The child-welfare system in the United States is broken. A group at Penn aims to give it a complete overhaul.
By Samuel Hughes | Photo by Michael Ahearn
Sidebar | Recasting the Child-Welfare Paradigm
For Dr. Richard Gelles, the turning point came in late 1990 when he was working on the fatality review of a 15-month-old toddler whom he came to call David. The case was ghastly enough on its own — a heart-ripping litany of bruises, chipped bones and the final act of suffocation by the boy’s mother — but what prompted Gelles to write The Book of David about it was the fact that the death was so avoidable. The parents’ proclivity for violence was well known to child-welfare authorities; yet even though his older sister had been so badly beaten that she had been placed in foster care before David was born, and though an anonymous caller had told the agency that David was “failing,” he was allowed to remain with his parents until the awful, preventable end.
Gelles, the Joanne T. and Raymond B. Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence at Penn, was then a professor of social work at the University of Rhode Island. For years he had, in an academic way, preached the gospel of what he now calls the Oppression School: that parents who abuse their children should be treated as victims of oppression rather than as offenders; that it was invariably better to spend the money on rehabilitating them than on getting the child out of their house — that the whole problem of child abuse was a matter of social factors that could be cured by caring interventions.
But even before the death of David, Gelles was finding himself increasingly unable to get his own data to conform to that theory. And as he listened to one of David’s case workers — a former student — try to explain why she had handled the case as she did, he realized that she had merely done what everyone in the field, including himself, had taught her to do. That was when it hit him.
“I just sort of gasped and said, ‘Gee, I can’t criticize her for what she’s doing — I taught her to do it,'” he says now, sitting in his windowless office in the Caster Building, home of the School of Social Work. “‘It’s a perversion of my own work that’s ended up with this little boy dead.’ And all of us who mouthed the mantra, ‘You just need more resources, you just need more workers, you just need more money,’ were responsible for him being suffocated.” It was a “terrible feeling,” he says convincingly. “It’s the old Pogo thing: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.'”
Not every case involving the child-welfare system is as brutally dramatic as David’s. And not every member of the Children’s Group — a high-powered group of children’s advocates at Penn — would paint the issue in quite such stark tones as Gelles. But they all agree passionately about the need to overhaul a system that is falling down on the job. “The very agencies that are charged with protecting these most innocent and vulnerable members of our society are subjecting them to experiences that kill and maim some and leave many with a lifetime of problems,” notes the proposal for a Penn-based Center for Child Protection, which would draw on the multi-disciplinary expertise of the Children’s Group. “There is an emerging consensus that a new model of child protection and the management of abuse and neglect cases is needed.”
Eight years ago, the National Commission on Children reported: “If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child-welfare system … Marginal changes will not turn this system around.” Yet despite the commission’s call for “comprehensive reform based on fundamental restructuring of our efforts to help troubled children and protect vulnerable children,” Gelles and many of his colleagues believe that most of the changes thus far have been cosmetic. And so children continue to languish in foster-care limbo, live with abusive parents — and die. “What I’m saying now is, ‘Let’s quit kidding ourselves that rounding up the usual suspects in an attempt to solve the problem of the child-welfare system is really going to work,'” says Gelles. “Any journalist worth their paycheck knows what happens: Child dies, hearings are held, calls for more case-workers, for more funding — and for the head of the agency to be replaced. It’s not unlike the George Steinbrenner approach to the New York Yankees — when in doubt, spend more money, get more players, fire the manager. Guess what? That doesn’t work in child welfare.
“Nothing short of a rebuilding of the child-welfare system is going to be satisfactory,” he concludes, his brown eyes focusing on his interviewer with laser-like intensity. Behind him, the screen-saver on his computer flashes a disorienting maze of ever-shifting brick walls.
