Field of Dreams—and Challenges—for Children

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When the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research celebrated its fifth anniversary this past April, praise for its accomplishments and promise were tempered by the sobering amount of work that always remains to be done in child welfare. A collaboration by the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), the School of Medicine, and the Law School funded by Joseph M. Field C’52 and his wife Marie, the center has roots going back more than a decade, when it was an informal network of high-powered child-welfare advocates from a broad range of disciplines and schools, all determined to use Penn’s vast multi-disciplinary resources to help protect children [“The Children’s Crusaders,” May|June 1999].

Using a “child-centric” philosophy that makes the child’s interest the top priority in all decisions, both in individual cases and in systemic policy decisions, the center remains the nation’s only university-based child-welfare center to integrate the fields of social work, medicine, and law. Those are represented by its three faculty directors: Richard Gelles, dean of SP2 and the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence; Cindy Christian, the Children’s Hospital Chair in the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and associate professor of pediatrics; and Alan Lerner, practice professor of law and co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic.

Since its inception, the center’s executive director has been Debra Schilling Wolfe, whose 30 years of experience in the child-welfare field ranges from directing the Crisis Nursery at the New York Foundling Hospital to directing child welfare services for Catholic Social Services in Michigan.

“Every place I’ve worked, I saw how the system could be improved, or how things could be changed, and how the lives of abused and neglected children could be better,” she says. “And for me to have the opportunity to actually make those systemic changes was an opportunity I could not walk away from.”

Wolfe recently talked with 
Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes.

Why are Penn’s interdisciplinary resources valuable to the center?
Having our base at an eminent university brings resources that no one else has to this kind of work. We have, at our fingertips, the work of the School of Social Policy and Practice, the Law School, the medical school, our affiliation with Children’s Hospital. But we also have the other schools who have come in as partners at different points. For example, Wharton very graciously hosts our multi-disciplinary National Childhood Welfare Conference every other year. We’ve worked with Penn Design on designing potential kiosks at family court to give families information. So we really take advantage of everything Penn has to offer.

What are some key projects you’re working on?
One is our Information Portability Project, in which we’re trying to bring some of the best practices available in the business community to child welfare, so that we can make sure that case workers who are monitoring the well-being of kids in foster care have every bit of information that they need in order to make the best decisions—and really save children’s lives.

I’ve seen things fall through the cracks every place I have worked. Information isn’t shared across systems. For example, I started out investigating child-abuse and neglect reports. I would walk into people’s homes with only a piece of paper that said that an anonymous person called and said that children weren’t being fed, or that someone heard screaming.  They wouldn’t necessarily know how many kids were in the family, their sexes, their ages, who the parents were. And I was required to come in and investigate this and ensure that these children were safe. I didn’t have any more information about this family; I didn’t know if there was any mental-health history, if there was any criminal involvement, if there were weapons in the home, if the police had been out visiting this house the night before because there had been a domestic disturbance—which are the highest-risk calls for police. Yet I was walking in, on my own, telling people that I’m mandated to investigate the report, and I had the legal authority to walk out with their children if I felt they were in imminent danger.

We don’t let our police go into dangerous situations, unarmed and alone, yet we expect our child-welfare workers to do that. The police have all this access to information—through the information systems that they have, their handheld units, their police cars, their access to all of the different databases—but child welfare doesn’t. So this was an opportunity to bring what already existed to a very critical need. 

Dean Gelles has said that if Fed Ex can track where any package is at any given moment, or eBay can track the history of bids on any product, how come we don’t know where kids are, who are in foster care? How come we can’t find them? How come we don’t know if a home has been visited where there’s been a child abuse report? And because of that, he said, there’s got to be a better way.

How is the economy affecting child welfare?
The economy has affected our funding in two ways simultaneously. Child-abuse risk is increased due to familial stress, and clearly the economy is placing stress on families—particularly a segment of families who are newly facing poverty. Families who are chronically poor, unfortunately, have developed coping mechanisms. So there’s a whole new population that’s facing a whole different level of stress that they’ve never experienced before, and don’t know how to address that. People are losing healthcare, so they’re losing access to services.  And services that provide supports to families are losing their funding … Everyone is preparing for the worst. 

Biggest challenges and dreams?
We’re looking at how we can bring business practices, through technology, to improve decision-making in child welfare. We’re beginning this year to pilot that, along with Microsoft and Motorola, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. We’re looking at that to be a model, not only for the other counties in Pennsylvania, but to be a national model. So to be able to bring that to scale is an incredible challenge, but also an incredible opportunity.

This is really where the Obama administration is leaning, in terms of information sharing—electronic medical records, making things more available via the Web, as well as sharing information across systems. One of the greatest challenges we’re facing is the public perception of confidentiality and how you can’t share information.

We have law students doing research under Professor Lerner’s supervision, examining all of the current statutes and regulations, both for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as federally, about confidentiality, to see not only what you can’t do but what you can do. The idea is to be able to share information, not prohibit information from being shared. So we’re using it as an opportunity.

Another is that the supervisors in the child-welfare system get the support and training they need, so they can do their job. They’re very often lost. The focus is on the direct-service workers, who actually are working with the families, and the political focus is on the administration. But the middle management, the supervisors who actually train and supervise and direct the decisions, frequently get lost in the shuffle. We would like to see more energy and focus be put in that very critical juncture in the system.

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