Averting Unnecessary Placements

Perhaps the best indication of how many children could be averted from inappropriate placement is suggested by a diversion program established in Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee. In a study sponsored by the Urban Institute during the early 1970s, it was found that children were often inappropriately entering state care. Child welfare services consisted of a hodgepodge of different agencies lacking in coordination. Professor of social work Duncan Lindsey (1994, p. 49) describes what happened once these children entered this system:

Once in, the bureaucratic door closed behind them, and they found it hard to get out. Bureaucratic inertia suddenly asserted itself. Procedures had to be followed. Forms filled out. Hearings held. Interviews. More forms. No one wanted to take responsibility for releasing children back to a possibly dangerous home environment. The burden of proof shifted from the agency, which, in its view, had acted correctly in removing the children, to the parents who must now prove definitively why their children should be allowed to return home. The system designed to serve children and families had lost sight of its mission.

As a result of this study, and through a joint initiative between federal, state, and local government, the Comprehensive Emergency Services (CES) program was established, the first objective of which was to "reduce the number of dependency petitions filed and the number of children entering into the system by screening out those cases where a petition was not justified" (Burt & Balyeat, 1977).

Through a combination of screening, coordination, and provision of services, remarkable results were obtained. As a result of the CES program, the number of dependency petitions dropped sharply - from 602 before the program started to 226 two years later. This was achieved largely by screening the number of petitions sworn out and averting or preventing the inappropriate placement of children in care. What is even more remarkable is that the number of cases coming to the attention of the system increased from 770 to 2,156 during the course of the program-an increase of 180%. Thus, while the number of potential entrants increased threefold during the course of the program, the number of actual admissions into care dropped by two-thirds. The number of children removed from their homes and placed into care declined from 353 to 174, a decline of about 50%. The number of children placed in residential facilities was reduced from 262 to 35, a decrease of more than 85%. Perhaps most significantly, the number of children under six who were admitted dropped from 180 to zero.

But diverting placement would prove to be futile if the child showed up again due to continuing abuse or neglect. This did not appear to happen. The number of children for whom petitions were initially filed and who turned up again by the end of the following year due to abuse or neglect declined from 196 to 23 (Burt & Balyeat, 1977). The remarkable success of this program notwithstanding, it has yet to be replicated on any meaningful scale.

Reducing the high number of inappropriate placements, however, does not necessarily require such an ambitious effort. In the state of Washington, all it took in two counties was the strict adherence to a policy of providing Family Reconciliation Services prior to placement or court action to reduce flings of Alternative Residential Placement Petitions by 87% between 1983 and 1986 (Governor's Commission on Children, 1989).


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