What States Can Do to Protect Children

Three governors whose states have done a poor job of shielding kids from sometimes-fatal abuse and neglect are taking important steps.
January 16, 2014 AT 5:01 PM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Recent tragedies have focused renewed attention on the failure of states across the country to protect children from abuse and neglect, which would make anyone's list of core government functions. While these failures are, to put it mildly, unacceptable, states' responses to the crises include elements that, if taken together, could go a long way toward preventing history from repeating itself.

In the wake of dozens of child deaths in the past year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had recommended cuts in child-protection spending, reversed course and called this week for $31 million in additional funding and $8 million in new money for sheriffs' offices to investigate child-abuse complaints. The money for the Department of Children and Families would reduce social-worker caseloads from the current 13.3-to-1 level down to 10 to 1. It also would create financial rewards and a career ladder for the most knowledgeable and experienced caseworkers.

Perhaps the most dramatic move came in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer used her State of the State address this week to announce that she had abolished Child Protective Services, which had been part of a much larger department, and reconstituted it as a stand-alone cabinet-level office reporting directly to her. The move came after the discovery that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect complaints had been shelved without any investigation.

A similar sad drama is playing out in Massachusetts, where 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver went missing in September and is feared dead after being released from Department of Children and Families (DCF) oversight because his family was supposedly doing well. The social worker in charge of the case failed to make required monthly visits for four months prior to recommending the release. Gov. Deval Patrick has responded by ordering an outside audit of DCF by a nonprofit children's-advocacy organization.

Such a move toward accountability and transparency is welcome. Children's Rights, an advocacy group that sued Massachusetts over its foster-care system, contends that the state's child-welfare system is "one of the most dangerous in the country" and ranks the state sixth-worst in maltreatment of foster children.

And Massachusetts would envy Florida's caseloads. Federal guidelines call for 12-18 cases per social worker, but nearly half of Massachusetts' social workers have caseloads of more than 18. In one regional DCF office, 16 workers have caseloads of more than 40.

In Florida, Gov. Scott's actions recognize not only that sometimes programs just need more money but also the importance of the work performed by social workers. Instituting bonuses and a career ladder will help the state retain the best among them. And Arizona Gov. Brewer's actions send the important message that she and future governors should be held accountable for outcomes at the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services.

In the long run, initiatives like these -- introducing accountability, transparency and workforce incentives -- can reduce the amount of new funds needed by creating more efficient and, most importantly, more effective child-welfare agencies that give youngsters like Jeremiah Oliver a chance to become adults.