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Keeping Families Together

Moving at-risk kids into foster care compounds the hurt. A new approach gives families the support they need to remain intact.
Home visits help parents become their baby's best early teachers

Home visits help parents become their baby's best early teachers Courtesy of Parents as Teachers

An elderly mother describes how in 1942, doctors who were treating her baby’s serious rash quarantined him in a hospital. Teddy had good medical care, but she was allowed to see him only occasionally. Originally a responsive infant who loved being cuddled, she says, her baby boy became aloof and distant as time went on.

When Teddy finally came home after several months he was lethargic and withdrawn, and had completely lost interest in people, including her. “All [the doctors] could see were the physical problems,” says the mother. “I don’t think there was much research on how babies feel about things.”

There is now.

Scared Sick, the new book for which the above videotaped interview serves as an online promotional trailer, traces connections between chronic fear in childhood and its consequences in adult life. The book draws on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. This groundbreaking research showed that the bodies and brains of children who live with constant fear and loss are neurochemically altered. Later in life, they are prone to learning disorders, social and behavioral problems, chronic depression and physical ailments such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, despite making healthy lifestyle choices.

Growing knowledge about the long-term effects of childhood trauma and the importance of relationships is changing the foster care system. Today, more and more families who are reported for child abuse or neglect are staying intact, as long as officials determine that the children’s safety is not at high risk. Instead of removing the kids, child welfare professionals and community groups are providing families with critical support services such as job training or mental health treatment, and coaching them in parenting techniques.

Such family-centric goals and approaches aren’t wholly new to child welfare in Washington State. For example, a Kirkland teen who ran away from home after a fist-fight with his father was quickly reunited with his family once child welfare professionals gave the father, who had been struggling to keep a rebellious kid in line, some better parenting strategies. And though a decade ago a drug-addicted mother would have lost her child, today there are rehabilitation facilities that let that mother keep her child while she’s in treatment.

But soon these kinds of research-based child welfare strategies for preserving families in crisis will systematically govern policy and daily practice throughout the state. In January 2014, the state’s Department of Social & Health Services will launch a “differential response” program called FAR (Family Assessment Response) at the first of 12 of its Children’s Administration offices in regions across Washington. There are dozens of groups and organizations developing birth-family-centered approaches for families reported to the state's foster care system. But due to its wide geographical reach FAR, in particular, promises to make a major impact.

FAR is an alternative to the investigations carried out by the DSHS's Child Protective Services group (CPS), which often end in children being removed from their homes. CPS investigators will still pursue all cases of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse or neglect. But in cases determined to be low-risk, assessment workers from the Children’s Administration (CA) will focus on helping the family, rather than breaking it up.

FAR "isn't just social workers telling parents 'You can’t let your kid run around in dirty diapers for seven hours,'” says Jennifer Strus, CA’s acting secretary. Strus came to DSHS early this year after 14 years on the staff of the state legislature, most recently as senior staff coordinator and counsel for the committee on human services and corrections. If financial and related hardships were what drove shaky parents to mistreat their kids, she continues, “FAR might provide a utility payment to families whose electricity was shut off, or seek affordable housing for them if they couldn’t pay the rent.”

In the process, the family will be connected with community providers for future support. To Strus, 57, an attorney by training, building community networks is “most critical.” When the agency eventually withdraws from a stabilized case, it will leave behind “a support system for that family, in their neighborhood." If the family runs into trouble again, says Strus, "they don’t have to get re-referred to us."


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 30, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Politicians often ignore scientific evidence when proposing legislation that impacts children in foster care. They let emotion and political and religious ideology trump current research. The result? Laws and policies that actually harm the children they want to protect.

This article should help educate the public and our legislators on why it is beneficial to children to offer support to their families so that they can be reunited with them sooner or stay with them in times of crisis (with appropriate resources). I know this is not realistic in all cases, but we should never make decisions for children based solely on the low-incidence, high-profile examples of abuse we so often read about in most media outlets.

Well-written, Judy Lightfoot!

gaia

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Given the number of child slain by their parents that were returned to their parents while under the un-watchful eyes of DSHS employees make me just a tad bit skeptical of this approach.

Scared sick or scared dead, some choice, and the kid has no say in the matter, it's all decided by a nameless and faceless bureaucratic entity, all in the name of science. The only person who pays a price in this is the kid, the bureaucrat always gets off scott free while the person they enabled does the time.

If every kid that was removed from parental care turned out like "Teddy" then we should pay attention, but I'll bet "Teddy" is more the exception than the norm.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 3:11 p.m. Inappropriate

High-profile, low-incidence cases, Djinn. Tragic nontheless, I agree. Beyond heartbreaking.

When we see this coverage in the media, we believe it happens with a greater frequency than they truly do.

gaia

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 9:50 p.m. Inappropriate

You could be right but we'll never know because DSHS isn't about to release that kind of information or the number of incidents. It's classified.

The cynic in me says DSHS is lucky if they have a 50% success ratio. I'm not sure if Lightfoot had or was provided the success ratio, but it would be nice to know that the kids actually have a better then even chance of a little happiness in their lives.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Aug 2, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Hi Djinn,
Gaia is right - there are so many children who interact with the system, but we only see a handful of worst case scenarios in the media. I'm glad Crosscut is taking this story series on.

Some of the state data can be found on Partners for Our Children's Data Portal. You can see information on investigations/assessments, families who receive in-home services and out-of-home care (i.e. foster care). Play around with the measurements, graphs, etc. and let me know what you think!

http://partnersforourchildren.org/data-portal

Erika

Posted Sun, Aug 4, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Kids at risk is an interesting series and an important topic to discuss, Ms. Lightfoot, thank you.

It may be of some interest to your readers to learn about an outstanding volunteer opportunity in WA State which enables citizens to actually assist and help overburdened DSHS CPS employees.
The National CASA Association is a network of 933 programs that are recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom and other settings.

CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.

Independent research has demonstrated that children with a CASA volunteer are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care.

For more information:
http://www.casaforchildren.org/site/c.mtJSJ7MPIsE/b.5301295/k.BE9A/Home.htm

SJO

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