Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Business Of Child Welfare

When it comes to issues regarding child welfare, I admit I am a bit of an idealist.

When I first started in child welfare, I was exposed to things I couldn't believe. How could people do such things to other people, much less their own children? When I first started I went through several weeks of classroom training, learning the signs of abuse, learning all of the laws regarding child welfare and learning all the necessary safety measures that are required and how to document them. After that I went through several more weeks of shadowing workers, learning the practical skills that I would need to be an effective worker.

As I progressed through the years, I never lost appreciation of the sense of teamwork that I shared with my coworkers. If someone had an emergency happen late in the day, everyone would chip in with trying to find a new foster home that was available and appropriate, helping in transporting kids, making sure all the documents were done, etc.

I was also aware of the stubborn determinism that I learned from my mentors and my colleagues. Money was always tight, due to the sheer number of children in need of protection and services, and due to the fact that the State was always shorting Milwaukee County in funding. But even though money was tight, and we usually didn't get paid for the extra hours we put in, we had our priorities straight.

That is why I was dismayed, although not surprised, when I saw yesterday's article about the "looming overhaul" of the child welfare system. The article was for the most part a rehash of a previous article, which I have already addressed.

The part that dismayed me the most was the report from Mark Lyday, the director of child advocacy and protection services, Children's Hospital and Health System*:

"Workers appeared to have their priorities confused," Lyday reported.

"It was obvious that in multiple situations the safety of the child(ren) was not a primary concern," he read.

"Issues related to workers' priorities and the lack of primary concern for child safety was extremely troubling," he said.

"The panel had no specific recommendations on this issue other than to strongly urge the BMCW and state leadership to look closely at this issue. Expert consultation may be necessary to change the culture of the agency that permits this lack of primary concern on safety.

"Creating change that will more adequately provide for the protection of children in the future will not be as simple as changing the rules or writing new policy. Evidence points to a problem of a fundamental confusion in the primary purpose of child protection services.

"The agencywide culture will need to change to make the safety and protection of children the clear first priority."

When the Bureau took over ten years ago, they contracted for a program, whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyway, their focus was supposed to be streamlining the system, but as we were learning the new paradigm, we could see that it wasn't going to work. We would express our concerns, and give specific examples where it would fail, but we were rebuffed without a second thought.

As the system was implemented, and the forewarned problems arose, their only answer was to throw more paperwork at it, to the point that it was a purely paper-driven program, or a perfect example of a bureaucracy gone wrong (excuse the redundancy).

I also still have major problems with the thought of putting something like the life of a child against an agency's bottom line. That is just asking for disasters like the death of Christopher Thomas.

Until I hear that the Bureau is going to change to a working paradigm, or they plan on overhauling the current one, I will not share the enthusiasm shown by some, like the editorial board at MJS. But at least they acknowledged that there is some cause for my skepticism.

*It should be noted that CHHS, is the most likely agency to take over for La Causa and already own a major portion of the system now.

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