Child Welfare System Reform-Part One

I have spent a number of blog entries outlining what I feel are the problems related to the foster care system, including CPS. I have spoken in generalities as to what I would do to reform it.

This will be but PART 1 of a 4 part series. In this entry I will give an overview of reform for the entire system, PART 2 will be Child Protective Services (CPS) reform, PART 3 Foster Care Reform and finally PART 4 will be Adoption reform in general and specifically adoption from foster care.

I believe having been a child within the foster care system from birth until age eighteen; I have an expertise on the subject that cannot be gained through a textbook.

After much consideration I would like to lay out the details of the actual reforms I would like to see advanced. The reforms are comprehensive in a number of areas. However, I would not pretend to know all the problems of the system, nor would I have the audacity to presume to have all the answers. This is not intended to be a complete answer.

It is my hope that this, and the blog entries to follow will begin a much needed intelligent dialog on not only the need for reform but also looking at potential solutions.

To admit there is a problem and continuing to complain about those problems is not enough…it is time to proposing solutions and begin demanding action.

Let me first address the system overall. I feel the system is broken beyond repair in its current format.

I believe it has created a national crisis in child welfare. It can only be addressed on a national level rather than individual states or counties.

A national emergency must be declared and the system must be placed under the control and enforcement of the federal government. I know some with cry foul, that this is a states rights issue. The federal government has given states far too many opportunities to correct their programs and they have failed. Meanwhile families and children continue in the quagmire of the system as it is known today.

There are no national standards, codes, procedures that the states must comply with. These must be established for CPS, foster care and adoption just as they have been for eligibility for other federal child welfare programs.

I feel it needs to be federal because we are talking about humans. Humans (the children) should be treated the same way in Oregon as in Maine as in Kansas.

You see, all states should be on the same page regarding how children are treated when they are taken away from bios, how their parents should be dealt with and what needs to happen to them regarding reunification with their children, if possible. If not; how those children can be adopted by a family that wants them.

Imagine losing some of your basic legal rights — things you take for granted — simply because you have left one state and entered another.

Perhaps you find yourself suddenly taken into custody by an officer of the law and placed – against your wishes and despite your protestations — in a “secure facility” where no one bothers explaining what has just happened to you. (Nor what may happen next!)

Imagine the political uproar if adults were submitted to such arbitrary treatment — say, in New York but not in New Jersey, or in Ohio but not Indiana – for what is considered an offense in one state but not another. Wouldn’t there be a chorus of outrage that long-cherished principles such as “equal protection under the law” were being violated?

Why, then, is it acceptable for the treatment of children to vary so arbitrarily simply on the basis of the state they happen to live in?

Don’t they have certain basic rights as citizens of the United States of America? Or are they truly nothing but second-class citizens, too often to be neither seen nor heard?”

Let’s use driving laws as a basis for seeing how ridiculous a hodge podge of laws are regarding CPS, foster care and adoption. They are the same laws in every state; stopping at a red light, the meaning of yield, speed limits in residential areas etc. Can you imagine driving cross country, each city, county or state having different basic driving laws and having to know ALL the different laws??

How much more important are our children and the laws that affect them and their future?

Therefore I propose: Congress MUST improve its role in the system. They, through the legislation MUST establish uniform codes, policies and procedures that hold states accountable for the treatment of children in their care.

Enforcement and accountability are of primary importance. There are some laws on the books today that just sit there non enforced and no one is held accountable. Besides perjury which is addressed in other chapters.

States MUST be held accountable for their actions whether on a state or county or local level. Federal tax dollars go to the states for their child welfare programs. If states or those under their jurisdiction have it proved they failed to comply with any portion of legislation finally passed, a price should be paid. States should loose a degree of funding, put on probationary status for close monitoring. If the state or those under their jurisdiction continue to be in non compliance the MUST step in and completely take over their CPS, foster care and adoption programs.

Just as judges, social works and others will be held accountable under my proposals dealing with these specific areas; so to MUST the states. They MUST follow the law!

These reforms do not conclude that all CPS or foster care workers are bad. A number of them do their job very well and in the best interest of the child.

However, they many times do not have clear policy, procedures etc. laid out for them. They can also vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The reforms laid out are many times for their benefit as well as for the families and children affected by the current child welfare system.

