Reforming child welfare

            We entrust our country’s child welfare systems to insure the safety of our children. Tragically, all too often, children are abused or neglected even though their care is theoretically being overseen be a child welfare agency. In 2003 a three year old girl was whipped, pummeled and starved to death. Her lifeless body was found wedged between a wall and a mattress. She and her sisters suffered physical and sexual abuse from their caregivers and they lived in squalid conditions. This crime seems unfathomable to many, however, what’s more unbelievable is that the Department of Human Services (DHS) in Philadelphia was notified three days before the child was murdered. A neighbor informed DHS authorities that the siblings were being severely physically abused. The agency never followed through with the complaint. Cases like this are overwhelmingly tragic to me. It makes me question, how could an agency that is supposed to protect our children from abuse and neglect allow a case like this fall to through the cracks? How often are children dying after child protective agencies are informed of abuse or neglect? And what can be done to prevent cases like this from happening again?

            Unfortunately the case described is not an isolated incident. Throughout the country, files are full of similar situations with many similar and tragic results. In 2002 in Miami, Florida, Department of Children and Families (DCF) made national headlines when they “lost” five year old Rilya Wilson. Case workers assigned to monitor the girl’s well being did not know the girl was missing for fifteen months, even though they were supposed to be doing monthly face to face visits with her. No one seemed to know what had happened to her. Rilya’s grandmother told the caseworker when a worker finally did appear for a home visit that DCF had taken the girl over a year earlier. The grandmother claims that a DCF caseworker had come to the house where she and Rilya lived and told her that Rilya was being removed from the home to undergo psychological and neurological testing. The grandmother continues to claim that she tried repeatedly to contact DCF after workers had taken away Rilya. The grandmother continues to claim that she could not find out what happened to Rilya after DCF took her away even though she tried. (Canady, 2002).  In 2006 Rilya’s grandmother was charged with her murder and she is still awaiting trial. It is unclear, whether the state of Florida is going forward in prosecuting the grandmother even though there is scant evidence; or whether prosecutor’s allegations of ongoing child abuse are founded. (CNN, 2007).

            In 2007, Florida DCF settled a lawsuit with the guardians of a mentally disabled girl who repeatedly was molested by her foster father in a small Florida town. The victim’s sister who also lived in the same household reported the abuse to  DCF caseworkers. For her report the sister was transferred to a different foster home and the victim was left in the same house with her abuser.  DCF refused to take the allegations of abuse seriously until it was discovered that the girl was pregnant at age 17. The lawsuit also stated that DCF caseworkers were negligent and allowed the rapes to happen. DCF paid 1.3 million dollars to the new guardians of the victim as settlement of the case. (Hannan, 2007).

            In another heart-breaking account, a grisly grand-jury report found that a 14-year-old girl rotted in her bed because of the child welfare system’s brutal indifference.  Philadelphia’s child-welfare agency was charged by prosecutors of having done nothing while nine people, including the girl’s parents and four social workers, while the young disabled girl, starved to death. The helpless girl’s bedsore-ridden corpse was found in a hot and dirty West Philadelphia row house on Aug. 4, 2006. The girl weighed only 42 pounds. (Sullivan & McCoy, 2008).

            In 2007 stories that began as whispered rumors around rural Rabun County Georgia, turned out to be true. Overzealous Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworkers prowled for referrals and used people’s children as tools of extortion.  Following reports of corruption within the department and abuse of authority, the Georgia Department of Human Resources (DHR) went forward with a full investigation, finally generating a 54 page report. Stories had been circulating for months before the moment in 2006 when Melinda  McCoy was charged with reckless conduct for  failing to remove children from a home.
Apparently, co-workers made the charge against McCoy in retaliation for her report to the state of unethical and illegal practices among caseworkers and employees within DFCS.  McCoy’s report and her co-workers retaliatory act brought to light that DFCS was a rogue agency that operated behind a cloak of confidentiality. The report found improper conduct of four employees who were then terminated by DFCS. Another caseworker was transferred to a different office. Among other findings, DHR investigators found that children were removed from homes without just cause; repeated and excessive drug screening of parents; lack of proper supervision of DCFS caseworkers; and a culture of violations that were permitted daily.

            As with many instances of corruption, the old saying, “follow the money” held true. Investigators found that at least in part, the caseworkers’ misconduct was financially motivated. It came to light that the company, Creative Consulting Services of Northeast Georgia, Inc., that conducted drug screens for DFCS between October of 2003 and January of 2006 was owned by the mother of one of the four DFCS caseworkers that was later discharged. “Between January 2005 and this past January, DFCS paid the company $83,510 for 742 drug screens. Lumpkin County, with a population 50 percent larger than Rabun’s, paid out less than a third of that amount for 733 screens.”

