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United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
To relate the findings presented here to practice and policy, it is first important to understand a few issues related to the current state of the child welfare system. Foremost is the growing recognition of the complex nature of society and the child welfare system's response to it. Designed as a temporary resource for troubled families, the child welfare system was never intended to provide the comprehensive range of social services that are demanded of it today. As increasing numbers of child welfare agencies have failed to meet the needs of the populations they serve, there is a growing recognition that the child welfare system alone cannot provide all of the services needed by the families and children who come into it. Poverty and an array of social problems as well as difficulties inherent in public child welfare systems have made it difficult to provide services to an increasingly diverse and troubled population. Many factors—both internal and external, demographic and structural—contribute to the wide scope of the crisis of a system with diminishing resources and increasing responsibilities. Substance abuse, inadequate housing, health needs, parental incarceration, and racial discrimination are just some of the issues that challenge the capacity of the child welfare system and its staff to provide adequate services to the families and children it serves.
Moreover, the child welfare system was never intended to serve the vast numbers of children and families that are involved in the system today. The data released most recently by the Department of Health and Human Services, based on information collected through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), show that child protective service agencies received about 2,672,000 reports of possible maltreatment in 2001. There were 903,000 substantiated cases of maltreatment of children the majority of which involved cases of neglect. About 1,300 children died of abuse or neglect, a rate of 1.81 children per 100,000 children in the population (DHHS, 2003). Furthermore, as of September 2001, there were 542,000 children in foster care and approximately 117,000 waiting to be adopted, nationwide (AFCARS, 2001). In total, in this same year, there were 805,000 families served by the child welfare system nationwide (AFCARS, 2001).3 These numbers do not take into account the number of families that were being served within the home and, in some cases, those that were in kinship placements. Clearly the problem has surpassed the child welfare system's capacity to handle it effectively and more efficient measures are required to provide even the most basic services to the population it is intended to serve.
Additionally, the ever-changing racial and ethnic make-up of this country has posed special challenges for child welfare agencies and staff. Racial and ethnic discrimination, and language and cultural barriers to service provision have become commonplace in many social service systems, including public health and education as well as in the judicial and child welfare systems. In 2001, there were eight racial and ethnic categories of children who entered foster care during that same year, including American Indian/Alaskan American, non-Hispanic; Asian, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic (of any race); and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic, to name a few. Identifying the special needs of multiple racial and ethnic groups, and developing practices, programs, and strategies to meet their unique circumstances has proven an overwhelming task for a system that has yet to determine how best to meet the needs of its African-American families, families that have been overrepresented in the system for more than a decade.
Finally, the stressful nature of working within the child welfare system has increased in direct response to the issues outlined above. Given the complex nature of today's child welfare involved families, combined with changing policies and diminishing resources, to practice effectively, child welfare agency staff now must possess expertise in a number of different areas, including social work, psychology, job training, child development, and human resources, among others. In addition, the increasing tension brought on by media exposure to extreme cases of child abuse and neglect and the resulting onslaught of bad publicity and negative attitudes toward the child welfare system have contributed to burn-out, insecurity, and high turnover among child welfare agency employees. This, in combination with the issues described above, provides a snapshot of a system that is struggling to operate effectively and in the manner in which it was intended.
The findings presented in this study suggest that, despite the challenges it faces and the factors that are outside of its control, there are several factors that public child welfare agencies can address to improve child welfare practice and the delivery of services to children and families, including families of color. In addition, several other issues have emerged from the findings presented here that can be used to help inform future child welfare policy.
6.1 IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
Within the context of the findings presented here, two specific practice-related issues emerged that agency administrators and policy makers might consider as they attempt to determine how best to serve children and families, especially children and families of color. These are workforce issues (e.g. training and supervision), and the specific strategies agencies are implementing to meet the needs of children and families of color.
