We have become accustomed to the headlines: A child in foster care is missing. An infant is left alone in a locked car on a hot day. A child dies at the hands of a parent whose acts of abuse or neglect went unnoticed -- or, worse, were noticed and ignored by those who might have helped. One week's troubling stories may come from Florida, Michigan or Texas, but the next week it could just as easily be another state, another child in the news.
These tragedies initiate predictable events. Politicians, journalists and others point fingers. A caseworker, supervisor or child welfare commissioner resigns. A blue ribbon panel is convened. But real system reform seems impossible, and the sense of urgency fades until the next headline.
In the year 2000, nearly 3 million cases of child abuse or neglect were reported, with more than 870,000 incidents substantiated. For each day of that year, three children died as a result of abuse or neglect. In 2000, more than half a million children were in foster care nationwide, many residing in communities far from their homes and families.
The problem is not lack of caring. Child welfare workers and administrators go to work every day hoping to do their best for vulnerable children and families. But state and local agencies suffer from inadequate resources, high turnover, poor training, low pay and outrageously heavy caseloads. At present, dozens of states are either involved in child welfare class action lawsuits or are operating under court order for failing to adequately protect abused and neglected children. Still we lack the political will for major reform.
Recently, national child welfare experts and congressional leaders held a Child Welfare Summit to discuss urgent problems confronting child welfare services and to recommend priorities for reform.
Participants called for major changes in our nation's approach to protecting children. They recommended investing in prevention instead of continuing with inadequate after-the-fact responses. They stressed that efforts to hold child welfare systems more accountable must be coupled with relevant standards for child welfare practice that make accountability possible. They supported measures to build skills and improve compensation for caseworkers, increase caseworker retention and provide rewards for superior performance. Nearly all participants spoke to the need to address the overrepresentation of children of color in our child welfare system.
Perhaps the area of greatest consensus was that government alone cannot effectively protect children. We need much greater community involvement, especially in the form of partnerships between public child welfare agencies and local communities. Such partnerships make keeping children safe everybody's business. Neighbors and community leaders reach out to vulnerable families to talk about good parenting. They carry the challenge of child abuse prevention to neighborhood meetings, block parties, picnics and congregations of different faiths. These partnerships offer individualized services based on a family's needs and give families at risk more say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Because child welfare, mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence agencies typically work with the same families, community partnerships ensure that their services are coordinated. And when children must be placed outside their homes, every effort is made to keep them in their own communities. Community partnerships are already showing great promise in more than 50 locations across the country, including cities as diverse as Jacksonville, Fla., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Atlanta.
The task of changing the way we conduct child welfare is demanding, but we have no choice. The terrible cost to children and families who fall in the cracks of the current system is obvious enough, but the financial cost is also daunting. Prevent Child Abuse America reports that we spend more than $93 billion annually in direct and indirect responses to child abuse and neglect. We could spend this money far more wisely by implementing the types of reforms recommended by the nation's leading child welfare experts. This is the future we must invest in.
The writer is director of the Center for Community Partnerships in Child Welfare, part of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.