Most of what I write for The Imprint is about family support and primary prevention programming. Like many of my colleagues, I frequently distinguish between “upstream” and the “deep-end” activities of the child welfare system, which is a shortcut description of what we perceive and then, how we function.
It serves our purpose for partializing our work. However, I’m sure we would all agree that this might not be the perception of the families we serve, many of whom are in fluid stages of crisis and disequilibrium.
What if the front end/deep end framing is misleading? Suppose those differences are less about specific service delivery strategies and more about an organization’s philosophy, culture, as well as its decision-making and parent engagement process. It’s not where we connect to kids and families that distinguishes our approach, it’s how that makes the difference.
If we want to reduce the likelihood of recurrence of physical or sexual abuse or chronic neglect, and distinguish ourselves from the narrowly designed traditional CPS approaches, what are the practicalities of reimagining child protection? If we are serious about a reset of our child protection practices, and still concerned about child safety, shouldn’t we consider other approaches?
For the past 20 months, I served as the interim executive director of Philadelphia Children’s Alliance (PCA), the city’s only child advocacy center and its multi-disciplinary process for children who are reported for sexual abuse. PCA’s extraordinary team serves about 3,000 kids and families annually, 24/7 and 365 days a year.
Operating in a space somewhere between child protective services and child welfare providers are the almost one thousand child advocacy centers in communities all over the country. A child advocacy center can serve as the collective conscience of the system designed to keep kids safe and make sure its multi-disciplinary partners play well together.
With a shared responsibility and clear mission for child safety and healing, everyone, including family members, is accountable for what happens when a child enters and eventually leaves the center. For many children and their families, their experiences at child advocacy centers are significantly better than if they were left to multiple interviews and encounters with well-intentioned but untrained adults.
The national data for children served in these centers are astounding and a reminder of why some version of the CPS system is essential. Even with a pandemic that has slowed the pace of abuse reports, these centers have encountered almost 340,000 children in the past year, according to the National Children’s Alliance. Around 228,000 of the children were 12 years of age or younger. More than half of the perpetrators were known to the children.
These cases are frequently marked by generational patterns of childhood trauma and the presence of long-term, documented chronic neglect. It is estimated that approximately 75% of the mothers of these children had been physically and/or sexually abused as children. For a disproportionate number of families, parental substance use and mental health issues prevail. By the time a child arrives at a center, it has often been a gradual deterioration until it becomes a tsunami of life-changing events for everyone involved.
Being at PCA was a proverbial old dog, new tricks scenario for me. I rethought a great deal about antecedents to abuse and the prevention of recurrence. I also re-learned how the child advocacy center model can inform the broader conversation regarding the transformation of child protective services.
If you still believe that we need and deserve a relentless child protection function, but without all of its intrusions and biases, child advocacy centers provide a well-defined, respectful and effective approach. They are all about training and equipping their team members, collaborating, engaging and exploring multiple possibilities to significantly reduce the likelihood of future maltreatment. The model is based on shared assessments and skilled interviewing that minimize biases. In many centers, the co-location of social services, law enforcement, mental health and medical partners is intentional.
After years of refining the model, these centers have gone beyond the narrowly framed, either/or decision-making process typical of CPS agencies. The team approach widens the options and allows participants to seize the opportunities embedded in the crisis. The plan and the direction forward are forged in unison with others, including family members. The group process minimizes the chances for blind spots in service planning. In addition, if a team is functioning well, multiple ideas can prevail.
Over this past year and half, I watched team members when they tried to make sense of the chaos and grim nature of these cases. There is a rhythm and an art to managing your emotions and simultaneously cooperating with your professional partners to influence the family’s odds for long-term healing. Unlike the ambiguous cases where poverty is mistaken for neglect, these are cases of children who have been horribly violated, and some degree of risk remains.
Still, many of the families have significant socioeconomic challenges, domestic violence concerns and are highly mistrustful of any system. But when they deal with this collective response to their crisis, they are more likely to engage and follow up with therapy and in-home services to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
These centers persist in the application of a relational approach to engaging with families versus the traditional transactional model of CPS that families find dismissive and disrespectful. A well-trained team can shed a light on the family’s history, the current crisis as a manifestation of that history and the proactive planning designed to prevent another incident of child maltreatment. The model has a built-in role for a victim advocate who can help the family reset its course. The process is replete with community partnerships.
Regardless of where agencies are meeting families — at the front end, the deep end or midstream — they must decide if they want to keep being defined by crisis or by opportunity and possibilities.
We cannot delude ourselves into thinking we have limited choices when child safety is an immediate concern, or that there is no need for CPS. But smart partnerships are so critical to eliminating the sentiment that drives that thinking. Look to the lessons learned from the country’s child advocacy centers as a way forward.