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Trends in Advocacy

To Remove or Not to Remove: Number Trends in Local Child Welfare Systems

As you may have read recently, the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found a 26% decline in the overall rate of maltreatment of children, including declines in physical and sexual abuse. Nothing could be more satisfying than to see the need for CASA/GAL advocacy eliminated through the eradication of all forms of maltreatment of children. Nonetheless, more than 1.25 million children in the US were abused or neglected during the study year (2005-2006), and more than 750,000 children each year continue to live under the care and protection of the state. The positive trend demonstrated by the new research may also be affected by the current recession, which began after the study period.

In addition to looking at national trends, it is important to consider what is happening in local and statewide child welfare systems. Many jurisdictions are making a concentrated effort to lower the number of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect. A variety of factors are influencing this trend, from federally mandated Child and Family Services Reviews in each state to declining family services budgets at the state and county levels.

Lowering removals is an honorable goal, assuming that children are kept safe and parents are receiving necessary services. But how is this playing out in local jurisdictions? Some CASA programs are seeing numbers of children in care dropping dramatically. Children living at home may still be overseen by family court and require services. Other programs face growing caseloads as numbers of children in foster care grow. Below are perspectives offered by two local CASA program directors from opposite ends of this spectrum.

Indianapolis’s Growing Numbers of Children in Care

Cynthia K. Booth, Esq.
Executive Director
Child Advocates, Inc.
Indianapolis, IN

In 2004, Indiana’s newly elected governor, Mitch Daniels, promised a sweeping reform of the state’s child welfare department. Governor Daniels and the Indiana legislature directed an unprecedented (and probably enviable to other states) level of funding to this reform. The reform added hundreds of case managers over a period of several years to decrease caseloads, introduced the use of child and family team meetings and endeavored to introduce principles of respect, communication and empowerment. Leading this reform at the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) was Judge James Payne, the former juvenile court judge from Indianapolis.

Although one of the goals of the reform may have been to decrease the number of children in foster care, recent events in my jurisdiction have revealed a dramatic increase in the number of children brought into foster care. The numbers of new Children in Need of Services (CHINS) cases in Indianapolis since the reform began have grown from 1,920 in 2005 to 2,526 in 2008. Note that there was a 66% increase in children assigned to CHINS in 2008, and preliminary numbers from 2009 indicate that the numbers of children entering foster care are not diminishing.

What caused the increase? Many of us in the system are trying to determine the answer to that question. The Honorable Marilyn A. Moores, presiding judge for the Juvenile Court in Indianapolis, is leading the welfare community in reviewing the increase to understand what is happening in our community. Our local CASA program participates in a multidisciplinary committee created by the Department of Child Services to determine trends or reasons for the increase.

Judge Moores indicated to me that she believes that the downturn in the economy has had an impact on the vulnerable in our community, resulting in homelessness among many more parents. In addition, while she perceives the increase in DCS case managers as a positive aspect of the state’s welfare reform, she believes it may have also facilitated the larger numbers of children in care. There has been almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you build it, they will come. From Judge Moores’s perspective, Governor Daniels provided the necessary tools and resources for Indiana’s child welfare system to respond appropriately and fully to protect children. Judge Moores summarized her opinion of the welfare reform in Indiana, “To Governor Daniels’ credit, he put kids first.”

Jennifer Hubartt, director of DCS for our county, indicated to me that she believes preliminarily that the increase is due in part to the increased number of case managers serving families and to a recent change in the law that eliminated one of two less intrusive, pre-CHINS options for DCS. Prior to 2007, a service referral agreement, featuring services that were monitored by DCS but not the court, could be offered to parents. Now, parents will either have a court-monitored agreement for services or an actual CHINS proceeding.

I believe that all of these reasons play a part in the increasing number of children brought into the system. Another possible factor was the implementation of a new DCS domestic violence protocol for children who have been part of or witnessed domestic violence incidents. Additionally, a more emotional, subconscious reason that may have affected investigatory decision-making was the tragic death in 2007 of one of our foster children who was killed by her mother’s boyfriend during a return to her mother’s care. This child’s death was a horrible reminder that our system’s decisions hold the lives of children in the balance.

