Where is the Voice of the Child?

Jeffrey Baldwin
Jeffrey Baldwin

A few months ago, I conducted a survey of just under 50 lawyers who represent children in the child protection system. I was interested in the degree to which children have voice when their parents are being assessed. Child protection often contracts for parenting capacity assessments to determine what the strengths and deficits of a parent might be and what might be done to return children to parental care, or avoid taking children into care.

For the family, these assessments are a “big deal”. The outcome can impact case plans, interventions that are or are not offered and, most importantly, whether the child should be in the care of the parents. Courts take a lot of notice of these assessments.

Child protection should be a child-centered business. After all, it is really about the best interest of the child. You can imagine how taken aback I was when all but one lawyer said that the child’s voice is rarely or almost never evident in these assessments.

In a seminar I ran with lawyers, I was told that assessors in their jurisdiction rarely even saw the child with the parents. They went on to say that assessors typically did not interview children of an age when that would be appropriate.

The results of my research shocked me, quite frankly. What it does suggest is that, at least in this process, the focus on the child has been lost. The rights of the parents have garnered too much attention by comparison.

I thought about this as well when reading the latest report from the Child Advocate in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The advocate spoke of numerous times that child welfare was involved with a particular child but that child was not interviewed or seen – repeatedly. This is not the first time that I have read reports of children who have died while involved with child protection where the reports note that the child was almost invisible in the case plan. One of the more famous cases comes out of the United Kingdom, the case of Victoria Climbie.

Another notorious case was in Toronto where workers failed to see Jeffrey Baldwin through many visits missing that he was starving to death.

These should act as powerful reminders that the child is the core purpose of the child protection system. The child needs to be seen, the child needs to have a voice and that voice needs to be heard.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of  CBCNews

Prevent Child Abuse America: Interview with Ben Tanzer

Earlier in April, VetoViolence and Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) recognized National Youth Violence Prevention Week through an “Ask the Expert” forum on Facebook. The event ignited a conversation about the importance of preventing youth violence before it starts. This week, to continue raising awareness and sharing resources on preventing violence before it starts, VetoViolence and Prevent Child Abuse America are hosting a second Ask the Expert forum on Facebook focused on child maltreatment prevention in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month.

PFPLogo2011I had the opportunity to interview Ben Tanzer, Senior Director of Strategic Communication for Prevent Child Abuse America, who is also a trained social worker. Ben talks about his work at Prevent Child Abuse America, their awareness campaign on child maltreatment, as well as the challenges they face in improving outcomes for children.

SWH: Tell us about your background and the work you do with Prevent Child Abuse America.

PCAA: I am a trained social worker who always wanted to work on children’s issues and always had a love for words. At Prevent Child Abuse America I get to play a role in our efforts to tell the story of early child development. How a programming and policy focus on enhancing a child’s brain, and their social-emotional life, has long-term positive impacts for both the individual and society. But that exposure to violence, poverty, and child abuse and neglect can undermine all of that. We try to tell this story through traditional means, press releases, statements, and interviews, as well as, new media, Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and the like.

SWH: What are the primary goals and objectives of Prevent Child Abuse America, and what activities help you work towards the achievement of those goals?

PCAA: Our primary goals and objectives are to create a society in which all children are given the support they need and the healthy childhood they deserve. A society in which all adults realize they play a role in the lives of all children, and in which no child is ever abused or neglected. We work to build awareness of the different ways that people can affect the lives of children and families in their communities as well as working to increase knowledge and understanding of our primary prevention program, Healthy Families America (HFA).

SWH: What are the biggest barriers and challenges your organization faces in reducing child abuse in America today?

PCAA: One of the largest barriers that we face is a communications challenge: that people are aware that child abuse and neglect is an issue and want to do something about it, but don’t know how. Many of us  are conditioned to believe that the only way we can help a child in need is by calling CPS if we suspect something is wrong. While this action is critically important, we know that there is much more that can be done to help prevent child abuse as opposed to intervening in an abusive situation, including everything from knocking on a neighbor’s door to see if they want a break from parenting to volunteering at local child-serving organizations to advocating for the expansion of innovative prevention and family support programs that may already exist in the communities we live in

SWH: How does your work engage or incorporate social workers in helping to improve outcomes for children?

