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Failing at the impossible.

Byline: The Register-Guard

After evaluating the child welfare and foster care systems in 32 states, the federal Department of Health and Human Services concluded that not one of them, including Oregon, is doing a good enough job of protecting children from abuse and finding permanent homes. The findings suggest that child welfare workers have been handed a nearly impossible job. Punishing them for their shortcomings is unlikely to produce better results.

The evaluations represent a welcome shift to a results-oriented assessment of child welfare programs. Rather than determining whether state agencies conform to standards and rules, the Child and Family Services Reviews examine whether children are being adequately protected from abuse and whether they're being moved out of foster care and into permanent homes quickly enough.

Oregon failed on six out of seven measurements, but placed highest in the nation in terms of preserving the continuity of family relationships. Fourteen states failed in all seven categories, and no state passed more than two.

Passing the reviews, however, would require a delicate balancing act. The reviews examine, for instance, whether "children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect," and also whether "children are safely maintained in their homes whenever possible and appropriate." Pursuing the first goal would sometimes require setting aside the second, and getting a child out of a home where abuse or neglect is suspected. Weighing child safety against family stability requires judgments that are usually based on incomplete information - overloaded caseworkers seldom have the time to learn the often hidden details of every family situation. Errors can have tragic results for a child, a family or both.

The department noted that caseloads are too heavy in all states, and that child welfare programs would attain better results if caseworkers had more time for family visits. But Oregon and other states are having budget problems, and children who are in foster care or at risk of abuse don't have a political lobby. States that have failed the assessments must prepare plans to improve their child welfare programs. If a second round of tests shows no improvements, federal financial support for child welfare could be cut off.

A results-oriented look at child welfare programs is overdue. But the widespread deficiencies found among the states indicate that the problems do not stem from poor management or inefficient program design. Child welfare agencies are asked to achieve conflicting goals without adequate resources. And now, problems that stem at least in part from a lack of financial support are to be remedied by the threat of losing even more. The federal assessment is welcome, and shortcomings in child welfare programs are undoubtedly common - but cutting federal support won't help.
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Title Annotation:Child welfare deficiencies widespread; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 21, 2003
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