September 26, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
In the U.S. we have been fighting with child welfare agencies for years to get them to act competently and openly to protect children. It’s a losing battle for many different reasons. Scandalously bad funding for those agencies is one of the major ones. Too little money means too-low pay for too few caseworkers with too-high caseloads. From that comes the inability to address real child abuse or neglect, so of course, children are injured or even killed.
But insufficient funding isn’t the only problem. We have a system that financially rewards agencies for taking children from their parents and channeling them into foster care and then adoption. We have a cult of secrecy in which CPS employees work out of sight of the public and legislative overseers. Whenever that veil is pulled aside, we are routinely shocked and outraged at what we find, but, because it’s legally difficult to get a look at the doings behind the veil, that happens all too seldom.
Then of course there’s the fact that we task too many people with reporting suspected abuse and threaten them with severe punishments if they fail. The unsurprising result is that child welfare authorities are deluged with complaints of suspected abuse or neglect, a whopping 80% of which turn out to be baseless. But all those reports require the attention of agency personnel. Even reports that obviously need no investigation still must be answered and the determination made as to what needs to be done. Others require investigation only to learn that the complaint lacks merit.
Further, CPS’s antipathy for fathers and its unwillingness to seek them out as possible placements for abused or neglected kids is not only morally wrong and a violation of federal law, it further strains a foster care system that, in most states, is already insufficient to meet the needs of kids.
Finally, caseworkers often overreact to less serious cases while ignoring those in which children are truly in danger. Again, we read about both types of cases all too often.
Now in Great Britain, we have this (The Guardian, 9/20/16).
The family court service in England and Wales is facing a “clear and imminent crisis” because of a sustained increase in the number of child care cases, its most senior judge has said…
“The fact is that we are approaching a crisis for which we are ill-prepared and where there is no clear strategy to manage the crisis. What is to be done?” [Sir James Munby] asked.
The number of care cases being dealt with by the family courts in England and Wales has risen from an average of about 6,500 a year before 2009 to about 15,000 this year.
“If… the current rate of increase of [around] 20% were to continue for the next three years, by 2019-20 the figure would have climbed to over 25,000,” Munby said. “In the meantime – today – we face a clear and imminent crisis. What steps can be taken now?”
As in the U.S., funding is a big part of the problem.
Responding to the judges’s concerns, Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “The number of children on child protection plans has increased by over 60% [since 2007], and these latest figures highlight the huge rise in care applications.
“But local authorities have faced significant funding cuts over this same period, and with such a big rise in demand for services, it’s vital that local authorities have the resources they need to keep children and young people safe.
“Councils are forced to make difficult choices when deciding how to allocate their increasingly scarce resources, and a 55% cut in early intervention funding since 2010/11 has made it difficult to deal with problems earlier while continuing to provide essential help and support to children at immediate risk of harm.”
Yes, drastic cuts in funding for those charged with preventing child abuse and neglect certainly make that vital job much harder than it needs to be. So, again as in the U.S., one obvious thing to do would be to provide proper resources to child welfare agencies. I don’t mean to state the obvious, but sometimes it’s necessary.
But lack of money doesn’t explain why the number of reported cases of child abuse has spiked. It only explains the inability of councils to deal with them properly.
Munby said the reasons for the increase were not entirely clear. “There are, in principle, three possible causes for the increase: (1) that the amount of child abuse/neglect is increasing; (2) that local authorities are becoming more adept at identifying child abuse/neglect and taking action to deal with it; (3) that local authorities are setting more demanding standards – in other words, lowering the threshold for intervention.
“I do not believe that child abuse/neglect is rising by 14%, let alone 20% a year. So this cannot be the sole explanation. It follows that changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role.”
Stated another way, for whatever reason, local councils are calling more cases ‘abuse’ or ‘neglect’ than before. The number of reports may not have risen drastically, but caseworkers are labeling more of them as requiring agency action. Munby might want to look into why that’s happening. If it were here, we’d know to a virtual certainty that the lure of federal money for taking kids into care was a factor, perhaps the only one.
Is something similar happening in the U.K.? Is there a new incentive for caseworkers to tag cases as involving abuse or neglect? Certainly we often hear parents complaining about care agencies running roughshod over their rights in order to take their kids into care. Whatever the case, Munby needs to figure out what’s causing the crisis and deal with it soon. But this is almost certainly the wrong answer:
If the system is not to “buckle under the pressure of ever-increasing caseloads”, there must be some improvements, streamlining and speeding up of court procedures.
As a practical matter, “streamlining and speeding up of court procedures” means giving shorter and shorter shrift to the rights of parents and kids. Inevitably, any such change will be detrimental to the very people child welfare authorities should most concentrate on helping.
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