Child abuse: More funding, not more oversight

Trey Smith

Child abuse is a pervasive problem not only in Oregon but across the nation.  Statistics and case studies clearly show that children, who grow up in abusive environments, are more prone to have difficulties adjusting to adulthood and/or will become abusers themselves.

As reported in the Oregonian on Monday, several bills aimed at strengthening the state's investigation and handling of reports of child abuse and neglect are making their way through the legislature.  One particular bill -- HB 2010 -- would create a Child Protection Unit in the Department of Justice which would provide oversight to the work of the Department of Human Services.

According to the article, "Child Welfare Patch Proposed",

This flurry of activity reflects growing concern about a rise in child abuse and neglect in the state. Reports of child abuse and neglect have increased steadily over the past decade and are up 61 percent since 1994. According to a recent report by the nonprofit advocacy group Children First for Oregon, one in 100 children in the state is a confirmed victim of child abuse.

While I certainly applaud legislators for attempting to try to deal with this complex issue, the creation of another layer of oversight will NOT provide the kinds of results people desire.  No, the primary issue is funding!

As is all too typical of the mainstream media, the Oregonian didn't bother to bring up the funding issue until the very END of the article -- most readers never get that far! 

DHS caseworkers and others close to the system argue that it is not a lack of oversight but a lack of resources that is the key problem.

"There's certainly a lot of room for improvement and a lot of it has to do with resources. We're going to get the system we invest in," said Mark McKechnie, a social worker with the nonprofit Juvenile Rights Project, which represents children in Multnomah County courts.

But appeals for more resources run head-on into state budget constraints. At a recent public hearing in Oregon City, Dalto asked a DHS caseworker, "Where do you see these children falling through the cracks?"

"Not having caseworkers with the time and resources they need," Julie LaChapelle replied.

"There is not going to be more resources," interjected Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, a subcommittee member. "Your answer may be 100 percent, 1,000 percent right, but that's not going to happen."

From my perspective, the key problem with the creation of a new Child Protection Unit is that it attacks the situation at the wrong end of the process.  Reviewing cases that have already been handled won't insure the safety of the specific children involved. 

While it is certainly true that new rules and procedures can be developed as the result of a case that "falls through the cracks", the point made above by Ms. LaChapelle truly goes to the heart of the matter.

If both legislators and citizens genuinely want a social services system that heads off problems before they happen, the political will must exist to provide DHS with more money.  Greater financial resources will result in the hiring of more workers to handle ever-increasing caseloads.  It will allow these individuals to be better trained AND, most importantly, they will be less rushed and able to spend the time needed to insure the safety of children.

As Mark McKechnie stated above, Oregon's social service system is only as good as what we invest it.   

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    Trey, I'm glad you posted on this subject (though a little dismayed to see no chatter)--I had planned to do it sometime soon.

    You identify one structural fault of the proposed changes. There are child welfare reasons that are far more critical. What Giusto wants is a criminal justice solution to a social problem. There's no doubt that child abuse (whether it is neglect, physical or sexual abuse, or even that DHS catchall "threat of harm") is inexcusable. In many cases, it is also criminal. But that ignores the causes of the problems and suggests a solution that will only further injure children, not help them.

    The way the child welfare system now works is that when a case is opened, DHS will work with the family to address the needs of the affected children in the case. There may be concurrent criminal charges that proceed concurrently, but DHS tries to establish a connection with the family to see that they become caring, functional parents. If they can't be functional parents, DHS moves to place the children with relatives (best) or adopt them out. What the child needs is quick action to achieve safety, permanency, and well-being within the home.

    Creating a layer of criminal justice oversight will breach this relationship (in my opinion). Parents, already leery about government agencies, will really be spooked by this new authoritarian approach. That means more kids will need to be adopted out. But because there's no great call for older children, what it really means is long-term foster care until adulthood.

    From the child's point of view, that means a severed bond with the parent. While some parents really are bad people and have a malign effect on their kids, a large number just need help and guidance and function as great parents.

    This criminal approach is exactly the wrong step. It emphasizes punishment, not collaboration; the result is not in the interest of kids. I don't expect Bernie Giusto to know the child welfare agency from a pipe wrench, but I hope legislators do: this is a bad solution to a real problem. The result will be a worse, real problem.

  • Trey (unverified)

    To view a discussion of more problems with legislative remedies to child abuse and neglect, you can visit my blog, The Rambling Taoist and check out the entry Child Abuse & Society.

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    From the age of 12 through the age of 17, I lived and slept dorm style with four to seven foster boys as my dad ran a foster home.

    Recently in Sandy, we had foster children that were damn near killed through neglect and abuse. In following this story it seemed to me that both components are desperately needed. It doesn't do any good to take a preadolecsent child away from parents who were caught smoking pot and give them into the tender care of some asshole that's basically doing the gig for the money and doesn't give a damn about the kids. The caseworkers are totally swamped and it's impossible for even the most dedicated public servant to screen and check progress on 60 or 70 cases.

    You bet there's criminal conduct occuring in addition to neglect and inadequate resources.

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    You bet there's criminal conduct occuring in addition to neglect and inadequate resources.

    This isn't an insignificant point. The last thing in the world anyone who gives a damn for kids wants is for those kids to be abused or remain in contact with abusive parents.

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