An Exacting Standard:
Other public agencies have safety-related responsibilities to the community. For example, fire departments are expected to investigate reports of fires and provide necessary remedial services. Generally, fire department personnel respond to a fire and do everything they reasonably can to put out the fire. Although they are usually successful, occasionally the fire regenerates and they have to go back to put it out again. If they followed procedures the first time, they are not held responsible for the second fire. Further, if fire department personnel are notified of a potential fire hazard and they take the normal steps to eliminate the hazard, they are not held responsible if there is a subsequent fire at that location. Having followed normal and accepted procedures is an adequate explanation for how the event was handled.
A police department is notified of a domestic violence incident. Officers respond, calm the situation, and arrest the perpetrator. Suppose that this individual is later released from custody and again assaults the same victim. Would it be reasonable to hold the police department responsible for the second assault? No, it would not.
In the child protection arena, however, the community imposes a far more exacting standard. Once the agency becomes aware that a child is being abused or neglected or is, in the opinion of others, at risk of being abused or neglected, that child’s ongoing safety and well-being is viewed as the responsibility of the agency. Should the child be harmed, the agency is, in most communities, held responsible if:
· The agency is notified of suspected abuse or neglect but does not investigate.
· The agency does investigate but does not provide remedial services.
· The agency does provide remedial services but does not remove the child from the parents.
· The agency does remove the child but returns the child to the parents after remedial services are provided.
· The agency places the child with grandparents or other relatives.
· The agency places the child in a foster or adoptive home or in another specialized facility.
What’s more, assigned responsibility continues for an indefinite time after the agency has terminated its involvement with the child and parents. It is a no exceptions, no excuses standard. It is also a standard which most public child protection agencies routinely accept, knowing that they cannot, by themselves, meet the standard. Nonetheless, the narrow perspective discussed earlier is pervasive. The persistent belief is that the agency is exclusively responsible for abused and neglected children. The reality is that it is only one component of the Children’s Safety Net. Unless all components of that safety net function collaboratively, far too many children will not have their needs met, will not have their problems resolved, will not be safe. The public child protection agency cannot do the job by itself.