Child Protection: A system crying for change

Op-ed submit bugFor decades, two stark facts confronted child welfare agencies across the United States.

First, traditional child protection was not working well. Too many children were placed into foster care -- many in group settings -- and then, unsurprisingly, lacked permanent families. Children in foster care often fared poorly in school and in other measures of well being.

Then they struggled as adults with higher rates of poverty, homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and health and mental health problems. Few believed the system was effective in responding to the needs of children or families.

Second, while serious abuse cases -- fatalities, extreme physical abuse and sexual abuse -- understandably gain everyone's attention, fortunately they are a very small subset of the total volume of families that come to the attention of child welfare agencies. For example, in the past state fiscal year, Connecticut's Department of Children and Families (DCF) substantiated more than 10 allegations of neglect for every one allegation of abuse. This pattern holds true nationally as well.

Despite these two facts, traditional child protection continued to treat all families the same regardless of the reason they came to attention. Whether the report to the agency was for a family struggling with meeting children's needs due to poverty and isolation or a family that was cruelly abusing a child, a forensic, adversarial investigation was the singular response.  Child protection investigators sought to catch families doing "wrong," and the outcome of the investigator’s work was to label parents as "perpetrators." Little wonder then that families resisted our "help."

Meanwhile the system could not produce acceptable outcomes for children and actually contributed to a great deal of human misery. Things had to change.

More than a decade ago and confronting these realities, some child welfare jurisdictions began to take a different approach. Rather than follow the one-size-fits-all investigations response, states and counties began to differentiate cases depending on the amount of risk a family presented.

Connecticut Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families Joette Katz

Connecticut Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families Joette Katz

Safety remained a priority, but for families assessed as lower-risk, a different response ensued. Social workers were instructed to engage the family in an assessment to identify the strengths, needs, and what help from community service providers and their natural supports (family, friends, religious and civic organizations, etc.) they could get, both to resolve the issues that brought them to the attention of the child welfare agency and to allow them to emerge as more capable of raising their children.

"Differential Response System" ("DRS"), as it has come to be called, now exists in approximately 30 jurisdictions. Frankly, Connecticut came late to this reform and did so with great caution and trepidation, warranted by the fact that vulnerable children and families are at stake.

Finally, in March 2012, a little more than a year after I became the DCF commissioner, Connecticut began its own DRS. Now nearly 40 percent of our reports go to this "assessment" track, while the higher risk cases still receive the traditional investigations response. For all our cases, safety and risk are carefully examined using nationally-tested, evidence-based tools. Once the assessment track begins, the case will be transferred to the traditional investigations track if safety issues are identified.

In Connecticut, DRS is part of a larger reform focused on working respectfully with families in a way that increases their participation in the community helping system of service providers, schools and natural supports, including extended family members.

This "Strengthening Families" approach has resulted in fewer children being removed, more children living with relatives if they can't remain safely at home, fewer children in group settings, and fewer children placed far away out of state.  Core foster care is used when necessary and appropriate, but now only for the comparatively rare families who are unable to safely care for their children.  No Connecticut advocates argue that children were better off under the old way of doing business.

The University of Connecticut is conducting a study to examine the effectiveness of DRS in Connecticut, so not all the results are in yet. But we do know that child safety has not been compromised. In fact, repeat maltreatment (subsequent abuse or neglect after an initial finding) has not risen since we began DRS; nor has re-entry in foster care.

In addition, both families and staff say the intervention is more effective, satisfying and respectful. Families are being connected to their communities in a way that makes the families stronger, better able to keep their children safe, and more effective at raising children who are healthy, smart and strong.

Joette Katz is Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

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