PCAA: Healthy Families of America employs home visitors in communities across the nation, who may or may not be trained social workers, but who are providing support to families modeled on the core tenets of social work, for example, meeting people where they’re at, be that geographically, culturally, or emotionally. Further, many of the staffers in our chapters and at our national office are social workers by training. Social workers are critical to the success of our organization and our mission.

SWH: What do you hope to accomplish with the Facebook Ask the Expert awareness event, and how can regular, everyday people help prevent child abuse?

PCAA: We hope that the Ask the Expert event will help those who are interested in learning more about early child development and prevention better understand the various ways they can help play a role in promoting healthy child development and the prevention of abuse and neglect before it starts. If we’re able to spread the word to just a few interested people, and they in turn are able to help their friends and family understand that they, too, play a role, then we’re one big step closer to the kind of society we’re working towards.

Early Childhood Education Pilot has Complex Mix of Concerns

Recently, the Office of Head Start (OHS) announced its 2014 recipients of the Birth-to-Five Pilot program. As a graduate of head start, head start training curriculum developer, and trainer, I am encouraged by the pilot.

If you know anything about head start, you realize how important it is as a community development tool when done effectively with integrity. That’s the OHS’s intention with this new initiative. It also serves to highlight the varied concerns that are important to any social program.

According to the Administration of Children and families,

ECE_coverOriginally announced last year, the pilot aims to give communities greater flexibility in designing Head Start and Early Head Start programs to better serve the needs of young children and communities from birth until they enter pre-k or kindergarten.

“The response to this Birth-to-Five pilot points to increased need for high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start,” said Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison for early childhood development for children and families. “This reinforces the administration’s early childhood plan to expand the home visiting program, increase access to infant and toddler care, and make pre-kindergarten available for all.” Read More


I do not think many are left who would argue that it is a good idea for providers to compete for the OHS program dollars. What may be missed is what the pilot also accomplished with expanding competition as one concern. They had to allow for innovation!

The OHS has a competency-based structure that is amenable to innovative programming, but the history-based insistence on traditional approaches, attempts to replicate post-K schooling, and some evaluative practices kept innovation to a minimum. This new pilot gave programs an intentional mandate to develop programs that meet the competencies in new ways. The competitive nature of the pilot meant that the best ideas competed rather than the “safest.” As the announcement states, continued funding will also be competitive. The OHS is also moving from indefinite grant periods to 5-year cycles overall. This will hopefully result in programs that focus on innovation, efficiency, and achievement of ALL competencies rather than inferior, reductive measures of child school readiness.

Starting Earlier

With the hype of baby developmental products matched with the desire of seemingly every parent to see her child read, potty train, and walk as soon as possible, some may miss the lessons of child development. A move to earlier child education is less about books and math. It is more about the environment. Children are each different. They develop at different paces. The environment, both structure and influences, is as important an ingredient as “education.”

It is paramount that we not forget that the primary contribution if head start programs is the provision of home visits and establishment of a network around parents. This network connects them with their communities. It engages them intentionally in the development of the child. This community and supportive environment is THE engine of education for the young child.

What many do not realize is that head start is the only social program that actively recruits recipients as staff. In fact, over 1.3 million adults volunteered through head start in 2011, the last year data has been tabulated. A mom or dad with the program can work as a teacher, family service worker, bus driver, or cook. He or she can work up to being a team leader or site manager. The esteem, mobility, and continued development of parents further enhances the environment that the child grows and learns within.

The Pre-K Prep Argument

Recent criticism of head start has focused on the research explaining that the gains of early childhood education even out with children not in such programs by 3rd grade. Those who are not familiar with the services of head start may not realize that the span between kindergarten and third grade represents a tremendous loss of services. It is my hope that the findings of the research give impetus to us for school improvement beyond kindergarten.

The studies in question recognized that children moving from head start to kindergarten were developmentally and academically ahead. By the time they were in 3rd grade, the other children had caught up. One way to interpret this is to say that the school system could not maintain the gains. But, I would rather focus on a question of competition, parental involvement, and community supports in the public school system. Consider what education would be and what our communities would be if schools operated like head start programs: If they competed each year on innovation, if their model was to develop community through parents, if the “service” to families was equal to the “education” mandate. I am looking forward to the day when OHS launches that pilot.

