Agency should do more to keep families together
Thirty-five years ago, as a young reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, I produced a series of reports on child abuse and foster care. I was stunned to find that what was then the state Department of Health and Social Services didn't even know how many children were in foster care or how long they stayed in care. We had to send out our own survey to all 72 counties.
Today, the data gathering has improved — in part because federal aid depends on it. But reading John Elliott, from what is now the Department of Children and Families, respond to Gannett Wisconsin Media's stories about child abuse by claiming there is not necessarily a crisis, or even a problem, suggests a state still in denial about how much remains to be done.
Fortunately, something else has changed in 35 years: We know a lot more about what really works to prevent child welfare tragedies. It boils down to this: Listen to your gut instinct — and do the opposite.
Gut instinct says: In case after case examined by Gannett Wisconsin Media, the state itself found that county child welfare agencies didn't do enough and left children in danger — so if the counties just rush to take away more children everything will be fine.
But that's actually been Wisconsin's approach for decades. Indeed, now that we have reliable data, we know that Wisconsin actually takes away children at a rate more than 20 percent above the national average, and roughly double the rate in states widely recognized as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.
This approach fails because most cases are nothing like the horror stories examined for the Gannett series. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Other cases fall between the extremes. The needless removal of children in such cases causes its own tragedies:
When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad, but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates. For a young enough child it can be an experience akin to a kidnapping. One major study of foster care "alumni" found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be "doing well." Two more studies, of 15,000 typical cases, found that maltreated children left in their own homes with little or no help typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.
All that harm can occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But one independent study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.
But that isn't the worst of it. Almost all the failures documented in the Gannett series involve workers so overloaded they didn't have time to do everything necessary to keep children safe. The more workers are overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect, the less time they have to find children in real danger. That's almost always the real reason for the horror stories that, rightly, make headlines. And that's why a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare makes all children less safe.
Keeping children safe and respecting the rights of
families are not opposites that need to be balanced. On the contrary,
the only states that have improved child safety are those that do more,
not less, to keep families together. Those states could serve as models
— just as soon as Wisconsin officials are willing to admit they have a
Richard Wexler (Executive Director of the
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, headquartered in
14 May 2012