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The Children's Crusaders, continued...

Every Tuesday morning, in a conference room of the Caster Building, a small group of men and women from across the University sit around a long table, sipping coffee and hashing over cases and policies relating to child welfare. The Children's Group, as they call themselves, is still in an embryonic stage. They've been meeting for a few months now, sometimes joined by interested outsiders, but they're not a bona fide University center -- yet. They have no real funding -- yet. And while some of the members have national and even international reputations in their fields, they're not, as a group, listed on the big Child Welfare card in the national Rolodex. Yet. But don't be surprised if it happens sometime soon. Because all the ingredients are there.
   "There's not a university in the world that is located in the right place, with the right talent base, that exceeds what we have at the University of Pennsylvania," says Gelles, who came to Penn last year after 25 years at Rhode Island largely because of that confluence of talents. It was, he says, "the opportunity of a lifetime."
   "I think the timing for what we're proposing is right," says Dr. Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work and the administrative mover and shaker behind the proposed Center for Child Protection. "We're not having any problems getting interest in this. In fact, some other universities are already aware of the fact that we're moving in this area, and they're wondering what they ought to be doing. But I think we've got a clear strategic advantage."

   "It's a very exciting opportunity to bring together people from different schools across the University who feel deeply -- passionately -- about the recognition of children's rights and the protection of children," says Dr. Annie Steinberg GM'87, a pediatrician, adult and child psychiatrist and forensic psychiatrist who serves as assistant professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and works in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the pediatrics department at the Children's Seashore House of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "We all have our own different roles to play. And Penn could really be a leader in this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration. It really is an opportunity to affect things as diverse as an individual child's life and family all the way to policy."
   Steinberg is one of the five core members of the group, the idea for which grew out of a conversation she had with Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of Penn's Center for Bioethics. In addition to her and Gelles, who is the designated director if and when the group morphs into a center, are Barbara Woodhouse, professor of law; Dr. Wanda Mohr, assistant professor of nursing and course director of psychiatric mental health; and Schwartz, a child-welfare expert himself and co-author of a new book titled Kids Raised by the Government.
   If you had to distill their philosophy down to a single phrase, it would be child-centered. The question "What does the child need?" may sound like a no-brainer -- yet it is too seldom asked, and too often subordinated to questions like "What do the parents want?" and "What does the agency recommend?" The road to Children's Hell is paved with such questions.
   "I think we all agree on the importance of adopting a child-centered perspective on the problems that children face in the child-welfare system or in the legal system," says Woodhouse, who provides a legal foundation for the Children's Group's work in her writings and amicus briefs. "In this past century, our perspective on family law and policy has shifted radically because of a recognition that children are people with rights" and not just objects, she explains. "You don't have to look back very far to a time when children really had no status whatsoever."
   In addition to her courses at the Law School -- which include "Child, Parent, and State" and "The Constitution, the State, and the Family" -- Woodhouse is working on a book for Harvard University Press tentatively titled "Honor Thy Children: Children's Rights and the Transformation of Family Law and Policy." Her 1992 William and Mary Law Review article, "'Who Owns the Child?': Meyer and Pierce and the Child as Property," traces the evolution of that conundrum from Aristotle through two early-20th-century cases in the United States Supreme Court. (For the record, Aristotle believed that a child is "as it were a part of oneself," and since "nobody chooses to injure himself," then there can be no "conduct towards them that is politically just or unjust.") While the Supreme Court cases -- Meyer vs. Nebraska in 1923 and Pierce vs. Society of Sisters in 1925 -- are celebrated for preserving certain educational freedoms for families, they also "constitutionalized a narrow, tradition-bound vision of the child as essentially private property," she wrote. That vision "continues to distort our family law and national family policy, so that we fail as lawmakers to respect children and fail as a nation to recognize and legitimate all American children as our own." But in recent years, she says, the notion of a child-centered perspective has become "increasingly persuasive to the American people."
   Since a lot of issues and individual cases involving the child-welfare system are decided in court, having an experienced legal scholar on board is vital to the group's efforts. It can also be helpful to those in the field.
   "Barbara has popularized, at least for me, the whole notion of child-centeredness," says Frank P. Cervone C'79, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates and a frequent participant in Children's Group discussions. "It sounds like an almost obvious, glib metaphor, but I find it real and helpful. All the time we see a discussion like this: 'The department wants this'; the mother's lawyer says, 'The mother wants this, has a right to do this,' and around and around we go. When we call people to drop their guard and answer the question, 'What does the child need?' without regard to parents' rights or bureaucratic demands, everybody produces a different list of goals. I've seen this hundreds of times. It's remarkable."
   Of equal importance is the expertise on the medical, psychiatric, and nursing sides of campus. Steinberg -- whom Schwartz calls "one of the outstanding children's forensic psychiatrists in the country" -- has done a good deal of work on behalf of abused and neglected children; she also works with children and adults who are deaf or blind, and has been involved with class-action suits on their behalf. Wanda Mohr has done extensive research (along with Dr. John Fantuzzo, the Diana Rausnitz Riklis Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education) on children who have been exposed to domestic and community violence, and on children's rights -- or lack of them -- in mental-health settings.
   The effects of violence on children "is a very, very young field of research," Mohr says. "We've done tons of research on domestic violence that focuses on the woman, but interestingly enough, none on children. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a traumatic experience for a child."
   Beyond the core group are people like Cervone; Dr. Don Schwarz, associate professor of pediatrics, who provides primary care for kids in foster care and has a wealth of experience in guardianship and in ordering health-care services for children with special needs; Lucy Durr Hackney Hon'93, a long-time children's advocate and founder and chair of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (and "one of the wiser heads in this field," according to Schwartz); Dr. Frank Furstenberg, Jr., the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology and co-author of a new book titled Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success; Dr. Rebecca Maynard, Trustee Professor of Education and Social Policy at the Graduate School of Education and an expert in the field of out-of-wedlock births; and Dr. Peter Vaughan, associate dean of the School of Social Work and an authority on children's health-care issues. Schwartz, who hopes to enlist the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Annenberg School for Communication in the center's efforts, also envisions an endowed professorship in "social-welfare entrepreneurship" that would tap the resources of the Wharton School.
   In Steinberg's view, people "would relish the opportunity to say to an interdisciplinary team with a single-minded focus on the best interests of the child: 'Help us. Give us your best recommendations, knowing all that you know about the law, about our culture.' And we're not going to make recommendations that are impossible to implement legally or politically.
   "Judges love information," she adds. "They want to know that people have given a case as much thought as possible, so that by the time it falls in their lap, it's obvious what they need to do."
   Joan Reeves, Commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, hadn't heard of the Children's Group when we contacted her. But she sounded intrigued by the idea. "We don't have a research infrastructure where we can go and say, 'Please look into this issue -- what is the research? What are the indicators for us to make decisions about the safety of children?' We learn from each other, but there's not really been what I would call a laboratory of learning. So hopefully, this group will be able to look at that -- and expand it to include those of us in the field. Because I've been hearing for years that the system is broke. But I've not been hearing how we can fix it."

 

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