            So not only was DFCS ordering repeated and excessive drug screenings of parents, they were also overpaying for them. All costs, were passed on to taxpayers; and all harassment passed on to the parents. (Spurney, 2006).

            There are many cases such as these throughout the country and throughout the child welfare system. Many of the cases revolve around similar themes. Continuing child abuse and neglect while households are under the supervision of a state welfare agency is appallingly common. The abuse and neglect is done by both the natural parents and by foster parents assigned by a welfare agency. It would seem that since the household is under supervision then the instances of abuse and neglect would be minimized; since the safety and well being of children is the main goal of these child welfare agencies. What are the reasons that neglect and abuse continue right under the noses of caseworkers? Is it true that well meaning case workers are unable to properly supervise and conduct prescribed home visits to all of these families because of the size of their caseloads? Are foster parents, even though foster parents were approved by the child welfare agency more likely than biological parents to neglect or abuse a child in their care?

            Another central question is whether the caseworkers are properly trained. Caseworkers may be well meaning, and have all of the best intentions, but if they do not have the level of education and training to correctly judge a family situation, then their good intentions are all for naught. It must be incredibly difficult for a caseworker, a stranger, to properly judge a family situation in the course of home visits. The families are no doubt on their best behavior during each visit. Children are no doubt told, bullied or coerced into putting on a happy face for a caseworker home visit. Even if a child shows signs of abuse or neglect, the parents, be they biological or foster parents, doubtless direct the child to explain away these signs. Physical marks, scrapes, cuts and bruises are explained away as accidents. Children do wreck their bicycles and hurt themselves when they fall down. How is a caseworker to know what really happened, when the entire family claims that the marks were all accidents. Similarly, households levels of cleanliness differ widely. What some would consider squalid living conditions, another individual might consider to be normal. Unmade beds; unfolded or dirty laundry; dirty dishes in the sink; and toys, papers and clothes strewn across every floor could be signs of neglect or could simply be poor housekeeping. Lack of food in the house could also be a sign of neglect. Or it could be that the family simply doesn’t have the money to buy food. It could be that transportation to the grocery store is an issue, and there would be plenty of food if only they could get to the grocery store.

            At the same time, while all these factors, physical marks; presence of food; and cleanliness in the house are taken into consideration by caseworkers, everything could appear perfect, yet there is still ongoing abuse or neglect. When an entire family is working together to create a façade of a happy home, a caseworker is challenged to find out the truth.

            In many areas parents have a fear of welfare agency caseworkers. Caseworkers have the power to take their babies away. In most states an anonymous phone call to child welfare agencies claiming that a child is being abused or neglected, will initiate an investigation of the family.  The caller may be acting vindictively towards the parents and simply using the power of the welfare agency to settle a personal score. Anonymous reports of abuse and neglect are handled differently among child welfare agencies. Some agencies require the caller to identify themselves and then they maintain confidentiality; other agencies allow the caller to remain anonymous even to the agency.

            Another factor in trying to find out why abuse and neglect continue even though a family is under child welfare agency supervision is accountability. If the home visit reports are not turned in, or if the reporting is inaccurate are there safeguards in place to flag that child’s case file? If the caseworkers are under trained, then are their supervisors, at least, trained to spot possible errors or omissions?

            And what about the money? Is the lack of funding of child welfare agencies the fundamental reason that things go wrong? If the staff is overworked, underpaid, and under trained, is it impossible to retain responsible and responsive caseworkers? Do caseworkers come out of school with all the best intentions to make a difference in the lives of abused and neglected children, only to find out that their idealism is misplaced? Does it commonly happen that the best and the brightest quickly move on to other employment once they discover that they can never help any child while working for a  child welfare agency? And, so it may well be, that only the caseworkers that are less qualified, less idealistic, and less educated remain working for long in the child welfare system.

            If a child welfare agency is organizationally corrupt the chances of any real help for abused and neglected children narrow dramatically. If, by necessity, agency employees’ and caseworkers‘, main goals are to protect themselves, their jobs, and their income; it is reasonable to believe that very little protection is afforded to the children they are employed to protect. Even worse, if caseworkers and child welfare employees are not just attempting to protect themselves, but actually engaged in abusing the child welfare system, then they can do even more damage to the children they pledged to protect.

            Some agencies have gotten it right, and we can learn from them. In Florida, once the news came out that Rilya Wilson had disappeared, there was a media frenzy.  Staff writers for the Sun Sentinel delved into public records to find out how many children under DCF supervision were lost or unaccounted for. Without having access to any agency confidential records, investigative reporters quickly located several of the children that DCF had claimed were missing. These “missing” children had been reported as missing to the police departments, sometimes months or even years after their last contact with a caseworker. Investigative reporters located the missing children through making phone calls to relatives and asking neighbors. They located one teenage boy living around the corner with a relative and regularly playing afternoon basketball on a city team. (Kestin et al, 2002).

