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goal is to develop a major program
that would really integrate policy and child-welfare practice,"
says Dr. Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work. That represents
a new approach in this country, where policy and practice have traditionally
been viewed as separate functions, he notes. "We want to try to break
through that old paradigm."
The new paradigm he envisions would be the work of the
proposed Center for Child Protection at Penn. Its ambitious goals, as
laid out in an executive summary prepared by the school, involve nothing
less than the "reform of the current child-welfare system" and
taking a "leadership role in formulating policy and educating involved
parties" about that reform. It will also "reach outside the
University to design and, where appropriate, provide the management leadership
to implement the new model of child protection in selected jurisdictions."
Although the center -- some of whose main players are
now informally calling themselves the Children's Group -- is still in
the proposal stage, some of the "key building blocks" are already
in place. One is Dr. Richard Gelles, the Joanne T. and Raymond B. Welsh
Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, whom Schwartz describes as
"the world's leading authority on domestic violence and one of the
country's outstanding leaders and thinkers on child welfare." Gelles,
who spent six months working for Congress on an American Sociological
Association Congressional Fellowship (during which time he helped write
the Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997), is the center's designated
leader, and is now bringing to-gether the "minimally structured group"
of scholars from across the University -- some of whom already had the
idea to meet anyway.
Exactly who will constitute the center beyond the scholarly
core of Dr. Annie Steinberg (pediatrics and forensic psychiatry), Barbara
Woodhouse (law), Dr. Wanda Mohr (nursing), Schwartz and Gelles (both from
the School of Social Work) is unclear. "But eventually there will
be a core group of people that will then breathe life-by-human-capital
into this center," says Gelles. "And at some point in the next
couple of months, when that happens, then we will be able to go out and
say, 'This is what we have; does someone think it's worthwhile enough
to invest in it, to endow it?'"
Schwartz estimates that the center will require an endowment
of $10 million to fund a staff (including the salaries for a director,
two professional staff, a doctoral student, and a part-time business administrator)
as well as research activities, meetings and workshops, "national
advocacy and clearinghouse activities" and other expenses.
For Gelles, the Franklinesque combination of theory
and practice is vital. "There needs to be a clinic to undergird this
whole system," he says. "I want to be able to answer a question
from a United States senator at the same time I can help the grandmother
in Paoli who calls and says her grandchild is being abused by his father."
While the center's work will touch on many aspects of
the child-welfare system and its attendant issues, it proposes new models
to affect policy and practice in the following areas:
Permanency and Reasonable Effort
Noting that the "single, most pernicious area of
misguided child-welfare policy has involved the issues of permanency and
'reasonable effort'" to preserve families, the proposal states that:
A child should not grow up in the child welfare system waiting endlessly
for his or her parent to overcome deficiencies. The parental rights of
abusive and neglectful parents should be terminated within a definite,
but reasonable, period of time unless they can demonstrate acceptable
performance in the role of parents and insure there will be no further
child maltreatment on their part.
of Abuse or Neglect
The primary mission of the child- welfare system
must be to protect children ... The goal of preserving families must be
secondary to insuring that vulnerable children are protected. Also, only
staff who are appropriately trained to conduct child-abuse investigations
should do so. These skills are not taught in schools of social work and
should not be performed by social workers unless they are equipped to
Gelles argues that it's time to stop having "24-year-old
art-history majors" -- social workers -- responsible for making life-and-death
determinations about custody and the termination of parental rights. In
Schwartz's opinion, police and other trained investigators should be handling
the fact-finding aspects of a case. While the notion of law-enforcement
personnel handling such sensitive cases may give some people the willies,
Schwartz was impressed by what he saw in Manatee County, Fla., where the
Sheriff's Department had taken over child-protective- service investigations
from the child-welfare agencies.
"The people that I met who were trained law-enforcement
personnel were not door-breakers and head-knockers and what have you,"
he says. "They were really very sensitive, understanding, well-trained
people who understood their role -- and the limitations of their role."