Every Tuesday morning, in a conference room of the Caster Building, a small group of men and women from across the University sit around a long table, sipping coffee and hashing over cases and policies relating to child welfare. The Children’s Group, as they call themselves, is still in an embryonic stage. They’ve been meeting for a few months now, sometimes joined by interested outsiders, but they’re not a bona fide University center — yet. They have no real funding — yet. And while some of the members have national and even international reputations in their fields, they’re not, as a group, listed on the big Child Welfare card in the national Rolodex. Yet. But don’t be surprised if it happens sometime soon. Because all the ingredients are there.
“There’s not a university in the world that is located in the right place, with the right talent base, that exceeds what we have at the University of Pennsylvania,” says Gelles, who came to Penn last year after 25 years at Rhode Island largely because of that confluence of talents. It was, he says, “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I think the timing for what we’re proposing is right,” says Dr. Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work and the administrative mover and shaker behind the proposed Center for Child Protection. “We’re not having any problems getting interest in this. In fact, some other universities are already aware of the fact that we’re moving in this area, and they’re wondering what they ought to be doing. But I think we’ve got a clear strategic advantage.”
“It’s a very exciting opportunity to bring together
people from different schools across the University who feel deeply —
passionately — about the recognition of children’s rights and the protection
of children,” says Dr. Annie Steinberg GM’87, a pediatrician, adult
and child psychiatrist and forensic psychiatrist who serves as assistant
professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and works in
the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the pediatrics department
at the Children’s Seashore House of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“We all have our own different roles to play. And Penn could really
be a leader in this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration. It really
is an opportunity to affect things as diverse as an individual child’s
life and family all the way to policy.”
Steinberg is one of the five core members of the group, the idea for which grew out of a conversation she had with Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics. In addition to her and Gelles, who is the designated director if and when the group morphs into a center, are Barbara Woodhouse, professor of law; Dr. Wanda Mohr, assistant professor of nursing and course director of psychiatric mental health; and Schwartz, a child-welfare expert himself and co-author of a new book titled Kids Raised by the Government.
If you had to distill their philosophy down to a single phrase, it would be child-centered. The question “What does the child need?” may sound like a no-brainer — yet it is too seldom asked, and too often subordinated to questions like “What do the parents want?” and “What does the agency recommend?” The road to Children’s Hell is paved with such questions.
“I think we all agree on the importance of adopting a child-centered perspective on the problems that children face in the child-welfare system or in the legal system,” says Woodhouse, who provides a legal foundation for the Children’s Group’s work in her writings and amicus briefs. “In this past century, our perspective on family law and policy has shifted radically because of a recognition that children are people with rights” and not just objects, she explains. “You don’t have to look back very far to a time when children really had no status whatsoever.”
In addition to her courses at the Law School — which include “Child, Parent, and State” and “The Constitution, the State, and the Family” — Woodhouse is working on a book for Harvard University Press tentatively titled “Honor Thy Children: Children’s Rights and the Transformation of Family Law and Policy.” Her 1992 William and Mary Law Review article, “‘Who Owns the Child?’: Meyer and Pierce and the Child as Property,” traces the evolution of that conundrum from Aristotle through two early-20th-century cases in the United States Supreme Court. (For the record, Aristotle believed that a child is “as it were a part of oneself,” and since “nobody chooses to injure himself,” then there can be no “conduct towards them that is politically just or unjust.”) While the Supreme Court cases — Meyer vs. Nebraska in 1923 and Pierce vs. Society of Sisters in 1925 — are celebrated for preserving certain educational freedoms for families, they also “constitutionalized a narrow, tradition-bound vision of the child as essentially private property,” she wrote. That vision “continues to distort our family law and national family policy, so that we fail as lawmakers to respect children and fail as a nation to recognize and legitimate all American children as our own.” But in recent years, she says, the notion of a child-centered perspective has become “increasingly persuasive to the American people.”
Since a lot of issues and individual cases involving the child-welfare system are decided in court, having an experienced legal scholar on board is vital to the group’s efforts. It can also be helpful to those in the field.
