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When a Child's Safety Is at Stake

US reconsiders the policy emphasis on family reunification to ensure greater protection

When a child who has been in and out of a social services agency, such as New York's Elisa Izquierdo, dies at the hands of a parent or caregiver and the media picks up the story, the results are predictable. The public demands explanations and officials scramble to "fix" the system.

Often, as happened in Washington State a decade ago, certain localities react radically by pulling children out of families at the first hint of trouble. Or, as in New York this past year, a city sidetracks into endless self-examination and policy review.

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But beneath the media spotlight and public outcry, there is a budding effort across the country to put a child's long-term welfare first, says Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island. He notes that legislation is being prepared for the next US Congress in both the House and Senate that puts a child's safety and home permanence over family reunificiation.

Mr. Gelles explains that the new direction is appearing against the background of an emphasis on family reunification that has been policy on and off for nearly a century. It became law in 1980, when family reunification was enshrined in the Federal Child Welfare Act. Under that law, officials are required to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify families in order to qualify for federal funds.

Caseworkers have interpreted "reasonable" to mean every possible effort, Gelles says. "This policy has led to many unnecessary deaths," he says. "Nationally, in half of the child homicides under the age of three, [the children] have come to official attention at some time before the death. They were left in or returned to dangerous situations."

In addition, the Rhode Island researcher says many of these states, in order to continue qualifying for federal funds, hide behind confidentiality requirements to conceal mistakes - keeping the reported deaths of children who have been in social-service systems nationwide artificially low.

Gelles points to California as a trendsetter at the local level in the effort to redirect policy to put a priority on a child's welfare.

Peter Digre is director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. He says that in California, family reunification is successful about 78 percent of the time for infants and 84 percent overall. When he took the post in 1991, he saw a crying need. "The reality is there is a significant minority of families, some 20 percent, that simply should be excluded from reunification," Mr. Digre says. With families that show a chronic inability to reform dangerous behavior, "we have to get serious about saving who we can save, namely the child," he says. "It's the only decent thing to do."

His Community Family Preservation Network (CFPN) subjects families to an intense barrage of services in order to speed up whatever outcome is most appropriate for the child. "We consider it a wonderful success when we actually get [an abusive] family to change," Digre says. "We also consider it a success when we can free a child for a permanent, long-term solution, such as adoption."

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He points with pride to results in CFPN-saturated communities, such as Compton, Calif. "There is a significant drop in the number of kids in short-term solutions, such as foster care," he says, adding that over the same three-years, in communities where CFPN has not been introduced, the number of children in foster care has risen by 25 percent.

CFPN uses 23 mostly community-based programs to strengthen families as well as toughen basic standards for child safety. Minimum standards include clarification that the child's safety is a priority, risk assessment to exclude dangerous families, and a high level of in-home visitation to supervise children's safety. "There's an incredible vacuum of leadership that needs to recognize that we're dealing with difficult people," Digre says.

Former foster parent Jillian Coldiron agrees. Now a legal guardian of an 11-year-old girl, Ms. Coldiron says her three years as a foster parent convinced her that the system needs a drastic overhaul in favor of the child's welfare. "The system allows parents to see kids when [the parents] are drugged out and in whatever terrible state ...," she says. "Reunification is great when parents are in a healing program, where they stand a chance of changing. Otherwise, it stinks."

In California, there's a clear trend toward a more reasoned, humane approach in a variety of ways, says Marjorie Kelly, deputy director of the California Department of Social Services, Children and Family Services Division. For instance, as part of the wrap-around service approach, "there's no reason why we can't say, 'When we give you public money, you must take care of your kids.'"

Ms. Kelly says she sees a more common-sense approach on many fronts, and adds, "It's hard to believe we've gotten so far away from that."

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