Careers in the Various Types of Human Service Organizations

The human services field is a broad one, and it encompasses various organizations that meet the needs of individuals and families in our society using an interdisciplinary knowledge base. Human service organizations focus on both prevention and remediation of problems, and they advocate for policy changes that benefit at-risk groups in our communities. There are many different types of human services organizations, and each specializes in working with a different group of individuals.

Organizations for children

Social Worker with ChildHuman service organizations for children work with the youngest members of society to prevent abuse and neglect, advocate for policy change, work with families to build upon strengths and resolve weaknesses, and assist disadvantaged children in reuniting with their biological families or finding new home situations when appropriate.

Examples of human service careers working with children include:

  • Children’s protective service workers
  • Community social workers
  • School psychologists
  • Children’s mental health specialists
  • Child abuse workers
  • Probation officers and
  • Juvenile court liaisons

Professionals working in human service organizations for children often focus on building relationships with the families they serve, encouraging independent thinking and recognizing both strengths and weaknesses in the children and the family unit. These professionals are familiar with a wide range of community resources that assist children and families, and they make referrals to outside agencies as necessary.

Organizations for the elderly

At the other end of the spectrum are human service organizations that serve the geriatric population. According to aarp.org, approximately 90-percent of seniors have a stated desire to age in place. In order to do so safely, in home services are sometimes needed as the result of deteriorating physical or cognitive health and related safety concerns. Adult social service professionals often step in to assist with recognizing whether or not aging in place is a realistic goal, coordinating services and investigating protective service claims. When aging in place is no longer believed to be appropriate, many seniors enter assisted living facilities or nursing homes. In these facilities, professionals including licensed clinical social workers, nurse case managers, activities coordinators, social service assistants and mental health counselors provide assistance with the sometimes difficult transition from home to facility life and the day to day needs of the senior.

 Organization for disadvantaged populations 

Some human service professionals assist the most disadvantaged members of society rather than focusing on a particular age group. Substance abuse counselors, probation officers, halfway house counselors, public safety and disaster workers, migrant and immigrant case managers and mental health workers are but a few of the professionals who fall into this category of human service workers. These professionals use many of the same skill sets that other human service professionals use, but their focus is often on stabilizing individuals or safely and productively reintegrating them into society. Crisis management is a necessary skill for these professionals and many use it on a daily basis. Their focus is also on empowering clients, offering support and utilizing effective strategies to modify or reverse troublesome behaviors.

Organizations focused on advocacy

Finally, there are human service professionals who focus on advocacy, education or governing policies. While these individuals work less directly with individuals in our communities, their contributions to society as a whole should not be discounted. Human service careers focusing on policy and education include becoming a college level educator, working in the office of a local, state or federal politician, taking a leadership role in a non-profit organization, pursuing a career as a grant writer or advising schools, nursing homes, hospitals or other human service organizations. These positions are often more administrative, and they are well suited for the individual who enjoys public speaking, grant writing, research, creating policies and taking on a leadership position offering oversight to others within a human services organization. Many of these positions require advanced degrees.

The human service field offers vast career opportunities serving various at-need individuals in society. All of these opportunities have one thing in common, the need for trained, skilled human service professionals continues to grow, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a continued rise in employment opportunities within this field of up to 31-percent through 2022. With so many opportunities and the continued potential for future growth, there are many great reasons to consider a career in a human services organization.

Confidentiality Policies that Hurt Children in Child Welfare Protection Cases

A news story regarding abuse animal recently resulted in thousands of dollars in donations. The community was appropriately outraged when pictures and details of the abuse were aired by local television stations. The community responded with donations and tips that led to the identification and arrest of the abuser. It was striking that the community immediately mobilized to provide care for the dog, supporting the local rescue organization, and law enforcement in their efforts. The response was immediate and generous.