“Barbara has popularized, at least for me, the whole notion of child-centeredness,” says Frank P. Cervone C’79, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates and a frequent participant in Children’s Group discussions. “It sounds like an almost obvious, glib metaphor, but I find it real and helpful. All the time we see a discussion like this: ‘The department wants this’; the mother’s lawyer says, ‘The mother wants this, has a right to do this,’ and around and around we go. When we call people to drop their guard and answer the question, ‘What does the child need?’ without regard to parents’ rights or bureaucratic demands, everybody produces a different list of goals. I’ve seen this hundreds of times. It’s remarkable.”
Of equal importance is the expertise on the medical, psychiatric, and nursing sides of campus. Steinberg — whom Schwartz calls “one of the outstanding children’s forensic psychiatrists in the country” — has done a good deal of work on behalf of abused and neglected children; she also works with children and adults who are deaf or blind, and has been involved with class-action suits on their behalf. Wanda Mohr has done extensive research (along with Dr. John Fantuzzo, the Diana Rausnitz Riklis Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education) on children who have been exposed to domestic and community violence, and on children’s rights — or lack of them — in mental-health settings.
The effects of violence on children “is a very, very young field of research,” Mohr says. “We’ve done tons of research on domestic violence that focuses on the woman, but interestingly enough, none on children. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a traumatic experience for a child.”
Beyond the core group are people like Cervone; Dr. Don Schwarz, associate professor of pediatrics, who provides primary care for kids in foster care and has a wealth of experience in guardianship and in ordering health-care services for children with special needs; Lucy Durr Hackney Hon’93, a long-time children’s advocate and founder and chair of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (and “one of the wiser heads in this field,” according to Schwartz); Dr. Frank Furstenberg, Jr., the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology and co-author of a new book titled Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success; Dr. Rebecca Maynard, Trustee Professor of Education and Social Policy at the Graduate School of Education and an expert in the field of out-of-wedlock births; and Dr. Peter Vaughan, associate dean of the School of Social Work and an authority on children’s health-care issues. Schwartz, who hopes to enlist the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Annenberg School for Communication in the center’s efforts, also envisions an endowed professorship in “social-welfare entrepreneurship” that would tap the resources of the Wharton School.
In Steinberg’s view, people “would relish the opportunity to say to an interdisciplinary team with a single-minded focus on the best interests of the child: ‘Help us. Give us your best recommendations, knowing all that you know about the law, about our culture.’ And we’re not going to make recommendations that are impossible to implement legally or politically.
“Judges love information,” she adds. “They want to know that people have given a case as much thought as possible, so that by the time it falls in their lap, it’s obvious what they need to do.”
Joan Reeves, Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, hadn’t heard of the Children’s Group when we contacted her. But she sounded intrigued by the idea. “We don’t have a research infrastructure where we can go and say, ‘Please look into this issue — what is the research? What are the indicators for us to make decisions about the safety of children?’ We learn from each other, but there’s not really been what I would call a laboratory of learning. So hopefully, this group will be able to look at that — and expand it to include those of us in the field. Because I’ve been hearing for years that the system is broke. But I’ve not been hearing how we can fix it.”
When The Book of David was two chapters long, Gelles recalls, a woman from a child-welfare agency paid him a visit. “She took me aside, and said, ‘I want you to finish that book,'” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because that book says something I can’t say but I believe.’ And I said, “Why can’t you say it?’ And she said, ‘Because family preservation pays my salary. It pays my agency director’s salary. And I will be fired if I were to stand up and criticize something that pays everybody’s salary. But I believe they’re doing the wrong thing. And we’re putting kids in jeopardy so that we can pay our mortgages.'”
The desire to preserve the family, like the need to protect children, is charged with emotion, though not everyone would agree that the issue is so clearly a case of Principle vs. Expediency. But federal law charges child-welfare agencies with both preserving and protecting, and while in many cases there is no conflict, in some there is plenty.
