Predicting the Future and the Codification of Poverty

Assessing the risk of future harm to a child "is central to practice in the field of child welfare" (McDonald & Marks, 1991). Risk assessment is "the driving force for any child protection service delivery" (Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services). Risk assessment consists of "the systematic collection of information to determine the degree to which a child is likely to be abused or neglected at some future point in time" (Doueck, et al., 1993; English & Pecora, 1994). In practice, "risk refers to the prediction of future events" (Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, undated).

To these ends, by the early 1990s at least 42 states had adopted one or more of a wide variety of available risk assessment models (Berkowitz, 1991). Complicating matters is that one state may use more than one system, or modify an existing system. Some states use the same model for different purposes. Of the 42 states using some form of risk assessment, 15 use a matrix approach, 13 use a scale for entering ordinal values, and 11 use different approaches in different areas of the state (Lyons, Doueck, & Wodarski, 1996). Many agencies use the same instrument to assist caseworkers in making several different types of decisions, including whether to divert a case following substantiation, whether to remove a child during the investigation stage, whether to place a child in foster care after adjudication, and whether to reunify a child with her family (Wald & Woolverton, 1990). Yet, as McDonald and Marks (1991) point out, less than half of the variables measured by these instruments have been empirically tested, much less validated, by even the weakest of research designs. Moreover, there also exists a clear lack of consensus in the field as to what one should consider when assessing risk.

Like others among the many "solutions" devised to improve the poor decision making which plagues the child welfare system, the risk assessment device only appears to have made things far worse for families and children. "Many agencies have acted prematurely, implementing risk assessment instruments that have not been adequately designed or researched," note Wald and Woolverton (1990). "It is not possible to make highly accurate predictions of risk with existing instruments." Nevertheless, they have gained an almost uncritical acceptance in the field of child welfare, as Wald and Woolverton explain:

Unfortunately, some child protective services (CPS) agencies appear to be using risk-assessment instruments in an unjustifiable manner, given the limited knowledge base regarding the validity of these instruments. Moreover, we are concerned that many agencies are adopting risk-assessment instruments in lieu of addressing fundamental problems in existing child protection systems, such as the excessive number of inexperienced or incompetent workers and the lack of adequate resources. In fact, use of inadequately designed or researched risk-assessment instruments may result in poorer decisions, because workers will rely on mechanical rules and procedures instead of trying to develop greater clinical experience.

While an in-depth review of risk assessment instruments is beyond the scope of this work, a brief review of some of the risk factors typically assessed by these instruments is in order given their role in the foster care decision-making process. Among the specific factors which indicate a "high contribution to risk" in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Risk Assessment, Safety and Case Planning Manual (1997) are "diseases affecting motor coordination (cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy)," "confinement to wheelchair," "juvenile diabetes," and "severe to profound mental retardation." Behavioral indicators in the high risk category include "autistic child" and "child who lacks any emotional attachments." As for the characteristics of the parent, a lack of regular social activities (e.g., church or other organization) is considered a high risk factor, as is the refusal to avail oneself "of community resources or appropriate resources available."

But if there is one thing many of these assessment tools have in common, it is that they almost invariably define poverty conditions as indicating neglect on the part of parents. Among the countless factors typically included are "dirty or unkempt home," "children's clothing torn or dirty," "lack of pride in neighborhood," "poor and unsafe living conditions," "family can only afford inadequate housing," "leaky faucets," "no heat in home in winter," and "exposed wiring." Indicators listed as among physical hazards in the high risk category in the Cuyahoga County matrix include "uncovered holes in exterior doors, walls, windows," "steep stairway," "steps shaky," "boards missing from steps," and "exposed nails on stairway."

The results are not surprising. Dana Mack (1997) notes that a 1986 federal study evaluating child welfare caseworkers found that up to two-thirds of substantiated cases of child maltreatment involved no actual wrongdoing on the part of parents. Many removals of children into foster care are "capricious actions of 'preventive intervention'-undertaken on a caseworker's presumption that though a child's home situation poses no immediate dangers or deprivations, it might sometime in the future" (p. 59). In examining studies conducted by the American Humane Association during the mid-1980s, Mack found that half of the families child welfare agencies compelled to undergo therapeutic services for child maltreatment had never mistreated their children at all. These therapeutic services are foisted on innocent families on a massive scale. Besharov (1985) notes that even after the extensive screening of reports that takes place, as of the mid-1980s roughly 400,000 families across the country were being "supervised" by child protective agencies, compelled to accept such "treatment services" under threat of court action.

Confronted with criticism over the death of Joey Wallace, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services enlisted the aid of outside advisors to draft the Child Endangerment Risk Assessment Protocol, a checklist which reportedly guides caseworkers through home visits. The protocol asks caseworkers to evaluate the child's surroundings, from the behavior of the parent or guardian to the possibility of drug or alcohol abuse by the caretaker. Workers are instructed that they can't leave unless they are convinced-through their observations and checklist-that the child will be safe. "We tell workers if any of those factors are there, you don't leave without the kid," explains Ed Cotton, deputy director of the Division of Child Protection (Associated Press, 1997d).

Reduced to its essence, the child welfare system operates on the promise of an eventuality being realized such that unsophisticated caseworkers, once provided with the proper combination of tools and training, will develop the ability to predict the course of future events, thus "preventing" child maltreatment. No similar proposals have been advanced on behalf of law enforcement officers such that they would be authorized to intervene in order to prevent a crime before it occurs. No civilized society would tolerate the arrest and detention of its citizens on the basis of a checklist coupled with an "intuition" indicating that a crime is likely to be committed at some point in the future. Yet society tolerates an entirely similar situation in child protection today.

Over the course of the last decades, some few millions of children have been irreparably harmed by arbitrary and capricious removals into state care based on the theory of future-based preventive intervention. To the extent that efforts at developing more accurate models of risk assessment should continue, they should aim toward identifying and eliminating ecological risks in the child's environment through the provision of hard services subject to the uncoerced acceptance of such services by prospective clients. If the field is to fulfill the promise of effectively addressing the problem of child maltreatment, it must begin by divesting itself of empirically-unvalidated models and methodologies, as they demonstrably do more harm than good.


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