Child welfare is once again in the national spotlight, following Florida's extraordinary "loss" of 6-year-old Rilya Wilson and New Jersey's failure to protect 7-year-old Faheem Williams. Every several years a particularly tragic story about an abused or neglected child becomes the focus of media attention -- and public outrage -- and then fades from public consciousness, while children continue to be harmed by the child welfare systems set up to protect them.
A basic theme underlying the periodic calls for reform is why these systems perform so badly, and why they continue to be so damaging to children. There is general consensus about the four purposes that child welfare systems are supposed to serve:
identifying children who may be at risk in their own home and providing services to support the family wherever possible;
protecting children by taking them into government custody, in foster care, when it is not possible for a child to remain safely at home;
placing children in foster care in nurturing, safe environments where they receive help to overcome problems; and
providing their families with the necessary services to enable children to return home safely as quickly as possible or, if that is not possible, placing the children in permanent homes through adoption.
What is baffling is why so many child welfare systems -- including Maine's, as portrayed in the FRONTLINE report, "The Caseworker Files" -- fail to follow these four principles. The answer may well be that there are no consequences for failing to do so, except the destruction of young lives.
In many child welfare systems nationally, the public agency charged with protecting children regulates its caseloads by simply failing to respond to allegations of abuse and neglect, or by closing cases where children are obviously in need of protection. But because there is no accountability in systems charged with making these difficult decisions, most of these systems err in both directions: leaving children at home when they are in danger and taking children into foster care when there are better, less drastic alternatives. And, in too many systems, once children enter foster care their fate is more a result of happenstance than of careful planning.
Based on the evidence in the FRONTLINE documentary, caseworkers in Maine seem to have little understanding of the principles that are supposed to guide decision-making in child welfare. Repeatedly, workers reflect on problems in families without ever acknowledging the depth of the bond between parent and child, and without making any visible efforts to engage parents in meaningful efforts to alleviate the problems that the workers consider threatening to the children, short of removing the children into foster care. Removal appears to be an obviously acceptable alternative and an end in itself, rather than a last resort. Nor does there appear to be any thought directed toward making sure the placement is for as short a term as possible. Most importantly, these workers talk and act as if the children have no feelings and will not suffer any pain from being taken out of their homes, even homes that are extremely messy, or in which a mother refuses to acknowledge inappropriate and harmful behavior by a boyfriend. The workers never attach any value to the parent-child relationship but instead seem to function on a theoretical level that ignores the strengths in some of these families and the impact of separation, and of foster care, on children.
Matthew's story of being taken from an alcoholic father whom he nevertheless loves is emblematic of the struggles of foster children around the country, where tens of thousands of youth experience heartbreak and face uncertain futures. Matthew's caseworker sums up the situation when he states, all too casually, that the boy could have a brief stay in foster care or could remain in custody until he turns 18. Notwithstanding the obviously strong bond between Matthew and his father -- his only parent -- the caseworker expresses no urgency about the need to ensure that the bereft boy and his father visit each other, or that the father receive appropriate counseling so he can take his child home. Indeed, everyone involved views it as a victory when the father acknowledges his alcoholism and agrees to withdraw his objections to his son's removal. What about Matthew?
Nationally, abused and neglected children are in foster care for an average of 33 months -- but about one-fifth of foster children remain in care for five years or more. These children languish in government custody despite the fact that since 1997, federal law has required states to significantly curtail children's length of stay in care and more quickly return them home or find them alternative, permanent loving and stable families.
The fact that Matthew spends his first weeks in foster care in a psychiatric hospital does not bode well for him and foretells a long and difficult adjustment to life away from his father. Matthew will no doubt have conflicts with any foster family in which he is placed that will seriously test their commitment to him and will quite likely lead to his being bounced from home to home. And the longer he stays in care, the more likely it is Matthew will experience far too many moves: Nationally, over 60 percent of children who remain in foster care for four years or more have three or more placements.
Even if removing Matthew from his alcoholic father was necessary to protect him in the short run from abuse and neglect, there is no suggestion that any workers in the system will be taking any steps to try to make the separation temporary. If they had told Matthew that they would be making such efforts, and that he would only be in foster care a short time, it could have consoled this obviously distraught child. The system faces an enormous challenge to make sure that, in the name of child protection, it does not cause him deeper and more serious long-term damage, and it is a challenge to which the Maine workers seem oblivious.
The casework supervisor in Mark's case reacts almost with exhilaration when a state attorney gives the agency the go-ahead to seek a court order to remove the child from his mother and grandmother. These disturbing examples of overuse of child placement in Maine stand in stark contrast to the utter failure of other states to pay any heed at all to families who are the subjects of multiple complaints of severe abuse. New Jersey's child welfare system, for instance, is failing that state's most vulnerable citizens, as overburdened investigative workers are unable to handle the most routine cases of child maltreatment. Caseloads are so unconscionably high -- some workers have been responsible for over 100 investigations at a time -- that workers do "drive-by" investigations. It appears that if they drive by a house and see a child playing in the yard who has reportedly been abused by his or her parents, the workers close the case for "lack of evidence." In one case in New Jersey, two little girls represented by Children's Rights suffered ongoing neglect after the state's child protection investigators closed the case, despite having received numerous complaints. The girls were not removed until neighbors called the ASPCA to complain about the family's maltreatment of their dog, and the ASPCA called the police.
But when systems do appropriately investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and when they do remove children from their homes before it is too late, the systems must then do the even harder work of ensuring that children in state custody are quickly placed in appropriate foster homes, provided with all necessary services, and, most importantly, restored to a permanent family -- either the one into which they were born or a new one created through adoption. Judging from "The Caseworker Files," Maine's system is utterly unable to do this.
Maine, New Jersey, and other states across the nation are struggling with mounting financial crises, and state agencies are rapidly slashing their budgets. But the 600,000 children in foster care in this country do not vote, and they depend on state policymakers to provide adequate funds to the programs and services so necessary to maintain their health and well-being. Without the proper funding, even the best-intentioned caseworkers can do little to help children in crisis. If politicians have to choose between snow removal or services for poor, invisible children, all too often snow removal will win. Of equal importance, these systems must be held accountable to follow the law, and the policies and principles that underlie it. The most basic of these is that children should be raised by families, not the state, and our publicly-funded child welfare systems must do everything possible to deliver that result.