“It’s basically a dichotomy between the rights of parents and the sovereignty and sacredness of the family as compared to the rights of the child,” says Schwartz. “Because of the abuses in the old model, we’re beginning to see more questions raised about whether the sacredness of the family should prevail almost in all situations. And it’s causing an uproar in the child-welfare establishment, as you can well imagine. But this is a coming debate that really has to occur.”
The federal directive to make “reasonable efforts” to “prevent or eliminate the need for removal of a child from his home, and … to make it possible for the child to return to his home,” spelled out in the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, has been interpreted by many state agencies to mean they should try to keep families together almost at all costs. “Consequently,” says Schwartz, “we have dead babies — about 1,500 a year, consistently” — about half of whose parents are known to be abusive by child-welfare authorities.
While not questioning the vital importance for children of forming a permanent relationship with the adults responsible for their upbringing, Schwartz and Gelles do question the assumption that birth parents are invariably the right ones for the job. Of course, children are sometimes removed from dangerously abusive or neglectful families and placed in foster care, but the goal is often to reunite them with their parents as soon as possible. If in some cases that’s a laudable plan, in others it defies reality. The dream that parenting classes or therapy or drug-rehabilitation will cause abusive or neglectful parents to change enough to take decent care of their offspring can lead to years of foster-care drift.
“We have literally hundreds of thousands of infants and toddlers who are growing up in the child-welfare system in the United States,” says Schwartz. “And they’re bouncing around from foster home to foster home, which creates all kinds of other problems for them. But they’re there because of this undying hope that we’re going to return all of these children to their natural birth parent or parents. And so these kids are being raised by the government.
“To think that the child-welfare system could somehow address the tremendous deprivation and other dysfunctional problems that these multi-problem families really have,” he adds, “was a bizarre, ill-conceived philosophy, not based on any known theory. And the research is pretty much bearing that out.”
According to Gelles, studies have shown that even most of the “intensive family-preservation efforts” — which provide crisis-intervention services in the client’s home for a limited time — are ineffective at reducing the risk of child abuse. Yet supporters of these programs — such as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which was spending an estimated $4 million a year promoting family preservation — continue to advocate them.
“They do things that the Food and Drug Administration would never allow you to do with a drug!” he says. “I mean, they’re administering a drug — a program, an intervention — and when they’re told it doesn’t work, they ignore that. Programs should not be implemented for human beings on the basis of good marketing and deep pockets. There should be some scientific quality-control.”
Gelles does believe that there are some cases where family-preservation programs are appropriate, but only for certain low-risk kinds of parents. To put the issue in perspective, he points out that when women are violently abused by their husbands, judges don’t order them to enroll in an “Intensive Marriage Preservation” program and assign a “Marriage Preservation Worker” to their families. And he pointedly wonders how domestic-violence advocates would react if the federal government identified such a program as the “intervention of choice” and gave it hundreds of millions of dollars in funding if there were “no scientific evidence that it was effective.”
In his view, and Schwartz’s, speeding up the adoption process is the first step toward improving the system. Gelles, who helped write the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (which promotes the adoption of children in foster care and puts a higher priority on their safety), believes that the adoption rate can “triple” before it starts straining the seams of the system. And in his view, it’s high time we stopped “demonizing” adoption.
“I had lunch today with somebody who wants to adopt a child,” he says. “She’s 31 years old, she’s on what she considers the cusp of acceptability — and she’s thinking of going to China. My stepsister paid $25,000 to go to Alabama to adopt a child; we have three friends who paid that much to go to China, Romania and Russia. But they are not going to pick up the mistakes of the child-welfare system. The child-welfare system holds a child hostage for six years, allows that child to be damaged by multiple placements, and then says, ‘OK, now that we’ve tried this six-year experiment and rehabilitated the mother, we’re going to make the kid available for adoption’ — you’re not going to get a big line at the door.”
