Child welfare is a problem without borders

Many states across the nation have found themselves living through the same tragic stories as Missouri.

Abused or neglected children, known to more than one state social worker, are left in unsafe situations to be further harmed or, in some cases, to die. Investigations follow. Advocates, lawyers and lawmakers demand answers.

Failing child welfare is a problem without borders, a reflection of the societal and economic woes that plague families today.

From Florida to California, the tragedies unfold. And like a broken record, the problems drone on: Overwhelming caseloads. High turnover. Low wages. Plummeting morale.

“What Missouri is experiencing is, terrible to say, it’s a typical experience,” said Clark Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri in the School of Social Work and Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs. “Child welfare is a heartbreaking field.”

Though some states’ systems are known for doing child welfare right, it’s the ones in disarray that make headlines.

Last month, Arizona officials revealed that the state’s child welfare agency had closed more than 6,500 uninvestigated cases of suspected child abuse or neglect over four years. A special unit at the agency had misclassified the cases and closed them to help keep the heavy workload more manageable.

“It is absolutely critical that we have independent oversight,” Arizona Rep. Kate Brophy McGee told The Associated Press. “It will bring transparency to an agency that has been cloaked in secrecy and integrity to a process that has appeared corrupt.”

Just days earlier, a sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina found an 11-year-old boy shivering and handcuffed by the ankle to a porch, a dead chicken hanging around his neck. His foster parents, who also had four adopted children ages 8 to 14, were charged with intentional child abuse, inflicting injury, false imprisonment and cruelty to animals. The foster mother was a supervisor with the Union County Department of Social Services.

In the past two years, media investigations have revealed troubles and flaws in systems in other states, including Colorado, Tennessee and Texas.

Advocates rattle off examples of states that they say are providing good child welfare: Alabama, Indiana, New Jersey, Utah — although they readily acknowledge that no state does a perfect job and backsliding sometimes occurs.

But before the good, there was almost always the bad.

More than two dozen states or regions are under court order and regular monitoring to ensure reforms are put in place. In other states, court orders were recently lifted.

Significant reform seldom occurs without the courts, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group that has been involved in lawsuits in many states. Her group was involved in a Jackson County consent decree that ended in 2006.

“Lawsuits are the galvanizing force to help make the system more accountable and to bring to light the problems that exist in the system,” Lowry said. “It drives in money from the legislature, and it drives in management changes

“Given all of the activity that’s gone on in Missouri, you’d think that wouldn’t be necessary. But it may be necessary again.”

A needed change

In Alabama, the road to correction began with an 8-year-old boy known as RC and a class action lawsuit filed in 1988.

Removed from his home and placed in foster care, RC saw many short-term placements. He was confined in psychiatric hospitals. He was medicated, not allowed to visit his father and placed in a long-term residential treatment facility miles from home.

The lawsuit alleged that the state failed to protect foster children. The suit was settled in 1991 with a court order that demanded an overhaul of the state system. The reforms included more services for parents, faster investigations of child abuse or neglect reports, and a philosophy that focused on keeping families together and tailoring services to each case.

Hundreds of people were hired, caseloads plummeted and spending for child welfare increased. Social workers received “flex funds” to use for family crises, such as a car repair so the mother could get to work.

“It meant that the whole work culture, and the way we treated families and assessed their needs and involved them in decision-making, had to change,” said Paul Vincent, who was director of Alabama’s child welfare system when the lawsuit was filed.

In the end, a dysfunctional system once viewed as among the worst in the nation was transformed.

“Alabama is today recognized as having the model child welfare system in the nation,” then-governor Rob Riley said in a news release when a federal judge lifted the order in 2007, ending the RC case. But even that state has experienced setbacks since getting out from under court scrutiny.

Of the states that have made comprehensive reforms, Indiana is rare: It overhauled its system without the heavy hand of a lawsuit. The reform included funding increases to hire 800 new caseworkers and 150 new supervisors, which cut caseloads in half.

Utah, which implemented reform practices consistently across its entire system, is “one of the brightest spots in the country,” said Vincent, who now leads the Child Welfare Policy Practice Group and is a national consultant on state reforms.

Lawsuits aren’t always a perfect solution.

Michigan was forced to undergo statewide reform as a result of a 2006 class action lawsuit filed in federal court by Children’s Rights. The lawsuit alleged that the state’s foster care system was poorly managed, underfunded and severely understaffed. The governor signed a massive settlement agreement in 2008, with a revised version approved in 2011, and a monitor was put in charge of overseeing the state’s compliance.

The monitor’s most recent report, filed in October, said that despite major improvements, much work remains. One area was the maltreatment of children in care, especially those placed in relatives’ homes. Children were being placed in homes that had no beds or cribs for them, the report said. In one case, “a child was sleeping in a basement with a pool of water with frogs living in it.”

Lowry said her organization is involved with court orders in six states and three cities and has had to return to court several times in some cases.

“So the lawsuits have a tremendous impact, but they’re not a silver bullet,” she said. “It requires constant vigilance.”

The pendulum

The distressing conditions that once existed in Alabama and Utah persist in other states today, including Missouri.

Though the state underwent comprehensive reform a decade ago when 2-year-old Dominic James died at the hands of his foster father, many insist the reforms didn’t stick.

Missouri now struggles with the same issues dogging other states in need of improvement:

A one-size-fits-all philosophy. Overworked and frustrated veteran employees who leave for better paying and less stressful jobs, compounding the high turnover rate that can severely disrupt a child protection system. And a pendulum of child welfare practice that changes direction after tragedies.

If a child dies or is seriously harmed in the biological home, the emphasis shifts to foster care. If a child is hurt or killed in foster care, the focus swings to family preservation.

“If you’ve been here over a decade, you’ve seen it over and over again,” said Barbara Brown-Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield, Mo. “Until we take some of the steps other states have taken, we’re just going to keep beating a dead horse and ride the pendulum from side to side to side.

“It’s time to stop the pendulum.”

Those who work in child welfare say this new scrutiny must include myriad improvements.

Money for more tailored services. More accountability. Better pay. Additional workers.

And child welfare must be made a priority in the state. Not just for a week or a few years.

“With things like the Dominic James law, there are fits and starts of trying to make those changes, but at the end of the day, you get what you pay for,” said Adam Seehaver, organizing director of Communications Workers of America Local 6355, which represents Missouri social workers.

“You can’t buy a Cadillac with a Pinto investment,” he said. “You just can’t.”

Tim Decker, Missouri’s newly appointed Children’s Division director, said while the state’s child welfare system has problems that need to be addressed, “the great news is that we have some really successful things that are going on that we can build upon.”

Fixing child welfare systems is “like putting together a shattered glass,” said Peters of the University of Missouri. “Where do you start?”

It calls for smart investments and good management, not just throwing money at bad solutions, he and other child welfare experts said.

“I think some kind of external oversight that has some teeth and that has a direct line to the state office, the governor and legislature needs to be in place,” said Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney who represents children and families in family court.

Yes, the solutions are complicated, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, a state advocacy group. But it’s possible for states like Missouri to improve.

“If we believe what we say — that kids are our most precious resources — there shouldn’t be anything standing in our way.”