For me, the more striking aspect of this story was something unrelated. A story on Page 6 of the local newspaper reported the same day that three children had been removed and placed in foster care. A two-year-old had tested positive for exposure to three different illegal drugs.  Their babysitter called authorities when they observed that the toddler was not acting normally. The story went on to state the children lived in deplorable conditions and two children were hospitalized, but there were no donations. If there was an arrest, it was not reported. Instead of support for the organization charged with providing emergency care for the children, there was criticism that the abuse was not identified earlier.

boy with dogThe contrast in the two stories was readily apparent. The community rallied to support the animal rescue organization, law enforcement, and the veterinary clinic providing medical care for the dog. There were donations of money and supplies, assistance to law enforcement, and offers of care for the dog. The animal rescue organization issued a statement saying they did not need a home for the dog 24 hours after the story was reported; they had more than enough donations and offers of assistance.

Meanwhile, the child welfare agency was criticized, the medical provider not identified, and the role of law enforcement was not acknowledged. I doubt the story of child abuse prompted many calls offering a home for the children. Generally only stories of abandoned or abused infants generates calls from potential new foster parents or inquiries about adoption.

Why was there such a difference in response? I believe that, in part, confidentiality played a role. The names and locations of the children were not included in the news story. Details of the care required for the dog were shared while the care of the children remained confidential. The names of the alleged perpetrators of the abuse of the dog were widely publicized, including their ‘mug shots’. The rescue organizations and other community support agencies were identified. Conversely, the names of alleged perpetrators of the abuse of the children were withheld. Rarely are details of child abuse shared with the public. When there are news stories, they tend to be only the horrific cases where a child has died, has been starved, or is severely abused, and the focus generally is on ‘system failures’. For the record, I would not advocate for publicizing ‘mug shots’ of abusers in most child abuse cases. I firmly believe in a strength-based approach to treating and ultimately ending child abuse.

I understand the interest in shielding vulnerable children from media coverage, and my intent is not to compare children to animals. It is worth noting, however, that child protection emerged as a field as a result of animal protection laws. I am not one of ‘those people’ who bemoan the support received by animal rights organizations.

However, maybe child welfare could learn something from animal protection efforts. Maybe the public reporting of child abuse should be accompanied by a request for support, a list of opportunities to help. Maybe child welfare should be more transparent about the important work they do every day so that the next time a child is abused finger-pointing is replaced by offers of support. I look forward to the day that shelter care facilities for abused children are obsolete because of the abundance of foster homes available. And perhaps one day child welfare will be able to turn away offers of support. Better yet, maybe one day communities will be so engaged in protecting children that abuse reports are a rarity and replaced with a ‘norm’ of citizens reaching out to ensure children are cared for and nurtured. Perhaps one day….

Financial Lives of Young People in Foster Care

YPII is one of 15 sites across the country participating in Opportunity PassportTM, a package of resources designed by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative that teaches young people who have been in foster care how to manage their finances, and matches their savings toward approved asset purchases such as a car to get to work, a computer for school, or housing.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national foundation that supports young people transitioning from foster care into adulthood, commissioned a recent report that examines the impact of this matched assets and financial education program on young people aging out of foster care. Carol Behrer will discuss the report’s findings, her experience on the ground in Iowa, and the importance of programs that target asset accumulation among vulnerable young people in the child welfare system.

Enduring Assets: Findings from a Study on the Financial Lives of Young People Transitioning from Foster Care

By Clark Peters, PhD JD AM; Margaret Sherraden, PhD AM; and Ann Marie Kuchinski, MA

This report, published in September 2012, examines the impact of the Opportunity PassportTM‘s asset matching and financial education resources in the lives of young people aging out of foster care. The report found that these supports have a tangible impact on the ability of young people to lead financially stable lives long after they have left the foster care system. This summary presents major findings of the full report. For more information, download our news release.

The Jim Casey Foundation’s Youth Opportunities Initiative is the force behind the research on this invaluable topic. The Foundation designated Carol Behrer the Executive Director of the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa (YPII) to participate in our Twitter Chat.

[vimeo width=”640″ height=”380″]http://vimeo.com/43135529[/vimeo]

Here are a few of the tweets during the Live Chat. 

View Complete Chat Here

A live twitter chat was held on October 15, 2012 at 8 PM EST for a #SWUnited Twitter Chat which will discuss the Financial Lives of Young People in the Foster Care System. The Jim Casey Foundation’s Youth Opportunities Initiative is the force behind the research on this invaluable topic. The Foundation has designated Carol Behrer the Executive Director of the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa (YPII) to participate in our Twitter Chat.

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