This article and the study it reports on raise the pithy question “have Child Protective Services outlived their usefulness?”(Salt Lake Tribune, 10/5/10) The lead author of the study answers “no,” but adds that changes need to be made. The editor of the journal in which the study appears, Abraham B. Bergman of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine says “yes.”
Bergman says that CPS agencies were started 40 years ago to address serious physical abuse of children, i.e. “battered” children. Now, he says that most of what CPS investigates is neglect. According to the article, some 75% of all substantiated cases investigated by CPS involved neglect. That being the case, he says, a different approach is needed. Specifically, he thinks that the police should deal with physical abuse of children and public health nurses should address the typical neglect seen by CPS employees.
The issue arose because of a study done by, among others, Dr. Kristine Campbell, a pediatrician at the University of Utah. She and her colleagues studied 595 children with the same primary caregiver at ages four and again at eight. Of those, 164 had referrals to CPS and of those, 74 had allegations of abuse or neglect “substantiated” by CPS workers.
What the researchers found is that those families were no better off after the intervention by CPS than they were before.
The families that were involved with Child Protective Services were no better off in any of those areas, despite the state intervention, and even had a higher risk for family violence and other problems. A CPS investigation was linked to higher levels of poverty, depression in mothers and child behavior problems at age 8, the study found.
Campbell, however, disagrees with Bergman’s assessment that CPS has outlived its usefulness. She
said that while CPS “does a great job,’ the study shows “what we need to do is support that and build more of a safety net around families.’
Meanwhile, advocates for CPS reform embraced the study’s findings.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the study confirms what his organization has argued for years.
“Child Protective Services won”t be effective until it becomes Child Poverty Services,’ he said in an e-mail. “That doesn”t mean you have to eliminate poverty to eliminate child maltreatment — though whoever does the first will come closer than anyone else to doing the second. You can make enormous strides simply by ameliorating the worst effects of poverty.’
But Campbell counters,
“It”s not CPS” job to solve poverty or depression for parents,’ Campbell said. “CPS is taking care of the family in an acute crisis situation. The rest of us need to identify other interventions that may help these families over a longer time frame.’
None of this is likely, the journal acknowledges, because “child neglect is not a popular action item for politicians or the public.’ Also, public health nurses are a “dispirited, vanishing species’ and child welfare agencies have shown little interest in hiring trained social workers.
“This gloomy prognosis notwithstanding, the changed picture of child maltreatment in the United States demands, at the very least, that we begin a wide-ranging discussion and testing of alternative responses,’ wrote Bergman.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said before that CPS is, for many reasons, not up to the job its given. That’s partly because the job it has to do is complex and difficult; it’s also because CPS is underfunded and understaffed; it’s also because staff is poorly trained.
So any change has to involve increased funding to attract better talent and provide better training. Anything else is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
And I’m not enthusiastic about Bergman’s faith in the police. They may be trained in law enforcement, but the idea that every incident of a parent hitting a child should be treated as battery is dangerous at best. Criminal law is a blunt instrument and it was never intended to solve the complex problems of families that may be far better served by parenting courses and guidance in addressing everyday problems. For the most part, putting parents in jail does nothing for them or their children.
And of course, whatever agency ends up dealing with abused and neglected children, its employees need to remember what CPS has been documented to forget – that fathers can be a valuable resource in childcare. As the Urban Institute has shown, CPS workers routinely place children in foster care rather than even attempt to locate fathers whose identity is known to them in some 88% of cases.