In child welfare we are prone to distraction. Through the decades we’ve become excited by multiple trends and legislation addressing safety, family preservation and permanency, assuming they would resolve the complexities of our work with families. It has resembled a shiny penny syndrome.
Through it all, an enduring, central question remains: how do we keep children safe and families intact? When we’ve ignored that question, we’ve lost our way, leaving us in pursuit of the next big thing, with few measurable improvements in child safety. Indeed, the elusive goal of consistently improving the safety outcomes for kids is our weakest underbelly.
Since the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, I’ve had the opportunity to participate as a consultant with a variety of stakeholders across the country as they discussed the development of family support approaches. This includes community-based models and family resource centers. Many of those conversations evolve into visioning exercises, imagining transformational approaches to supporting families.
All of this makes total sense and is a logical response to the wide swath of poor outcomes reflected in the well-being data for millions of children and families. The traditional child welfare response is a well-intended hamster wheel of activity that has been narrow and crisis-oriented. We’re long overdue for an approach that is rooted in family engagement and social justice principles.
But regardless of our longer-term vision, the unique public mandate and expectation is that we are the entity responsible for the safety of kids. For the foreseeable future, child welfare owns this role. Public health and educational systems might collaborate with us. But they are not accountable for investigating reports of abuse, deciphering the cause and effect questions or the circumstances of maltreatment. This is still our story, and until there is the political will to undo over a century of public policy, the narrative of who attends to abuse, neglect, exploitation and abandonment remains with the local and state child protection agencies.
In the midst of our conversations about creating child and family well-being systems and scenarios of de-funding child welfare, kids and families still deserve and require a publicly mandated response that can be both proactive and crisis-oriented when necessary. But it’s not coincidental that we continue to struggle with the responsibility for keeping kids safe, in their own homes and protected from repeat abuse and chronic neglect, while discussing approaches to child and family well-being.
It’s a dissonance of our own making, the crippling dichotomy of safety vs. support. We can do both by threading the needle of safety and well-being with compassion and competence.
Family-serving systems should consider three things in planning for future health and well-being: motivation, circumstances and capability. First, any talk about systems transformation carries with it the responsibility to articulate our desired path forward, one that prioritizes the safety of children, the specifics of how we plan to engage with families to truly realize well-being outcomes and a clear accounting of what it will take to constantly improve our performance. More specifically we must explain what drives our actions, the “why” as Simon Sinnek describes it. Under what circumstances are we trying to accomplish something and to what extent do we have the resources and bandwidth to get it done?
Second, we should plan for every stakeholder conversation about family support and prevention services to include the specific question: “If we take this action, will we be able to improve the safety outcomes for children, not temporarily, but over the long term?”
Finally, the threading of the needle happens through the collaborative nature of family support programming. Public agencies engage their private sector and community constituents and families to expand their capacity beyond the child protection mandate. That is the reason that the partnerships are so critical because they assure the safety-support continuum.
This paradigm is especially effective if we are concerned about the high number of chronic neglect cases with their gradual, almost predictable deterioration of family stability and child safety. A colleague of mine, Dee Wilson, recently wrote a blog highlighting the differences between chronic and situational neglect:
“Chronic neglect often evolves into chronic maltreatment in which neglect is combined with instances of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse… Chronic maltreatment is the most difficult therapeutic challenge facing public child welfare agencies, more difficult, by far, than chronic neglect alone…”
Wilson cites a number of studies on this — a single specific allegation of neglect contained in a CPS report is like the “tip of an iceberg” or “a single frame in a lengthy film;” indicating that a focus on specific allegations or reports is likely to be misleading.
These situations require a well-informed look at parental motivation, circumstances and capacity and a response that appreciates the enduring nature of a family’s challenge – not a situational or transactional response, but more relational and accessible focused on building parental capacity. Parents under stress who are overwhelmed and distracted are likely to have problems in information processing.
They benefit from practical, welcoming, family-informed and recovery-oriented support that encourages them to seek help prior to the next crisis. And it allows for a more respectful approach to asking the question about child safety.