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The Provider e-Edition article

Friday, April 18, 2014

How do we know when a child is safe at home?

By Earl N. “Skip” Stuck

Everyone knows that in the past several months, sad and disturbing revelations related to the dis- appearance of a young child from Fitchburg have focused public attention on the state's role and respon- sibility to protect children. Investigations from several sources continue to look at this incident, as well as the broader implications for the child protective system.

At-risk families and abused and neglected children reside in every community. We know that thousands of children are abused and neglected every year in every state including the Commonwealth, and it is virtually impossible to identify every child at risk, to remove every child from danger or to prevent every tragedy ... even when the system is working perfectly. Yet we have to ex- pect that everything that is within our power to do will be done. This is the only responsible standard for a civilized society.

One reaction that many people seem to have to the recent headlines is to assume that the Fitchburg child, and in fact every child at risk, should be removed from their homes. Certainly, no sensible person would deny that removal is sometimes warranted. Some parents are simply incapable of protecting their own children from others -- or even from themselves -- at different times and for a host of reasons.

However, I think there is another, more important lesson here that we hope is not missed. This is that not every child or even the majority of them need to be re- moved, even those at risk, if we remember one critically important thing: The best way to ensure safety is through engaging families, not avoiding them.

If an at-risk child remains at home and no one vis- its, no services are provided and the family is left to fend for itself, the risk rises dramatically, as seems evident from the recent headlines.

Yet there are a great many resources available. These include supervised and mentored visitation, sup- port and stabilization, peer support, parent training and counseling help with mental health and substance is- sues. Churches, support groups and other resources that help with pressing problems such as domestic vi- olence, finances and housing can alleviate stresses that too often result in violence directed toward children. To some extent, these are all available to the people who need them.

Unfortunately, they are not always offered, some- times because of budget constraints or worse because the maze of departments and organizations at the state, federal and local levels is intimidating, chaotic and frus- trating. It is a system that even knowledgeable profes- sionals have difficulty navigating, much less families in crisis.

The Department of Children and Families can’t pro- vide every service, but we can start heading in the right direction with the recognition that with engagement and consistent attention, children can be kept safe and fam- ilies kept together. Likewise, even when a child has to be removed, reunification services, quality supervised vis- itation, aftercare and other services can help assure that the child returns to a safer home.

The point here is that we know removing every child is not logistically possible, nor is it effective practice. Neither Massachusetts nor any other state has the number of quality foster and adoptive homes to care for every child, nor the funds to pay for these things, even if it was the right thing to do. It is irrelevant what our per- sonal opinions might be; the fact is that well over 85 percent of children removed from homes will at some time return. But the question is: To what will they re- turn?

With help, the great majority of families can care safely for their kids and provide a real home. Removing every child is not the answer, but neither is not paying attention to them or their families. Engaging families, supervising care, providing both supportive services and high expectations of accountability for both the families and the “system” is the answer.

So how do we know when a child is safe at home? A good place to start is by thinking about an observation made by a well-known educator and child welfare expert who was asked by a reporter if it was really possible to engage and help abusive and neglectful families – Weren’t their kids safer and better off without them?

His response went something like this: “You can work with some families, and not with others, that's true. But the problem is that – until you make a real ef- fort to know them and work with them – they all look like the kind of family that you can't work with.”

The responsibility falls on us to pay attention all the time – not just when the headlines are on everyone’s mind – and to make a pledge to both protect children and strengthen families.


Earl “Skip” Stuck is the CEO of Family Continuity

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