On a regular basis we are all overwhelmed by horrific stories of abuse and neglect of children. It seems incomprehensible that such atrocities can happen in our community. The sad reality is that no matter what is being done to prevent the abuse and neglect of children some persistent factors–poverty, addiction, poor education, and a lack of job opportunities– undermine efforts to support families, keep children safe, and more importantly position them to thrive.
In addition to the variables mentioned above, the child welfare system itself is overwhelmed and in many instances ineffective. Lack of early intervention for families at risk for abuse and neglect is insufficient. Prevention strategies are more reactive than integrated into a seamless system of care. Resources needed to support essential services are inadequate, driven by a mantra of doing more with less. The end result is that most vulnerable children, youth, and families are at risk of being irreparably harmed in spite of the good intentions of the social services system.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and a time for us as a society to examine the risks and harms some children endure and what we can do collectively and individually to break the cycle of abuse that has a hold on the most vulnerable. The answer is not just better policy or smarter use of limited resources, but creating communities that care about their children and support a safety net of informal and formal relationships that keeps them from harm.
For many generations, child welfare was a system driven by good intentions that provided a great refuge for children. To this day, we enjoy visits from former residents who tenderly recall the lasting impact Hillsides had on their lives. As grateful as they may be, they inevitably mention their family and the loss experienced because of the separation from them. For some, reconciliation has been achieved and for others, it is still a lament but regardless family is important. More studies point to how pivotal family is to the long-term well-being of children in the foster care system.
Recent reform measures have been introduced in California that will have a dramatic impact on the foster care system over the next decade. In particular, Continuum of Care Reform (AB 403) is new legislation that took effect in January, 2016, which is oriented to preserving families and keeping children safe. In addition, the legislation assembles a spectrum of services that breaks the cycle of failed foster home placements with effective treatment driven by the need to create stability for the most vulnerable children and their families.
These reforms call for a multi-service approach that use proven treatment programs to keep children safe and in their community and, if possible, with their families. The availability of a robust set of community-based services that interfaces easily with schools, emergency rooms, public safety, civic organizations, and faith communities is essential for the success of these reform efforts. Funding for outreach, prevention services, and early intervention is also indispensable. For the majority of children and families, these efforts will go a long way in preventing traumatic separations while valuing the role family plays in ensuring the well-being of their children. For those who require a greater level of care, these reform measures call for short-term residential treatment programs where assessments can be conducted and long-term plans for the stable restoration of the family can be developed. As part of the effort to reduce stays in residential treatment, resource homes (formerly called foster homes) become a great alternative. These are specially trained resource families available to care for youth in a less restrictive environment while professional staff work with the youth’s families until reunification can be achieved.
This model of care is a refreshing solution to the ineffective system of care that inconsistently addresses the needs of children and youth in foster care. This vision hopefully will be more effective in developing long-term, family and child-oriented solutions to the dysfunction and trauma that have been experienced. In this regard, studies have shown that this approach significantly mitigates the risk of abuse and neglect. Noting these reforms during this month when we raise awareness regarding abuse and neglect of children offers hope to a broken system. These reforms may actually have the intended impact of restoring hope and well-being to the children, youth, and families served in foster care.