            Then Governor Jeb Bush ordered restructuring of Florida’s child welfare system. One of the initiatives was to privatize the child welfare system, and five different private child welfare agencies were started. Another initiative, in an attempt to provide better accountability, the agencies were decentralized and each community child welfare agency was directed to upgrade its reporting system within the local community.

            Florida’s effort at privatizing the child welfare system mostly turned out to be a failed experiment. Only one of the private agencies is still in existence and is considered to be a success. The other four agencies were closed due to lack of funding, failure to comply with state guidelines, or simply abandoned. The remaining private child welfare agency is located in Sarasota County, Florida.

            The reasons for its continuation must be attributed to the unique characteristics of Sarasota County. Sarasota County, located in southwest Florida, has one of the highest per capita incomes in the state. The median age is also much higher than many of Florida’s other counties and there are fewer children living in that county than live in almost every other county in the state. These demographics along with a well trained staff; dedicated volunteers; and a supportive and educated community are all reasons for Sarasota County’s success. (AFCSME, 2008).

            The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform lists a page on their website, titled, “Twelve Ways to Do Child Welfare Right”. Their 12 recommendations are aimed at keeping children with their families and out of foster care situations. However, they do not believe that keeping families together at all costs is the answer, nor is there a belief that every family can be saved.

1. The first step proposed is “doing nothing”. Many families have no need of intervention and will be best if they are let alone.

2. Their second recommendation is immediate help for the families. Sometimes a family can be helped immensely by just a small injection of cash; help in finding housing; or help in locating day care.

3. Apply intensive family preservation services. Studies repeatedly show that in general children are best off with their families rather than in a foster care program.

4. The state of Alabama has successfully implemented strategies designed to keep families intact.  The rate at which children are being removed from their families and the rate of child abuse and neglect have sharply declined since Alabama’s reforms were put into place.

5. A program designed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation details a multi-faceted approach to minimize removing children from families; minimize repeated reassignments of children to different foster care programs; and shorter placements in foster care programs when placement was called for. All of these reforms, known as “Family to Family” initiatives have been shown to work with no loss of child safety.

6. NCCPR recommends another reform known as “Community/Neighborhood Partnerships for Child Protection” which is overseen by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington DC. Informal and formal community partnerships are created to prevent unnecessary child placement in foster care and prevent child maltreatment.

7. In Pittsburgh positive results in child welfare were achieved through a combination of reforms, including a change in agency leadership; tripling the budget for abuse prevention; doubling the budge for family preservation; implementing strategies such as “Family to Family”; and providing easy client access to housing counselors by placing them in every agency office. Repeated abuse of children left in their family homes has declined and instances of fatal abuse have shown a significant decline.

8.  In El Paso County, Colorado, according to an independent study conducted by the Center for Law and Social Policy, child welfare reforms were adopted that reduced the repeated abuse of children left in their homes and reduced the number of  children in foster care.

9. Through the “Bridge Builders Program” in New York, child welfare agencies joined forces and worked together to decrease the rate of child abuse and the rate of child placement in foster care programs. In New York, child abuse fatalities, of children “known to the system” received national attention in 2006; during the reform period and those incidents were a backsliding even though reform have been implemented. Overall repeated abuse of children declined when children were kept with their families and not placed into a foster care program.

10.  In Maine, after public outcry following the fatal abuse of a child placed in foster care with a foster mother who was a former child caseworker, grassroots reforms have proved fruitful. The grassroots demand for child welfare reform along with new leadership have caused a decline in the rate of child abuse and placement of children for foster care with non-relatives.

11. In Illinois following a lawsuit brought against private child welfare agencies by the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a change in financial incentives caused beneficial results. Instead of private welfare agencies being paid per diem for each day a child was placed in foster care, causing children to languish needlessly in state care; agencies were also paid for of paid instead for the successful return of the child to the child’s family or for successful adoptions. Illinois now has one of the lowest rates of child placement into foster care in the country.

12. Expanding parents’ rights and access to legal help when faced with the removal of a child and placement with a foster parent goes a long way towards protecting both the child and the family. Many agencies’ child welfare records have proven to be full of errors and omissions, causing unnecessary foster placements for children. (NCCPR, 2008).