While agency administrators may not have control over the types of families and individuals they serve, they do have control over the type of work environment they create and support, and the employees they choose to hire. In this study, several factors related to the workforce were critical to both worker retention and satisfaction, and effective service delivery to children and families.
First, there is the issue of support, specifically, administrative support. In order for child welfare staff to feel confident and effective and, one might argue, perform accordingly, they require support from within the agency. This support takes several forms, including administrative support and encouragement, supervision and oversight, strong peer relationships, and manageable caseloads. In agencies in which one of more of these factors was reported absent, participants (usually direct service workers) talked about feeling overwhelmed and unsure of their ability to make good decisions. Feeling overwhelmed and lacking confidence, without strong supervisors to whom they could turn for help, workers reported being more likely to substantiate abuse and neglect cases, making decisions based more on their fear of administrative repercussions than on their training and experience. While administrative support and adequate supervision are important aspects of day-to-day practice, they are especially important during times of high stress or media exposure when workers reported feeling great pressure to make quick decisions regarding complicated cases.
Related to the issue of administrative support is the development of an infrastructure that allowed for flexible, responsive programming. In some of the sites, agency administrators spoke specifically about making administrative changes that would build a better infrastructure for the child welfare agency that they led. These administrative changes included creating a strong leadership team, bringing in key administrative staff from the outside who had experience in specific areas (e.g. clinical work with families and children), reorganizing existing staff in order to accomplish new mandates, creating staffing teams so that families would remain in the same units, and integrating specific service areas (e.g. foster care and adoption). In the sites where such administrative changes were occurring, the management staff (and in some cases the front-line staff) reported that the quality of child welfare service delivery had improved greatly.
Second, there is the issue of staff training and experience. Similar to employees in any agency or organization, child welfare agency staff are most effective when they are well educated and well trained. Increasingly, however, to be effective in dealing with more diverse and more troubled families than in previous years, child welfare staff require greater breadth and depth of education and training than in previous years, before the influx of immigrant groups and the proliferation of drugs into society. In addition, over the years, as the child welfare system has come under increasing scrutiny from society and the media regarding its ability to effectively serve children and families, recruiting and retaining competent, well-trained staff has become more difficult. Recent State budget cuts also have taken their toll on child welfare agency staff. In some States, including those in this study, budget cuts have forced agency administrators to lay off or retire their most experienced (and highly paid) employees, and replace them with younger, less experienced (and less expensive) workers. These issues have serious implications for the quality of service agencies are able to provide. As one of the only means for workers to stay abreast of new policies and procedures and strategies for dealing with such client-specific issues as mental illness, addiction, and different and varied cultures, it is important that ongoing, agency-sponsored training remain a priority. While most agencies require new workers to participate in agency-sponsored training to familiarize them with agency policies, practices, and operational procedures, participants reported that this training often is insufficient. They reported that training would be more salient for them if it was frequent, ongoing, and of sufficient substance that new skills could be acquired and problems, such as racial bias in decision making, addressed and changed.
Participants also reported needing more training in cultural awareness and sensitivity, especially in light of the number of participants who reported having experienced worker bias toward children and families of color. Specifically, participants reported that workers sometimes made decisions based on the race or socio-economic background of a family rather than on the specifics of the case. According to participants, this differential decision-making often results in African-American and impoverished families being more likely to have children removed from the home or parental rights terminated. Again, while most agencies have some training focused on cultural issues, the training sessions are frequently short-term or one-time events that may be insufficient to address such difficult issues as racial or class bias.
With regard to worker bias and cultural awareness and sensitivity, it is important to note that, in general, agency administrators were very sensitive to these issues and were willing to address them. However, in most cases, they were somewhat unsure as to how best to address them. In many cases, such characteristics as cultural sensitivity and awareness are difficult to define and so methods to increase them are equally difficult to identify or develop. Even the literature in this area is unclear regarding how best to define and promote cultural sensitivity and awareness in child welfare workers. Similarly, worker bias is difficult to define and, therefore, to detect. In some cases, workers emphatically denied that race or class ever entered into the decision making, while other workers, in the same agency, felt just as strongly that it did. Clearly these issues require additional exploration to determine the extent to which they influence decision making and practice, and how agencies can best manage them.
