Child Welfare Reform: Effecting Real Change -- At Last

The great early twentieth century public health reformer and physician, Sara Josephine Baker, recognized that to enlist a mother's cooperation in trying new child care procedures it was necessary that the mother first be "convinced in her own mind that whatever is proposed will be good for her child."

The failure of America's current child welfare system to grasp this basic concept has led, in part, to its interminable inability to successfully carry out its putative mission.

When caseworkers respond to allegations of parental child maltreatment, their focus usually is limited to those behaviors thought to be directly related to the alleged accusations. Parents then are expected and often mandated to attend counseling, substance abuse treatment, and parent education training. Inherent in these three child welfare mainstays is the presumptive promise of improved conditions and a better life, for both the parents and their children. But for the majority of parents who become involved with America's child welfare system, long-term poverty with its bitter consequences has led them to believe that no such intervention will ever result in any hoped for change.

The many stresses of a constant life in poverty can lead to problematic parent-child interaction or the appearance thereof. For example, parenting, rather than being merely a series of mechanical techniques, necessitates the ability to use empathic understanding of a child's behavior to respond appropriately. The combining factors resulting from a life in poverty can lead parents to experience extraordinary levels of distress that can seriously interfere with empathic responding.

Making matters worse, these families often are judged unfairly by fellow citizens and by school personnel, who mistakenly and quickly attribute negative interpretations to behaviors which middle-class, and less visible, parents would be given a pass on. Some of the same circumstances, which have precluded productive and satisfying involvement with education, work and culture, also have often excluded families' accessibility to helpful parenting techniques.

When these parents contemplate their children's sorry educational and vocational opportunities and the stifling indigence that predictably lies in their future, parent education and counseling seem an absurd distraction. When they look around and wish for the same opportunities as their middle-class brethren -- an education that leads to satisfying work, access to life's daily necessities without constant struggle, and the financial means to partake in an array of cultural activities -- they just don't see how the services mandated by child welfare will ever make that happen.

What they experience instead is intrusion marked by a lack of sensitivity to the extremely difficult and paralyzing conditions they have long been unable to overcome. Additionally, ideas about parenting handed down for generations often conflict with some of the techniques offered in mandated parenting classes.

The many lackluster child welfare reforms that predictably appear, like mushrooms after a rain storm, in the wake of high profile disasters have failed to address these issues. A very different way of working with families is long overdue.

Since maltreatment, alleged and real, is often etiologically entwined with poverty's consequences, problematic parenting behavior must be addressed by helping mothers and fathers also alleviate these conditions. In both concrete and supportive ways, child welfare must help parents begin to build more satisfying lives through education, vocational possibilities and cultural involvement.

Specifically, caseworkers must vigorously and patiently work together with parents to identify vocational, educational and avocational goals and then to locate colleges, occupational training schools, online courses and other appropriate venues. No pre-existing menus will do here. When parents are not already inclined in a certain direction, the caseworker must be equipped to use a large skill and creative repertoire in guiding parents forward. In addition to this required knowledge base, the caseworker will need to provide ongoing support as well as assistance in locating such necessities as child care for when parents are in class or at work.

But the recurring pattern of regurgitated so-called reforms won't achieve this. Additional caseworkers, lower caseloads, updated risk assessments and a slew of newly published policies will not achieve the elusive change which will finally do justice to the term, reform.

Parents need to believe that the worker understands the family's overall situation and is confident in their ability to succeed in building a better life. Workers must demonstrate compassion, patience and caring, and a steadfast resolve to turn these qualities into concrete assistance. Both parents and workers must proceed from the perspective which considers the context and interplay of the numerous factors which together have led to parenting problems. It's shortsighted, it must be emphasized, to ignore these other travails, while simultaneously mandating that parents participate in counseling and parenting classes, as if the impact of the rest of their lives were irrelevant.

It stretches the imagination that anything similar to child welfare's enduring status quo would not evoke public outcry in other fields such as law, business or medicine. Child welfare involve families too and they deserve nothing less than the most competent assistance.

A new and much more extensive preparation and training program for child welfare personnel is integral to the success of this new approach.

Child welfare work must be elevated to parallel other well respected professions. This can start with training which provides a solid foundation in both the academic and unique qualities this work requires. A determined commitment to attract and prepare highly capable and motivated individuals should take the form of a specialized child welfare track as part of university graduate psychology programs. Its focus should be developmental psychology with attention to the ways in which the interplay of many and varied factors and behavioral complexities can result in seemingly similar outcomes. Included should be study of the possible broad impact of impoverishment on family life.

Students should leave this program intent on continuing their independent post-graduation study, something the evolving field of psychology requires.

Psychological training should not imply, however, that most child welfare involved families require treatment. The problems child welfare involved families usually face are largely existential in nature, not pathological. Psychological knowledge will heighten the worker's sensitivity to the intricate, and sometimes subtle, interplay of factors which together constitute behavior. And this also will enhance the worker's ever important ability to empathize.

Equally necessary is preparing a mind-set whose decisions and recommendations stem solely from the best interests of the family. Doubts about job security or other possible repercussions as a result of fear of a bad turn of events should never be a factor in those recommendations. Until now, however, many families have suffered when workers' self-interest has taken precedence over their own.

Caseworkers must become capable of harnessing a substantial store of knowledge to insightfully understand the nature of each individual family's plight. And that should be the starting point. It should never be assumed that even existential issues are present without that first becoming evident through discussion between parents and caseworker.

Addressing court reform in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff writes, "It is all too easy to conjure up supposed flaws in an experiment that has not been tried: But how can a problem as deep-seated as this one ever be solved without some modest attempt at innovation." Wise words, and so very apt to child welfare.

As true reform is implemented and this new child welfare standard increasingly becomes known, not only will highly competent and dedicated people be attracted to this profession, but parents too will come to trust that working in tandem with a caseworker can transform their longtime hope for a more satisfying life into reality.

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