System in shambles?

In 2004, about half a million children in the U.S. were living in court-mandated foster care. Was that in the children’s best interests or does this startling figure represent widespread intrusions into privacy and family rights?

This question and more were posed at a Jan. 31 breakfast symposium, sponsored by Penn’s Field Center of Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, that featured a spirited debate between two heavyweights in the field: Richard Gelles, dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice and an internationally recognized expert in child abuse, and Martin Guggenheim, NYU Law professor and author of “What’s Wrong With Children’s Rights?”

“You can intervene only when there is a compelling state interest,” began Guggenheim, adding that, by law, interventions must not be disruptive. They are necessary if there is “reason to believe children would suffer a serious risk of harm, but for the intervention.”

Gelles countered that the state seems to take a light hand when removing children from families, as children are actually removed in only 10 percent of cases out of the 5 million annual reports to child welfare. In the legal system, he continued, parents’ rights are weighed heavily, while the rights of children are weighed lightly. One flaw in this welfare system, he said, is it is unclear if “social workers are to provide services to families or to provide a safety net for kids. There is no other child protection system.”

Guggenheim argued that child poverty and inadequate health care—both of which can be barriers to raising children well—are greater societal problems. “We pretend the gravest problem to children is their parents’ dangerousness,” he said, calling the child safety issue a “modest” public health crisis. “This is about the social control of poor people.”

Gelles agreed that services to poor families are inadequate, adding that the government appears to give services to families and parents only when they misstep. “Child abuse is a means test by which people get services.” Guggenheim concurred: “We know what families need and desire is kind and gentle attention, but we refuse to create a system where you can get that.” Instead, added the NYU prof, this country has some of the highest levels of child poverty and infant mortality in comparable nations.

In defense of the child protective services system, Gelles pointed out, “We have underestimated how troubled a small number of families are. …Like it or not, there are some pretty dysfunctional families.” The solution to holes in the system, he said, is to set up triages at hotlines or helplines where families in the greatest need are immediately connected with appropriate services. Also, child services should only be responsible for supporting families—not policing them, too.

Policymakers and child welfare professionals need to help people do better, said Guggenheim. “The thing we’ve built is like a Hollywood set. We’ve got a sham system. What we’re not doing is meaningfully helping families. We aren’t offering real help and of course parents fail along the path.”

For more information on the Field Center, go to www.sp2.upenn.edu/fieldctr/

Originally published on February 15, 2007