At the recent NACC Philly Conference, we started the first plenary session with an exercise intended to identify the major challenges facing child welfare. The question presented was: What are the three most critical issues facing child welfare today?” Attendees were sitting around conference tables of about 10 persons. Each of the tables came up with a list and I promised to analyze them and report back. I have summaries from 50 tables: I think you’ll find this information quite interesting.
What’s notable is that most of the top concerns are not law or court related, but go to basic services available to the children and families.
The most often mentioned critical issue was lack of services, cited in one form or another by nearly every table. 15 tables identified lack of services generally. A dearth of mental health services for children and parents was specifically raised by another 12; and recruiting and keeping high quality foster parents and supporting them was mentioned by 14 tables. Lack of prevention services was cited by 11 tables as one of the top three issues. (It seems like we lawyers are eager to work ourselves out of a job? I think that is as it should be – we’ll do a much better job in court on the serious cases that remain if less serious cases are handled, voluntarily, in a public-health-type response outside the court system.)
The next highest ranking concern was the child welfare agency workforce. Twenty-six tables identified, in one form or another, problems with child protective services that they thought were our critical challenges – mostly going to staff turn-over, inexperience, lack of training, inconsistency, and caseloads being too high. Several identified a serious lack of clinical skills and sophistication required to engage this very difficult population. Others cited lack of worker awareness of law and policy. A couple of tables noted that some of the inconsistency of workers stems not from turn-over but from a deliberate structure where parents are assigned different workers or are moved from agency to agency. (I can’t help but observe that back in 1992 the Kellogg Foundation Families for Kids Initiative promoted five key elements of a successful child welfare system. The very first was – ONE caseworker (or caseworker team) to serve the entire family. Kellogg also used the slogan “We Know Better than We Do.” How true.)
Attorneys and challenges facing attorneys ranked third as a critical issue, named by 40% of the tables (20 tables of 50). Concerns included lack of good training, caseloads being too high, low payments that are often paid late, and that it was difficult to recruit and retain good lawyers in the field. Several said existing laws that could benefit children were not enforced. Parent representation was identified as a challenge.
The fourth ranked issue, failure to provide aging out youth with meaningful independence, was specially named by 12 tables, separate from the top ranked concern about services generally.
Apart from these four clusters, the top issues diffused. Those named by three or four tables include: school instability, over-medication, lack of judicial training, lack of resources to address diversity, and the need to improve communication among all disciplines and systems.
A couple of tables named lack of funding for the courts and a general complacency in the court and the agency. That is, failure to see the urgency in these cases. These comments harken back to a “child’s sense of time”? We need to implement the basics. We do indeed “know more than we do”.
What do you think? Any surprises for you? Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.
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Don Duquette is Clinical Professor Emeritus of Law and Founder of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. He is an editor of NACC’s “Red Book,” Child Welfare Law and Practice: Representing Children, Parents, and State Agencies in Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Cases.