Menu Close


TOC Next Previous

Innovation And Evolution:

In the heat of today’s crisis and this year’s reform, it is easy to lose the perspective that child protection was, in the past, itself an adaptive change. The public value that defines parental abuse and neglect of children as an appropriate concern of government is even more recent. Considering only the last thirty years or so, the evolution of at least four distinct, technical innovations designed to increase child safety is evident.

In the late sixties and early seventies, foster care was touted as the better approach to child protection. Whereas orphanages and children’s homes had previously been the better solution, foster care became the new reform. It would provide families for children who could not remain safely with their parents or who may have had no parents. Providing children families was a better technical solution than orphanages.

Note that, despite the change, separating children from their parents continued as the preferred technical approach to keeping children safe. By the mid to late seventies, there were over 500,000 children in foster care in the United States. The better approach was a singular success, but there were unexpected problems.

Although children were shifted into family settings, they did not necessarily have safe, stable families. Children who would not or could not adjust to the expectations of a specific family were summarily moved to another family. The foster care drift phenomenon began. There was a crisis in child protection.

In the eighties, permanence was embraced as the new, better, technical approach to keeping children safe. If clear procedures were implemented to either keep children safely in their parents’ homes or alternatively, in adoptive homes, the crisis would be over. The outcome of either alternative would be that children would have permanent, loving families.

Note the shift in public policy over time from valuing orphanages to valuing families, from valuing families to valuing permanent, loving families. The public’s polestar value for child protection is child safety. It is now clear that child safety is most highly valued in the context of permanent, loving families, although the public does not clearly articulate this context.

In the late eighties and into the nineties, the new, better technical approach became intensive in-home services. Since merely leaving abused and neglected children with their families was not acceptable and adoption turned out not to be a viable solution for far too many children, intensive in-home services would keep children safe.

At the same time, the presumed causes of child abuse and neglect were reframed. It was no longer correct to see abusive and neglectful parents as bad people who were hurting their innocent children. Rather, they were redefined as good, loving people who, due to stress and other socioeconomic pressures, were in crisis. The maltreatment of their children was an unintentional side effect of that crisis. Providing intensive in-home services would reduce the stress and pressure, while stabilizing the crisis. Again, though, there were problems and child protection itself was once more in a crisis.

Note the dramatic shift here in public policy from reflexively removing abused and neglected children from their parents to keeping children safe in their homes, whenever possible. It was no longer necessary for parents to prove their fitness to keep their children safe. Rather, child protection agencies had to prove that they had made reasonable efforts to help the parents keep their children safe. This is where the responsibility for the safety of children in their homes shifted from being the exclusive responsibility of parents to being a shared responsibility with government.

Since the intensive in-home services movement was primarily a technical solution and there were woefully inadequate organizational capacities and technical expertise to effectively deliver the services, numerous and widespread examples of failure followed. Since the movement likewise required massive adaptive change throughout the Children’s Safety Net and since adaptive change was neither understood nor envisioned, there was failure after failure. Children were seriously injured or killed by parents who either did not respond to intensive in-home services or who did not receive any services at all.

Note the accumulating crises in child protection. In the late fifties and early sixties, orphanages and children’s homes were the focus of media attention and public outrage. They were characterized as over-crowded, unsafe places for children, and as a disgrace to everyone. They were arguably no better than the abusive and neglectful homes the children came from and perhaps even worse for many children. A crisis in child protection was at hand.

As discussed earlier, foster care was the next, better solution. Again, the media and the public were outraged to learn that children were being abused and neglected in foster care. What’s more, foster homes were characterized as unfit environments for children, were frequently over-crowded, and were viewed by the public as merely a financial vehicle for unscrupulous people to use children to make a profit at the taxpayers’ expense. There was and continues to be a crisis in foster care and thus a crisis in child protection.

With the advent of reasonable efforts and intensive in-home services came an additional crisis. Children were being left in unsafe homes, were being hurt by their parents, and it was the child protection system’s fault. Conversely, family advocates argued that child protection agencies were far too quick to remove children from their parents and were blatantly disregarding parental rights and family values. Big government, in which the public had marginal confidence anyway, was inappropriately intruding into private matters.

In the late nineties, the fourth major shift in child protection practice emerged. The crisis associated with and prompting this shift was very complex. With the presumed crisis in foster care getting worse and the apparent crisis with in-home services intensifying, the public cost of child protection began escalating sharply. Increasing numbers of children were becoming the responsibility of government and the per-child cost was rising rapidly. A system that already had inadequate operating capacity was being further stretched. Although the reasons for these increases are far too complex to discuss in detail here, causes include:

·       Drug abuse

·       Neighborhood and family violence

·       Structural unemployment and poverty

·       The shift from parental responsibility to government responsibility for the safety and well-being of children

·       The growing belief that government should take responsibility for violent, unruly, and delinquent adolescents when their parents decide they have had enough

·       Adults who are ill-equipped and ill-suited to be parents

The fourth practice shift was unlike those that preceded it. They were, for the most part, linear. Practice shifted from quickly removing abused and neglected children from their parents and placing them in children’s homes, to placing them in foster homes, to emphasizing permanence and adoption. Practice shifted from quickly removing children from their parents, to requiring reasonable efforts with parents to enable their success.

The fourth shift, in sharp contrast to those that preceded it, is not linear. Instead, it is multidimensional. Technical solutions are being pursued in many areas and at multiple levels simultaneously. Highlighting a few of the technical changes included in the shift is instructive.

Concurrent planning is a technical change that combines two prior technical solutions. (See the second addendum to this chapter.) Emphasis on adoption and permanence is combined with intensive in-home services. When a child is abused or neglected by parents, in-home services for the parents are initiated. Since these services may not be successful, planning for the child’s permanence, typically in an adoptive home, is concurrently pursued.

Limits on how long children can remain in foster care were shortened. This expedites permanence and deals indirectly with foster care drift and increasing foster care costs.

Training requirements for protective services workers and foster parents dramatically increased. The expanded training focuses on raising technical expertise, increasing knowledge about specific issues, and the complex difficulties of particular children and families. The belief is that more knowledge and technical expertise will help resolve, if not eliminate, much of the crisis in child protection practice and in foster care.

Managed care became a significant public policy and practice focus. Generally, this technical change moves child protection programs and services from being government-run to being provided by private agencies that contract with the government. This change reflects the public’s view that government agencies and personnel are less efficient and less competent than private sector agencies and personnel. The managed care emphasis also intensified the involvement of members of the Children’s Safety Net beyond the child protection agency. With that came other emerging technologies such as case management and wrap-around services.

The Family to Family Initiative of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, with its philanthropic support, introduced an innovative variation on child protection reform, emphasizing combining technical solutions with a commitment to adaptive change. (The initiative is discussed in detail in a later chapter.) The Family Centered Neighborhood Based (FCNB) initiative seeks to reform the foster care system. Technical aspects include using data to pinpoint where adaptation must occur and strategic planning processes that engage all key stakeholders who must cooperate if successful adaptation is to occur. Adaptive change focuses on neighborhoods that have been generally ignored and judged as unfit areas for foster home development. The neighborhoods and local residents are included based on their strengths and capacities to improve the safety of children instead of focusing on weakness and limitation. Concurrently, child protection practice is transitioning to a more clearly focused community orientation, emphasizing outcomes for children as opposed to bureaucratic processes and procedures.

TOC Next Previous