            The ways and means of reforming the child care system are a mystery. There is no single formula or magic bullet that will prevent every instance of child neglect or abuse. Different communities with different needs and different demographics may require their own unique set of initiatives to solve their unique problems with the child care welfare system. However, by applying some of the initiatives that have proved successful elsewhere most problem agencies can improve their services substantially. Some common threads run through the success stories of the agencies that showed marked improvement. Most of them increased their funding. Increased funding, increased retention of educated and qualified caseworkers and staff. A committed community is also an essential element in improving the functioning of child welfare agencies. Privatization of child welfare agencies does not seem to be the best answer. Although some of the private agencies have had some success, other private agencies have done an even worse job than their public counterparts.  Often the push to privatize sounds like a solution to streamlining governmental agencies and provide more efficient services, and privatization does sometimes work, I believe that government based reforms work best. Similar to the privatization of some of our nation’s prisons, financial incentives which private agencies must base their services upon, are probably not the safest way to protect our children; just as private prisons do not necessarily insure the humane treatment of our countries inmates.

            In an article posted on the website for The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the state of Illinois was at one time referring to private non-profit agencies to provide foster care due to an overloaded public foster care system. In a Chicago Tribune investigation many abuses were uncovered, such as in the group homes run or overseen by the Reverend William Rucker. Beginning in 1994 until 1998 the state of Illinois placed hundreds of children into private agencies.  In 1998 the last of the children were removed from these private group homes amid findings that over 3.4 million dollars in funding was unaccounted for. The Chicago Tribune report stated that, “companies such as Rucker’s raked in public funds while passing youngsters down to a little monitored netherworld of subcontractors who installed rows of cots in their houses and ran group homes that differed little for the orphanages of the past.” (AFSCME, 2008).

             All citizens can do their part by demanding accountability and positive action from their local agencies. Public outcry often goes a long way in gaining the attention of elected officials. No child welfare agency can perfectly protect each and every child from abuse or neglect, whether that child is in the family home or in a foster program. Even the best child welfare agency will fail at times, but we can strive together to make sure that the failures are fewer and farther between. Even if the director of a child welfare agency is an appointed official, as many of them are, he is likely appointed by an elected official. Consistent and persistent public pressure placed on these agencies is the only way to force the systems to maintain accountability and reforms. Committed communities cannot simply be empathetic citizens that are appalled by the child abuse horror stories reported in the media. Committed communities must also allocate the funding and the resources to implement the necessary reforms. And, regardless of the size of the community’s budget, child welfare must be pushed to the top of the list of the public policy agenda. Until child welfare and child welfare reform become true priorities no improvements will be made.

References

Albowicz, Kathryn. (2006). “Florida’s Experiment with Privatizing Child Welfare

            Services” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

            http://www.afscme.org/docs/flchild.pdf

American Federation of State and County Employees (2008). “Private child welfare

            agencies waste funds and neglect kids” Retrieved December 9, 2008

            http://www.afscme.org/issues/1514.cfm

Canedy, Dana. (2002). “Miami 5-Year-Old Missing for Year Before Fact Noted”

            New York Times May 1,2002 Retrieved December 10, 2008

            http://www.extralove.com/ash_rylia.html

CNN (2007). “Rilya Wilson case still a mystery six years later”

            Retrieved December 9, 2008

            http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/10/08/rilya.wilson.ap/index.html

Hannan, Larry (2007). “State settles lawsuit with female raped in foster care”  July 21,

            2007. Naples Daily News, Naples Florida. Retrieved December 9, 2008

            http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2007/jul/21/state_settles_lawsuit_female_rape

            d_foster_care/

Kestin, Sally; Marrero, Diana; & O’Matz, Megan. (2002) “Lost kids easily found: Sun-

            Sentinel turns up nine of DCF’s missing children” August 11, 2002 Retrieved

            December 9, 2008 http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/nationworld/search/sfl-

            amissing11aug11,0,6132015.story?page=1

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (2008). “Florida: The Fever Breaks”.

            Retrieved December 10, 2008. http://nccpr.blogspot.com/2008/03/florida-fever-

            breaks.html

Spurney, Blake (2006).  “DFCS probe: Violations rampant” The Clayton Tribune,

            Clayton, Georgia. Thursday, June 8, 2006 Retrieved December 9, 2008

            http://www.theclaytontribune.com/articles/2006/06/08/news/news03.txt

Sullivan, John: & McCoy, Craig R. (2008). “Nine indicted in fatal neglect of girl DHS’s,

            care for an ailing girl was lacking, and she died.”

            August 1, 2008. Philadelphia Inquirer Retrieved December 10, 2008

St. Petersburg Times, (2005). “This is not progress” January 13, 2005 Retrieved

            December 9, 2008 St Petersburg, Florida

            http://www.sptimes.com/2005/01/13/Opinion/This_is_not_progress.shtml

 

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