Babies in foster care, he says, are ready to be adopted when they’re six months old — and should be. “To hold them hostage as part of some perverse experiment to see if this time drug-rehab will take, is just wrong,” he says angrily. “It’s immoral! And again, it comes from the fact that child-welfare workers look at the world through the eyes of their client — the adult. ‘This mother deserves another chance.’ Well, what about this kid who’s only going to be one year old once? What about all the brain cells that have to develop that year? That have to be wired that year? They don’t get a chance to be rewired next year — they’re wired then. That’s a developmental fact — a biological, neurological fact. It’s irrefutable. You’re going to tell me you’re going to hold that off? You can’t. Ten years from now, when the kid’s in the juvenile justice system with an antisocial personality or oppositional defiance disorder, you’ll be off someplace else, and you’ll forget that you were the cause of it.”
Gelles’ passionate, confrontational approach and recommendations have earned him some equally passionate critics. In the view of New York University Law Professor Martin Guggenheim, a nationally-known expert on children’s and family rights, Gelles’ work “provides a gross distortion” of the problems encountered by children in foster care.
“He writes and speaks as if the greatest problem facing foster children is that agencies work too hard in futile efforts to reunify them with their families of origin,” says Guggenheim. “In contrast, I think the most severe problem facing children in foster care is the ease with which they are placed there, despite coming from loving parents who could, with limited state assistance, safely care for their children at home.”
Gelles, Guggenheim argues, “overstates the danger and safety problem to which children are exposed from their parents, and ignores the huge number of children who never should have entered foster care in the first place. He is encouraging the destruction of parental ties in a world in which there are anterior and graver problems to confront that would better serve children’s interests.
“Where Professor Gelles speaks of the children who come from particularly dangerous and destructive parents, he and I would be in agreement,” Guggenheim adds. “Where we disagree is our emphasis, and what really faces us as our greatest driving problems in the field.”
Given the ideological tug of war, it’s not surprising that people like Philadelphia Department of Human Services’ Joan Reeves say that agencies such as hers get “conflicting messages” from lawmakers about the policies they must implement. “The pendulum either swings all the way to family preservation” even if it’s not in the best interests of the child, she points out, “or it swings all the way in the other direction — where you remove everybody from their family.
“What’s needed,” she adds, “is research on how you achieve a balance between the two extremes.”
Since African-American and other minority children are disproportionately represented in the system, an increase in adoption means an increase in white families adopting black children. This is not going to be taken lightly by anyone. The National Association of Black Social Workers has a long-standing policy against interracial adoption. In March, a judge in Illinois Juvenile Court ordered a politically powerful white couple to return a three-year-old black boy to his mother, whose history of drug abuse caused her to lose custody shortly after the baby was born with cocaine in his system. “Unless the position of the department is that there is no such thing as African-American culture,” the judge wrote, “this issue deserves more attention than to check a box that says ‘not applicable.'”
Through this minefield, the Children’s Group treads carefully. “The research basically says that irrespective of race, a kind, loving, permanent home is where you get the best outcomes for children,” says Schwartz. “Having said that, I think that there is much more that we can do to create more adoptive situations in the minority community. And if we need to do it through greater economic incentives and subsidies, I’m all in favor of it. There are very many good minority families that could provide the kind of care and treatment and love that these kids need — if they had the economic support.”
“The numbers game is not a good numbers game,” acknowledges Gelles. “But 50 percent of African-American families are intact families. Your typical 65-year-old grandmother might not be willing to buy another house with a second bedroom that qualifies [her as] a licensed foster-care provider. But if we had a Title 4-E waiver that allowed [that grandmother] to get legal guardianship and receive the same amount of funds that a licensed caretaker got, it would resolve a lot of the problems.”
Woodhouse takes what she calls “the controversial middle ground” on cross-racial adoption. “I reject the opposing positions that race always matters or that it never matters,” she says, “because both seem to me to impose an adult agenda on children and deny the reality of children’s individual needs and experiences.” She argues that race should be a factor on the grounds that “children are part of a culture in which race does matter,” but she also believes that “parenthood is not something that is acquired by virtue of procreation; it’s acquired by caregiving.”
