No matter how challenging a family situation can be, there are few children I have met in 30 years in this field who do not long for the love and caring of a family. If not their own, they desire some family who can offer them the permanent stability they desire. This dream has spurred the development of Hillsides and other child welfare agencies to become more family-oriented, spending time and resources to identify effective treatments to engage residents and families. As a result, 85 percent of the children we serve in our residential program are reunited with their families, a significant achievement given the challenges they confront.
It is certainly worth the effort to see a child’s dream realized and a family’s desire achieved but it is hard work requiring tremendous efforts and resources. The dilemma has to do with marshalling the resources necessary to realize the dream. Because the children and families we serve face severe challenges, the services they require are expensive. At a time when child welfare public funding is limited, there is little political will to spend 80 percent of the available funds on 20 percent of children in care. This leaves a small amount of funds to provide preventative and early interventions even though studies indicate that the earlier the intervention, the greater likelihood of success. However, for those children who do not benefit from early intervention, their needs are great and addressing them requires considerable resources.
Some are quick to blame a broken child welfare system. They point to one horrific account of neglect and abuse after another as justification for curtailing much-needed resources to support providers that are dedicated to offering services to children with acute needs. While no one would argue that long-term residential treatment is the solution, it is also unreasonable to suggest for these clinically-involved children that some form of residential treatment is not appropriate.
Both the U.S. Congress and the California State Assembly are reviewing legislation that would reform child welfare practice and financing. Some of the legislation is Draconian, calling for an elimination of all forms of residential treatment, congregate care, and even foster homes in favor of prevention and early intervention. This strategy is short-sighted because it ignores the unfortunate reality of the small percentage of children whose traumas continue to haunt them. These children require very specific and well-executed services to restore some semblance of self-esteem. These are the children we serve in our residential program and their needs can not be ignored because of an effort to cap the money spent on child welfare.
Child welfare is experiencing a sea change driven by solid research that has introduced time-delineated, evidence-based treatments proven to be both effective and efficient. Whatever emerges from the reform and refinancing efforts should insist on utilization of these measures. However, arbitrary time constraints that would limit residential treatment from one week to no more than thirty days are not realistic given the complex needs of these children and the fragile state of their families. No child should be deprived of the comfort of their home and family without good reason, however, their safety must come before all else. Children who, through no fault of their own, have experienced multiple failed treatment services need not only a safe, nurturing environment but also a robust system of care to overcome the destabilizing traumas they have experienced. The system’s inability to assure the resources necessary to provide an array of services jeopardizes the long-term well-being of generations of children.
Together with many advocates, Hillsides supports all reasonable efforts to keep families together, and we are committed to reuniting families that have been separated. We pledge to employ only those treatment models that have proven to be most effective and reduce the amount of time children are away from their families while in treatment. We oppose the arbitrary assignment of length of care as short-sighted and an inadequate mechanism that fails to account for the complexities of each child and family. We encourage the adequate funding of prevention and early intervention services but not at the expense of supporting a comprehensive system of care that includes short-term residential treatment. Resources are limited and therefore require all child welfare organizations to be efficient and effective.
Vulnerable children and their families deserve more than a moment before Solomon who offers to sacrifice one for the other. They deserve an adequately funded system of care that embraces their dreams and understands that the investment made in these children and their families will generate unimaginable dividends.