The Liberal Dilemma in Child Welfare Reform

I’ve always considered myself to be a liberal, and a left-leaning one at that. As a liberal, I believe that government has the ability and the obligation to protect all of its citizens from suffering.

I believe this obligation is particularly strong when it comes to children, both because they are not able to protect themselves and because their suffering may compromise their physical, emotional and intellectual development.

But even before entering the field of child welfare, I had an inkling that the dominant voices in child welfare reform, though liberal, did not agree with me in prioritizing the protection of children. I learned that some of the most prominent child advocacy organizations actually place a higher priority on keeping families together than on ending the suffering of maltreated children.

I’ve puzzled over this seeming paradox for a long time. Now, a recent issue of the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal has helped me understand it. In March 2015, a group of scholars got together to discuss “The Liberal Dilemma in Child Welfare Reform.” Papers based on these talks, along with a discussion by Daniel Heimpel, publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, are included in the March issue of the Journal.

All of the participants in the symposium agreed that America’s child welfare system is parent-centered rather than child-centered. We bend over backwards to keep children in their homes, even when their lives are in danger. The result, as the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities report suggests, is that at least half of the families of children who die from maltreatment were previously known to CPS agencies.

In the 1990s, the majority in Congress was convinced that the bias toward family preservation had gone too far. Laws were passed to rectify the balance and ensure that children could be removed from unsafe situations. But as symposium participant Cassie Bevan explained, these laws have not been fully implemented because of opposition to this approach by child welfare agencies and judges.

Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, wrote about a “corrupt policy-research merger whereby programs chosen on the basis of ideology are then supported by research designed not to test, but instead to prove, the programs’ efficacy.” For example, the extreme emphasis on family preservation in the 1980s was bolstered by evaluations of these short-term programs that were later shown to be flawed.

Of course, children should be kept at home or returned there if there are services that can be put in place to address the threats to their safety. But anyone who has worked in the child welfare system knows that many of these parents have deep-seated mental health and substance abuse issues that cannot be resolved within the time frame required by law and a child’s need for permanency.

The symposium participants disagreed about where the parent-centered emphasis in our child welfare system comes from. But several participants, including Bartholet and William and Mary Professor James Dwyer, agreed that it stems from the nexus between poverty, racism and child maltreatment. Liberals are reluctant to further penalize parents whose problems in parenting ultimately stem from poverty and racism by taking away their children.

I believe that society has a deep moral responsibility to put an end to poverty and racism. But in the meantime, true liberals cannot advocate holding abused and neglected children hostage in homes where they are suffering and cannot thrive. A child suffering from maltreatment should not be penalized by having to remain there because of being poor or black. Leaving such a child in such a home when services to correct the problems are not provided or do not exist will only prolong the cycle of poverty-related abuse and neglect into the next generation.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.


  1. Marie. Thanks for being brave enough to say what needs to be said. Political correctness should not override child safety in where the child is at risk in the family of origin

  2. My experience is that Geauga County, Ohio is more apt to place a child in an institution than to work with families. This is happening ALL over the nation, that social services are blowing off families. In fact, in Ohio, corrupt and unprofessional practice is protected by regulations which prohibit families from even complaining. Social Workers who work for the Counties are not required to maintain their Social Work license. They are no longer accountable under the Board of Ethics. If you are not in the Kinship program you cannot even file a grievance in Geauga County and if you are not part of the case plan you cannot file a complaint about the County Children’s Services to the state! Just like Judges and Attorneys, social workers have figured out ways NOT to be accountable. And of course, there is immunity. In Ohio, we have Rule 48 of the Supreme Court, but if you complain here in this County about a GAL to the CASA/GAL office, they can punt it to the Judge, who can carte blanche declare that a CASA/GAL who did not follow Rule 48 did, for political purposes. I have written to the State Rep. and Sen. about passing a law requiring a checklist system, that would remove ambiguity and build in accountability….and thus, protect the rights of children. People in these systems are motivated by their own need for an income. Lets get real. They go along to get along. Until the underlying moral issues are directly addressed and the tendencies of all humans to serve themselves first, as a survival instinct, is acknowledged honestly, we will be waiting a lot longer for the real and swift changes needed in each individual county in the nation. Some counties are doing it better than others. Is there more honesty, integrity and HUMILITY among individual people in those places?

    • I think this varies by place. In the District of Columbia the child welfare system is MUCH more likely to work with a family than to remove the child, and it is almost impossible to place a child in a group home let alone an “institution.” That is the trend in the larger urban areas where most foster kids are. I think these trends have gone too far in these areas, but perhaps they have not gone far enough in your county.

    • Family Preservation is better! One of our Residential Treatment Centers, Beechbrook, just closed and are going to focus on community based solutions and early intervention. Counties across the nation are not even trying to place kids with family. Beechbrook officials were quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as admitting that counties were placing kids there because they had nowhere else to place them! How ridiculous to label and drug a child because people aren’t using their heads or are looking down on families. Thank God they are putting family first in DC!

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