And, she adds: “I can imagine very, very few circumstances where I would think it’s appropriate to remove children from placements where they have bonded to their families. I think it’s almost never worth it. So in a lot of cases, it’s a question not of whether or not you should give some weight to that issue, but how much weight and when.”
She also points out that caseworkers can bring their own biases to a case. “A caseworker or social worker can go into a home and look at it with white, suburban eyes and see risk where there really is no risk,” she says. “Having a lot of children sleeping in one room is not really risk — it’s risk only under rather extreme circumstances. We have to be really careful not to use a culturally biased lens in looking at and evaluating whether a particular child is at risk.”
Asked how delicate the question of race was for her agency, Joan Reeves lets out a long, heartfelt, “Sssshhheewwww.” She explains: “Either way you go — preserving families or terminating parental rights — you’re going to have people saying either, ‘You’re trying to destroy the African-American family’ or ‘You really don’t care about the African-American child by keeping him in that family.’ So even though people don’t want to talk about race, or poverty — it’s there.
“We need a lot of research and study” on the whole issue, she adds. “Hopefully this group you’re talking about can handle that without preconceived notions. What we need is objectivity from everybody.”
An important task for the Children’s Group will be to come up with a system for evaluating a parent’s risk and potential for change — and to make sure that system is implemented around the country. At present, many agencies do not even perform routine psychological evaluations. The lack of informed assessments by well-trained clinicians makes the current system, in Gelles’ words, “the worst kind of lottery” for children.
Actually, says Gelles, most of the pieces of a risk-assessment system have already been developed. “We’ll be able to [use] it starting in July and August. I already do it with batterers and battered women. Is it absolutely foolproof? No. Can we go to a judge and say, ‘Your Honor, to the best degree of our scientific knowledge, there’s a 70-percent chance that this man falls into the high-risk category?’ Yeah, we can do that. And then the judge can call it. But right now, judges are calling it based on, ‘Well, he showed up to all his classes.’ Duh.”
Right now, Gelles believes that public opinion is with him on the need to protect children as opposed to blindly preserving families.
“I think the public has always been ahead of the [child-welfare] departments — and even my students,” he says. “I have a hard time getting my students to come around. The first class I tried, I blurted out, ‘I appreciate your point of view, and that’s why people hate social workers and think they’re stupid.’ My students are going, ‘Oh my god, they hired this idiot?'”
“Richard’s style is definitely to make the bold statement,” says Woodhouse, who suggests that hers and Steinberg’s are slightly less confrontational. “But I think our differences are often ones that dissolve when you come down and talk about actual cases.”
In the view of Mohr, those different styles are a vital part of the mix: “Because while Richard may have his style and Barbara may have her style, when you get those two styles together, they work in synergy.”
The members of the Children’s Group genuinely seem to like and respect each other, and their challenge, in Steinberg’s words, is: “How can we remain child-centered and not allow our own narcissism and viewpoints to get in the way of doing the work that we can do better than most groups? How can we disagree in the healthy way that we need to disagree in order to grow and to learn, and remain committed to achieving some consensus? Because in the end, we must agree. We can’t reenact the parental conflicts.”
At the end of my interview with Ira Schwartz, I ask him about the consequences and costs of not reforming the system. He points out that the child-welfare establishment costs the nation about $12 billion a year, and that those costs just keep going up — a “hell of a lot of money for something that clearly does not work.”
But in human terms, it’s “catastrophic,” he warns. “The half a million, 600,000 children in the system now on any one given day probably represent a million children annually, when you figure the turnover in these systems. Those are a lot of kids that we’re essentially not serving and throwing away. We can do better — no question about it. And I think we’re ready for it. Because we can’t afford the path that we’re on.”
If the center doesn’t materialize and provide the Children’s Group with a nationally-recognized forum, Gelles would still be satisfied to continue “innoculating” children against violence — one by one, case by case — by keeping them out of abusive homes. “Every kid who doesn’t have to stay in a dangerous environment,” he says quietly, “is one more victory.”
