Re-inventing Child and Family Services

Commentary, Poverty, Frontier Centre

The CBC recently taped a radio forum which looked at Manitoba’s child protection system. The discussants spanned the range of stakeholders, from civil servants and social workers to foster parents and former wards, to legal children’s advocates and, remarkably, a woman whose children had been taken into care.

Her story was poignant. She’d had a problem with alcohol and violence, and does not dispute the justice of the original seizure. But she tackled her problems and is now a sober, intelligent university student. Yet she can see her three offspring only once a month.

Many of the panelists were aboriginal, the community most affected by child welfare policies. According to Statistics Canada, seven out of ten aboriginal mothers are unmarried and, of the more than 5,000 children in the custody of Child and Family Services (CFS), about the same proportion are aboriginal. Family breakdown closely shadows poverty, and since the First Nations are the poorest, these hard facts are quite real. Foolish welfare rules intensify the chaos.

As dedicated and professional as the CFS folks undoubtedly are, the agency faces incentives that bias activities towards apprehension. Their standards for judging child safety underplay the importance of family bonds and often overplay trivial externals like the neatness of the home. You can’t blame them for their zeal. One dead child can ruin careers, and staff turnover levels are astronomical, as high as 100% a year for front-line workers.

The dimensions of the problem confound our centralized system. It evolved from a network of neighbourhood groups, the former Children’s Aid Societies, who had the advantage of more local knowledge. Volunteers turned into civil servants, better trained but by definition more distant from their client base. These consolidations were inevitable, inasmuch as they occurred throughout Canada and the United States.

They were also dogged by the same kinds of trouble. Combine responsibility for child safety with the imperfect duties of assessment and evaluation, and throw in the legal power to apprehend children. It’s a recipe for concentrated power with great potential for harm.

Three American states have led the charge to correct this excess, and others are imitating them. Using similar tools, they broke away parts or all of the child protection apparatus by moving them out of direct government administration. They set service standards and contracts with non-government providers.

Texas put its information systems out to bid in 1996, expanding access by state child workers to efficient, comprehensive data bases and freeing them up to concentrate on their specialties. It plowed the $30 million annual cost savings back into child services. Another benefit: if the private provider doesn’t perform, the independent state evaluator can yank its contract.

To reduce its foster caseload, Michigan moved to privatize adoptions in 1987. It tightened definitions of abandonment, imposed limits on the time children can sit in foster limbo and used a sliding scale of incentive fees to move them quickly into permanent homes. It pays more for the hardest cases, problem children and older ones. Between 1991 and 1997, the annual adoption total doubled, as did the placement of disabled children. Adoptions of black children tripled.

Kansas has spun off practically every element of its child protection system. In 1996, it contracted family preservation services out to five private agencies and adoptions to Lutheran Social Services. In 1997, foster and group home delivery followed, with three companies winning bids. Contractors are paid a single fee per child, which gives them a strong incentive to move children in the direction of permanent placements.

The state sets tough targets for its contractors and demands that they meet or exceed them. The values that animate the standards include the safety of the child, a minimal number of placements per child, the restoration of family ties and placements with siblings. Fewer children now spend less time in foster care, and efforts by mission-driven agencies have attracted an influx of charitable funds. Adoption rates rose 44% in year one and another 81% in year two. Child abuse levels approached zero.

It’s been 12 years since the ground-breaking book “Re-inventing Government” was published. It outlined the modern public sector’s changing role, where government acts as a traffic cop instead of trying to drive all the cars. What’s different about these three pioneering states is that they applied this phenomenon to a slice of social services to promote their activity’s central purpose of their activity, the child’s welfare.

The recent death of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former Democratic Senator from New York, reminds us of his classic warnings about the breakdown of family structures in the modern welfare state. Today’s increased demand for child services is partly a consequence of that syndrome.

That sort of trouble is growing, making it more urgent to use the best tools to meet it head-on.

More on welfare reform..