Finally, there is the issue of resources. Agency administrators can provide the strongest support possible to their staff, and also can ensure that only the most highly qualified candidates are hired. If resources are lacking, however, practice will be compromised. In this study, participants reported needing access to resources both internal and external to the agency. With regard to internal resources, participants reported needing more resources to support foster and adoptive families, including kin. With the passage of ASFA and the subsequent focus on permanency, workers report that the number of children needing foster care and adoptive placements has increased but that the resources available to support finding and maintaining such placements have not. Necessary resources include financial incentives for foster and adoptive families, including more post-adoptive services and more foster and adoptive families.
External resources also are important to good practice. With regard to external resources, participants reported that they simply need more resources to serve clients, including financial resources to pay for and agencies to provide mental health and substance abuse services. They also reported needing additional resources to keep families together including relationships with agencies that could provide such basic necessities as food, housing, employment opportunities, and childcare options. Recently, in recognizing their limitations to provide comprehensive services to children and families, agencies have started cultivating more formal and informal relationships with other service providing agencies, including those based in the community. In an attempt to broaden service options for child-welfare involved families, agencies are moving towards contracting out services to local service providing agencies, outsourcing child welfare staff to community-based agencies, and building collaborative relationships with private child-serving agencies. In addition to increasing service options, these strategies also have been effective in meeting the needs of different racial and ethnic groups as many of the community-based service agencies also have a racial or ethnic affiliation and focus.
While the child welfare system has been plagued with challenges in recent years, it still plays a central role in the child and family service delivery system. Agencies can be supported to hire competent staff, administration can be supportive, and resources can be made available to provide quality service.
Strategies for serving children and families of color
Many service delivery strategies were identified in this study that were perceived as or documented to be beneficial for families of color. Some were explicitly designed to address the needs of this population of families; others were created to benefit the child welfare population at large. Interestingly, none were specifically designed to reduce racial disproportionality in the child welfare systems observed in this study. Following are brief descriptions of these service delivery strategies, all of which could be adapted for other child welfare systems to address the needs of children and families of color.
Kinship care and subsidized guardianship. Long heralded as a strength of African-American and other minority families, the use of relatives and fictive kin (unrelated persons with whom family has a close relationship) as caregivers for children is an important measure for increasing permanency for minority children while simultaneously maintaining ties to their family system. Relatives can be used as caregivers in three distinct ways. One, they can become guardians of children, and thus be legally responsible for the care of the children without the requirements and benefits that are attached to being a foster parent. Providing subsidies to these guardians has proven to be beneficial. Alternatively, relatives can become foster parents. This status would require them to be licensed using the same criteria used for unrelated caregivers, and be regularly monitored by child welfare personnel. Finally, relatives can become adoptive parents of children. As with guardianship, providing subsidies to adoptive relatives has been found to be beneficial. It is important to note that in Illinois subsidized relative placement has resulted in increased permanency for children and reduced racial disproportionality in the child welfare system.
Family conferencing. Originated in New Zealand, family conferencing calls for the collaboration of multiple parties who have an interest in the well being of the child and family who are involved in the child welfare system. Referred to as the family assessment process in North Carolina (which was the site implementing this strategy), this approach brings together biological parents, relatives, neighbors and friends, religious and other supports, as well as professionals with the goal of averting placement. These meetings occur frequently and, as part of the program model, are designed to emphasize the safety, permanency, and well being of the child. The community is integrally involved in the decision-making about the child, and thus tends to be involved as participants in the child's care (e.g., a church member providing day care; a grandmother caring for child full-time while mother participates in drug treatment). Although it is not clear whether family conferencing per se was the factor that reduced racial disproportionality in the North Carolina site, it was a major component of the service delivery strategy in the county in which racial disproportionality was reduced.