Recasting the Child-Welfare Paradigm
“Our goal is to develop a major program that would really integrate policy and child-welfare practice,” says Dr. Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work. That represents a new approach in this country, where policy and practice have traditionally been viewed as separate functions, he notes. “We want to try to break through that old paradigm.”
The new paradigm he envisions would be the work of the proposed Center for Child Protection at Penn. Its ambitious goals, as laid out in an executive summary prepared by the school, involve nothing less than the “reform of the current child-welfare system” and taking a “leadership role in formulating policy and educating involved parties” about that reform. It will also “reach outside the University to design and, where appropriate, provide the management leadership to implement the new model of child protection in selected jurisdictions.”
Although the center — some of whose main players are now informally calling themselves the Children’s Group — is still in the proposal stage, some of the “key building blocks” are already in place. One is Dr. Richard Gelles, the Joanne T. and Raymond B. Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, whom Schwartz describes as “the world’s leading authority on domestic violence and one of the country’s outstanding leaders and thinkers on child welfare.” Gelles, who spent six months working for Congress on an American Sociological Association Congressional Fellowship (during which time he helped write the Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997), is the center’s designated leader, and is now bringing to-gether the “minimally structured group” of scholars from across the University — some of whom already had the idea to meet anyway.
Exactly who will constitute the center beyond the scholarly core of Dr. Annie Steinberg (pediatrics and forensic psychiatry), Barbara Woodhouse (law), Dr. Wanda Mohr (nursing), Schwartz and Gelles (both from the School of Social Work) is unclear. “But eventually there will be a core group of people that will then breathe life-by-human-capital into this center,” says Gelles. “And at some point in the next couple of months, when that happens, then we will be able to go out and say, ‘This is what we have; does someone think it’s worthwhile enough to invest in it, to endow it?'”
Schwartz estimates that the center will require an endowment of $10 million to fund a staff (including the salaries for a director, two professional staff, a doctoral student, and a part-time business administrator) as well as research activities, meetings and workshops, “national advocacy and clearinghouse activities” and other expenses.
For Gelles, the Franklinesque combination of theory and practice is vital. “There needs to be a clinic to undergird this whole system,” he says. “I want to be able to answer a question from a United States senator at the same time I can help the grandmother in Paoli who calls and says her grandchild is being abused by his father.”
While the center’s work will touch on many aspects of the child-welfare system and its attendant issues, it proposes new models to affect policy and practice in the following areas:
Permanency and Reasonable Effort
Noting that the “single, most pernicious area of misguided child-welfare policy has involved the issues of permanency and ‘reasonable effort'” to preserve families, the proposal states that: A child should not grow up in the child welfare system waiting endlessly for his or her parent to overcome deficiencies. The parental rights of abusive and neglectful parents should be terminated within a definite, but reasonable, period of time unless they can demonstrate acceptable performance in the role of parents and insure there will be no further child maltreatment on their part.
Determination of Abuse or Neglect
The primary mission of the child- welfare system must be to protect children … The goal of preserving families must be secondary to insuring that vulnerable children are protected. Also, only staff who are appropriately trained to conduct child-abuse investigations should do so. These skills are not taught in schools of social work and should not be performed by social workers unless they are equipped to do so.
Gelles argues that it’s time to stop having “24-year-old art-history majors” — social workers — responsible for making life-and-death determinations about custody and the termination of parental rights. In Schwartz’s opinion, police and other trained investigators should be handling the fact-finding aspects of a case. While the notion of law-enforcement personnel handling such sensitive cases may give some people the willies, Schwartz was impressed by what he saw in Manatee County, Fla., where the Sheriff’s Department had taken over child-protective- service investigations from the child-welfare agencies.
“The people that I met who were trained law-enforcement personnel were not door-breakers and head-knockers and what have you,” he says. “They were really very sensitive, understanding, well-trained people who understood their role — and the limitations of their role.” Furthermore, they were “responding to every single complaint within 24 hours — and if a complaint was an emergency, they were out within three hours.”
