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Child Welfare

Interview with Kathleen Kufeldt and Brad McKenzie, editors

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What is the state of Child Welfare in the developed countries these days?

It is much better than it was a little over 100 years ago. At that time there were no laws for the protection of children - a little girl in New York was discovered badly abused - her parents were charged under the laws preventing cruelty to animals! However in the course of developing this book one young person in care observed to us that animals still had better protection. Judges could rule that offenders could not have other animals but children can be returned to be re-abused. We still have a long way to go.

Who comes first in child welfare - the child, the parents or the agency?

This is part of the dilemma. There are competing interests and until recently little attention has been paid to measuring outcomes. Indeed the issue of what is a desired outcome is still rather nebulous. Agencies have tended to measure outputs rather than outcomes. For example they may be able to measure how many children are served per year, what percentage are placed in foster care, how many go home, what is the average stay in care. So in one sense it seems that workers are serving agencies rather than clients. Indeed, workers will claim that meeting bureaucratic requirements for filling out a myriad of forms for accountability’s sake leaves little time for working with clients. Ostensibly however, legislation and policy is written in terms that place preservation of the family first. This might work if families at risk had sufficient resources and supports - many live in poverty and support services are scarce and underfunded. There is a funding bias towards taking children into care. Then when we look at whether children are well served, we find in the first place that they have to suffer quite serious harm before protective services can come into play. The choices are: being left at home, spending time in temporary care, or coming into care permanently when they are then eligible for adoption. However it is rare for a permanent order to be made until everything else has been tried and usually the child has been in care for some time. By then the child may be too old to be easily placed and/or will have problems in trusting enough to attach to a new family.

Who should come first?

Undeniably the child should come first, but this does not mean that parents should be disregarded. You will find in this text that there is developing a gradual shift towards considering children’s well-being rather than the narrow issue of protection. There is a call for comprehensive assessment at the point of first contact. Rather than the current check list “risk assessment” approach there should rather be a “needs assessment.” What does this child and his or her family need to provide a safe environment? Our British contributors have moved to a “Quality Protects” initiative. Assessment in this approach looks at the child’s development, the capacity of the parents to meet the child’s developmental needs, and importantly what is the quality of the environment. We are becoming much more aware of the fact that families need to be able to live in healthy communities to raise healthy families.

Can one protect the child without destroying the family?

Yes indeed. The first line of defence - and there is eloquent coverage of this in our book - is to bring support to the families - one of our contributors calls it “expanding the frontiers” - and focusing on family wellness rather than family pathology. When a child needs to come into care then the family should continue to be involved to the degree possible. The ideal is shared care between foster family and child’s family. As we know from the situation of families split by divorce and separation, parents can continue to parent even though they may no longer live with their children. And where adoption is the preferred option we are becoming more aware of the value of open adoption.