Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's
School of Social Work, is the academic godfather of the American Adoption
and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. He is a long-term advocate of
expanding the powers of social services. His books include The Violent
Home (1987) and The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost
Children's Lives (1996).
In this February 2003 interview with the PBS program Frontline, he
started with some responses disparaging families, then went into the
surprisingly critical answers below, castigating mandatory reporting,
inexperienced caseworkers, amateur psychology, caseworker bullying and
investigations by social workers instead of police. The full interview is
- What is mandatory reporting?
- Mandatory reporting was designed to require a specific number of professionals who had frequent contact with children to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect or sexual abuse to a designated agency, which became the American child protective service system, so that a more detailed, thorough investigation could be done. ... Some states decided that well, kids come into contact with all kinds of people so we'll make every adult a mandated reporter. Other states made it a more confined list of people. ...
- What has happened?
- Frankenstein. It's become a Frankenstein monster. ...
Because of mandatory reporting, we've developed a very cautious system that essentially says, "We will investigate the vast majority, if not nearly all, of the reports that come to us unless it's clearly outside of the law." And sometimes even if it's marginal to law, it'll be investigated.
So the front end of the system, the American child welfare system, is staffed and trained to do 3 million investigations a year, that yield 1 million substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect, that yield 500,000 cases that actually receive services. So 2.5 million contacts between the child welfare system and families are nothing more than investigations. But it's extraordinarily time-consuming; it's extraordinarily costly; it requires lots of technology, lots of training. Since resources are finite, it leaves very little energy, very little skill, very little money for the 500,000 cases that are left.
I am one of the outlaws. I believe, with a couple of other people, [that] the gate should not be so wide, [that] we were a little bit too aggressive in defining what is child abuse and neglect. Some things we define as abuse and neglect, quite frankly, we don't have services for. Even if we substantiate it, it's not like we have anything we can offer. And then we have this big wide gate and then we seal it or weld it open, and we let everything through it. No triage. We'll let triage happen after we invest 30 days, 45 days, 90 days in doing an investigation with all the collateral contacts and all of the medical contacts. The files get to be 24 inches wide, [and] for what? So that the case would be unsubstantiated, not receive services?
That was not the child welfare system that 35 years ago I envisioned and that 40 years ago Henry Kemp envisioned. We had a much narrower view of children and families that needed services. Mandatory reporting was designed not as the Child Welfare Worker Full Employment Act, but as a way of breaking down the reluctance of reporters to bring these kids to public attention. It really did become the Child Welfare Worker Full Employment Act because people aren't stupid. Social services agencies understood that the bigger the problem, the more staff they'd have. ...
There were 6,000 reports of child abuse [and] neglect in 1965. There were 3 million last year. ... Child protective agencies [used to be] 9-to-5 operations. They went out of business Saturday, Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend. Now they're 24-hour operations; they have cell phones, they have computers, they've got pagers, they have 800-numbers. The carrying capacity of the system expanded as the number of cases came in. Again, you could go to the legislature and say, "We got 100 percent increase in reports last year, so we need 100 percent more workers." Well the legislature would say, "We're not going to give you 100 more workers, but we'll give you 35." Well, that increased their carrying capacity, so they were able to take in more reports and more reports and more reports. ...
- Is it a culture of "ratting" on your neighbors? Is that how people are brought into the system?
- Well, what I've observed is that the more heterogeneous the community, the more reporting you get. Communities that are all alike, that all have the same privilege or the same oppression, are less likely to report on their neighbors. But you should pardon the stereotype, a white elementary school teacher is going to be more likely to report out an African-American child who comes into his or her classroom poorly dressed, not having eaten, with bilateral abrasions on both sides of the forehead. An African-American daycare worker in a community church that's next door to the home is probably going to be less likely to do that.
- What proportion of child welfare cases are classified as neglect vs. abuse?
- The reality is that half the cases that come in are neglect of one form or another. The kind of case that gets the most attention is sexual abuse. They constitute about 3 percent of the cases, and the significant physical abuse constitutes maybe 22-25 percent of the cases. The media cases are the rarer occurrences, the ones that people worry about.
The typical case is a neglect case where that bright line doesn't exist. ... Is it OK to run out and go to work and leave your 8-year-old at home to watch your 4-year-old? How much vigilance can a mother be expected to provide over her boyfriend who lives with her that keeps her from being on welfare? That's the typical case. The typical case is a soft case. I think the public thinks a typical case is a handprint on the side of the face with the college ring embedded into the cheeks so that you know immediately who the perpetrator was. That's really unusual. ...
- What problems do neglect cases pose?
- Neglect by definition [is an act] of omission. The difficulty is, is someone not caring for a child because they don't have the resources? Or because they have some constraint that's remediable -- impacted wisdom teeth, a health care problem that's not all that difficult to deal with? ... Or is this a deliberate act of omission?
There are many caregivers who have left their children home alone and isolated, wealthy communities who never come to the attention of the child welfare system, and they'll argue, "Well, I just ran down to get a pack of cigarettes." Do that in another setting, that act of omission becomes an act of neglect and it's investigated. Now, it's got a 55 percent chance of going nowhere, but that assumes the investigation itself is benign, and they're simply not. ...
- What do you mean investigations aren't benign?
- Investigations are what I call the third lie. ... The third lie is, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Investigations are not attempts by friendly visitors that come to the home and meet the caregivers' needs. They are coercive activities designed to detect or uncover an act that could be criminal or ... could result in the removal of a child from the home. They bring out with them a scarlet letter "A," or a scarlet letter "N" that says, "You have been charged with abuse" or "You have been charged with neglect."