Furthermore, they were "responding to every single complaint within
24 hours -- and if a complaint was an emergency, they were out within
Once the facts of a case are determined, he adds, "social
workers, prosecuting attorneys and others should be brought together to
decide what should happen."
the Case Load
Under the current system, the proposal notes, despite
the massive amounts of money spent, "poorly trained staff and misguided
policies and priorities leave most agencies in a constant state of fiscal
and programmatic crisis" -- which in turn leads to "subtle and
not so subtle pressure to limit the admission of cases into treatment,
return children home prematurely, and declare cases closed too soon."
It also leads to the "revolving door" phenomenon, in which children
are constantly being recycled in and out of the system.
The discontinuity of treatment and housing arrangements
should be relieved by: 1) assigning a single case worker to long-term
responsibility for the child, 2) focusing on permanency and thus greatly
shortening the child's overall time in the system, 3) measuring the effectiveness
of treatment and living models by objective and appropriate outcome measures,
not by the speed at which the child passes through the system or any of
While essential client confidentiality must be preserved,
the culture of secrecy as it relates to the operations of public child-welfare
agencies must be abandoned. Child-welfare agencies should, in fact, take
the opposite approach and actively seek outside interest and oversight,
even making the public -- especially members of the community at the grass-roots
level -- part of their decision-making process.
"I think we can let the media in," says
Schwartz. "And I think this sunlight will really improve the system,
and help educate the public about what really is going on."
He also aims to enlist the Annenberg School for Communication
and its Public Policy Center to help communicate the center's work to
the news media, the public and policy leaders "to make sure that
we have an intelligent public debate."
Because, he says matter-of-factly, "there's going
to be a war here" over some of these issues. "And the more the
public knows and understands, I'm betting that they're going to come out
on the right side." Right now, he points out, "the only thing
that you hear about child welfare in the media is when there's a scandal.
We've got to move beyond that to a different level of discussion and dialogue."
and Management Information Systems
Basic management competence ... is essential to this
new model because the new model is designed to identify and solve problems.
Because any administrative system manages best what it can measure, working
information systems with minimal clerical burdens are important. ... Essential
functions should be restructured so they can be performed efficiently
by staff who are appropriately trained and evaluated.
"If you call the Minnesota Department of Natural
Resources and ask what's the size of the deer herd, they'll not only tell
you exactly, they might even tell you how many are in foal," points
out Schwartz. "You call your local child-welfare agency and ask 'How
many kids do you have in foster care?' -- they'll give you an estimate.
And at almost any state child-welfare agency, you're going to get the
same thing. Child-welfare data, information about abused and neglected
children, is absolutely the worst data that we have in any area of children's
services in the country. We're in the information age, and they're operating
literally with 19th-century, early 20th-century tools."
That is where the private sector "has it all over
the public sector," since most public agencies are "more concerned
with data for bean-counting and budgetary purposes than for programmatic
purposes or to help clinicians deliver better services at the face-to-face
direct-service level," he says. "So I think we've got to really
look at what the private sector's doing in the application of technology
-- and either bring it in to the public sector or, as we privatize, make
sure that this is part of the equation." He hopes to enlist the help
of the School of Engineering and Applied Science to "create systems
that can deliver services over the Internet."
The whole notion of privatizing the child-welfare system
is worth a careful look, he adds, and a "lot of governors and mayors
and county executives" are exploring their options. In Kansas, he
says, "so far, the outcomes after a couple of years of privatizing
that system are much better than it was when it was a public system and
On the other hand, he warns, "we have to be careful
that we don't end up with a privatized system that is run by greed-mongers
who are only concerned with profits, and that can become every bit as
abusive as the public system."
Is the country ready for all these changes?
"I don't think the child-welfare establishment
is ready for it," says Schwartz. "But I can tell you that the
policy-makers are -- governors, legislators, and what-have-you. Because
they've thrown billions of dollars at this, with no appreciable difference
in outcome. They know that we need a better mousetrap. So that revolution
is coming, and it's gaining steam."
Back to cover story: The Children's
Crusaders | May/June Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
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