Whatever the reasons for the increased numbers, the immediate impact on the children who are being brought into care in Indianapolis is undeniable. Adding to the children’s trauma from being brought into the foster care system is the lack of sufficient resources for all children to have advocacy from Child Advocates. In my opinion, there simply is not enough funding for every child to have a statutorily required CASA/GAL volunteer. These children coming into the system will wait for advocacy for the first six to nine months of their cases. Crucial decisions are being made about placements during the initial hearings, and trials are conducted without a central party being present: the child! My goal at every discussion about the increased number of children coming into the foster care system is to extend the concern to focus on the child’s right to advocacy from a CASA volunteer. And until that is addressed, we still have more to accomplish in Indianapolis.

Our Program’s Response to Diminishing Numbers of Children in Care

Greg Millette
Executive Director
Coastal Plain CASA, Inc.
Tifton, GA

CASA/GAL volunteers persistently seek safe, permanent homes for the abused and neglected children assigned to them. Yet safe and permanent are terms more related to art than science. Safety standards change over time, leading to a corresponding rise or fall in out-of-home placements. Emancipation is now rarely utilized as a permanency option, while guardianship has gained acceptance in some places. Philosophies favoring either foster care or family preservation alternately bring safety or stability to the forefront of public discourse. Within this changing environment, CASA programs and volunteers continually adapt in order to achieve a measure of both safety and permanency for individual children.

In Georgia, child welfare officials have been greatly reducing reliance on foster care by seeking quick routes to permanency for children already in care and alternate solutions for children who in the past might have been placed temporarily outside of the home. This shift marks a significant break from recent history, when Georgia used foster care as the primary safety net for abused and neglected children. During the last 18 months, the number of shelter care hearings in the Tifton Judicial Circuit has dropped from about two a month to an average of one every two months. In three of the four counties we serve, the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has gone almost a year without seeking foster care for any children.

As Georgia’s policy and practice have shifted, our CASA program has sought to respond proactively so that we can continue to offer timely advocacy to as many children as possible. Through the transition, we have learned many lessons that may be helpful to programs in a similar position.

  1. All abused and neglected court-involved children can benefit from CASA advocacy. Until recently, our program served only children in foster care. As DFCS practice has changed, our juvenile court has begun appointing us to serve children residing at home. For instance, volunteers now serve in (1) family preservation cases in which DFCS has sought to compel parent cooperation through a protective order; (2) requests for immediate transfer of custody in lieu of foster care; and (3) after-care cases during the months immediately following reunification. Our court has also begun ordering DFCS to more frequently accept joint commitment of dependency and juvenile justice clients, leading us for the first time to interact directly with the justice system.
  2. Conflict with DFCS will likely increase but can be managed. In earlier times, DFCS personnel and CASA volunteers were often headed toward the same goals, differing only in the desired pace of progress. Now, our recommendations frequently run directly opposite those of DFCS. In some cases, DFCS has attempted to return children to their parents prior to completion of case plan goals; we have opposed these petitions due to a concern that re-abuse seemed likely. We have also opposed petitions for a quick transfer of custody, fearing that the resultant end of reunification services might eliminate a child’s opportunity to grow up safely in the home of his or her parents. Consistent professionalism and courteous disagreement are essential in maintaining relationships and credibility in such circumstances.
  3. Other external and internal tensions may increase for volunteers. Parents are more likely to feel threatened as we monitor children living at home. Children living at home may be more reluctant to talk openly. In such instances, patience in rapport-building becomes increasingly important. Sometimes CASA volunteers may doubt themselves when their recommendations diverge from those of other professionals. Often, a simple word of encouragement from CASA staff will steady volunteers in their convictions.
  4. Volunteers and staff must work together more closely. In the current environment, a child’s circumstances can change quickly as DFCS rushes home evaluations, seeks near-immediate implementation of non-reunification plans or moves for reunification prior to completion of all case plan goals. It is essential that the CASA volunteer and supervisor communicate several times a month to ensure a timely response to unexpected twists and turns.

As with any CASA program, we are constantly adjusting to changes in state priorities, policies and practices. In the midst of adaptation, though, we maintain an unwavering commitment to our central hope. No matter their current circumstance, every abused child deserves safety and permanency. In every venue available to us, we will strive to creatively advocate for a great degree of both.

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