Once the facts of a case are determined, he adds, “social workers, prosecuting attorneys and others should be brought together to decide what should happen.”
Managing the Case Load
Under the current system, the proposal notes, despite the massive amounts of money spent, “poorly trained staff and misguided policies and priorities leave most agencies in a constant state of fiscal and programmatic crisis” — which in turn leads to “subtle and not so subtle pressure to limit the admission of cases into treatment, return children home prematurely, and declare cases closed too soon.” It also leads to the “revolving door” phenomenon, in which children are constantly being recycled in and out of the system.
The discontinuity of treatment and housing arrangements should be relieved by: 1) assigning a single case worker to long-term responsibility for the child, 2) focusing on permanency and thus greatly shortening the child’s overall time in the system, 3) measuring the effectiveness of treatment and living models by objective and appropriate outcome measures, not by the speed at which the child passes through the system or any of its components.
While essential client confidentiality must be preserved, the culture of secrecy as it relates to the operations of public child-welfare agencies must be abandoned. Child-welfare agencies should, in fact, take the opposite approach and actively seek outside interest and oversight, even making the public — especially members of the community at the grass-roots level — part of their decision-making process.
“I think we can let the media in,” says Schwartz. “And I think this sunlight will really improve the system, and help educate the public about what really is going on.”
He also aims to enlist the Annenberg School for Communication and its Public Policy Center to help communicate the center’s work to the news media, the public and policy leaders “to make sure that we have an intelligent public debate.”
Because, he says matter-of-factly, “there’s going to be a war here” over some of these issues. “And the more the public knows and understands, I’m betting that they’re going to come out on the right side.” Right now, he points out, “the only thing that you hear about child welfare in the media is when there’s a scandal. We’ve got to move beyond that to a different level of discussion and dialogue.”
Management and Management Information Systems
Basic management competence … is essential to this new model because the new model is designed to identify and solve problems. Because any administrative system manages best what it can measure, working information systems with minimal clerical burdens are important. … Essential functions should be restructured so they can be performed efficiently by staff who are appropriately trained and evaluated.
“If you call the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and ask what’s the size of the deer herd, they’ll not only tell you exactly, they might even tell you how many are in foal,” points out Schwartz. “You call your local child-welfare agency and ask ‘How many kids do you have in foster care?’ — they’ll give you an estimate. And at almost any state child-welfare agency, you’re going to get the same thing. Child-welfare data, information about abused and neglected children, is absolutely the worst data that we have in any area of children’s services in the country. We’re in the information age, and they’re operating literally with 19th-century, early 20th-century tools.”
That is where the private sector “has it all over the public sector,” since most public agencies are “more concerned with data for bean-counting and budgetary purposes than for programmatic purposes or to help clinicians deliver better services at the face-to-face direct-service level,” he says. “So I think we’ve got to really look at what the private sector’s doing in the application of technology — and either bring it in to the public sector or, as we privatize, make sure that this is part of the equation.” He hopes to enlist the help of the School of Engineering and Applied Science to “create systems that can deliver services over the Internet.”
The whole notion of privatizing the child-welfare system is worth a careful look, he adds, and a “lot of governors and mayors and county executives” are exploring their options. In Kansas, he says, “so far, the outcomes after a couple of years of privatizing that system are much better than it was when it was a public system and under litigation.”
On the other hand, he warns, “we have to be careful that we don’t end up with a privatized system that is run by greed-mongers who are only concerned with profits, and that can become every bit as abusive as the public system.”
Is the country ready for all these changes?
“I don’t think the child-welfare establishment is ready for it,” says Schwartz. “But I can tell you that the policy-makers are — governors, legislators, and what-have-you. Because they’ve thrown billions of dollars at this, with no appreciable difference in outcome. They know that we need a better mousetrap. So that revolution is coming, and it’s gaining steam.”