A National Federal Registry MUST be established for ALL involved in CPS, foster care and adoption. A Federal registry would have a person’s record and could be checked by any county or state prior to their being able to be a probate judge, CPS or foster care worker, biological parents who had children justifiably removed, foster parents or adoptive parents. If any of the above persons move from one county or state to another their record will follow them giving them less opportunity to fail a child again. They cannot ‘escape’ to another jurisdiction and continue the cycle.

Placement on this national registry MUST only be done after a final disposition has been rendered by a court. The court should be the only entity allowed to enter persons on this data base.

ALL those involved within CPS, foster care and adoption MUST be required to undergo training, beyond their degrees, in child welfare.

Training should not only include policy, procedure, the law etc. but must also include how their decisions impact families and children. Attempts should be made to include former foster children and parents within the training curriculum as they were the ones who lived within the system twenty-four/seven…they are the true experts.

Training would be at their initial employment and will continue at an on going basis…failure to comply would be grounds for termination.

A psychological review should also be required. Today far too many people enter this field with their own “baggage.” This review would determine if this baggage would hinder their doing their assigned job in a fair, just manner without preconceived notions. It would also determine if they actually have the capacity to deal with the great stress they will be under.

We need to make sure the right people are in the job, present ongoing training and support. Far too many workers leave the field after a short time due to stress, burn out or should not have been in the field in the first place.

A “review board” comprised of persons independent of the system should be established. This could be on a county level. The board should include people from the public not associated with the system. IE: company leaders, religious, teachers, physiologist not employed by the system, attorneys familiar with child law, former foster children and/or parents.

This panel will have NO CONNECTION whatsoever with any agency dealing with child welfare. They must be independent and report strictly to the courts when wrongdoing is found on the part of any worker.

Terms should be established for their service not to exceed two/two year terms. This will allow for their not getting burned out or too close to those within the system. A funding mechanism needs to be found so the review board is fairly compensated for their work.

There reviews should not only include individual case review but also an ongoing review of the system as a whole. They should have full subpoena power.

In the articles that follow, a specific plan to reform CPS, foster care system and adoption will be laid out. It is my firm belief that child welfare will not truly be in the best interest of the child unless ALL THREE sections are reformed at the same time. They all play an integral role in child welfare, reforming one area and neglecting the other two would lead us down the road to further failure…the children cannot afford to allow us to travel this road any longer.

To me, all the reform details I outline will need to be made part of legislation passed by the United States Congress. This will insure uniformity across the country. The legislation will also need a strong enforcement mechanism to go with it.

The next entry will address in detail reform of Child Protective Services (CPS).


9 Responses

  1. I found your input and the perspective very interesting and well thought out. I think your original thoughts on subsequent entries will be helpful. I encourage you to share those, but you should also become familiar with the integrated response which is being attempted. You say the system is fixed beyond repair…. I can only say there really is no total solution – change is incremental. I hope it is also based on Evidence Based Practices.
    I’ve been a social worker for 24 years. Sixteen years have been spent with CPS and/or the Courts. I have seen the pain and the errors, but I also have experience to know that there are good, thoughtful, dedicated people working on this all over the country.
    Much of what you have written is already true, but not in the format described. The primary national resource to learn what is going on is the Child Welfare Gateway in the federal Children’s Bureau. Congress since 1980 has set standards. In 1997 the AFSA set new review standards. Those standards materialized in the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR). All the states are taking the well-being standards very serious (Even though all 50 failed them the first round). Furthermore there are financial sanctions like you suggested.
    Another key source of information are the General Accounting Office reports. If you search for Child Welfare or CFSR you will find some very critical and incisive analysis.
    There are some tremendous foundation based initiatives also going on that are consistent with your viewpoint. Most notable in light of your comments are the efforts of the Casey Family Foundation and the Pew Foundation Report on Foster care. For example, the Pew report caused California’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ronald George, to implement a major response which is in process.
    In terms of standards, the National Council of Judges also is addressing some of what your issues are.
    The federal government is taking a major leadership role, and the States are responding. I think this is a superior approach than “federalizing” everything. The further from the problem, the less likely the approach will be effective. Two examples that come to mind are the FEMA response to Katrina and No Child Left Behind. The Feds carry the “big stick” of money, but they definitely can’t do this better than we who are dedicated to it now are trying to do.
    Finally, it’s important to realize that there are bad stories, and adverse court decisions which make our dirty laundry quite public. Nevertheless, there are legitimate reasons not to totally expose the system’s confidentiality. And, most important, the people doing this work in counties, courts, and statehouses are doing things in a thoughtful way – we welcome your participation.

