Why this maintenance failure is making headlines

The recent headline in the Los Angeles Times said it all: “Plight of 2 toddlers puts spotlight on L.A. County family program.” The lead identified toddlers found wandering the busy streets of South LA, hungry, dirty and neglected, mom oblivious to their absence, and the subject of the Department of Children and Family Services’ efforts to help maintain her family. How could this be?

There is a philosophical approach in child welfare practice that, all things being equal, values family unity.  As a result, there is an emphasis to assist families where there may be evidence of abuse or neglect to address their dysfunction and rebuild a stable home. In many instances the interventions employed to achieve this worthy goal are less traumatic for the child and family, leverage the good will and intention of the parents and larger family unit, and lead to a long-term stable environment. One such program is DCFS’ Family Maintenance, which the mother of the toddlers was enrolled in. However, while this approach may be less intrusive and relatively inexpensive than removing a child and securing him or her in a foster or group home, it is nevertheless a very labor-intensive approach.  It requires expertly trained social workers and other professionals who need to make the successful restoration of a family their exclusive focus.

Assuming the accuracy of the Los Angeles Times article, clearly this mom was not a good candidate for this program. Given her struggles, she needed support beyond what was available. Somehow, insufficient assessments led to a poor judgment about the kind of care required to keep her children safe. As a result these impressionable toddlers have been traumatized and their safety jeopardized. Disaster was averted not by an expert social worker, a veteran social service administrator, or a gargantuan child welfare system but because of an observant bystander who could not walk away from the plight of these two toddlers in need.

As DCFS Director Philip Browning is quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “Something didn’t work here.”  Given the DCFS fact sheet states there are more than 13,800 children in this program, the chances are that there are a number of other cases like this one where, no matter the good intentions of the County, the end result is that children are being neglected, the risk of abuse is significant, and children’s long-term well-being is being sacrificed.  What is being done to assure that the other children in this program are not subjected to the same trauma?

Immediate action is called for. Without knowing how DCFS has responded to this outcry, a number of strategies should be engaged:

  • All cases in the Family Maintenance program should be reviewed, and a rigorous assessment made as to the family’s appropriateness for this particular service.
  • Social workers involved in this program should be engaged to identify the supports and structures needed to effectively render services to children and families in this program.
  • A heightened sense of vigilance and urgency should prevail until all these cases are reviewed and appropriate treatment determined.
  • Additional resources may need to be employed to conduct this review in a timely fashion.

This process should be conducted in a transparent way, providing the public assurances that these tragedies will be avoided.

In 30 years working in the child welfare system I have rarely met a parent or family who cannot be engaged to assure the well-being of their child. That being said, we must not be naïve.  The challenges faced by these families are great and the efforts of those who serve them and their children are significant. For all parties involved, this must be an exclusive commitment driven by a desire and hope to see children thrive and be successful. However, the effort is well worth it. At Hillsides, our staff joins with families to accompany them through a difficult journey characterized not only by challenges and heartbreak but also by breakthroughs and achievement. It requires constant attention, diligent, consistent care, and an overall belief that hope can be restored.

We eagerly await not only whatever actions DCFS will introduce to address the failure of the Family Maintenance program but also the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the County Supervisors to review the county child welfare system. Regardless of the findings, I suggest that the remedy to DCFS’ woes has mostly to do with the lack of resources needed to implement the well-intended programs.  More than anything else there is no substitute for well-prepared, experienced workers who have the resources necessary to effectively intervene in the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community like the two toddlers found wandering the street.

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