Monday, January 11, 2010

Child abuse and foster care in Florida: A call for more screening – from a surprising source


In previous posts to this Blog I discussed the first shots fired in the backlash against child welfare reform in Florida – stories in The Miami Herald about the state's child abuse hotline that were rife with distortion and, sometimes, outright inaccuracy. The stories showcased those who actually believe no call at all, of any kind, no matter how preposterous, should be screened out at the hotline.

No state takes this approach for obvious reasons – it would drown caseworkers in so many false reports and trivial cases that entire systems would collapse. (They actually tried something close to this in Florida a few years ago, and that's exactly what happened.)

Now, another group in Florida, known in the past for being fanatical about ever more coercive intervention into families, the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee, has weighed in on the issue of screening.

They want more of it.

What impressed them is Florida's pilot of an approach that is catching on across the country known as "differential response" (sometimes also called "alternative response"). Just last month, the widely-respected Vera Institute of Justice found that study after study of differential response shows it is a successful approach that does not compromise safety.

There are a variety of ways of doing it – but they have one thing in common: It adds an additional level of screening.

In Florida, in the three pilot counties, when reports come in from the hotline, instead of automatically being assigned for a full-scale investigation, they get that extra level of screening. But let the Review Committee explain it:

After the Abuse Hotline accepted a report for response and sent it to the local county of jurisdiction, the child protective investigator completed an initial screening tool to determine whether or not the report met the criteria for a traditional investigation response or a family assessment response.

The traditional investigation pathway was mandated when the report alleged serious maltreatment, was of a criminal nature, or the allegations suggested a need for dependency proceedings. These traditional investigations always identified a victim and perpetrator while documenting maltreatment findings.

The family assessment pathway was selected when reports appeared to involve minimal safety threats and focused on the assessment of family's strengths, needs, and the identification of the underlying conditions or contributing factors that precipitated the family coming to the attention of the department.

That description, in an earlier draft, is not in the final report. But the committee's conclusion remains. According to the Review Committee's final report:

These systems models tend to lower the workload of child protective investigators by reducing the number of low risk reports that require a full blown investigation. This allows for child protective investigators to focus more time and attention to those reports that involve serious harm, criminal prosecution, or dependency action.

The primary objective was to develop successful engagement strategies with families for the purpose of facilitating voluntary assessments and service referrals. As a result, child safety was almost always enhanced; not compromised, because families generally disclose much more accurate information when they are successfully engaged. [Emphasis added].

As important as what was said is who said it. The Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee is chaired by Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff's Department. She's the one who thinks there is virtually no such thing as an accidental drowning of a child. She's the one whose region takes away children at one of the highest rates in Florida. She's the one who declared she wanted a guarantee any child her investigators left in their own homes would be safe.

With even Shingledecker's committee endorsing this new, additional form of screening, the "never screen anything" crowd looks even more foolish.

In fact, the only thing more amazing than the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee coming out for more screening would be if an organization as fanatical about child removal as, say the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas were to issue a report admitting that taking away more children does nothing to curb child abuse fatalities. Oh, wait. They did.

It seems second thoughts about take-the-child-and-run as a solution to every child welfare problem are spreading. And for America's vulnerable children, that's a good way to start the year.