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"Our 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.
   

Determination 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 do so.
   
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 three hours."
   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."
   
Managing 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 its components.
   

Confidentiality
   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."
   
Management 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 under litigation."
   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."


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