Is the Child Welfare System Beyond Repair?


NEW:  31 January 2015

The child welfare system in many first-world nations is stuffed: that’s the verdict of many of its sternest critics. Forget about tinkering around the edges of the system, they say. It would be far better to start again from scratch.

In Australia, life in residential ‘care’ remains as degrading and brutish as it was 100 years ago. In 2010, the Ombudsman in Victoria documented many alarming instances of criminal mistreatment of children currently in ‘care’.

Not only are children being placed with adults who have then engaged them in prostitution and other sexual acts. They are also subjected to monstrous violence – some had limbs broken and others had been knocked unconscious by residential ‘carers’. Some residents reported their ‘carers’ selling drugs to other children.  Read more.

In England, the UK Care Leavers Association says it hears the same stories over and over again from Care Leavers of all ages – and it has been ever so, down the ages:

  • a lack of stability in placements;
  • a lack of love and personal care;
  • an underdeveloped identity; and
  • a lack of support networks.

National director of the Association, David Graham, told the public accounts committee as part of their children in care inquiry:

“These personal experiences are mirrored by continued deficits, measured by outcomes on educational attainment, employment and health.”

In other words, the system is fatally flawed.  Read more.

In the US, the scandalous abuse of wards in residential care has once again created moral panic. The Tribune-Medill investigation led to the publication in the Chicago Tribune over the past two months of a series of more than 20 articles, three graphic essays, a comprehensive photo gallery, six graphics and four videos.

What they reveal is a national disgrace. For example, the investigation found a total of 5,500 police reports of run-aways or missing children from 130 facilities in 11 US States. Some of the absconders lasted only hours before they were caught and returned to the hellholes they were running away from. But many absconders were absent for weeks, or never found.

And plenty ran headfirst into life-changing tragedy – some were raped; others were recruited into violent gangs; some got started on a life of crime: they stole cars, broke into homes, got into drugs and/or prostitution as they struggled to survive on the streets with no money and few skills.  Read more.

What are they running away from?

One commentator put it this way: most wards are in residential care because they are emotionally burned out from multiple placements. They suffer from

  • attachment disorders;
  • depression;
  • feelings of self-abasement
  • a lack of education (multiple foster placements means multiple schools); and
  • anger — “lots of anger”.

Many who were placed in protective custody because of abuse and neglect at home flee the violence and abusiveness of the facilities.

One resident summed it up in a telling sentence: “They take us out of a bad situation and put us into an even worse situation.” He could have been speaking in any of a number of countries.

Many incarcerated young people are desperately trying to reconnect with their families, even if they were abused by someone in that family. They want to return to their communities, even if those were unsafe.

 Many simply reject the regimented, institutionalized life thrust upon them. They can see nothing to keep them there and have no hope for the future.

 Anglicare Australia (2014) interviewed young people moving out of ‘care’ and into independent living. Now aged 17 to 21, they were asked to reflect on their transition to independence. They talked about what they were up against.

  • You are disconnected from your family.
  • People stigmatise you and treat you as different.
  • They don’t expect us to finish school or go to university.
  • You can’t just be normal in ‘care’…So you don’t bother.
  • You learn not to get your hopes up.  Read more.

It strikes me that the sentiments of these young people in 2014 could have been written 20, 30, 50 years ago. I could have written them 60 years ago when I was in their position.

We keep on making the same mistakes. A damaged child turns into a damaged adult. Not only does the shocking treatment of kids in care have enduring negative effects on them into people for the rest of their adult life, society pays the greater cost of these consequences for decades to come.

The sheer weight of the disturbing evidence raises the question of why authorities can keep on getting it so wrong for so long.

In Australia, a Royal Commission has been alerted to 83 previous inquiries – an inquiry in Australia every second year in the 160 years since the 1850s. And almost nothing has been done to implement the many recommendations that these expert inquiries have put forward.  Read more.

Now the Commission has commissioned research into why these recommendations have not been implemented. Will an inquiry in the future ask the very same question?

Why is it going so wrong?

According to one writer in the Chicago Tribune series, the disgraceful situation continues not because of the bad faith of welfare managers or because of the incompetence of social workers. It continues because the entire child-welfare system was set up a century ago on a premise that no longer exists.

And he should know: Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick Murphy served as Cook County public guardian from 1978 to 2004. Not only that, but both his parents went through the child welfare system.  Read more.

The simplest way to improve residential care, Judge Murphy argues, is to limit the number of children placed there. That means limiting the movement that causes so much emotional distress for out-of-home children.

I paraphrase his recommendations:

  • Carefully match each child with the best available foster home. Work with each child to explain what is going on and what will go on in the future.
  • Limit the number of foster care agencies and make sure they are top quality. Give all foster parents much more intensive training and supervision than they now get.
  • Any time a child is moved, require the case be taken back to court for a hearing on why the move is necessary. This would force everybody to take a look at the child and what is going on in his life.
  • Make much better use of relatives who, in many cases, are the best people to provide care. They should receive financial assistance and other services to help with the child.
  • Make an all-out effort to get fathers involved. Dads, particularly of poor children, get a bad rap that frequently is not warranted.

Yet, isn’t there an elephant in the room?  The impact of extreme poverty on the child welfare system

Judge Murphy rightly points out that the overwhelming majority of children who have been abused and neglected have parents who from birth have led bleak lives without education, without a future. It’s intergenerational: those parents’ parents have led equally bleak lives. 

“If we really want to do something about the child welfare system, we must do something about the extreme poverty strangling our inner cities.”

Yet everywhere we look in cities in Australia, the UK, and USA, poverty is an intractable problem – and getting worse. Politicians rationalise their inaction with shallow platitudes about “leaners and lifters” and the undeserving poor – while cutting so-called “flab” from welfare systems and services to poor families.

What’s to be done? Comments very welcome.

2 thoughts on “Is the Child Welfare System Beyond Repair?”

  1. Frank, you are so right. There is so much evidence to show that children who have had the opportunity to form strong bonds with their primary caregiver early in their lives are better set up to cope with whatever life may throw at them, and to form new bonds with positive people down the track. Resourcing struggling parents and kinship networks is the only possible way to help kids towards a better future, yet early intervention strategies are always the first to be defunded, and it’s all too easy for governments to demonise the poor. Sadly, we seem to be going backwards in this area, despite the good work of advocates like yourself, and the lessons of history.

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