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).