Acton Institute Powerblog

A System In Distress: Too Many American Children In State Care

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Generally speaking, social services do not remove children from their homes as a first choice. Most have family programs that work with parents to resolve issues with parenting skills, nutrition, education, addiction issues and so on. A child has to be in imminent danger for them to be removed from their parents’ care.

A lot of kids are in imminent danger.

Not only that: the social workers who must work with these families are overwhelmed. Joseph Turner reports:

In my home state of Indiana, an employee of Child Protective Services (CPS) recently sued the state over the fact that CPS workers’ caseloads are in overwhelming excess of the legal requirements. State law mandates that employees should serve no more than 17 families at one time. In some counties, the average is closer to 50.

This stems from a massive increase in reports of abuse and neglect in recent years, up 81 percent from 2009. Caseload limits seem reasonable enough, except you can’t legislate supply and demand. The state can’t keep up with its child-abuse problem, so caseworkers are dangerously overloaded. Morale is low, turnover is high, and kids are suffering.

We are not talking about kids who may live in sub-standard housing or are not fed nutritious meals on a consistent basis. No, we are talking about life and death situations. We are talking about adults who are harming children physically and emotionally on an on-going basis. A caseworker decides that children are in imminent danger and must be removed. Most of the time that means foster care. Many times, that foster care is only a bit better than the home the child was removed from. It’s also the case that once in foster care, children get moved very frequently and siblings usually do not stay together. A California study showed that children in foster care are at high risk for sexual exploitation, but also sex trafficking.

Turner points out that the answer to all of this is not to expand child protective services in each state, hiring more social workers and recruiting more foster families. No, the answer to this tragedy is to focus on prevention: let’s not take the child from the  home in the first place.

By way of analogy, let’s suppose a bacterial epidemic breaks out. Scores of people are becoming severely ill, and emergency rooms are at triple capacity. There are neither enough rooms to hold all the patients nor doctors to treat them, so the hospitals simply make do with what they have. Conditions for both patients and medical staff deteriorate.

Would we hire more doctors? Build more hospitals? Perhaps. But most immediately, this wouldn’t be an issue for direct medicine so much as public health. Educate people about how the infection is contracted and how to avoid it. Encourage the appropriate hygiene. Develop a vaccine, and get it to the highest-risk populations as quickly as possible. That is how epidemics are resolved and disaster averted.

The heart of the issue is that far too many children live in unstable, unhealthy conditions created by the adults in their lives. Too many children live in one parent households, households with a series of adults moving in and out of their lives (Mom has a lot of boyfriends, for instance), or in households where the needs and rights of the children are simply never a concern. It is only the desires of the adults that count.

Turner (a social worker himself) says that, as a nation, we must decide that children need to be in healthy homes with their biological mom and dad. (Yes, there will always be a need for foster and adoptive care, but it should be the emergency chute and not the primary way of caring for needy children.)

To protect American kids from harm on a large scale, we need to be willing to recognize a basic truth: children are safer and better off living with their married biological parents. As a society, we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

We have no problem asking people about their smoking, drug use, gambling, etc., and providing unsolicited education about those dangers. We could just as easily ask people about their relationship patterns, and offer guidance on how to achieve happy, healthy families. Sure, it may be a sensitive topic—but discussing sensitive topics is specifically our job.

Unfortunately, Turner is not holding out much hope for change at this point. No, we are a nation where children are not a priority, because strong biological families are not a priority. In fact, we seem to be doing everything we can to make every family but the traditional biological family a priority.

And every time we do it, kids lose.

 

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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