Help is here for child welfare woes

Children whose lives are touched by the country’s child welfare system have a new protector.

Since September 1999, the Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research (CCPPR) has been working to help such children and the systems that deal with them.

CCPPR is a joint project of Penn’s schools of social work, medicine and law, and involves faculty and students from all three schools as well as professionals from non-governmental and governmental organizations. This interdisciplinary approach sets the center apart from most other children’s rights centers, which are typically based out of law schools. Along with bridging gaps among different corners of the university, CCPPR helps to create ties between the university and the world outside.

According to CCPPR’s guiding minds, the situation demands no less.

“The problems facing America’s children are so complex that useful answers can only be found when people from different fields collaborate and share their insights,” said Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, one of the center’s co-directors and professor at the Law School.
Little over a year into operations, this collaborative recipe has already resulted in a varied and ambitious dossier of projects for CCPPR, ranging from individual cases to changing the system at a local level as well as laws and agencies across the country.

The center’s clinical team performs clinical assessments of children and testifies at legal proceedings such as dispositional hearings where a judge decides whether to place a child in foster care, keep him or her at home, or seek an adoption plan. They also evaluate disturbed and abused children to determine appropriate therapy. Assessments by private psychiatrists can cost a family as much as $8,000; CCPPR’s assessments, performed by a team including medical professionals and social workers, cost much less and occasionally go pro bono when the situation demands.

While participating in case work in Philadelphia’s child welfare system, CCPPR is also laying the groundwork to reform that system and its related agencies.

“We’ve developed good working relationships with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services and the DA’s office,” said Alyssa Burrell Cowan, a 1999 graduate of the School of Social Work’s master’s program and CCPPR’s full-time coordinator. She said families often have concurrent open cases in both of these offices in addition to the juvenile justice system. As a result, Cowan said, “It’s difficult [for one office] to get a whole picture of a family. The information is very fragmented.” CCPPR associates are working to improve communication and information-sharing among these offices.

CCPPR’s contributions to systemic change go beyond Philadelphia. CCPPR teams have acted as consultants for child welfare systems and courts in at least seven states. They have briefed Capitol Hill and testified in state legislatures on legislation that impacts children. And they have filed amicus briefs in court cases including Troxel vs. Granville, a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with visitation rights for people outside a child’s immediate family.

CCPPR’s other co-directors in addition to Woodhouse are Richard Gelles, Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence in the School of Social Work; Carol Wilson Spigner, visiting professor at the School of Social Work; and Annie Steinberg, psychiatrist and pediatrician at the School of Medicine.

The Center hopes to obtain more funding and develop a larger full-time staff. “There are 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect per year in the United States,” said Cowan. “It’s really an overwhelming amount of work to do.”


Originally published on November 30, 2000