Thursday, February 24, 2011

The day the shelter closed in North Platte, Nebraska

            I’ve written before about the seductive appeal of “shelters,” those first-stop parking places for children torn from their parents.  Shelters do the children great harm while turning them into human teddy bears for the benefit of the staff and volunteers.

            One of the many reasons they are so hard to close is the way shelter operators stoke the fears of timorous child welfare agency leaders by claiming that there simply is no alternative, and if they close there will be no place for the children.  So the bureaucrats decide they can’t possibly close the shelters until every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed on a grand plan to replace them.  That’s what is playing out right now in Rhode Island.

            But when you do that, the shelters never close.  Because as long as there’s an easy dumping ground, child welfare agencies will use it.

            That was aptly illustrated by what happened this year in North Platte, Nebraska.  Last month, the North Platte (Neb.) Bulletin, had a story about how the local parking place shelter was going to close.  The story was full of handwringing about how terrible this would be since, of course, every child really had to be in that shelter and there simply would be no place to put them without the shelter.   In fact, children overflow into shelters in Nebraska because years after year, Nebraska takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation  - even higher than Rhode Island.

            Last week, the Bulletin ran a follow-up story.  It turns out, the shelter not only closed, but closed a little ahead of schedule (not because of enlightened public policy, the shelter operator just ran out of money).  Law enforcement is the first responder on calls alleging child abuse in Nebraska, and here’s what really happened, according to the local police chief:

We’re doing everything in our power to keep kids in their homes. If that isn’t possible for safety reasons, then we try to find a relative for the child to stay with.

            But wait.  Isn’t that what every agency involved in child protective services says they always do anyway?  But, of course, when there’s an easy out – dump the kid in a shelter – they don’t really look all that hard for better alternatives. 

In contrast, as I told the North Platte BulletinWhen you take away the easy option of dumping the children in the shelter, everyone gets more creative about finding better options.

            We all know the famous movie line, “If you build it, they will come.” In child welfare, there’s a corollary: If you keep it open, they’ll never go.