Recruitment and retention of minority foster and adoptive parents. The majority of the sites identified the recruitment of minority foster and adoptive parents as an important strategy to reduce racial disproportionality. Targeting recruitment to minority communities, specifically minority social organizations and institutions (e.g. churches), was emphasized. In addition to these recruitment efforts, participants in multiple sites stressed the importance of being more flexible regarding the types of families deemed acceptable, given the diversity of family composition and characteristics of minority communities. Helping potential minority caregivers through the licensing process was also identified as an important strategy. Finally, providing culturally sensitive post-placement services was suggested in order to retain the minority foster and adoptive families involved with the agency.
Concurrent planning. Although concurrent planning is not on the surface a practice that differentially benefits minority families, many participants felt it was effective in reducing the number of minority children remaining in the foster care system. As this practice requires child welfare staff to work for reunification while simultaneously seeking another permanent home for the targeted children, children may not remain in the system as long as when the practices occurred sequentially. Thus, adoption can be explored with relatives or foster parents while the biological parents are receiving rehabilitative services. The other benefit that staff perceived is that children do not have to be removed to another placement if the decision is made to change the permanency goal to adoption or guardianship; they are already in their permanent placement. Despite the thinking that minority families, particularly relatives, may have difficulty with the notion of terminating the rights (TPR) of the biological families, participants in this study reported that minority relative and foster caregivers were not resistant to TPR and adoption.
Promoting permanency. An agency-wide focus on permanency for all child welfare involved families has the residual impact of fostering permanency for minority families, and therefore reducing their numbers in the child welfare system. Although some participants saw more stringent time limits as creating more difficulties for minority families, the majority felt that focusing on permanency and foster care time limits had a beneficial effect on children. Thus, agencies were more likely to emphasize permanency for children from the time they came into care, through prevention and reunification services, family conferencing efforts, and relative placements. In addition, agencies focused on creating a waiting pool of adoptive families and recruiting families in the child's environment to be adoptive parents. The philosophical and practice shift toward permanency was perceived to result in higher quality services and outcomes for minority children.
Supporting biological families (prevention). Most participants asserted that preventing minority children from entering the system was crucial for addressing racial disproportionality. Prevention programs that supported children to remain with their families of origin can be implemented by child welfare agencies, with a particular eye to the needs of minority children and families. Thus, these programs should be culturally sensitive regarding services, and employ staff that is reflective of the culture of the targeted population. It is important to note that a broad conceptualization of culture emerged from the findings of this study, and included religious, language, immigration, ethnic, racial, family composition, and class factors. Several different types of preventive services for biological families were perceived as particularly effective for minority families. Alternative response systems provide preventive casework services to families in the community who are at-risk of child maltreatment to avert entering into the child welfare system. Family conferencing, as described above, allows biological parents to receive supports from their own informal social networks for prevention and reunification purposes. Community-based, family-support programs that are targeted to the needs of the population have also been used to create a system of care for families that prevents their entry into the child welfare system.
Community-based strategies and collaborations with other agencies. The long-held practice in child welfare services to contract out specific services has had particular implications for minority families. First and foremost, child welfare agencies have been able to link with programs designed to serve particular ethnic groups. Often these programs are part of agencies that emerge from informal or formal institutions in the minority community, and have particular philosophical approaches that promote the well being of that specific population. In addition, these collaborations allow for a focus on a particular service strategy, such as prevention and reunification, recruitment of minority and adoptive families, or post-placement services. These linkages also provide service settings for families that are in their individual communities, versus in the centralized and often bureaucratic setting of the child welfare public agency. These various factors promote more intimate relationships between the service providers and recipients, as well as the provision of more culturally and otherwise responsive services.
