Monday, December 11, 2006

Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement in Georgia Does Not Ensure Improved Outcomes in Child Welfare – Madhavi Bezwada

Children in the foster care system are at risk of or have experienced exacerbated incidences of abuse and neglect. Government agencies responsible for intervening when a child is in danger or has been hurt can be ineffective and chaotic and even cause further damage to the child’s welfare, particularly in the state of Georgia. Georgia’s child welfare system has faced serious criticism; in an American Public Human Services Association survey Georgia ranked 47 out of 50 for outcomes of child welfare performance. (1) On June 16, 2002 Kenny A. v. Perdue, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of foster care children (plaintiff) alleging that Georgia's Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is “over-burdened, mismanaged and out of control, placing thousands of children at risk of harm.” On May 16, 2006 they reached a final settlement. (2) The settlement mandates, however, are inadequate and fail to improve child welfare outcomes. The mandates employ a “top-down” approach rather than an inside-out, community based approach, do not involve children in “a continuity of programs” which would increase a child’s self-efficacy and self-confidence (3), and use a power-coercive approach upon caseworkers and the foster care system.

Kenny A. v. Perdue was filed in 2002 on behalf of foster care children in state’s custody of the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Reports indicated that while in custody children languished for months in dangerous emergency shelters exposed to violence and without needed services. Children were often shuffled from foster home to foster home, creating an unstable environment. Studies show that children in foster care have experienced and are susceptible to high levels of abuse and neglect, affecting their self-confidence well-being. Also, caseworkers were overburdened and poorly trained to work with families. As a result, caseworkers were disconnected from the children and community. (4)

The goal of the settlement is to enhance DFCS’s ability to meet the needs of Georgia’s children and families, improving the well-being of foster care children. In the settlement, both sides agreed to system-wide infrastructure changes. However, these changes, perhaps vital on an administrative level do not necessitate improvements in a child’s well-being. The changes include reducing caseworker’s caseloads and hiring more caseworkers, increased visits between children and their caseworkers, ongoing planning processes to meet the needs of foster children, reducing the amount of time children spend in foster care, and mandatory training to equip workers with knowledge of new technology implementations. These measures do not ensure improvement outcomes for the children. (5)

The settlement mandates represent a top-down approach. Changes dictated from the state government down to local government and communities are inadequate. (6) Top-down approach does not involve stakeholders in the decision-making process and will not ensure successful outcomes. In order to protect and support children sufficiently, all stakeholders in the child welfare system - federal and state governments, child welfare agencies, schools, the legal system, medical providers, communities, and families – must act in a collaborative manner. The strategy must shift primary government responsibility to stakeholders, to improve service delivery through a collaborative approach. (6) Rather than a top-down approach, an effective strategy to improving child welfare is a community-centered approach, such as the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children approach.

Community Partnerships for Protecting Children (CPPC) is an approach to child protection in which government agencies and communities collaborate to claim responsibility for child welfare. Underlying the approach is the belief that one agency alone can never ensure that children are not maltreated; the diligence of the entire community is required. Developing a network of services and resources will support families and children. Integrating services in a community promotes a shared community-centered practice philosophy across the service network. The approach works with families to recognize their strengths and needs to keep children healthy and safe; builds strong community networks; and collaborates with stakeholders to utilize community resources. (7) Involving community members and stakeholders through a community centered approach enhances family support networks and in turn, child welfare. CPPC is a proven, successful community centered approach to improving child welfare. (8)

Permanency and continuance relationships are challenging to maintain for foster care children. The settlement strives to minimize a child’s movement between foster homes. However, DFCS has been unsuccessful in achieving this feat. The settlement should have explored another avenue to create stability for foster care children. Research shows “continuity of activities” is an effective and feasible mechanism for normalization. Participation is activities such as school, leisure, church, extra-curricular, sports, etc. helps generate increased self-efficacy and self-confidence. (9) Foster care children often have experienced abuse and neglect cases creating a lowered sense of self. Children who participate in such activities have felt empowered and confident through the activities. (10) Studies assert that if placement continuity is not possible then continuity of activities is an extension of allowing a child to have normal activities, disrupting the effect of movement in foster care. (3)

The settlement uses a power-coercive approach to change the foster care system by requiring DFCS employees to attend technology focused training and requiring caseworkers to increase visitation. The requirements may affect the foster care system administratively. However, the approach does not educate employees on how to change their practices with the children nor does it improve the foster care system. The settlement should have utilized a cooperative, action-research approach to educate DFCS employees on how to improve the persistent problems. A cooperative, action research approach would structure changes to help caseworkers process problems and identify solutions and supports. (11) Caseworkers should be educated and trained to utilize community-based supports and to work with foster care families. (8) Also, they should collaborate with stakeholders to improve the foster care system. These changes would help caseworkers improve the well-being of foster care children.

A recent monitoring report shows that since the settlement serious problems in the foster care system continue to harm children in Georgia. Foster care children in Georgia's custody are not being placed in stable foster homes, case managers are not making required in-home visits with children in foster homes, and foster care children are still at risk of abuse and neglect. In order to improve the welfare of foster care children, Georgia needs to utilize community-based resources, provide children with a continuity of activities and educate caseworkers through a cooperative, action research approach.

Resources

1) American Public Human Services Association. (APHSA)
http://www.aphsa.org/Home/home_news.asp
2) Worthington, Karen. “Overview of Fulton County Consent Decree in Kenny A. v.
Perdue”. Atlanta, GA: Barton Clinic of Emory University.
3) Fong, Rowena, James Schwab and Marilyn Armour. “Continuity of Activities and Child Well-Being for Foster Care Youth.” Children and Youth Sciences Review. Volume 28, Issue 11 , November 2006, Pages 1359-1374.
4) Barton Clinic of Emory University. http://www.childwelfare.net/
5) Child Rights. http://www.childrensrights.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cases
6) Gerry, Martin H. and Nicholas J. Certo. “Current Activity at the Federal Level and the Need for Service Integration.” The Future of Children – Spring 1992. http://www.futureofchildren.org/usr_doc/vol2no1ART10.pdf
7) Howard, Anne W. “Lessons From a Foundation’s Work to Prevent Child Abuse.” Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 31, 2006 v18 i22
8) Center for the Study of Social Policy. www.cssp.org
9) Schofield, G. The Significance of a Secure Base: A psychosocial model of long-term foster care. Child and Family Social Work, 7(4), 259-272.
10) Saleebey, Dennis. Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 4/e. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2006.
11) Chin, Robert and Kenneth D. Benne. “General Strategies for Effecting Changes in Human Systems.” The Planning of Change. USA: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976.

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