In New York City people wonder how child protection failed Zymere Perkins. In Los Angeles, it’s Gabriel Fernandez. In West Des Moines, Natalie Finn. In Minnesota, it’s still Eric Dean. In Florida, they’re wondering how the private agency that developed a widely touted and copied rapid safety feedback tool to prevent child deaths failed Aedyn Agminalis.
We investigate these tragedies, fire social workers and administrators, conduct studies about ways to fix the broken system, issue reports, reorganize systems and agencies, allocate more funds, hire more social workers, investigate more families, take more children from their families, and still children die. Occasionally children die even after we’ve taken them from their families.
National Geographic recently ran a story with incredible pictures of the Columbia Plateau. The story describes how this area fooled scientists for decades. “Most scientists clung to their initial theory about the geography even as data challenging the theory grew. Scientists, after all, are first and foremost human beings. They almost always favor their own theories over others. Rarely are theories completely right. Eventually, new theories gain acceptance as scientists with opposing views die out.”
In child protection, we just do more of what we’ve always done. We want to believe we can figure out which homes are safe, and which aren’t. We have risk assessment tools to help us decide. We don’t ever imagine that our problem arises from the deciding. In 2015, 3,358,000 U.S. children were either investigated or assessed by child protection. If social workers decided right 99.95% of the time, we still got it wrong 1,670 times. This is about the number of U.S. children known to child protection who died from maltreatment in 2015. Our bigger problem though, like the scientists in the National Geographic article, is once we decide children are safe enough, we tend to stick by our decision, even as more child protection reports are made, even as risk tools indicate greater risk, and even as evidence of danger mounts.
Perhaps it’s time we stop deciding. Admit we can’t always tell. Admit that even when we get it right, telling parents what to do, getting them to promise to do something different, or sending them to services to fix whatever defect allowed them to do it, or not do it, doesn’t always work. Even service providers can’t always tell if someone’s really changed.
We know without doubt that the best thing we can do to help children do well in life is to make sure they have stable and committed relationships with supportive adults. We have more safety when children have these adults around, the adults know all about child protection’s worries, know that to look for, and know what to do to help keep the children safe. It doesn’t matter whether these adults are helping children who are in danger stay safe, or helping safe enough children do better. There’s no need to decide. No risk of getting it wrong. Just child welfare social workers organizing the role of committed adults in the lives of at-risk children. Just groups of adults helping parents do well by their children. Just children growing up safely with their own families, whenever they can.