Reform Requires Radical Change

The grisly scene of child abuse discovered in a Newark , N.J. basement earlier this year has an appalled nation once again talking about how to reform the child protective services system.

The horrific stories, the system failures and the vows to reform are all too familiar. Whether in Newark or Chicago , Massachusetts or California , some ask if the state and county agencies charged with protecting children are simply too broke to be fixed.

Reform advocates and experts believe the system can be fixed, but only if the entrenched bureaucracies are willing to embrace radical changes in both operations and basic philosophies. In places like Pittsburgh , Pa. , and Alabama , where the need for aggressive change has been recognized and pursued, experts say dramatic reforms have netted dramatic results. spoke with three of these experts -- Patrick Murphy, the public guardian in Cook County, Ill., author of Wasted: The Plight of America’s Unwanted Children (Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1997); Dr. Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform; and Linda Bayless, associate director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a non-profit consulting firm that assists and advises public agencies on system reform. With partner Paul Vincent, Bayless was one of the engineers of major reforms to the Alabama CPS system, considered one of the most successful system overhauls and a model for other states.

Acknowledging that reforming state agencies riddled with funding and staffing problems and mired in bureaucracy is no easy task, the experts said the following key reforms would address the systems’ most pressing problems and bring about drastic improvements.

Rethink Confidentiality. The confidentiality laws of the juvenile justice and family court system, intended to protect minors and families, instead shields the system from accountability and public scrutiny, shrouding its operations, failings -- and in some cases, corruption -- in secrecy, both Wexler and Murphy said. With the exception of concealing the identities of the children and families in the system, much of the confidentiality laws should be abandoned, they say.

“The media has no idea what goes on until a kid dies,” said Murphy, who advocates making the case files available to credentialed members of the legitimate media (not to the general public.) Although the media has access to the courts, they do not have access to the case files -- where the real story is, he says.

Politicians don’t want the public to know how poorly the system is being run, while caseworkers fear the public wouldn’t understand why they do their jobs the way they do, both Murphy and Wexler said. But that’s just the point. While the Newark case may be an example of gross negligence, the system is also rife with an equally dangerous overzealousness to remove children unnecessarily, lack of accountability and “amateur psychobabble,” Murphy said.  

The public is not aware that hundreds of children are falling through the cracks, Bayless explained. Less confidentiality would mean greater accountability, she said.

“We wouldn’t let 500 people go unserved by the DMV, but we let that many children go unserved,” she said.

“For a lot of reasons, the public should be made aware of what’s going on,” said Murphy.

Reduce the number of children in the system.   The blame for cases like the Newark tragedy are often placed on overburdened caseworkers with crushing caseloads; unfortunately, Wexler said, cases like Newark set off a “take the child and run” reaction of unnecessary child removals that only further overcrowds the system. This just leads to more failure, more children in danger, falling through the cracks.

Many children are taken from their families because of poverty, not abuse, Wexler said. Instead of placing the kids in foster or residential care, Wexler recommends providing a family with “hard” services – job training, transportation, daycare, better housing – that would alleviate the poverty issues but keep the family together.

In Alabama , caseworkers have access to a “flex-fund” that can be used to pay a family’s heating bill, put a security deposit down on better housing, pay for daycare or groceries, or even fix a broken car.

“If you have a single mother working two jobs and overwhelmed, in most places she’s diagnosed as depressed. Instead of getting help to get a better job or housing, she gets a counseling session,” Wexler said.

Ironically, the services required to alleviate poverty and keep families together cost much less than foster or residential care, and the failures of the foster and residential care systems are also the result of too many kids in the systems.

“We need to provide hard services to deal with poverty. Instead of taking the kids, use the money for job training or housing. But it requires a philosophical change. It’s not the way the system works.”

Improve Training. Increased training for caseworkers is often cited as a necessary reform, but Bayless said it’s an issue of quality as well as quantity. Most social work training is classroom or booked based, with very little emphasis on field work or hands on training.

“Workers are told what to do, but not taught how to do it,” Bayless said. “They need to be trained in skills, not information,” she said. One of the major problems in Alabama were the “issues” that arose between caseworkers and the families they were trying to help. What made the difference in Alabama , she said, was putting experienced people in place to show, not just tell, less experienced workers how to do their jobs and overhauling training to emphasize field training. More emphasis was also put on training workers how to devise very specific service plans tailored to the family’s individual needs.

“We need people trained in how to work with families and assess their needs, and work with families in a way that understands how they got the way they are,” Bayless said. “In Alabama , kids became safer because the workers were trained to do that,” she said.

Break Up the Bureaucracy.

Imagine if the police department, the district attorney and the corrections department was all one agency. When the jails were too full, the police would be told to stop making arrests; the same lawyer prosecuting you was also responsible for your defense. That’s essentially the way most CPS agencies work right now, Murphy explained.

“On the one hand, we’re saying we’re trying to help you. On the other hand, we’re taking your kids,” he said.

He recommends breaking the agencies into two segregated, independently run ones: One  made up of master-degree level social workers, nurses and law enforcement professionals responsible for investigating abuse cases, prosecuting them if necessary, devising service plans for families. The second agency would be made up of the foster and residential care systems and providing services.

“The social worker working with you should not be the person calling the cops on you,” he said.

Bayless said that any restructuring should include reforms that require supervisors to get out of the office and into the field. If a system is drowning in broken down bureaucracy, no reforms have much of a chance, she said.

“In Newark, they said they couldn’t get the keys to a car to make a home visit. They couldn’t file reports because the copy machines didn’t work,” Bayless explained. “You can’t even talk about practice issues if you can’t get the keys to a car,” she said.