  2. Gerry~

    I will politely say I disagree with you on much of what you say here as well as your comments on Part 2.

    As for my background:

    I lived in the system for 18 years.
    I have studied the system for the past 10 years….it includes meeting with judges, case workers, social workers, foster parents, current & former foster youth as well as studying the Casey Programs and the Pew Report.
    I am past Executive Director of the Midland County Foster Adoption Network and currently serve as Regional Manager North America for World Initiative for Orphans.
    I may not have my degree in social work…but then my expertise comes from real world experience and not from a textbook.
    I received several hundred E mails from peoeple across the country delaing with the problems of CPS and the whole child welfare system…IT IS A FAILURE!
    Does this mean there are not very good people working in the system? The answer is NO…there are some great people working in the system.
    If things are going s well why are there 120,000 youth languishing for years in care after TPR has been done? Why do 20,000-25,000 youth age out of the system without the necessary tools required for them to make it on their own? Why are the statisics available on former foster youth so dismal?
    And NO money, though more is needed, is NOT going to resolve the problems of the system.
    The system eneds a complete overhaul.
    If you would like to personaly dialogue on this subject I am open to it.


  3. I also agree that not enough is being done. There are no checks and balances in my state. No one oversees DCFS, except the state commissioner, who just rubberstamps everything that DCFS does. The departments aren’t complying with ASFA and the judges don’t force them to. Permanent foster care is a viable goal in my state. I thought ASFA has done away with kids languishing in foster care for the enitre childhoods? Not in my state. Even when kids don’t have visitations with their birthfamilies, they are sentenced to a childhood of uncertaainty, even when they want to be adopted and we want to adopt them. ASFA is a joke to my state’s “powers”.

  4. Right on target as usual Larry. I think reform needs to start with the most basic of questions. WHAT IS CHILD ABUSE? The “guidelines” are so different that this basic question NO definitive answer. This is left up to the 23 year old, just out of college, “I’m going to save the world” social worker who has never even been a babysitter let alone cared for kids of her own.

    I too agree ASFA is a joke…one that’s not at all funny. We need Legislature that does more than LOOK good on paper and in theory.

    I love the idea of a citizen review panel. There is NO ONE watching CPS…no one with any power that is. Who in their right mind lets the fox guard the hen house? These people need to be held accountable for their actions.

  5. My experience as a foster parent has been that DFCS has way too much power and not enough accountability. I absolutely agree about having better oversight and we do need every state to have the same regulations. This system has failed – you just have to look at all the children in foster care still, or those that have aged out into shelters or the streets. Look at all the foster homes being lost because they cannot deal with DFCS any longer. This system is destroying kids, who are being moved around or left well beyond a reasonable time without permanancy. As far as working with DFCS, I haven’t even been able to file a grievance for the horrible way we were treated because it would be against the Director , who has to approve our pending adoption AND all grievances must go though… the Director! Unreal!!!

  6. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for all the hard work and effort you have put into this tragic situation. I am looking forward to the rest of your reform ideas.

    This system absolutely does need to be re-built. Children are dying, continuing to be abused, and abandoned by the system when they turn 18. The system often abuses the very children they are trying to protect by allowing children to be moved at a moments notice from foster home to foster home at the whim of a caseworker. It is not right. We have better laws protecting pets than we do children.

    I have always said that the system will not begin to change until it starts costing the states and the federal government serious dollars. The youths that are damaged by the system need to sue. Perhaps what we need is a class action suit where all abused foster children can join and sue. That would get their attention!

    It is our national tragedy to treat our most vulnerable citizens, our children in need, the way we do. I hope your ideas make an impact!

  7. It is a tragedy that we are losing more foster homes while we are amassing more foster kids. The system needs to be overhauled or we will be faced with a big problem. The foster parents need to be kept from being harassed for the things that they do.

  8. ….meaning the things that they do that are not wrong but are done to advocate for their foster kids and when someone on the system gets upset with a difference in opinion expressed by the foster parents then they are blackballed! and whammo-let’s take their kids!!! I for one have not had this happen but I have friends who have gone through this. So disheartening!!!

  9. Larry, can you read my blog and as a former foster son I am interested to know your thoughts. I’m a foster mom, well, no longer since they took my little guy. I love him. Saved all his checks for college. I don’t know why the system is so negligent and rude towards the caring foster parents. After what I’ve been through, I will never again be a foster parent again. I can see how many foster parents do it for the money because otherwise it is too painful. I am deeply traumatized. Here’s my blog:

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