STATE AFFAIRS: The state makes a terrible parent

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I cringe every time I see a news story, as I do frequently, about a helpless child who is killed by her mother’s boyfriend, or whatever, all while under the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

I wince not because I doubt the professionalism or caring of the DCFS staff, but because they have absolutely impossible jobs.

The latest tragedy to hit the news is about a burly 25-year-old man who assaulted a 59-year-old DCFS female caseworker in Carroll County in northwestern Illinois. The woman suffered serious brain injuries and was in a coma at last report. It’s a tough, dangerous business.

You and I are in effect substitute parents (via the powers we have given our state government) for 15,000 children ages birth to 18 who, for a variety of reasons, are outside the homes of their parent(s).

We ask DCFS to care for the children while the agency searches for adoption or foster family care. When unable to find such, many children languish in impersonal group homes until they “age out” at 18.

Other children are under the supervision of the court. I have a good friend who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. She visits an assigned family regularly and goes into court to provide her observations as to what is in the best interest of the child(ren).

My friend’s most recent case has to do with a family of six children by four fathers. Would you imagine those children are a bit bewildered, probably worse, by what is going on in their world, with boyfriends in and out all the time?

DCFS has had a rocky history since its creation in 1960. Again, not because the staff aren’t trying, but because caseworkers have often had impossible caseloads of 250 troubled families each.

Caseworkers are modestly paid yet need the wisdom of Solomon in making a recommendation, as they frequently must, either to let a child remain in a family setting that may have been abusive in the past or take the child from the family.

Over thousands of such decisions, while each handling as many as 250 cases at a time, these frontline workers sometimes make mistakes. We read about the tragedies in the papers and become outraged.

Since 1988, DCFS has been overseen from a distance by the federal court, which monitors a “consent decree” between DCFS and the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. DCFS agrees to meet certain performance guidelines; sometimes it does, sometimes not.

When it doesn’t, attorney Ben Wolf of the Illinois ACLU, who has overseen DCFS for three decades, screams to the high heavens in court. So, the judge says to the state of Illinois, “You cannot cut anymore out of the DCFS budget,” or whatever.

Even so, DCFS employee levels decreased from 2,910 in 2010 to 2,572 in 2015, the last year for which I find good information. The agency also has been a revolving door for 10 directors in the course of the past six years. A stable agency it is not.

Even with the best leadership, there always will be tragedies at DCFS, and screaming newspaper headlines. We ask the agency to make whole again families that have fallen apart, if ever they had their act together, and to repair children who have often known nothing but dysfunction and abuse.

Our challenge is to reduce the number of, most often, single-parent families in which DCFS must intervene.

Though I am probably guilty of seeing the past through rose-colored glasses, I think communities of my childhood more than half a century ago did a better, though imperfect, job of imbuing citizens with norms that encouraged the nuclear family. Of course, good jobs for men and women were more available then than today, which helped.

What to do, today?

A friend of mine believes we should require parenting classes in high school for girls and boys. Yet I fear we ask high schools to do too much as it is in a short school day.

Certainly, parenting classes might be required as a condition of receiving state benefits.

“Love goes a long way,” a former DCFS caseworker observed to me recently, “but that is often in short supply.”

I honestly don’t have any great ideas. I do know we — the state — make terrible parents.

I am impressed with comments readers direct my way. What do you think might be done? I’m at

jnowlan3@gmail.com

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STATE AFFAIRS: The state makes a terrible parent

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