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In her story (read here) about the tragic death of Brook Stagles, Meaghan McDermott writes that the problems at the Monroe County Department of Human Services Child Protective Services unit are nothing new. She cites a report from 1979 and notes that “reforms were made, but workers into the 1980s said it still wasn’t enough.”
McDermott is right. I interviewed some of those workers when I was a reporter for WXXI-TV and City Newspaper in the mid-1980s. Then, as now, the workers were underprepared and desperately overloaded.
But I also learned some surprising things about some of what was overloading them. In Monroe County and, I would later find, all across the country, most of the cases seen by CPS workers then – and now – are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Nationwide, 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had adequate housing.
Other cases fall between the extremes. And in the decades since I started following this issue, landmark research involving more than 15,000 cases found that, in these typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
That’s true even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population. Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.
As for cases involving heroin, we should have learned how to handle those by how we failed during a previous “drug plague” – crack cocaine. Researchers found that even infants born with cocaine in their systems fared better left with mothers who could care for them than when placed in foster care. No, that doesn’t mean children can be left with hopelessly-addicted parents. But it does mean that drug treatment for the parents almost always is a better option than foster care for the children.
But even that isn’t the worst of it. The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions.
Sadly, it’s almost certainly gotten worse in the wake of Brook Stagles’ death. Such tragedies typically set off foster-care panics, sharp sudden spikes in removals of children by caseworkers terrified of having the next such case on their caseloads. But by further overloading workers, such panics actually make the next such tragedy more likely.
Only a renewed emphasis on keeping children out of the system will give workers the time to find the children who really need to be in it.
By Richard Wexler
4 October 2017
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform