Many children suffer child abuse everyday at the hands of adults and it is often their own parents who are the ones to do this. They are beaten, kicked, thrown into walls, or burned with cigarettes. They have their heads held under the water of toilet bowls, are scalded by hot water or they are forced to stand in freezing or scalding showers until they pass out. A child could be stuffed into running washing machines or sexually molested and beaten so bad that they are unable to move.
Some suffer from neglect in the forms of starvation and lack of medical attention, and still go unnoticed by outsiders such as child protective services or perhaps even their pediatricians. It is not unheard of that children die every day in the U.S. alone from one form of child abuse or another. It is a sickening practice that has no set standard of rules to finish off the persisting problem.
Different states have different methods and agencies to help prevent abuse in the home, some work quite well while others bomb – a dangerous gamble when it comes to the life or mental state of a child.
The precise number of deaths each year is not known because of the extent of most fatality investigations that could be suspected as child abuse but are seen as open and shut death cases. A report from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, however, depicts more than three million reports of alleged child maltreatment practices in the year of 1995 alone.
Many more children are living with abuse rather than dying from it, too. So what steps are being taken to protect our nation’s children? All states have a Child Protective Services (or CPS) system.
This is the governmental system responsible for investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. In state after state, the CPS agency lacks the resources to respond adequately to the overwhelming number of reports it is legislatively mandated to investigate. All fifty states have child abuse reporting laws requiring reports of suspected abuse to be made by specified professionals and others whose work brings them into regular contact with children. Any citizen may report suspected abuse as state laws provide for reports to be made to the CPS agency or its equivalent, or to a law enforcement agency.
In most states, investigations are conducted by CPS personnel, although law enforcement officers may also be involved. The basic concern of child welfare workers is for the safety of the child. Assessment of the risks involved in leaving a child with its family must be made quickly because children cannot be removed from their families arbitrarily. Once a child has been removed, the goal of child welfare agencies is to return the child to the family. Ideally, caseworkers develop a plan to provide parents with the education of the care that children need, free from abuse or neglect. This plan is not always carried out to its full intention. No state has the financial resources to provide all the services to the children and families who need them.
A problem is that in state after state, CPS workers have excessive caseloads, are paid low salaries, and lack adequate training for the sensitive work involved in investigating abuse reports, and participating in decisions to remove children from their families then placing them in foster care. The turnover rate among child welfare workers is exceptionally high. A report done by the United States Department of Health and Human Services showed the rate of 30 percent to be the norm, annually. Whatever the reason – inadequate funding, unavailable services for children and families, high turnover rates, lack of training, overwhelming numbers of reports – questions are being raised about the CPS system. The system is based on the assumption that removal from a troubled family, followed by a return to the family when that can be done safely, is best for the child.
A different approach to the problems created by child abuse involves Family Preservation Services (FPS). Removal of the risk, rather than the child, is the goal of Family Preservation Services. FPS programs seek to modify the home environment or behavior of other family members so that it is at least as safe for the child to remain in the household as to be removed. Family preservation is based on the assumption that out of home care hurts children, and on the recognition that most families referred to Child Protective Service can and want to learn new ways of coping with stress. Rather than breaking families apart in order to treat them, intensive family preservation services seek to protect children and heal families by keeping them whole. Specifically, FPS provides intensive services in the home to all the members of a troubled family for a relatively short time – four to six weeks.
Professional staffs are usually assigned two, but no more than four, families at a time. Caseworkers are available to families twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A worker can stay as long as necessary to stabilize the household, whether that means six, ten, or twelve hours. Ten states have initiated FPS programs by legislation including: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Homebuilders, an FPS program based in Tacoma, Washington, provides the longest running assessment of the effectiveness of family preservation services.
From 1981 to 1994, Homebuilders saw 3,497 children. Evaluation data indicted that three months after completing the program, an average of 94 percent of the families had avoided out of home placement. Twelve-month follow up data showed that placement had been averted in 88 percent of the cases. Furthermore, the cost for Homebuilders’ family services was only $3000 per case while the costs for an average foster family home placement in the state was $7586. There is a down side to the Family Preservation Service, though. The track record of FPS seems impressive, but a closer look at another side reveals it’s not doing such a great job.
According to the Clarke Foundation, there has never been a case of parental abuse or neglect causing serious injury or the death of a child while receiving family preservation services. But since the FPS provides services for a relatively short period of just a few weeks, there is no way of accurately predicting if after that short amount of observation that the parents are suddenly fit to care for a child. A worker only stays in the house for a maximum of twelve hours – that is not long enough to assess whether the child is in danger and the true nature of the parents. Of course no one is going to kill or seriously injure a child in front of a human services official. No studies are available that show whether the abuse reoccurred after the Family Preservation Service’s four to six weeks with the family was finished. The Division of Family Services takes another approach to preventing child abuse. The staff is divided into units, working a variety of shifts and functions to best provide the services needed by the children and families.
The response unit is responsible for receiving all reports of child abuse, neglect, and dependency. They determine the nature of the allegations and the appropriate response time for initiating investigation of the allegations. Once abuse or neglect is found or significant risk of its occurrence is identified, cases are transferred to the treatment unit. Workers in these units are responsible for assessing family needs and connecting the family with appropriate resources and services to address those identified areas. They are also responsible for monitoring the family’s success at utilizing the available services, and communicating with various service providers to assess the ongoing safety of the children and the progress of the family. They close cases when significant progress has been achieved to eliminate or minimize the ongoing risk of abuse to the children.
The Statewide Unification Unit is responsible for providing intensive reunification services for children who can potentially return home within six months. Staff work closely with the children, their natural family, and the care provider to facilitate smooth transitions and successful reunification. When the goal of returning children to their natural families is no longer appropriate, the social workers write Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) petitions, which, once approved by Family Court, allow children to become free for adoption. They develop long term foster care plans for those children whose parental rights have been terminated, but for whom adoption or returning them to the home is not an appropriate goal. They are also responsible for providing assistance throughout the adoption process to support successful adoptive placements. It has been shown that through most personal accounts, that parents never really learn to take care of their children without using abuse.
Because of this, it seems quite logical to make the main focus on protecting the child, then if returning them to their family is assessed as being completely logical, that is the way to go. I propose that a system of “three strikes-your out” be implemented. With this, the parent will lose rights to the child for a short time while they go through training and counseling. If they are deemed not insane, then they may care for the child again with the warning of what will happen to them. They will have a sort of parole officer that will check up on the family annually. On the second offense, there will be further counseling, jail time, and other means of reform.
If they are granted custody again, they will be checked on frequently and unscheduled. If they can not handle the child without abuse from there, the child will be put up for adoption. There are very long waiting lists for parents who would love to adopt a child and will provide a loving family that should be utilized. The state would let the new parents take care of the child financially, but would pay for counseling of that child and training for the rest of the family on how to love on the abused. If in later years, the parent has redeemed him/herself, then they will be allowed to visit and take the child on trips and be allowed to be a friend.
After the child has reached the age of eight-teen the will be allowed to decide who they would like to stay with. No system for child protection is going to be full-proof. There are steps that can be taken to improve them. Any system is only as good as the people who implement it. Representative Kaye Steinmetz of Missouri is proposing legislation to require additional training for Child Protective Services workers, establish a state team to assist with investigations of difficult cases, and provide for statewide protocols to ensure proper investigations. Representative Debbie Stabenow of Michigan advocates early identification of parents at risk of becoming abusers. Michigan Perinatal Coaching project is an example of this.
Developed by the state’s Children’s Trust Fund, the project matches parent volunteers with parents of newborns. Through the child’s first year, the volunteer provides support to the parents, whether that involves advice about discipline or other areas that new parents may find difficult. A similar program called Family Skill-Builder is offered in the state of Massachusetts. It offers an in home case management series for families who are at risk of abusing and neglecting their children. It’s designed to prevent child abuse and neglect and to help families function independently. Deborah Daro, director of research for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, has several suggestions for legislators to consider.
She maintains that states need to provide more services for victims of abuse, especially therapeutic, remedial and support services. She says, “States also need to look at the quality of foster care. Foster care ought to be more than just giving a child a place to live.” The goal in preventing child abuse should be permanency and stability for the child, whether that means a return to the family or, in some cases, termination of parental rights and adoption. The sooner that can be achieved the better.
This can be accomplished by setting up time tables for review of foster care cases, and by establishing specific criteria for permanency planning and termination of parental rights. Another key in preventing child abuse is evaluating each situation case by case. Placing a child in foster care may be the best decision for that particular case, while intensive family preservation services might be best for another. The best answer may lie in a combination of the ideas of different organizations. Individual attention to each case would personalize a plan to get each family on the road to a good, stable, and loving family life in less time.