Midlands Voices: Save child-welfare ship from sinking
By The Rev. Val J. Peter
The writer, of Omaha, is executive director emeritus of Boys Town.
On March 12, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform released a scathing report of some 50 pages on Nebraska’s handling of child welfare. Good for them.
Richard Wexler, the coalition’s executive director, held a press conference that day in Lincoln. Much of it was right on. The report says it is a mistake to look at privatization as the answer and compared it to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What needs doing is saving the ship — a system to emphasize “safe proven programs to keep families together and due process protections for families.”
Bravo! The Wexler report rightly says Nebraska needs to make it “harder to get in.” Right on, but Nebraska also needs to make it “easier to get out.” So Wexler and Co. are getting close, but they don’t win a cigar.
The phrases “harder” and “easier” are empirical generalizations. They mean, generally speaking, you get better results this way. But expect exceptions — for example, safe-haven kids.
What does “harder to get in” mean? The Nebraska law says you need a “reasonable cause to believe a child has or soon will be subject to abuse and neglect.”
“Reasonable cause” is a legal concept that’s often misunderstood or misused. It is not a hunch, a guess, a feeling, a fear. That makes it too easy to get in. You need an objective criterion. You need to try to help families stay together, not fall apart.
I have personally heard too many who report families to Child Protective Services to “protect” themselves, to cover their own behinds. That is not a reasonable cause.
If you see a mom holler at her child in the checkout line for grabbing a candy bar and pushing his sister hard, that is not a reasonable cause. Neither is, “we all know she comes from a family of abusers, so . .” You need to make it harder to get in.
In Nebraska, we have too many calls to CPS or hotlines that are anonymous (not worth much), mean (former boyfriend is getting even), nasty (I’ll punish her) or confused between suspicion and reasonable cause or just plain covering their behinds — couched as these calls are in serious, responsible words.
Here, also, too many calls are passed on for something or another, the system is overloaded and real abuse cases are sometimes slopped over. Wexler’s report recommends a “protocol of questions.” Good idea. That will reduce some but not all problems. These workers need to be trained with better skill sets than ordinary folks.
Similarly, once a decision is made to send someone out to investigate, the law enforcement officers need similar but different training. They need to have a practical understanding of poverty and routine lack of housekeeping. That is not abuse and neglect. The presumption is the child will stay at home unless it is made harder to get in.
Finally, the Wexler report looks at system outcomes. That’s well and good. But what about individual outcomes? Make it easier to get out. A system outcome is when every senior (in out-of-home care) has a post-graduation plan. An individual outcome is whether the plan for this grad is any good for him or her.
Wexler’s system outcomes need to yield to individual outcomes. A system outcome is to reduce the number of kids paid for by the state. An individual outcome is to ask each kid, which is better for you and your family?
The answers are often surprising: Here is a boy who intentionally provoked his father to regular beatings. He then provokes a succession of foster parents. Mysteriously, he wishes to return home, but rights were terminated. That’s not uncommon. Make it easier to get out.
The best prevention program is for Nebraska to follow other states and slow down overly hasty unions and overly hasty divorces. Healthy children and families need fewer government interventions.
Many do not like foster care. I understand why. Read, for example, “The Lost Children of Wilder” by Nina Bernstein. Another good source is the February 2012 Minnesota report, “Child Protection Screening.” Boys Town has a solid foster care program.
The report generally did a good job. Listen to State Sens. Colby Coash and Brenda Council. Thank you.