Ira Schwartz

With a scathing attack on U.S. child welfare systems, Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work, hopes to improve the public policies that are supposed to protect children.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Ira Schwartz, M.S.W., has a passion for fixing things - especially the lives of children hurt by public policy gone wrong. Shortly after serving as head of the Office of Juvenile Justice under the Carter administration, he was wooed to academia, and founded the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s.

He hopes his new book, "Kids Raised by the Government" (Praeger), written with Gideon Fishman of the University of Haifa, will repair some of the policies which turn children who enter the foster care system into nomads, never to escape to a permanent family life.

The book came out almost simultaneously with Schwartz's reappointment as dean of the School of Social Work last month.

He brings his passion to fix things to academia as well as to public policy. Penn wooed him from the University of Michigan in 1993 to breathe new life into the School of Social Work. Under Schwartz's stewardship, excellent new faculty and a multidisciplinary approach have made the school's graduates sought-after candidates for faculty openings at the country's top social-work schools.

Q. Now that you've been reappointed as dean, will you be headed in any new directions?
There are a couple of things I want to do.
   I want to provide opportunities for master's students so groups of them can in effect be mentored as they move through.
   The other thing is the social work field is turned upside down. Many services are being privatized. So we need to prepare our graduates for a very different environment. They're going to be entrepreneurs whether they like it or not. The days of the low salaries in social work agencies are going to be over. Because people are going to be able to pay quite good salaries if they're able to perform well and deliver high-quality services, and I think that's all overdue.
   And the other thing is take more advantage of how technology can be used. We can, for instance, use [computers] to communicate with children in foster care, every day, and with foster parents, and troubled families, and we can help them literally every day with problems they are confronting, and we can help them with resources. It's not going to substitute for the face-to-face contact, but it could greatly enhance it.

Q. How did your new book, "Kids Raised by the Government," come about?
One of the things that I've done off and on over the past 20 years, I've been an expert witness in class-action lawsuits, generally on the side of the plaintiffs, for children who've been abused and mistreated, mainly in the juvenile justice and the mental health area. I started getting involved in a number of the child welfare lawsuits, and in fact was the lead witness in one of the biggest child welfare lawsuits in the country, against the state of Illinois.
   The more I got into the child welfare field, the worse it looked and what I saw continually was that we were basically substituting parental neglect with governmental neglect.
   The child welfare population was swelling by leaps and bounds, and governors and legislators were throwing all kinds of money at this problem, and it didn't make a damned bit of difference.
   Plus there were some ideas that had no basis in any kind of research that resulted in the kids being left in extremely dangerous situations, resulting in dead babies, and dead babies killed at the hands of parents who were well known to child welfare authorities for serious abuse in the past.
   That's really what motivated me more than anything else.
   The other thing that motivated me was that I got involved in taking an in-depth look at Michigan's child welfare system, and the more we looked at it, the worse it looked. I'll give you just one example. If you were to call your local child welfare agency and say we or I would like to adopt a child, particularly an infant, the first thing you'd be told is, well, there are no infants available, unless you want one that has very severe physical problems. If you want to be on a waiting list for the three, four or five years, we can work it out.
   Well, if you happen to have 20, 30, or 40 thousand dollars, you'll go buy a child from abroad, which increasingly has happened.
   We found there were tens of thousands of infants being propelled into this system and contrary to what people were told, they were not getting adopted out, they were not getting returned to their birth parents, or if they were, it was for a very short period of time because the parents were unable care for them, and they would go back into foster care, so they were essentially growing up being raised by the government.
   And on top of it, they were being bounced around from placement to placement. And by time the child is three, four, five years old, they've had three or four placements, which is devastating for them.
   What we found in Michigan, we thought this must be an anomaly. But when we started to look nationally, we found infants were the largest, fastest growing population coming into the child welfare systems, and it was the same damned story everywhere we went.

Q. Will privatizing improve things?
Most of Philadelphia's child welfare services are contracted out to private non-profit agencies. And there are a few agencies here in town who deliver outstanding child welfare services. There are a number of them whose services are very poor, and in fact not only poor, but have been actually abusive and mistreated kids. This is the kind of thing that needs to be addressed and cleaned out, and a lot of it needs some competition in the child welfare marketplace.
   Now the for-profit involvement could be just as bad. I'm not saying that we will not have the greedmongers in there, which is why I don't want to leave this kind of thing to just the business types. I've talked about this with [Wharton Dean] Tom Gerrity. There are serious issues of ethics and values and quality of services that could easily get sidetracked in the for-profits. We see it in the health care field, and I'm very concerned about it.
   On the other hand, if it's done well, the profit sector can work very well.

Q. Have you seen it work anywhere?
We have one live example in the state of Kansas. What they decided to do there was to contract out the management of their child welfare system to a for-profit health care company. Although there have been some missteps, so far the independent groups that have looked at it have concluded that it's a much more humane system, that services are being delivered much more efficiently, that children are not being bounced around from placement to placement, that there's better recruitment and supervision and support of foster parents, children are quickly adopted, and there's much more attention to stability and permanence.
   The for-profit sector has a lot of good management practices and business practices, advances in the use of technology that could also be extremely helpful to the field.
   We clearly need to break up the monopoly we have. And we need to realize that this system that we have out there is a dinosaur. It's chewing up a lot of kids and families, and it's chewing up an awful lot of money.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999