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.