In the Name of Child Protection. Some Views.

"Several years ago I proposed reforms that might address these problems. Greatly narrowing the definitions of child abuse and neglect is a necessary first step. Beyond that, the investigative and foster care functions of the public child welfare agency should be entirely severed from it. The agency could then be devoted to the delivery of preventive supports and services, largely to impoverished families, on a voluntary acceptance basis, without accusation or blame. More importantly, transferring the task of receiving reports and the investigative function to law enforcement agencies, and placing the foster care system under the civil court system, would unmask the coercive part of the total child welfare system. No longer would impoverished families needing assistance be so readily subject to threat and innuendo as they are now. No longer, at least not in the name of prevention and family preservation, would public monies flow into coercion and family separation through foster care placement. No longer would the civil rights of poor people be violated in the name of child protection.

"Subsequent reform proposals have recognized the need to have a mechanism through which help can be given in isolation from investigation and blame, but they fail to address my more crucial point that when a coercive approach hides behind a helping orientation, the dynamics reviewed here will continue on their destructive course. The key is the structure of the public child welfare agency itself. In most reform proposals, the gateway to services will still be the gateway to accusation, investigation, child removal, and foster care. Even with narrowed definitions of child abuse and neglect, such a common gateway confuses coercion and control with nonjudgmental aid and prevention, deters potential clients, distorts and misdirects funding streams, and inevitably denies clients due process. Moreover, widening such a gateway to include community health services, for example, might contaminate these services with current child protection coercive approaches, deterring potential clients from these services, as well.

"Such recent proposals reflect, I believe, a fear of letting go of control. One proposal, for example, begins with the desire to separate the helping from the coercive role, but ends by extending investigations to most situations that currently are vaguely or questionably characterized as child abuse and neglect. This reflects the fear of what would happen to the children if we loosen our coercive grip of surveillance and control. Yet the current system has not succeeded. Indeed, the child welfare system predicates its cries for increased funding not on evidence of past success in reducing harm to children but on the supposed growth of the problems themselves. Paradoxically, moreover, the more families we presumably try to preserve, the more child removals result.

"It is high time that we face the fact that the dual-role child welfare agency structure is a failure, and that most current proposals for reform maintain rather than change the status quo. We should recognize that the approach of expanding coercion and control leads not to better but to worse outcomes in child protection, by any definition of that term. The coercive, paternalistic, and, indeed, discriminatory approaches to social problems that have passed for liberalism over the past decades must be rethought. -----Leroy H. Pelton SOURCE

Excerpts from:

Justice for Kids: Keeping Kids Out of the Juvenile Justice System.
Edited by Nancy E. Dowd, NYU Press, 2011.

Chapter 3: Challenging the overuse of Foster Care.

"The practice of placing hundreds of thousands of children found to be abused or neglected out of their homes even when their immediate safety does not demand it has persisted for more than a century, despite professional criticism. Efforts to reform the system, to make it function as it is supposed to function have been made repeatedly without reducing the use of institutions and foster care. To explain the continued vitality of this system, despite its continuing failure to achieve its expressed goals, perhaps we should also revise our interpretation of what is going on. As the French philosopher and social historian Michel Foucault observed of prisons, when an institution is criticised as failing in its primary mission (for prisons, reducing crime) and yet persists for many years, it is probably doing something very well, even if that something is not the expressed goal of the system (Foucault 1997)...

p. 71

"To explain this adherence to a system that failed time after time, Foucault argues that the prison system in fact successfully carries out functions other than the elimination

p. 72

"of crime. He says the prison should be understood as intended as not to eliminate crime but to distinguish and distribute offences, rather than rendering docile those who are liable to break the law, this form of punishment sets the limits of tolerated lawbreaking and creates a delinquent culture. This strategy allows the dominant group to manage and control illegal conduct and cabin it into forms that are more structured and constrained and, hence, less dangerous to the status quo than roving bands of beggars who may join forces to engage in looting and rioting (Foucault 1997)

p. 73

"...critics have always argued that many children who are removed from their parents' homes to alternative care could safely remain at home, particularly if appropriate services were provided....However the resources to keep children in their homes have not been forthcoming...

"The child welfare/foster care system, then, may well be an institution that like the prison is doing something very well, something other than addressing the problems of child abuse and neglect.


"Traditional juvenile court statutes define the criteria for jurisdiction very vaguely and broadly and allow removal when the judge finds this to be in the child's best interests (Katz er al, 1975). These statutes, which intentionally grant substantial discretion to judges, are also very vulnerable to the effects of unintentional racial and class prejudice. Legal reformers in the 1970's who developed the proposals that led to the 1980 federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare act proposed not only case planning, reviews and service provision. They also recommended that the legal standards for finding children to be maltreated and for removing them from their parents' care to be significantly tightened, required findings of proof of specific kinds of serious harm before courts could take jurisdiction over children and allowing removal from the parents' homes only if necessary to protect the children's safety (Wald 1975; Wald 1976; IJA-ABA Joint Commission 1981)

p. 76

"The harm to children of being taken from their parents often does not play an important role in legislative decisions, any more than the racial and class disparities within the system do."

p. 77

SOURCE: Justice for Kids: Keeping Kids Out of the Juvenile Justice System. Edited by Nancy E. Dowd, NYU Press, 2011, pp. 71-77.