Trine Bech: Strengthening families through community connections

Published in Vermont Digger 07/70/2014.

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Trine Bech, the executive director and staff attorney for the Vermont Parent Representation Center Inc.

Keeping Vermont’s children safe is the responsibility of not only the Department for Children and Families (DCF) but of us all. To meet this responsibility, our primary focus must be on strengthening families in order to keep children safe at home. This work is complex and our response cannot be to remove all children who are at risk, only those who cannot be safe at home. It requires a delicate balancing of the constitutional liberty interests of parents to raise their children without government interference, and the community’s need to keep children safe.

The primary role of DCF is to protect children and, if necessary, remove those who cannot safely remain at home. Vermont law also charges DCF with the task of working with struggling families and providing support and services needed to remedy safety concerns. Presumably our lawmakers believed that DCF could perform both roles effectively. The recent deaths of Peighton Geraw and Dezirae Sheldon highlight these conflicting roles and the severe consequences of our failure to craft an effective system. DCF Family Services workers cannot be responsible for both child protection and family strengthening at the same time. These roles are incompatible.

Valerie Braithwaite, an academic from Australia, was a keynote speaker at the recent Restorative Justice Conference in Burlington. She described what she referred to as a dysfunctional child-protection system in Australia: high caseloads that lead to poor outcomes for children, culminating in recent highly publicized deaths of children, followed by a series of major inquiries. Her research has shown that the fault lies not with child protection workers but with the overall system, which is prone to what she calls “regulatory authoritarianism.”

What Braithwaite calls into question is the systemic structure that instills in the same agency — in Vermont, the DCF — the power to police families and remove children, along with the responsibility to effectuate behavior changes in the parents whose children are at risk of being removed. Parents often feel victimized by a child welfare system they do not understand. Further, because DCF has the power to remove children, parents are legitimately afraid of the agency. They rarely identify and share their barriers to safe parenting with their DCF worker. The dual roles of child protection and family support are incompatible.

Because DCF has the power to remove children, parents are legitimately afraid of the agency. They rarely identify and share their barriers to safe parenting with their DCF worker.

As we examine our child welfare system with a critical eye, we must look to see how best to provide the supports that families need and identify those best situated to provide what is needed. We must be disciplined in our roles, separate them out, and leave the family strengthening to public and private entities other than DCF that possess the skills to effectively engage with the families. What we have now is an untenable mix of messages to families that translates into something like this: “Do this, this, this and this or else I will take your kids, but don’t forget you must trust me and tell me what you need help with, because I will help you get there.” That cannot work, and our outcomes data show that it does not. Is investing in additional DCF workers to do more of that which does not produce the outcomes we want the best approach?

In a recent Vermont House and Senate Health Care Oversight Committee hearing on the ongoing problems at DCF, Rep. Anne O’Brien, D-Richmond, questioned whether hiring additional DCF workers was the appropriate solution, stating: “Maybe there’s something else about that process or how we’re evaluating the families that needs to be changed.” O’Brien has started the conversation we need to have.

Our current practice in child welfare is to tell families WHAT to do, while spending little or no time walking with them and showing them HOW to do it. DCF case plans simply instruct parents to get safe and stable housing, dooming them to failure when there is nothing available that they can afford. The “walking with,” or system navigating, has to come from our community and from people interested in, and willing to spend the time, helping to remove the barriers our child welfare families encounter in their daily lives.

One such community based approach has been used effectively in Vermont to return high-risk offenders to their communities. Circles of Support & Accountability, CoSA, which originated in Canada, uses non-professional, community based teams of well-trained volunteer supporters, augmented by professionals, all surrounding the core member (the offender), in order to support the core member’s successful reintegration into the community. A recent evaluation of CoSA found the outcomes encouraging.

Another approach that has shown good outcomes provides multi-disciplinary legal advocacy and social work supports to low-income families to remove barriers so the families can keep their children safely at home. Whatever the community based approach, according to Braithwaite, there needs to be more dialogue between community members and regulatory entities in order to define more effective interventions. It is past time to start that conversation. Our children are depending on us.