It was recently reported that the Department of Child Safety is changing its policy that for a child to be removed from his/her home, a court order will be required unless the child is in imminent danger. This is not only a bold move, but the right move by the department.
It’s bold because of what will be required for the policy to be implemented. It is the right thing to do because it gives well-meaning families an opportunity to have a third party evaluate the wisdom of a traumatic removal of a child from a home.
As with any new policy, the devil is in the details but the training required to prepare case workers to properly prepare a good case to a judge will be challenging. It is an entirely new way of approaching things and good judges do not allow the lack of good preparation and facts get in the way of good decision making. It will also be a challenge for the already overburdened court system that must have a way to respond to case workers in a timely fashion to keep the best interests of the children in mind.
But think of the power of this process. Too often we hear stories of case workers removing children because of personal bias, lack of understanding of the issues or even fear of reprisal should something happen to that child because they didn’t remove. Instead, this will force more preventative measures be implemented as case managers will recognize that a family needs support, but may not meet the criteria of removal.
This leads us to what will be the key to success of this initiative …. training. DCS will need to create clear definitions of what it means for a child(ren) not be safe. Judges will be required to ensure that case mangers fully understand the difference between a struggling family and one where a child is not safe, and hold them accountable for proving their case. No longer will a dirty house or being a latchkey kid be the only criterial for “neglect” and removal. Instead, I can see a future where real risk is clearly defined and understood and then case managers take care of the minor issues of neglect managed with compassion and education for families. People will get the help they need and we will place significantly less trauma on our children when they are removed from their families.
A few years ago, as State Chair of the Foster Care Review Board, I participated in Removal Reviews that were conducted by the Foster Care Review Board. Removal Reviews were an attempt to have a third-party review within 72 hours of a child being removed. Great idea. Not so great implementation. The process became a ‘rubber stamp’ of removal decisions that had already been made. Case managers and supervisors overruled the volunteers on the panel, and inevitably, the child was removed. It rendered the process irrelevant and was cancelled.
DCS should learn from the FCRB Removal Review process. Clear rules and definitions combined with training for DCS investigators and judges is critical. In the end, the use of ‘warrants’ will make for a more compassionate child welfare system where we care more about the family than having government take sole responsibility for the child.
I admire Director McKay for taking such a bold step in keeping the best interests of children in the forefront of our process and I applaud the effort.