Now, frankly, you can call me a lot of names and you can say I do a lot of bad things, but when you call me a bad parent, you've gone to the core of who I am. And even if you don't substantiate my case, you're going to change my self-image, you're going to change my self-esteem, you're going to change my relationship with the neighbors who may or may not have seen your car pull up. ...
- Why shouldn't they investigate, though?
- Because they're also supposed to help. They're wearing two hats. They're bringing the velvet glove and the Billy club, and there's enough role conflict in the human service industry as it stands without having to add cop to it. So a number of us in this field have slowly come to the realization that if you get a police officer when you abuse your wife, if you get a police officer when neglect your 85-year-old mother, ... then you might as well get a police officer when the suspicion is that you've abused and neglected your child. They're going to be better at evidence-gathering, they're going to be trained in applying the legal parameters, and they're not there with any ambiguous hat that says, "Oh, by the way, I'm here to help you, but if you don't want to be helped I'm here to punish you."
- So how does that dual-role impact child welfare agencies?
- How can you accept that the caseworker is there to help you when they wave the stick around that if you don't accept [their] help [they're] taking your children away? You've got one week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks to get your act cleaned up or this is what [they're] going to do.
I know that in the principles that we teach our students in this school of social work -- which is to meet the client where they are, to use values, to understand that the change process is slow -- to then give them that level of coercion is going to undermine their capacity and ability to establish a relationship with the family such that the family will accept and engage in the service or helping activity. How can they not look at this worker as anything other than an agent of social control who is eye-balling them and about to hammer them in court and say, "I've watched this mother up close and she can't do X and Y and Z, and she refuses to admit that such-and-such happened to her child. Therefore, your honor, I recommend that the state take custody of the child."
It's simple. I mean, you can walk through any street in Philadelphia that has a high proportion of child welfare cases and ask them, "What does the Department of Human Services do in the city of Philadelphia?" And their answer is, "They take children away." It doesn't matter whether you're in Maine or Philadelphia or Washington or California. The vision of child protective services is [that] they take children away. Nobody is going to volunteer, "Oh, they're really nice. They come and help me control my anger and they got me off of drugs and they taught me some really valuable parenting skills." Nobody says that.
- What about those types of services -- anger management, parenting skills, etc. -- that child welfare agencies can provide to families?
- The toolbox that the child protective service system has is pretty limited. Parenting classes being one of them, homemaking services, advocacy. But the toolbox is essentially set up to preserve families. ... You give a little boy a hammer, the whole world becomes a nail. Every problem, no matter how diverse or different, gets the same one-size-fits-all solution. Sixteen weeks intensive family preservation services, parenting classes, home visits, insight therapy, referral to drug treatment. It's a pretty standard package and it's given whether you're fighting with the worker and completely resisting the label that you've done anything wrong, or whether you say, "You're absolutely right. I did this." ... Both clients get the same services. Now, which one do you think the service might work for? ...
- Can those types of services work when they're offered coercively? When they're required in order to get your kids back?
- Well, change is difficult to accomplish for any behavior. We could take any behavior off the rack -- our weight, our height, our exercise, our diet. You don't just wake up one morning and change. ... Secondly, you don't bring about change by layering on more and more and more and more. One of the least disseminated findings from evaluation research in the area of child welfare services is the more services you provide, the less likely they are to be effective. ... At a certain point, you so paralyze the family with [all of these services that] they're not capable of having any of those things be meaningful. ...
The second issue is when the change is not forthcoming, the worker immediately goes to the hammer and says, "Now, keep in mind that if you don't do what I want you to do, I'm taking your children away." ... The best you can hope for in that circumstance is ... compliance. "OK, I'll jump through your hoops for you, I'll go to your damn parenting class, I'll sit there for 16 weeks." But it's not going to change anybody. Compliance isn't change. Lots of families have become very good at complying with the wishes of welfare like agencies. But that doesn't mean they've changed and the proof is in the recidivism rate. The recidivism rate for children returned to homes that have complied ... is appallingly high. [It] can run to 35-40 percent.
- Do you support those rehabilitation efforts?
- ... I've gone as far as to say -- and it's an arcane answer to the question -- [let's] make Title IV-E, which is the largest federal allocation of funds to the states, a block grant. Rather than say you can only use it for the ambulance service at the bottom of the cliff -- foster care -- you can use it for any number of preventive services, secondary prevention services, or legal guardianship. ... The funding is so categorical that we don't have a diversity of services that we can offer. ... We got two things in [the] toolbox: either you take my ameliorative services or I put your child in out of home care. That's all I got. There's nothing else in there. And you're surprised that it doesn't work?
- Talk a little about the average caseworker.
- ... They are not social workers. They have not gone through an accredited professional degree program in social work. That means that by and large they have a liberal arts degree; some even have just an associate degree. They have 20-40 hours of training and then they get a caseload. They may or may not know anything about child development. They may or may not know anything about child abuse and neglect. They may or may not know anything about human violent behavior. ... They are paid no more than $35,000 by the best of jurisdictions and as little as $21,000 by the most frugal. And then they're sent out to make some of the most important decisions that government workers could possibly make. ... I've just read a deposition of a supervisor whose training was, "I went to cosmetology school and then I worked for 11 years as a secretary to the director. And when the director of our county office left, I became the director." ...
I mean, they really try to help. But ... they are young, they're inexperienced. ... And they often become amateur psychologists. ... You hear them using the language in a nonsensical fashion. ... It's just an awful system. Who in their right mind would have life and death in critical decisions made by well-meaning individuals with this level of training, this level of resources? ... Really terrible way to run a system. ...