Putting the Child Back in Child Welfare

It was the dead kids who inspired me to leave my comfortable, well-paid job as a researcher and become a child welfare social worker. Kids like Adrian Jones, Zymere Perkins and Yonatan Aguilar, who were killed by their parents after months or years of abuse.

The dead kids felt no more misery. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other kids living in fear of the next beating, watching child protective services (CPS) workers leave after accepting the mother’s or stepfather’s explanation of their bruises, and facing the now-angrier adult eager to punish them.

So I went back to school and added a Masters in Social Work to my Masters in Public Policy from Princeton and my B.A. in Sociology from Harvard. I was thrilled to be accepted as a CPS trainee at the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

But my CFSA trainer told us we were not there to save children. I learned that the family, not the child, was at the center of child welfare policy. Our business was to find the strengths in each family.

We learned that “safety” meant simply the absence of “imminent danger.” A child could be “safe” but at high risk of abuse or neglect in the future. Such children should remain at home with monitoring and supervision by the agency, but since this is usually voluntary, the family can refuse to participate.

I later learned that even if the family agrees to participate, these in-home cases often closed quickly with little evidence of reduced risk to the child. I also learned of cases around the country, such as that of Yonatan Aguilar, in which these high-risk but “safe” kids died from abuse.

I never ended up being a CPS worker. I ended up instead in a private agency that provided foster care and case management to D.C. children.

Working in foster care, I learned even more about how the child is not the center of child welfare practice. Compliance with requirements, meeting benchmarks and saving money were much more important than helping children.

Assuring that a child had her physical exam on time, her two visits with the social worker within the month, her “Youth Transition Plan” every six months was paramount. But no problem if I did not have enough time to explore summer camp options, or talk to a teacher or therapist, because there was no benchmark for that.

These benchmarks could have perverse results, like the time I had to take a client for an extra physical because her placement had changed its designation from “respite,” so it was treated as a new placement. Working 60 hours a week to see my clients’ needs met, I could ill afford the time.

I learned that the field adheres to simple, feel-good policy reforms that just happen to save money and often have perverse effects on kids. Non-family residential placements are anathema in the current climate. But many excellent group homes and residential schools are far more nurturing than some of the uncaring foster homes I’ve seen.

Because of the virtual elimination of group homes in the District, social workers have to repeatedly find new placements for traumatized teens whose behavior results in repeated rejection by foster families in search of easy money with no behavior problems.

It is also accepted as gospel that children must achieve “permanency” rather than aging out of care. To increase the numbers of “permanent placements,” and reduce the number of kids aging out, workers often urge youth to accept adoption or guardianship with foster parents, relatives, or other available adults, even if they are uncaring or inappropriate. Never mind that some youth might do better staying in foster care until 21 and benefiting from continued case management and services, rather than being at the mercy of paid guardians who may divert their subsidies for their own purposes.

Once a child is off the foster care rolls, there is no mechanism to ensure that the “permanent” placement works out. And with subsidies being paid to adoptive parents and guardians, there is reason for concern. Of course, the results are not usually as catastrophic as the murder of two girls by the woman who adopted them from D.C. foster care, who collected subsidies while their bodies remained in her refrigerator.

More often, I suspect that children are left in the permanent custody of people who continue to provide the same mediocre care they did as foster parents, skimming off part of the foster care payment to meet their needs.

In my experience in child welfare, I’ve learned that too many things take precedence over the welfare of children. To share what I’ve learned, I’ve been blogging for two years as part of The Chronicle of Social Change blogger co-op. With the end of the co-op, I’ll be continuing to post my writings on my blog, at fosteringreform.blogspot.com. Readers can also follow me on Twitter @fosteringreform or on Facebook at Fostering Reform.

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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 fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.


  1. Ms. Cohen-

    The child welfare system is certainly not perfect. However the negative assertions you make not only about the system, but the people who dedicate their lives to work in it, merits a response.

    I have worked as a foster care worker and as a CPS worker. In fact, I have spent over twenty years involved in the child welfare system. In that time, I have had the privilege to work with children and families who will impact me for the rest of my life: I have seen biological parents change their lives and the lives of their children for the better; I have seen foster parents who have cared for children who have been traumatized beyond measure and to help them not only survive but to thrive; I have seen child welfare workers sacrifice their lives to improve the lives of the children and families they serve.

    Children AND families. Certainly, there are times when children may need to be removed from their parent’s care, but the child welfare system must always do its best to help those families maintain custody of their children whenever it is safe to do so.

    I would urge you to consider the wider world of the child welfare system and instead of holding on to a negative and often half-true perception of that world, that you instead immerse yourself in the reality of what child welfare truly is; an imperfect system filled with passionate, loving people who struggle with the wide range of the human condition. They struggle with bureaucracy, and loss and heartache. They also work tirelessly to make changes to improve it. They are much more likely to find success with partners like yourself, who are willing to work with them, instead of those who may find ways to create and maintain barriers.

    You have shared your stories, here is one of mine: As my wife and I prepared Christmas for our family last year, someone rang the doorbell. I was terrified. Whoever it was was an hour early and we were not prepared. My wife answered the door and I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in many years. It was a young lady who my wife and I had worked with many years ago (me as a CPS investigator and she as a foster care worker). She had somehow used her resources and found us online and decided to stop by. Here was a young lady who had encountered terrible abuse and trauma. yet despite what she had endured, she came through the other side. Still, as strong as she was, she hadn’t done it alone. She had received years of support through a myriad of workers, supportive foster homes and yes, to your point, effective and helpful residential facilities. I won’t tell you that there were not struggles on her journey, but the success and support she received made a difference. It was not the first time we had the good fortune of having a child or family we worked with join us for Christmas, but it was the most memorable- she brought her beautiful children with her.

    I understand frustration with the system, but I believe we are much more likely to succeed in this difficult work if we build on the strengths of world of child welfare and the heroes that live there. There are wonderful and positive things working in the world of child welfare. Here is to the hope that your work provides you some positive examples of your own to build on.

  2. Thank you for this post. I was brought to it due to the reference to Adrian Jones, a case that I cannot shake from my conscience. What can the average person do to help this situation? I am a lawyer/writer and current stay-at-home mother (who lives abroad). I feel removed yet compelled to try to do something. But what… and how? If you have any leads, I am interested in learning more.

    • Thank you so much! Your comment made my day. You can certainly get in touch with your federal, state, and local elected officials and tell them you really care about this and that you are willing to pay more taxes if necessary to make sure that all credible child abuse reports are investigated thoroughly. Find out what your state is doing to address child maltreatment. I think every state needs an independent ombudsman or child advocate to investigate these fatalities and make recommendations. States should also consider following the recommendations of the Committee to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF). I would also recommend following my blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.com, via twitter @fosteringreform, or via Facebook at Fostering Reform because I will be writing more about this issue. You can also contact me directly at mariekcohen@gmail.com.

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