The Denver Post and 9News conducted a joint investigative series, “Failed to Death”, which looks at Colorado child fatalities that occurred in the last six years. The reporting angle follows the path of previous stories involving the child welfare system in Colorado. I do not dispute the relevance of this very important topic. I also do not dispute that children have fallen through the cracks of this massive and complex system; and I certainly recognize, like many others within the child welfare system, that ongoing efforts to improve practice to better ensure child safety remains a top priority. In fact, it will always be an area of focus for County and State agencies because it will never be perfect (or close to perfection). I do take issue with the approach that continues to be used by the media to address the issues related to child protective services (cps).
In reading the stories, along with some of the comments to this news series, I saw some highly punitive perspectives that may or may not be based on a misunderstanding of the laws that govern child protection. The series implies that because a family has a history of reports called in on them; or even has had substantiated allegations of abuse and/or neglect, that cps could have prevented a subsequent death.
Laws are in place not only to protect children, but also to protect parents’ rights. When a caseworker is assigned to assess child maltreatment claims and finds no evidence of maltreatment, they do not keep the family open simply out of a “gut” feeling. Also, reports that do not meet criteria by law for assignment should not be assigned as a “what if”. Even with the most empathetic and engaging caseworker, the process of someone coming to a family’s home is invasive no matter how you look at it. Removal of children from a family is highly traumatic for everyone involved and should only be done when there is imminent danger. To hold a worker or their agency responsible because they could not predict a future fatality–one that could not have been foreseen without psychic ability– is simply unfair.
One growing philosophy within the child welfare system worthy of mention is solution-focused and strength-based practice. This evidence-based framework promotes working collaboratively with the family to identify and problem-solve the issues that brought them to the attention of cps. It looks to the family’s internal and external resources to be able to address and solve the issues as opposed to the child welfare professional being the sole expert and having the only voice in the process. As a former caseworker and supervisor in this system, I have seen the results of this practice first-hand. Using this framework increases family engagement, which aids in the process of change. For more information about this topic, check out this succinct and informative handout.
You may be asking what solution-focused practice has to do with the media. Well, the media can also make changes in the way they address the significant topic of child abuse similar to the way child protection agencies altered their approach with families in recent years. Instead of confronting this societal problem from the traditional punitive perspective, there are other options. Avoid frontloading stories with disparaging innuendos about a system that is not fully understood in an effort to evoke and reinforce disdain for the child welfare system. Instead, recognize the good work that the child welfare professionals do on a daily basis in addition to the problems. However, it is important to accurately assign blame.
An area that kept coming up in the series is a lack of transparency by the child welfare system. The issue of transparency is an area of concern for child welfare professionals everywhere in addition to the media. However, holding the State and County agencies accountable for following confidentiality law is unfair and misleading. The media must go after the legislators who have the ability to make change possible.
I certainly am not asking for the media or the community to stop holding the child welfare system accountable when appropriate. The media can work in conjunction with child welfare agencies to find solutions. By providing a more accurate view of what is within the control of cps agencies, much needed trust and respect can develop between the two systems. As a result, the community should be able to gain some faith for a system that works extraordinarily hard for children and families. Child welfare professionals, similar to the media, are invested in seeing better child welfare practice and less child fatalities.
For specific information on child protection laws in your state, go to this link.