6.2 IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY
There also were issues that emerged from the findings that have implications for child welfare policy. Foremost is the emphasis on prevention. Participants felt strongly that shifting the philosophy of the child welfare system from one that intervenes after the fact to one that focuses on keeping children out of the system would have profound implications for the numbers of children coming into care, and especially for children of color. In addition to keeping children from coming into the system, prevention is less expensive than focusing on the back end. In current child welfare policy, foster care is an entitlement. That is, for every eligible child States automatically get partial reimbursement. As a result, between 1999 and 2003, the Federal government is expected to spend nine dollars on foster care for every dollar spent to prevent it (Rosenbaum, 2001). Other existing policies, such as ASFA and MEPA, are focused more on foster care and adoption rather than on prevention and family reunification. Other policies have allowed States to use Title IV-E dollars more flexibly, including providing services and other resources to child-welfare involved families. Because funds are appropriated to support existing policies, including incentives for agencies to implement them effectively, there are currently very few financial resources for prevention services. The limited resources that do exist must be used to implement strategies that meet policy requirements.
Another issue that emerged is the manner by which policies are created. Because policy is often driven by public perception primarily, and because public perception is influenced by the media's portrayal of events, child welfare policies are often developed in response to a perceived problem or crisis. Creating policies this way sometimes results in policies that are removed from the practices they were designed to guide. For example, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed in 1997 in response to concerns from policy makers that children (mostly minority children) were languishing in foster care, in part, because of the system's previous emphasis on family preservation, which started in 1993 with the passage of the Family Preservation and Family Support Act. Designed to promote safety and permanence for children through adoptive placements, ASFA provides incentive payments to States to encourage adoption of children out of foster care, and shortens timeframes for initiating proceedings for the termination of parental rights. Although increased adoptions have been observed since the passage of ASFA, some argue that the increase in adoptions has been offset by the number of children now coming into care because of the policy. Participants in this study felt strongly that an emphasis on prevention and family reunification, including financial resources to support them, might be a more viable solution to the large numbers of children in care, again emphasizing the importance of keeping families out of the system to begin with. This example underscores the importance of policies that are driven by careful examination of the strengths and limitations of the system rather than political considerations. It also emphasizes the importance of policies that are developed to promote viable options for workers and families at each point along the child welfare decision-making spectrum.
Another important issue that emerged was the emphasis on improving services to children and families by contracting out more services to community-based and private child welfare agencies. With increased responsibilities and caseloads along with diminishing financial resources, public agencies are often operating at or over the limits of available resources. Tasked with finding alternative means to provide services for children and families, agencies have turned to contractual relationships with private or non-profit child welfare agencies. Participants in this study talked about the value of having access to these services, especially community-based services. Community-based services are invaluable because, first, they can meet the needs of children and families right in their own neighborhood, reducing the amount of time and burden on families to travel long distances to receive services. Second, community-based services provide child welfare agency staff with viable options for quality service delivery. Finally, because community-based services are also more likely to have an ethnic focus, they can deliver services within a culturally appropriate and sensitive context. Despite their value, many agency administrators are struggling to discern effective means for developing and implementing these types of contractual relationships with already limited resources, and to maintain high levels of accountability and control for quality service delivery. Policies to guide these types of relationships and promote the reallocation of funds to support them would prove helpful to local child welfare agencies as they continue to identify ways to provide comprehensive support services to children and families.
Finally, there is the issue of reporting. Participants across sites talked about a variety of factors influencing who gets reported and for what. Closer partnerships between child welfare agencies and schools, hospitals, and other common sources of reports could facilitate more accurate and equitable identification of cases of maltreatment at the point of reporting. Moreover, there is a lack of consistency across child welfare agencies regarding standards for what constitutes abuse or neglect. To reduce worker bias and uncertainty when making judgments regarding cases, definitions of abuse and neglect could be clarified and standardized. Standard definitions also might reduce the fear and concern workers have when they are forced to make decisions in the eye of the media.
The findings presented here also have implications for future research. These are discussed in the section that follows.
3 This number includes children in care, entries and exits (including adoptions), children waiting to be adopted, and cases that ended with the termination of parental rights. back
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