People who work for child welfare agencies take great pride in what they do. Frontline caseworkers, supervisors and administrators go into this challenging field to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families in their communities.
The most horrifying and heartbreaking thing that can impact the lives of members of the public and government officials is when a child is seriously injured or dies as a result of child abuse or neglect.
As a former child welfare commissioner, I know personally the sorrow and devastation that must have been felt in Kentucky when 20-month-old Kayden Branham died in 2009. I understand how difficult this tragedy is for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the community at large. I also know the strong need to hold someone accountable for this and all other tragedies.
In far too many jurisdictions across the country, the need to hold someone accountable leads to a quick conclusion that the entire system must be broken because a tragedy occurs. I would urge those involved in Kentucky as well as other states in similar situations to proceed with caution. The desire for quick fixes must be resisted. The functioning of a system should never be judged totally by its glaring failures or its shining successes.
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Casey Family Programs, the foundation I now lead, supports public child welfare agencies in their efforts to help strengthen families and ensure every child has a safe, stable home. Despite severe budget constraints, many states, including Kentucky, are finding ways to improve services and achieve these goals and should be judged on the totality of their work, not the results of a single case.
Across the country, fewer children are entering foster care and child protection agencies are getting better at assessing safety and risks in the families they investigate.
The most successful child welfare agencies have strong and sustained leadership that has a clear and unwavering vision. They also have the commitment of political leaders, community partners and the courts to undertake the multi-year endeavor required to improve outcomes.
Kentucky has demonstrated these qualities and is producing some solid results. The state's child welfare agency has developed an improved system for the review and oversight of individual cases. This approach has brought more eyes and experience to analyzing critical steps taken in cases.
Current data suggest that child safety has improved overall in Kentucky. The state is doing better than the national average in preventing victims of child abuse or neglect from having to experience that trauma a second or third time.
Child welfare has a broad, complex and delicate mission, one that impacts the most vulnerable population at the most pivotal times in their lives. There is a growing consensus in the field that more children can be served and kept safe in their homes.
Through an intensive process that brings in child welfare experts from inside and outside the agency, Kentucky is exploring new territory to seek and find extended family members for children who have been in foster care for up to four years. This process, called Permanency Roundtables, has found new families for 36 percent of children whose cases were reviewed. These children otherwise would still be in foster care.
Kentucky is also improving training for supervisors and frontline staff, including instruction on specific medical issues such as bruises, burns, bites and infants who are born addicted to drugs. It is using data to make better decisions and track staff performance, it is providing nurse consultants to support investigations, and it is using Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds to provide services to keep vulnerable children safe in their own homes and strengthen their families.
Of course, more can be done. In order for child welfare agencies to do what's best for children, states like Kentucky need the flexibility to spend federal child welfare dollars on services that strengthen families and make vulnerable homes safe for children. The federal government has tried a new, more flexible, funding approach in a few states — including Oregon, Indiana and Ohio. The results so far suggest greater flexibility can improve results for children.
The public has high expectations of child welfare, as it should. Like other government agencies, it is a steward of the public trust, and it also cares for the state's most precious resource — its children. The public is right to demand accountability.
It is important to remember, however, that child welfare needs to be judged on its whole, and not just on its glaring failures or its shining successes. While Kentucky has challenges and continues to mourn a loss, it is comforting to know leadership is putting practices in place that will honor Kayden by giving more children a safer and brighter future.