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Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue

Photo credit: © Fred Friendly Seminars
Thursday, February 6, at 10 p.m., 60 minutes

Each year, hundreds of thousands of children are removed from their homes following allegations of abuse or neglect. In the past year, however, America's child welfare policies have come under increased scrutiny as headlines trumpeted cases of children becoming "lost" -- and in some cases, dying -- while in the care of the state, or conversely, dying when the state did not act to take custody.

When should parents lose the right to raise their own child? Who makes the critical decisions regarding a child's future? And how well is America's child welfare system protecting the children in its care? Are there ways to do it better?

These are some of the questions explored in "Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue," a one-hour examination of America's child welfare policy airing Thursday, February 6, at 10 P.M. on PBS (check local listings).

Presented by PBS's FRONTLINE and FRED FRIENDLY SEMINARS, the one-hour dialogue -- moderated by NBC correspondent John Hockenberry -- features a panel comprised of prominent government leaders, policymakers, child welfare advocates and journalists as well as individuals with first-hand experience with the child welfare system. Panelists include: U.S. Representative George Miller (D-Calif.); ABC News Senior Legal Correspondent Cynthia McFadden; Richard Gelles, acting dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work; Kathleen Blatz, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court; Trevor John, a child protective specialist; Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, Inc.; Barbara Alexander, executive director of the First Coast Family Center in Jacksonville, Florida and a former supervisor in Florida's Department of Children and Families; Ronald Richter, deputy attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society of New York's juvenile rights division; Rose Garland, an artist and graduate student who spent much of her childhood in foster care; Sandra Jimenez, head of advocacy for New York City's Department of Homeless Services; and Dorothy Roberts, professor at Northwestern University Law School.

In keeping with the format of the FRED FRIENDLY SEMINARS, "Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue" presents panelists with hypothetical scenarios that prod them -- and viewers -- to explore how current child welfare policies affect American families.

It's a system in desperate need of examination and evaluation, participants say.

"We've got half a million kids in the system," notes U.S. Rep. George Miller, who played a key role in authoring the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. "We'll cut a lot of checks for the support and maintenance of those children. [But] we probably won't know where a good portion of them really and truly are or who they're with or what kind of care they're getting."

In some cases, panelists say, children are being placed in foster homes that are no safer than the ones from which they've been taken. Rose Garland, for example, says she experienced abuse while in a foster home.

Garland believes more care and planning must be exercised in the placement of foster children. "We focus so much on the emergency and the Śright now' and that's what I felt as a child," she says, "that everything was just right now and who I was gonna be in the future really didn't matter."

Miller agrees, noting that many child welfare caseworkers are struggling under heavy caseloads that allow little time for proper oversight and planning. "You've got to give this system and the people in this system time to look at the families, to look at the alternatives, to knit together that plan," he says. "This isn't something you can do on the run. You can't take a child of one year and scribble on the back of an envelope what you're gonna do with that child for the next year."

When questioned about the tough choices in placing children permanently, Richard Gelles, one of the architects of the Adoption and Safe Family Act, argues time is of the essence. "You don't hold a child's development hostage while you are waiting for a change [in the birth parent] that may not happen," Gelles says. "At the same time, you're balancing the parent's constitutional rights to due process."

Law school professor Dorothy Roberts believes the issue of child welfare needs to be viewed in a broader context.

"We have to admit that the whole [child welfare] system is a way of dealing with poverty -- especially with poor minority families," she says. "Once we admit that, and that we wouldn't treat wealthier families this way, then I think we can start thinking of solutions."

"Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue" will air as a follow-up to FRONTLINE's "Failure to Protect: The Caseworker Files," an unprecedented look inside Maine's Department of Human Services and the caseworkers who deal with the excruciating decision of whether or not to remove a child.

"Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue" is a FRONTLINE-FRED FRIENDLY SEMINARS co-production with 10/20 Productions.

The producers are Rachel Dretzin, Muriel Soenens, and Barak Goodman. The moderator is John Hockenberry. The creative consultant is Joan I. Greco. The senior editorial director for Fred Friendly Seminars is Ruth Friendly.

Primary editorial consultation provided by the Institute for Child and Family Policy (ICFP) at Columbia University. Tony Raden is coordinating producer. Senior advisor is Jane M. Spinak, Columbia Law School.

FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. Additional funding for "Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue" is provided by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.

The executive producer for FRED FRIENDLY SEMINARS is Richard Kilberg.

Press contacts for FRONTLINE:
Erin Martin Kane [erin_martin_kane@wgbh.org]
Chris Kelly [chris_kelly@wgbh.org]
(617) 300-3500

Press contact for FRED FRIENDLY SEMINARS:
Michelle Prince [mprince@fredfriendly.org]
(212) 854-8968

FRONTLINE XXI/February 2003

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