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Toward An Open Structure Paradigm For Child Protection

Above, I described how the universe of abused and neglected children is limited to only a portion of maltreated children within any particular jurisdiction. Child protection is a closed structure including many maltreated children while excluding most others. This exclusion results from the report pool including only those maltreated children who come to the attention of a reporter and who are then actually reported to the child protection entity serving the jurisdiction. The report pool is further limited by the somewhat arbitrary definitions for abuse and neglect representing a boundary between children included in the report pool and all other maltreated children who are consciously excluded.

Similar closed structures are seen in other areas of child protection practice. For example, consider the children who are judged to be “adoptable.” One might presume any child who has no available relative with whom to live is adoptable simply as a result of his (or her) not having an appropriate, permanent home with a member of his extended family. This is not the case. In particular, older children are likely to be excluded from the adoption pool and assigned to alternative custody arrangements. They are judged to be too old for adoption. These children grow up in foster care or in other impermanent settings. Unfortunately, this outcome is sometimes also seen for younger children.

Children with significant disabilities, behavior issues, developmental deficits, medical problems, and emotional difficulties are also frequently excluded from what we may refer to as the adoption pool. Other children who appear to be in the adoption pool are passively excluded due to the challenges associated with identifying appropriate families who might consider adopting the specific children. Children from minority groups are especially vulnerable to this type of exclusion. The result is an active adoption pool that effectively excludes more children needing permanent homes than it includes.

This traditional closed structure approach to serving maltreated children is present throughout child protection practice. Those maltreated children who come within the scope of child protection as a result of entering the report pool are further reduced through a screening process that reduces their number to those who are determined to be abused or neglected, using the current, fuzzy-edged definitions. Within the remaining group, children are categorized and sub-grouped in ways further restricting the services and opportunities to which they have access. Assuredly, many children fair well within this closed structure approach as they move from compartment to compartment within the overall structure. The dilemma relates to those maltreated children who are actively or passively excluded from the potential benefits of those services and opportunities from which they are excluded.

Traditional legislative and administrative responses to the challenges and negative outcomes for children usually focus on the weaknesses and shortcomings seen in the various elements and processes comprising the structure and sub-structures constituting child protection. Usually this leads to new or modified rules and procedures and often to significant finger pointing. Still, it is rather like trying to improve the functioning of a train. It may be possible to enable the train to run faster or more smoothly. Nonetheless, it is still a train and still must be contained to the track with each car following the one in front of it.

No matter how thoughtful the new rules or how enlightened the new procedures, child protection is a closed structure excluding many if not most maltreated children for reasons unrelated to what we know to be in their best interest, if we were clever enough and creative enough to get it right for each child in need of protective services. Clearly, the need is to transition from the traditional closed structure arrangements to an open structure capable of including all children in need of protective services and likewise capable of delivering the exact services and opportunities needed by each child, one child at a time.

Fortunately, there is some indication child protection is seriously entertaining the idea of open structures and is consciously moving in that direction. This is first appearing in relation to the screening activities mentioned above. There is serious discussion about moving away from classifying children as abused and neglected and simply viewing maltreated children as children in need of protective services. This may help with the fuzzy boundary restricting which maltreated children do and do not get into the report pool. It also may help with opening the fuzzy boundary between abused and neglected children and all other maltreated children discussed above.

Unfortunately, this does not address the fundamentally closed nature of child protection structures. Similarly, the current differential response (alternative response) initiative helps with the boundary issues but does not help much with the closed nature of the general structure. Further, the internal compartmentalization remains unchanged. The conceptual need is to transition the traditional closed structure paradigm to a paradigm whose structure is open, inclusive of all maltreated children, and fully capable of doing the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, for every child, one child at a time, with no child in need of protective services excluded for any reason.

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