A Broken Social Services System: Making Money Ignoring the Basic Needs of Children ~Amanda Allison, M.Ed.
As a mandated reporter, I have made the tough decision to call our local Department of Children and Families several times. It is not always easy to decide that a child needs social services to step in and possibly remove a child from a home. When I do make the call, it is legitimate and the situation is dire. During this unprecedented time of COVID 19, it is clear that schools can no longer be the band-aid to the gaping wound of the social services system in America. Accountability is an essential factor in fixing a system that seems, for mandated reporters and those in law enforcement, loosely regulated. On any given day, teachers are faced with students who are in great need of support. The news is riddled with reports of children who were overlooked by the social services system and paid the ultimate price falling through the cracks in the present social service system. Now, more than ever, as schools may be forced into remote learning yet again, we cannot allow our most vulnerable members of society to be in danger. Now is the time for reform. Now is the time to fund, fix, and fasten the holes within the social service system.
Arriving at school hungry, dirty, and exhausted:
Susie arrived on the first day of school timid. She had difficulty attaining instruction and couldn’t seem to make friends. Susie smelled. Other students did not want to sit next to her. Her dull hair was unkempt, her clothes were filthy and too small for her growing body, her teeth were peppered with silver caps - likely from extensive baby bottle tooth decay - and she looked pale and exhausted. She frequently soiled herself during the day well into the 3rd grade. She had curious bruises on her arms and legs. When calling home to talk about missing assignments, lack of a healthy snack, and other concerns, the television blared, and the noise was mingled with shouting, swearing, and questions from others in the background. An unsuccessful call to elicit help and support from parents who were unable or unwilling to do so. The call to social services is made.
Frustrated with Susie’s home situation, many educators have made similar calls to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). We hope that perhaps with multiple calls, social services would finally intervene. Nothing. About 5 months later, a form letter arrives stating that this child’s situation did not warrant further investigation. So there it was...a child in need, clearly suffering from neglect and possible abuse, continuing to survive in a situation unsuitable for a child to live in. The school staff did as much as possible to serve her and attend to her needs. At the close of the day, she was returned to a toxic environment to struggle through another evening.
Bad Parenting vs. Abuse and Neglect: YOU decide.
I acutely recall reporting to a social worker about the well-being of a student who fell into a similar situation as Susie. Several staff members made previous calls to DCF regarding the welfare of this student. When he threw up dog food in the middle of math class I knew there was an issue and immediately dialed DCF. After giving my extensive list of concerns regarding neglect, the representative on the other end asked me, point-blank, if I thought this was truly neglect or just bad parenting? Shocked, I paused and then asked him, aren’t they one and the same? He chuckled and said, “No.” So, how was I to determine the difference and decide, based on this jargon, this child’s fate? Angered, I curtly replied that this child suffered from neglect. The representative thanked me for my call and assured me he would be in touch. And he was...4 months later. I received yet another form letter stating that this situation, again, did not meet the level of concern necessary to investigate.
Children who fall through a broken system and die:
I have heard from even police officers, “A child needs to be on the brink of death before social services will get involved.” In a recent case reported by Bill Grimm,
“The death of 8-year-old Raijon Daniels last October was front-page news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the next few days, headlines drew repeated attention to his death: “Dead Boy, 8, Was Abused, Police Say”1; “Mom Held on Suspicion of Torturing, Killing 8-Year-Old Son”2; “No One Took Notice of Boy’s Life of Torture Until It Was Too Late.”
The chilling outcome. “News reports indicated that when police responded to the mother’s 911 call that her son had stopped breathing, they discovered that the family’s Richmond apartment reeked of household cleaner. Duct tape on the sheets and blanket in Raijon’s bedroom and rope marks on his hands suggested that he was held hostage, bound and locked in his room. His mother told police that she poured household cleaner on his genitals to discourage him from urinating on himself.
The coroner concluded that Raijon’s death was a homicide, the result of years of physical trauma. Raijon’s body was covered with burns, scars, and bruises consistent with cord or strap injuries. Blood tests revealed dangerously high levels of acids, which the coroner believed was the result of starvation.”
The press release: “Media interviews with police, neighbors, and relatives revealed that there had been prior concerns about Raijon’s safety, and police had voiced their concerns to the county’s child protective services agency several times since May 2005. In fact, the agency had received a total of six referrals about Raijon in the years leading up to his death. An agency spokeswoman, however, refused to comment to reporters citing confidentiality laws.” Confidentiality rights should be waived when considering the welfare of a child in crisis. If one is highly suspected of abuse, we need to deal with the issue and not allow the rights of caregivers and other protections to trump the needs of a child.
Further, “The agency did, however, pledge ‘a thorough investigation’ and the state’s Department of Social Services promised to “review this case.’” This language by the agency seems more of an attempt to protect themselves when the agency should have protected Raijon. No more hiding. No more excuses given to social services. Review the case. 6 people made calls! Clearly, this child was overlooked and dismissed. At what point, will we hold social services accountable for NOT intervening!
