Governor Jan Brewer plans to dismantle Arizona’s Child Protective Services agency and start anew after years of complaints and the discovery that 6,500 reports of child maltreatment went uninvestigated since 2009. The idea that many so many cases were ignored may be shocking, but Arizona isn’t the only place these tragedies are happening.
Inability to adequately intervene in homes where child cruelty is occurring is a problem common to many departments of social services across the country for a variety of reasons. First, funding for agencies serving children and families remains insufficient and siloed in many states resulting in inadequate services. Funding cuts were made during the recession resulting in layoffs and overburdened employees.
Second, inter-agency communication is poor due to improper structuring. For example, interventions for parents by the justice department without simultaneous interventions for children by departments of social services are inadequate and insufficient. The same is true for interventions for children without holding parents accountable. Interventions for bullies in schools, without involving the families of those involved in the solution are unacceptable.
Lastly, a portion of child and family-serving agencies use untrained personnel to work on the most difficult and complex cases in the country. They do this to save money, but it is obviously shortsighted. These cases require the top experts available. Cases with the highest chronicity, severity, and complexity should be assigned to professionals best equipped to treat them in each agency.
The University of Minnesota School of Social Work estimated that 45-72% of youth in the social services system cross over into the juvenile justice system. These crossover youth suffer from a higher rate of drug use, mental health issues and have a higher recidivism rate. These not only impact the youth’s life, but can impact the lives of their future children and grandchildren. Left untreated it results in ongoing multi-generational violence throughout the U.S.
Mental health, social services, education, and juvenile justice are chronically underfunded for our most important task: raising, educating, and protecting our children. We are reaping what we are sowing. If we offer the appropriate funding, time, effort and energy, we will begin to improve the lives and mental health of today’s youth, and reduce future violence. If we fail, the situation will deteriorate further.
Many states need to re-conceptualize and restructure their departments of social services, juvenile services, and education while folding in behavioral health treatment for children and families. This will require significant thoughtfulness, research, and planning. It may be drastic, but Governor Brewer could be on to something if the restructuring is done correctly and for the right reasons.
Moving forward, here are a few thoughts for Governor Brewer and other states considering following a similar path:
1) Place inter-agency communication as a top priority for reorganization. Social services, mental health agencies, schools and juvenile justice departments need to work together to ensure child safety, treat mental health issues, educate youth and correct bad behavior. When these operations function in harmony we will achieve successful results.
2) Place research at the core of your reorganization. Constructive behavior change and family therapy are evidence-based practices that need to be a major part of the solution at all levels. Georgetown University and researcher Dr. Mark Lipsey created an excellent report proving this idea.
3) Make the investment. Hire and recruit the best, most committed professionals. Ensure that there are enough workers to cover all the cases. From a moral standpoint, the argument is simple: we all want a better, safer future for our children. From an economic perspective, if we don’t pay upfront, we will be paying for it down the road with our wallets, and with our hearts.
Written by: Dr. Kathy Seifert
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- Dr. Kathy Seifert