What's in a Name?
That Which We Call a Rose
By Any Other Name
Would Smell as Sweet
I recently conducted a phone interview with the new director of a Child Protective Services program in a state out west. I was surprised at the turn our conversation took.
“What is the biggest problem you see as you take over Child Protective Services?” I began.
“The name of the program,” he answered.
“The name of the program?” His answer surprised me.
“Yes,” he said. “The name, Child Protective Services puts the emphasis in the wrong place. I’ve never liked it. The child welfare system is currently designed not as a way to assist parents in taking care of their children, but as a way to punish parents for their failures by threatening to take their children away. Child protection proceedings are more akin to criminal trials than civil adjudication. Most of my caseworkers see themselves as protecting children from their parents. They think of themselves as officers of the court. I realize that this has always been the emphasis in child welfare, but I think it is time for a change.”
“What will you change now that you have the chance?” I asked.
“Training,” he said. “I want to expand our understanding of the problem. There’s a bias in child welfare that identifies the parents as the problem. This, I assure you, is an oversimplification. I want to change that bias to something like, “what problems do the parents have? What condition has brought this family to a crisis point that requires my department to be called in? Is it poverty, drug addiction, or, perhaps, mental illness? Is there anything we can do to help alleviate the problem and return the child to their parents as quickly as possible? I want to rename my department, Family Protective Services.”
“Won’t that require a change in the law in most states?” I asked.
“In most states it will not only require a change in the law but also a change in outlook, custom, budget, and bias. It is critical, however, that we begin to make the change. We have spent billions of dollars and countless man hours removing children from their families and placing them in foster homes that keep them safe from the immediate trauma their family is experiencing. But usually this replaces one childhood trauma with another. We must see our mission as keeping a child safe in the short term while we try to help the family recover in the long term. The second half of the equation must be seen as essential to our calling. Now, it is not.”
“Isn’t it the job of some other social service to help the parents with their problems?” I asked.
“Yes, it probably is. But without coordination and focus, neither the child’s nor the family’s problem ever gets addressed. Family Protective Services will see it as our mission to coordinate the efforts of all case workers with the goal of returning a child to its family as quickly as possible. Granted, the greater majority of CPS case workers have this goal somewhere in the back of their mind, but I want to bring it forward. I want to measure outcomes based on putting families back together, not only removing children from harm."