Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mary Elizabeth Collins, A.M., Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Social Welfare Policy at the Boston University School of Social Work.
It is a mistake to think that the recent tragic deaths of children under supervision of the Department for Children and Families are unique to Vermont. Sadly, Massachusetts and Connecticut have recently shared this experience and the resulting outrage. Attaining the simultaneous goals of protecting children and supporting families challenges each of our states’ child welfare systems. Indeed, the challenge is also shared internationally with those countries that have developed professional social service systems.
The potential remedies offered are nearly always modest in scope. Many models of the policy-making process identify the necessity of having ready-made solutions in order to gain traction in the policy environment. Reduced caseloads, more training, agency restructuring and outside review may be needed but they are generic, off-the-shelf responses to deeper problems. In reality, the causal link between these actions and better outcomes is tenuous.
On the other hand, the available scientific evidence on the linkage of chronic poverty and child maltreatment is substantial. Serious efforts to reduce the risk of child maltreatment require attention to poverty and its correlates. Thus, a more fundamental reorientation to the work of child protection is needed – one that aims for a commitment to anti-poverty interventions, opportunities for families to gain an economic foothold, and mending of the social safety net.
Nearly all countries of the world are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. has not ratified the UNCRC.
A more fundamental reorientation to the work might include the adoption of a children’s rights framework to guide our policy response. Nearly all countries of the world are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. has not ratified the UNCRC (sharing the company of Somalia and South Sudan on this). How might a children’s rights framework improve a child welfare system? Countries that ratify the convention agree to review, and potentially rewrite, their laws relating to children in areas such as social services, legal, health and educational systems. They commit funding to ensure they are able to take the necessary steps to protect rights (such as rights to safety and education). Fundamentally, children and youth would have an entitlement to the needed services and supports to obtain safety, permanency and well-being – the three outcomes that are currently the focus of U.S. child welfare policy.
Attention to the rights of the child would also move efforts beyond blaming specific policies, such as differential response or family preservation. These policies, in themselves, are neither good nor bad; they are certainly not perfect. They do, however, require attention to implementation and the appropriate resources to be effective.
Although signing an international convention must occur at the federal level, states can be national leaders in adopting rights-based principles at the state level. Undergirding a rights-based approach is a far more robust moral commitment to vulnerable children, youth and families. This commitment is long-standing and sustained, not episodic in response to tragedy. It also recognizes the reality of the multiple, interlocking, and cumulative disadvantages of many DCF-involved families.
Finally, the moral commitment needs to be shared amongst the people of each community, state and the nation as a whole. Child protection is not, at all, solely the responsibility of the state agency. Quality foster and adoptive homes remain sorely needed. This is an area in which individuals can engage with DCF to commit to better protection for children and youth. While DCF is responsible for various case actions, there is much in the larger context – including available science, resources, incentives and political support – that must be shared by political leaders, universities, public and private agencies, faith communities, business and the citizenry in order to move toward effective and sustained change.