” Moreover, “even with complex cases,” workers in advanced counties “approach a new case with optimism, staying open-minded about the severity of safety concerns and/or the possibility of being able to address challenges.”

It may be good practice for social workers to be optimistic and see family strengths, but unrealistic optimism coupled with blindness to danger signals can leave children vulnerable to severe harm. In Los Angeles County. a belief that social workers should focus exclusively on a family’s strengths led a CPS worker and upper management to disregard glaring evidence that four-year-old Noah Cuatro was being targeted for abuse by his parents. The fact that workers are expected to be “open-minded” even in the face of “severe” safety concerns raises some alarm in a system established to protect children. And asking teams to hold each other accountable to take a rosy view of all the families they serve may be problematic.

To be fair to the authors of the slides, they included in the traits of workers in “advanced” counties some attributes that are important for good child protective services workers, such as knowing “how to probe when kids are being coached,” so they clearly understand that families and children cannot always be believed when they deny that maltreatment has taken place. “Regularly assessing danger threats” is another trait the authors ascribe to workers in “advanced” counties. But the presentation makes a questionable distinction, stating that workers in advanced counties are “laser-focused on identifying and isolating safety threats (as opposed to risk) and desire to expand their skills with respect to isolating and controlling safety.” (The italics are ours). Child welfare systems around the country draw this distinction between safety and risk, defining “safety” as the absence of imminent danger while “risk is defined as danger to the child in some unspecified future. But this distinction is hard to draw and can have the paradoxical result of a child being found “safe” but “at high risk of future harm.”

The idea that child welfare systems may have begun overemphasizing family preservation in the years leading up to and following passage of the Family First Act is not a new one for this blog. We have reported that this reluctance to find fault with parents, remove their children, or terminate parental rights allowed the deaths of children known to child welfare systems around the country, including Zymere Perkins in New York, Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer in Kansas, Gabriel Fernandez in California, and Jordan Belliveau in Florida. Reports have found an extreme reluctance to remove children in Illinois, after the deaths of several children while their families were under supervision by the state. In a case mentioned earlier, the Los Angeles Times‘ found that a core practice model focusing exclusively on family strengths and disregarding obvious red flags resulted in the failure of the agency to implement a court order that would have saved the life of four-year-old Noah Cuatro. We have also discussed how this extreme reluctance to remove a child is related to the current “racial reckoning” and consequent desire to reduce racial disparity in foster care placement.

Returning to Rock County, it may not be surprising that workers who came to child welfare to protect children would leave when confronted with a demand to apologize for requesting to remove a child. On the other hand, all the other counties in Wisconsin are being subjected to the same pressures. Whether the family preservation emphasis is the only cause of Rock County’s loss of veteran staff, or whether there are other factors behind it, Child Welfare Monitor cannot say. However, we can suggest that wholesale departure of a child welfare workforce may be one additional consequence of a system realignment that went too far.

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