Unrealistic Expectations Push Child Welfare to Break Up Families, Expert Says

June 12, 2019 Updated: June 13, 2019

More than 1,500 children die in the United States every year because of abuse or neglect. In many of those cases, the government knew or at least suspected something was wrong.

So why didn’t the government do something?

There are cases in which Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies failed to act adequately in situations where child abuse seemed apparent.

The grandmother of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright sent CPS pictures of bruising on the child’s face. A sheriff’s office in Texas warned CPS that the girl recently lived with a man suspected of sexually assaulting another child. Her mother was a convicted felon with a history of child abuse and drug use and had had run-ins with CPS in two states. CPS was supposed to send a caseworker to check on the girl within 72 hours—instead, CPS took 36 days.

By then, the girl was dead of blunt-force trauma to her head and stomach, with her mother facing 50 years in prison and her mother’s boyfriend, a life sentence, The Dallas Morning News reported.

The case put pressure on Texas CPS to do better at removing children from abusive homes before a situation escalates into a tragic fatality.

Government Intervention

“Our expectations are unrealistic—and those very expectations increase the danger to children,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR). “No one expects the police to prevent or even solve every crime. But CPS agencies are expected to prevent every death of a child ‘known to the system.’”

The nonprofit has documented many instances in which a highly publicized child abuse death led to an increase in CPS agencies taking children from families. Yet the result was often an increase in child abuse deaths.

“[It] only further overloads the system, actually increasing the likelihood that more children in real danger will be missed,” Wexler said via email.

There are exceptions to the rule, he acknowledged.

“In rare cases, workers truly are incompetent, uncaring, or worse,” he said. “But far more often, workers are so overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that they don’t have time to investigate any case thoroughly. That’s almost always the reason for deaths of children ‘known to the system.’”

Anecdotal accounts of social workers back up some of Wexler’s arguments.

CPS agencies are known for high turnover rates and workers complaining about high caseloads, unrealistic expectations, and burnout.

One reviewer complained on the job-search website Glassdoor in September 2018 about “crazy hours” and “poor management” at a CPS agency, calling the workplace “toxic.”

The only praise the reviewer had was for paid overtime.

“Remember: you will not help those families! You destroy them even more,” the reviewer said.

Several others voiced similar complaints.

Lose-Lose Situation

One of the core misconceptions about CPS is that as long as a child is removed from an abusive home, the child is safe, according to NCCPR.

“In fact, there is risk in either direction,” it states in one of its fact sheets.

In 2017, 12 children died of abuse and neglect in the care of a foster parent or staff of group homes and residential facilities (pdf). Given that there were less than 443,000 children in the CPS system during the mid-year count of 2017 (pdf), the fatality rate in the system would be more than 2.7 per 100,000—more than 17 percent above the national rate of 2.3 deaths per 100,000.

Children are also significantly more likely to die of any cause while in CPS care than in general. Mortality in the CPS population was about 87 per 100,000, compared to about 50 per 100,000 in the general population in 2017.

These comparisons aren’t quite fair, though. CPS maltreatment death rates in two prior years were actually lower than the national average. Also, children in CPS care are more likely to be younger, especially under the age of 3, when children are most at-risk of dying due to maltreatment. Finally, many children enter the CPS system already in poor health, because of the maltreatment that caused them to be removed from their families to begin with.

However, there’s evidence that the official statistics on child abuse in the CPS system aren’t accurate.

A 2017 congressional report (pdf) found that 86 children died in the care of The Mentor Network, a company providing foster care services as a contractor, between fiscal 2005-2014. Of those deaths, 62 were unexpected, but the company only opened internal investigations into 13.

In nine cases, financial settlements were paid to the families of the children. In one of those, a child’s cause of death was documented as cardiac arrest by the company. Yet media reports indicated the child’s foster mother was convicted of manslaughter in the case, congressional investigators found.

“Study after study has found that the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than in the general population—and far higher than shown in official statistics,” Wexler said.

In 2017, less than 0.8 percent of children in CPS care suffered maltreatment at the hands of a foster parent or staff of group homes and residential facilities. That compares to the estimated 0.9 percent maltreated in the general population.

Those numbers come from the CPS agencies themselves.

Independent studies found much higher rates of maltreatment in the CPS system—even upward of 30 percent. Those studies, however, are usually decades old and were focused only on limited locale.

The Epoch Times wasn’t able to find a single authoritative study on the prevalence of maltreatment in foster care in the past decade.

Wexler argued that the dated studies remain relevant, as long as the system functions along the same lines.

“Having followed this issue for 43 years, I can tell you that foster care now is the same system it was then,” he said. “There is no reason to believe foster homes, group homes, or institutions have magically become safer—except to the extent that a greater proportion of children are placed with relatives, and this kind of foster care—kinship foster care—has been shown to be safer than placement with strangers.”

This doesn’t mean foster care is necessarily bad.

“But it does mean that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses,” Wexler said. “Instead, America has prescribed mega-doses of foster care.”

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab
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