March 19th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The State of Nebraska takes children into foster care at over twice the national average, a new report shows. Read about it here (Omaha World Herald, 3/12/12).
According to the report, Nebraska took away children at a rate of 7.5 removals per thousand children in 2010. The national average was 3.4.
The report is by Richard Wexler who, for my money, is the foremost national authority on state child welfare systems. Wexler consistently proves himself to be more knowledgeable and sensible about matters related to child welfare agencies, the laws they function under and what’s best-calculated to serve the well-being of children than anyone else I know of. Generally speaking, Wexler understands the value of keeping families together where possible. He consistently promotes the logical way to reform child welfare agencies by taking resources currently thrown at foster care and directing them toward parental education and training.
It’s worth remembering, that of all the things we teach children, how to be a parent usually isn’t one of them. The guy fixing the leak under your sink is better trained for his job than most parents are for theirs. That’s not to say he necessarily does a better job; most parents are very good at raising their children for the simple reason that parental love is one of the most powerful motivators on earth.
But there are about 900,000 children who are abused and/or neglected in this country each year. Those are the ones we know about, who get reported to child welfare agencies who in turn report them to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Doubtless there are many more who don’t get reported.
So clearly, powerful as parental love is, alone it’s not enough to keep children safe. But a lot of those children have parents who aren’t bad people, but who simply need help in understanding how best to deal with a thorny parenting problem. That might mean training to deal with a special needs child or it might mean educating them about resources available to help with parenting. Does the child spend too much time alone at home while Mom and Dad are working? Maybe there’s an after-school program available that Mom and Dad don’t know about.
Abused or neglected children often don’t need to be taken from their parents and placed in foster care, but that’s what happens because too often it’s the only alternative available to child welfare caseworkers.
Wexler rightly points out that numerous studies show that children tend to do better in parental care than they do with foster parents. At least one such study compares children in foster care with those of mildly abusive or neglectful parents and finds that, even then, children in parental care tend to do better.
Wexler said the removal rates do not translate into better protection for Nebraska children.
He cited studies showing that maltreated children do better with their families than in foster care and that former foster children have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in small doses,” he said.
Nebraska makes the trauma worse by putting more children than the national average in institutions and fewer in foster placement with relatives and friends, he said.
Apparently states are able to seek a waiver from federal foster care funding regulations that would allow them to direct at least some of Washington’s money toward in-home services and away from foster care. There’s a bill pending before the Nebraska legislature that would require the state to do just that.
Wexler praised pending legislation that would require state officials to seek a waiver allowing federal foster care funds to be used for more in-home services.
Nebraska would redirect up to $19 million from foster care into less costly, more effective services under such a waiver, he said.
Stories about injury or death to a child are about as powerful as they come. Often they’re used by the news media to promote ever-greater rates of taking children from parents. Doubtless, some parents are simply unqualified for the job and their children need to be elsewhere. But in the majority of cases, services for the parents lead to better, less traumatic lives for children than does separating from their parents and siblings and placing them with strangers.
Periodically, state legislatures suffer spasms of guilt over widely publicized cases of child injury. That often leads, as it has recently in Arizona, to calls for more taking of children into foster care. Put simply, that’s the wrong direction in which to go. Richard Wexler is one of the lonely voices calling for states to heed social science and do what they can to keep families together. It’s cheaper in the long run and better for children. What’s not to like?