A Broken System:
The social services system is in dire need of tighter and more stringent regulations and oversight. According to Childwelfare.gov, “Many researchers and practitioners believe that child fatality due to abuse and neglect are underreported (Schnitzer, Gulino, & Yuan, 2013). The following issues affect the accuracy and consistency of child fatality data:
Variation among reporting requirements and definitions of child abuse and neglect and other terms
Variation in death investigation systems and training Variation in State child fatality review and reporting processes
The length of time (up to a year in some cases) it may take to establish abuse or neglect as the cause of death
Inaccurate determination of the manner and cause of death, which results in the miscoding of death certificates and includes deaths labeled as accidents, sudden infant death syndrome, or undetermined that would have been attributed to abuse or neglect if more comprehensive investigations had been conducted
Limited coding options for child deaths, especially those due to neglect or negligence, when using the International Classification of Diseases to code death certificates
The ease with which the circumstances surrounding many child maltreatment deaths can be concealed or rendered unclear
Lack of coordination or cooperation among different agencies and jurisdictions”
The list of cracks in this broken system goes on and on. Government officials need to address these areas of concern swiftly and appropriately to protect the lives of our most vulnerable. Mandated reporters can go to jail for NOT reporting, why aren’t social services agents held accountable and jailed for NOT intervening?
Lack of Money, Time, and Manpower: The usual excuses.
The typical excuses are that the social services system is overloaded with cases in which there is not enough time, money, or manpower to address the needs of children. This needs to be remediated. According to Alan Judd, “Since 2008, officials have issued 1,107 citations to 300 of the 336 private agencies. Most cases involved multiple violations of foster care rules. But the state-imposed fines or other penalties — what it calls “adverse actions” — in just 83, or 7 percent, of those citations. The median fine: $500.” He continues, “Of the 336 private foster care agencies, 100 receive direct state funding; last year’s total exceeded $55 million. Even among those agencies, violations are common. In the past two years, the state has cited 91 of the 100 agencies — while continuing to pay them for housing foster children.” Clearly, there is plenty of money poured into a system without proper accountability.
Fixing the Brakes within the System:
There are some avenues that state and federal agencies can explore to refine the social services system and increase accountability. Some options for establishing a system of professional conduct include:
-Swiftly, within 12-24 hours, investigate cases, interview at length, and determine immediately which cases warrant arrests and take children into custody from cases in need of remediation. Determine early which cases are unwarranted. No more waiting months to find out if a child’s concerns meet the standard for intervention. Intervene immediately or social workers suffer consequences for not - including revocation of licenses and jail time.
-Incentivizing social services jobs for college graduates. Offer higher pay for more highly educated, properly trained, and certified staff and practitioners. Market social work as a more rewarding career not only in higher education, higher pay but in the integrity and character for those seeking a career in the social services field - thus renewing the confidence of all stakeholders in the social services system. Just as doctors have monetary incentives and prestigious accolades, the same should be garnered for joining the social services field.
-Reduce the number of caseloads per social service professional, so more time and resources can be appropriated to families within the manageable caseload. Hire more professional staff to carry the burden.
-Recruit highly educated families who pass not only background checks, but also routine welfare checks to be sure children are placed in loving, educated, and committed homes. No “easy money” for lower-income families to “cash in” on a broken system by taking in foster children when they are not much more qualified than the very parents the child was removed from. Offer more pay and opportunities for higher-income families to care for foster children and hold them accountable.
-The lack of high-quality foster homes warrants state and federal funding of group homes. These group homes would be staffed with high-quality social workers who are educated, pass background checks, and be under a surveillance and accountability protocol to ensure safe practices.
-Employ educated and certified behavioral interventionists, counselors, teachers and caregivers working together in a system of checks and accountability to reduce the possibility of any further abuse or neglect within the group home. These homes should provide the highest quality, care, and will be structured with a clear system of accountability for all staff who are employed. Swift, 24-hour investigation and punishment for those who violate the system of accountability.
- Federal and state support and demands for higher pay and higher education with a comprehensive approach. This approach would heavily involve local authorities, social workers, counselors, educators, and other professional staff working cohesively to ensure optimal service and care for children in group homes. If even one social worker is deemed incompetent, neglectful, or in any way abusive to children in the home, immediate action is taken and jail time mandated.
-Swift trial and punishment for caregivers who subject children to abuse and neglect. Perhaps this occurs within the paradigm of social services in which attorneys and judges focus solely in the arena of social services.
-Incentivize a task force of social services law enforcement officers who specifically focus on and specialize in the investigation and detainment of parents and caregivers suspected of abuse and neglect. Again, an area of study and practice solely in the arena of social services.
-Establish a protocol of many members and facets of accountability. The more money and certification for employees, the more accountability. A highly regulated system of reporting, investigating and intervention is of the highest priority in resolving loopholes in communication and documentation that have cost the well-being and lives of American children each year.
- Educate the whole child in mind, body, and spirit to help each child overcome trauma and learn healthy behaviors and habits of mind. This comprehensive wellness approach will be employed in an effort to decrease the odds that the child will go on to perpetuate the abuse he or she once suffered.
- Offer nutritional education, life skills, prayer/meditation practices, community service and leadership opportunities, physical activities in nature, and perhaps church services on top of rigorous education to ensure the whole child is educated and thriving. Modeling a functional and thriving family environment within these group homes to show children appropriate interactions between caregivers and children.
-Support systems remain in place after the child turns 18 to promote higher education and career goals to ensure lifelong bonds and relationships well into early adulthood. Services should not cease once the child turns 18.
-Frontload the social services system with exceptional group home opportunities and services and appropriate the necessary funds to later reduce the number of children who would one day be incarcerated.
Helping Children Should be the Highest Priority:
The removal of unnecessary red tape protocols that protect social workers and parents over the needs of the children needs to end now. We need to overhaul a system that is failing our children. Parents need to be held accountable. Social service agents need to be held to a higher standard of accountability and immediate reforms need to occur. If we do not fix this system now, even more children will fall through the cracks and die during remote learning in homes that were suspected of abuse and neglect but dismissed in the process and paperwork trail. Act now. Protect children now.