The recent deaths of two child abuse victims saddens and angers all of us. Importantly, it must move us to take action to protect other children from a similar tragic fate. Unfortunately, there is a risk that misdirected action could cause more harm than help for Vermont children.
Vermont families, especially families in poverty, face enormous challenges. Untreated substance abuse, homelessness, lack of affordable housing and day care, lack of job training and economic opportunity, and mental health challenges leave many children "on the margin of care." The vast majority of these children are not at risk of physical abuse but live in challenged families where the risk is child neglect. Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides powerful evidence that children "on the margin of care" have better long-term outcomes if they are left in their families rather than removed. Identifying and removing children who are being physically abused is critical. While removing children whose care is considered "neglectful" may be well-intended, the evidence shows that it is often more harmful than helpful to the long term interest of the children (and wastes precious public resources).
Vermont already removes children from their families at a much higher rate than any of our neighboring states. Four out of five of these children are removed for "neglect" and not "physical abuse." We must remember what we are removing them to. The New York Times recently provided a sobering description of our nation's foster care system in its review of Cris Beam's new book "To the End of June." As Beam shows, the current foster care system by and large does not help the children who experience it. The MIT research and the current state of our foster care system support that children at risk of neglect are not best served by removal. How can our system account for this reality while protecting those children who are a risk of physical abuse?
An effective solution must involve better identification of children at risk of abuse as distinguished from neglect. For children at risk of neglect we must increase our efforts to strengthen their families, not take them apart. A recent national review of children in foster care recommended that Vermont find new front-end strategies for strengthening families to keep children safely at home. There is no silver bullet, but one evidence-based solution is to increase the engagement with families in a sincere effort to keep them intact. Families who trust that there are people who are trying to help them stay together rather than break them up are more likely to be candid about their circumstances -- which may also help identify those children who may be at risk of abuse. Creating this kind of trust is best addressed not by DCF workers in isolation and with powers to remove the children, but by family advocacy and integration of other community based public and private services that meet the needs of the families.
Vermont will only become a better place for children if we help families be successful so children can safely live at home. There is a growing cadre of community based approaches that are showing positive outcomes. Experience has shown that removing legal barriers, trusting engagement with parents and old fashion social work are a successful formula to reduce the risk of neglect. To keep our children physically and emotionally safe we must first make a clear distinction between child abuse and child neglect. Let the recent deaths be a call to action; however let us act effectively, not counterproductively.
Robert Luce is a trial lawyer at Downs Rachlin Martin and advisor to Vermont Parent Representation Center, Inc.