Monday, May 31, 2021

Child welfare in Upstate New York: Another “unintended abolition”

If there’s one thing we “know” about child abuse and COVID-19 it’s that the very worst cases have skyrocketed, right?  After all, that’s what all those fearmongering news accounts have been telling us almost since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, since these are the children most hurt, they absolutely have to go into residential treatment – because, well, we don’t want them with their horrible parents – and foster homes just can’t handle them, right?  That’s why, although residential treatment providers really, truly regret it, we simply have to institutionalize some children, don’t we? 

Actually, no. 

In fact, the pandemic has taught precisely the opposite lesson.  Says who? Says a residential treatment center that’s going to stop providing residential treatment. Because it’s not necessary after all. 

It’s happening at the Children’s Home of Jefferson County, in Upstate New York.  Like so many such places, it began as an orphanage – in 1859 - and then rebranded as a “residential treatment center” a century later – notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that residential treatment doesn’t work

But unlike so many other such places, CHJC faced up to the evidence. And, even more remarkable, the pandemic helped them do it. 

“COVID taught us that kids and families can do much better if we work with them inside of their environment, rather than putting them in our environment,” the center’s director, Karen Richmond told WWNY-TV

At the same time, the story explains: 

the pandemic also resulted in new operational practices at all levels. With court closures, youth learning remotely, and services being provided virtually, there was a significantly reduced need for residential care. 

As a result, overall state trends of youth placed at the residential level of care also significantly decreased, allowing the home to identify alternative treatment options. 

In fact, instead of dozens of children institutionalized at CHJC, there are now only four.  Which shows, once again, that all the talk of how for “some” children only institutionalization works turned out to be so much b.s.  

And notice that line about how providing services remotely reduced the “need” for residential care.  This is still one more giveaway that the real purpose of institutionalizing children has been for the convenience of the institution.  Pile them up in one place, and all those “helpers” don’t have to run around from foster home to foster home and school to school. 

With COVID, that became unnecessary, in fact, it became impossible.  And, lo and behold, providing the services in the home, even remotely, turned out to work better. 

As for COVID supposedly putting children in more danger – the closing of this residential treatment program is further evidence that this, too, is largely b.s.  On the contrary, COVID allowed CHJC to discover that children do better when help is provided to children and families together.  Again, from the story: 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed previously long-term espoused child welfare beliefs and practices. Officials say one of its benefits was allowing youth and families, with support from children’s home service providers, to be successful in home-based settings. 

Or as Richmond put it: “You can’t fix the child if you don’t support the family.” 

This is not the first success due to unintended abolition, of course.  Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law has shown how, when New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, was forced to step back and community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up, children were safer. 

So now, all we need is for all the other “residential treatment centers” that constantly cry wolf when anyone tries to curb their longstanding dominance of “child welfare” to have crises of conscience, actually put the children first, and remake themselves in the way this one institution in Upstate New York is doing. 

Don’t hold your breath.