Safe Families: Unleashing the Power of Community to Care for Children

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GOVERNMENT-RUN FOSTER CARE IS FAILING KIDS

At any given time, an average of nearly 403,000 children are languishing in foster care in the United States. Within the last year alone, the number of children in foster care in the U.S. spiked by more than 14,000 children to a population of 415,129 during FY 2014. These vulnerable children deserve safety, love, stability and the hope of a brighter future. Sadly, state-run child welfare systems are failing to meet this critical mission.

A 2004 lawsuit filed against the Mississippi Department of Children and Family Services, for example, alleged the state was failing to protect children in its care. State social workers were responsible for overseeing the cases of 48 children on average, a level that the state itself classified as “BEYOND DANGER[OUS]!.” In some counties, social workers were expected to oversee more than 100 children.

The state had a backlog of thousands of maltreatment investigations and a dangerously slow response to allegations of abuse, with investigations regularly delayed more than 72 hours and as long as 230 hours in some cases. Worse yet, the number of children suffering maltreatment while in DCFS custody was more than five times the allowable federal standard. In 2008, Mississippi settled the lawsuit and agreed to take remedial actions to fix the system.

But even seven years after the case was settled, the state still had not implemented agreed-upon reforms to improve the child welfare system and protect vulnerable children. In danger of being held in contempt for this failure, the state publicly admitted this past July that it had failed to meet court-ordered requirements in a proposed agreement filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

These problems are not unique to Mississippi. Across the country, child welfare systems are crumbling and kids are falling through the cracks. In Massachusetts, the Department of Children and Families came under intense scrutiny after an investigation into the disappearance and death of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver revealed that the child’s state social worker failed to visit the home for more than seven months, despite the fact that the home was under investigation for allegations of abuse. State and federal data reveal that Massachusetts caseworkers missed nearly one in five mandatory monthly home visits in 2013 and ranked 45th in protecting children from repeated abuse or neglect in the six months after leaving foster care.

The experience in Kansas, while not as high-profile as the previous examples, is in many ways indicative of the struggles experienced by state child welfare agencies across the country. According to data reported by the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the number of children in the state’s foster care system is trending upward. Since 2014, the foster care population in the Sunflower State reached record levels in six separate months, peaking at the current high of 6,522 in July 2015. Reasons for this increase, both in Kansas and across the nation, include family breakdown, increased awareness and reporting of suspected abuse and neglect, and substance abuse issues, among others. Increases in reporting of suspected maltreatment and growing foster care populations mean larger caseloads for state social workers impacting the quality of services and increasing risk to children.

If state policymakers are serious about protecting at-risk children, they must confront the failures of the government-run child welfare system and embrace proven, innovative solutions that reignite the spirit of community.