They want their staff to be designated “essential workers” while ducking the essential work.
One of the things that first got me interested in child welfare decades ago was reading a searing 1975 New York Daily News series called “Big Money, Little Victims.” The story exposed how New York City’s enormously powerful private foster care agencies were prolonging foster care because they were paid for every day they kept hold of a child.
Among the findings:
● …[M]any private [child welfare] agencies regularly deny thousands of children the chance of finding permanent homes so that they can continue to collect millions of dollars each year in city child support payments.”
●…[C]hildren … have become the lifeblood of these private agencies, which thrive on the millions of dollars the city pumps into them each year. These agencies systematically keep the children in their jurisdiction so that a constant level of government funding is maintained.
Things have changed a lot in 45 years. There are fewer of these agencies and they are not as powerful. That’s part of the reason the whole system is significantly smaller now than it was then. Occasionally, leaders of these agencies are prime movers behind real reform. But all it takes is a crisis for some of them to return to form. Now, of course, there’s a crisis: COVID-19.
Even though New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services has said that in-person visits between foster children and their parents and siblings should continue whenever possible; even though federal guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services says the same; and even though a total ban on in-person visits is not necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19, private agencies have been cutting off foster children from such visits with their parents. And, oh the litany of excuses:
Excuse #1: Well, we can’t very well have all those families come to our offices and ride the elevators. But offices were always a lousy place for visits. The parks are still open in New York City. Hold the visits there.
Excuse #2: But the visits need to be supervised. Supervisors can go to the parks, too. Or, maybe it’s time to reconsider, case-by-case, whether supervision is necessary.
Excuse #3: Parents can’t always get to the visits. It’s can be too risky to ride the subway and too expensive to take a taxi or a ride share (which also, of course, has had other passengers). Then how about bringing the kids to the parents, in designated vehicles that are cleaned after every use? And for those willing to use a taxi – why can’t the agency pay the fare?
Flunking the balance of harms test
The behavior of child welfare agencies in response to COVID-19 is in many ways a microcosm of their behavior and thought process in general. Child welfare systems almost always flunk the “balance of harms” test.
Agencies constantly tell us about the supposed risk of leaving a child in her or his own home. They fail to balance that against the enormous risks of foster care – both the psychic damage and the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.
Similarly, there are risks involved in continuing visits right now, and no one is saying that all visits can or should be conducted as they were before. But in each case, the risks of visits need to be balanced against the enormous risk of traumatizing children by cutting them off from their families.
Yes, there are risks for agency personnel. But those risks are no greater than the risks taken every day by grocery clerks, delivery drivers, letter carriers and so many other essential workers.
Indeed, I’ve seen many tweets from the child welfare establishment calling upon Congress to designate child welfare agency staff as “essential workers” – so the agencies can get emergency federal aid. That’s a reasonable request. And those agency staff who continue to make visits possible deserve to be thought of as heroes – just like those grocery clerks and delivery drivers.
But if you want your staff to be designated “essential workers” then they need to actually do the essential work.
Otherwise, it’s just another case of big money, little victims.