America loses champion for a child-centered child welfare system

GellesRichard Gelles, one of the nation’s leading child welfare experts, died late in June of brain cancer, as reported by the Chronicle of Social ChangeGelles’ death deprives the nation of one of its leading child welfare scholars, and one of the few remaining spokespersons for a child centered approach to child welfare.

Richard Gelles played an important role in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1996 through the publication of  The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives. This book told the  story of a 15-month old boy who was murdered by his abusive mother. David’s parents had an open child welfare case when he was born, due to their severe abuse of his sister Marie when she was six weeks old that left her with lifelong disabilities.  While Marie was still in foster care, the parents were reported to the child abuse hotline twice for abusing David. In closing their investigation without removing David or opening a case, agency workers ignored two huge red flags–the grievous injury to six-week-old Marie and the failure by her parents to comply with the agency’s reunification plan, resulting in the termination of their parental rights to their daughter. Three and a half months after the case was closed, David was dead.

According to Gelles, David’s death could be traced to the doctrine requiring that agencies make “reasonable efforts” to keep or reunite abused and neglected children with their parents. Without any definition or timeframe, efforts to keep children like David with their birth parents often cross the line separating reasonable from unreasonable. Gelles argued that David’s death could also be traced to “the larger ideology behind ‘reasonable efforts,’ ‘the sacrosanct belief that children always (or nearly always) are better off with their biological parents.”

In his testimony at a 1995 Congressional hearing, Gelles argued that the current obsession with family preservation should be replaced for a “child centered child welfare system” where abused and neglected children would longer remain for years in abusive homes, nor would they languish for years in foster care. Instead, the goal of a child-centered child welfare system would be “to terminate parental rights, when appropriate, quickly enough so that (1) children are not permanently harmed, physically or psychologically, and {2) make children available for adoption earlier enough in their lives so that they are ‘adoptable.'”

Gelles’ perspective was incorporated into several changes made by ASFA, as described by  former Hill staffer Cassie Statuto Bevan in an Urban Institute compilation on ASFA ten years after its passage. The requirement for “reasonable efforts” was moderated by requiring that such efforts must maintain the child’s health and safety as the “paramount concern.” Moreover, a  deadline was placed on reunification efforts, requiring a state to file for termination of parental rights after a child had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. ASFA also allowed states to bypass reasonable efforts altogether in extraordinary cases, such as when parents have committed a felony assault resulting in serious injury to the child or another child–clearly an exception that could have been applied in David’s case.

While it appears that ASFA has resulted in shorter stays in foster care as Gelles hoped, the impact of the provisions designed to protect children from dangerous parents appears to have been less than their authors hoped. Agencies make frequent use allowable exceptions to the 15-month time limit for termination of parental rights and rarely use the provisions that allow them to forego reunification plans. In order to make the system more child-centered, these provisions should be strengthened. Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the opposite direction.

There is a groundswell of attacks against ASFA,  with critics claiming that 15 months is not enough time for with problems like drug addiction to address them, especially if services are not immediately available. Some critics even denounce the law as racist because they say it penalizes black parents, ignoring the needs of black children for safety and permanency. Contrary to the child-centered perspective Gelles promoted, these advocates prioritize parents’ rights over children’s needs to be placed in a loving home quickly enough to avoid permanent damage and early enough in their lives to be likely to be adopted.

In The Book of David and in his testimony, Gelles also criticized the investment of a billion dollars in unproven “intensive family preservation programs” to keep families together. These new programs, such as the well-publicized Homebuilders, were intensive, short term, crisis intervention services designed to address parental behaviors that are putting their children at risk. Gelles pointed out that there was no research evidence to support the success of intensive family preservation programs at preventing foster care placements, let alone keeping children safe–which was not even evaluated. And from a theoretical perspective, Gelles pointed out that intensive family preservation programs would be effective for only those families with a low level of risk and a high level of readiness to change. To assume that these services could work for all maltreating families was unrealistic. 

Sadly, the same programs that were supported without evidence in the 1980’s are being supported again with more baseless claims of research support. As reported in a recent post, Homebuilders is once again being promoted as effective in keeping families together, although the research is no more convincing than that of the 1980s. Recently Homebuilders was approved as a best practice that can be funded by the Family First Act, based on only two studies. One of the studies focused on a program that did not follow the Homebuilders model and worked only to reunify families already separated by foster care—not prevent foster care placement which is the main purpose of Family first. The second was a study of Homebuilders family preservation programs and according to its authors failed to demonstrate any favorable program impacts. 

Why invest in a program that has failed to document success over several decades of research? The renewed push for family preservation has once again taken over the child welfare world. With the passage of the Family First Act, allowing billions in funding for programs that keep families together, there is a desperate need for programs to spend that money on. The federal clearinghouse established to approve programs for this purpose has demonstrated that its standards for calling a program “well-supported by the evidence” are low indeed. And that is not surprising, since there are few such programs that have been shown to be effective in helping abusive and neglectful parents change longstanding and often intergenerational patterns. And so the story starts again.

As we face increased backlash against ASFA and increased incentives to spend billions of dollars on unproven family preservation programs, Richard Gelles’ keen analysis and advocacy for children will be greatly missed.