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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Measuring the wrong things in child protection

A recent headline in the US screamed "CPS removes 40 percent fewer children from homes than in 2009" This started as a celebratory story that fewer children were being brought into care. The head of the relevant child protection system was attempting to portray that better focused social work was the reason. Her point may well have merit - improved practice guidelines that help workers to better assess what is and is not a concern will likely lead to better case work.

At the same time, she also talked about severe budget cuts, staff shortages and poor prospects for improved spending that may well lie at the core of why fewer children are coming into care. This is a natural fallout to the widespread budget cuts that are occurring throughout western countries as the economic instability hangs around. If there are fewer resources available, then the natural effect is that only more urgent cases will get attention.
It also tends to mean that prevention programs will also become more restricted. Families will not get the support they need to reduce risks; risks will need to be worse for child protection to take action and long term community outcomes may well decline. Unfortunately, it is longer term research that will show this.

Critics of child protection systems may well laud the reduction in children coming into care but their narrow view seems to miss the point. With appropriate budget support, trained staff able to investigate and a mandate the support families with good prevention work, real reductions in children coming into care are possible. Just cutting budgets and staff is  not the right direction.

Budgetary restrictions also mean that the risk of a child dying is increasing and this tends to lead to high profile media stories and demands that child protection do a better job. The front line social workers are stuck in the middle and there may well be fear that they will get blamed when the inevitable death occurs.
One wonders what we are really measuring.

CPS removes 40 percent fewer children from homes than in 2009

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