This year the state of Illinois enacted a number of laws that were the first major reforms of its child protective services in 15 years. Recently, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a controversial merger of the state's child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, with the Department of Juvenile Justice. Joseph Ryan, a professor in the Children and Family Research Center in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois who conducts research on the experiences and outcomes of families involved with the state's child welfare system, recently discussed the new laws and the proposed merger with News Bureau arts editor Sharita Forrest.
How did the new laws, such as the Differential Response Act, change the state's procedures for handling cases reported to them?
Prior to the Differential Response Act, a report would come in for an allegation of child maltreatment and the agency's response would essentially be the same for all families that warranted an investigation, a sort of one size fits all model of child protection.
Differential response, which has been implemented and tested - although not necessarily rigorously evaluated - in other states, establishes a two-tier system for the state's response - one for low-risk cases and one where the risk of harm to the child is higher.
For low-risk cases, not cases of serious physical abuse or chronic neglect, the families engage with local community partners as a way to get their needs addressed rather than through the full weight of the formal child welfare system. This is for families that need lower-intensity services, such as those of a community-based advocacy center, rather than a professional case manager.
Of the states that have been using differential response for a while - such as Kentucky, Minnesota and Missouri - what's been their experience as far as the number of kids taken into substitute care and recurrence of abuse/neglect among children left in their homes?
I think Minnesota is probably the state that folks talk about the most because they've been using differential response for about 15 years. Their program seems to be successful.
Part of the fear is that while differential response gives families a lower level of service involvement their risks for subsequent maltreatment might increase, and there will be high recurrence rates. That has not been the case so far.
The new demonstration/research programs put into effect in Illinois and other states are aimed to rigorously test the differential response model and see if it really works without compromising child safety. Tami Fuller, director of the Children and Family Research Center at the U. of I., will lead the evaluation in Illinois, an impressive statewide, randomized clinical trial of differential response.
Since differential response helps reduce the state's caseload, there must be substantial cost savings too.
Certainly. These cases, historically, would have moved into the formal child welfare system and would have occupied state resources. If differential response can effectively serve lower risk families in a community based and largely volunteer setting, one could only expect to see a reduction in costs. The exact amount of these savings remains unknown.
Another law that went into effect this year was the Foster Child Successful Transition into Adulthood Act, which allows emancipated youth to continue to receive assistance from DCFS until they're 21. Why extend services beyond age 18?
This piece of legislation is a great example of how research and empirical evidence can help inform public policy. A lot of states are adopting measures that allow foster children to continue to receive help beyond age 18. Historically, the child welfare system ended services at age 18, similar to the juvenile justice system. However, from what we know about adolescent development, it's an unrealistic model. Even 18-year-olds who live in high functioning families often require significant support as they make the transition into adulthood. The evidence clearly suggests that young adults exiting foster care at age 18 do much better on a wide range of social and economic indicators if they're allowed to continue accessing services and support from the child welfare system.
Under new regulations, the courts and DCFS are permitted to review cases involving children ages 13 and older and reinstate parental rights when they can safely do so. What's the rationale behind this change?
The Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 allowed the state to terminate the rights of parents' whose children had been in foster care 15 out of 22 consecutive months, the idea being that if children remained in foster care that long it indicated a lack of compliance on the parents' parts. In theory, the termination of the parents' rights would free children up for adoption.
However, one unforeseen consequence was the emergence of 'legal orphans' - children whose parental rights were terminated but failed to achieve permanence through adoption, and thus lingered in foster care. The logic behind the current legislation is that if parents - whose rights have been terminated and whose children remain in foster care - can address the safety issues in the home, there is no rational argument for extending the foster care placement.
Returning to the biological family home is essentially where these children end up anyway after they leave the foster care system. The system could try as hard as it wanted to sever the relationship between the children and the parents who put them at risk, but for a variety of reasons, the single most important reason being because they're family, the children often return to their family of origin. The system ought to work with that reality in mind.
A few years ago, a young researchers' group here at the Children and Family Research Center asked youth in the foster care system what was important to them, and they indicated that it was preserving relationships with their siblings and parents.
What are some other areas in the child welfare system that need attention but weren't addressed by these laws?
The adolescents who are living with their biological families and still have open cases with child welfare when they're 17 years old face significant challenges. These are considered 'intact' family cases and represent a substantial proportion of the caseload in child welfare.
We need innovative strategies - both in terms of policy and clinical interventions - for dealing with adolescents and their families who are simultaneously involved with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, be it a single court docket or a concerted effort to engage parents and/or other relatives in the treatment process. Their experiences in one system - for example repeat offending - greatly impacts their outcomes in the other system - for example residential mobility. These issues are best resolved with agencies that collaborate and share professional expertise and services.
Gov. Quinn has proposed folding the juvenile justice division into DCFS. Is that a good idea?
Yes, I think that is a good idea. The juvenile justice system emerged from the adult department of corrections and operates as if it were still part of that system. The youth need help addressing serious family issues rather than a treatment approach that is individually oriented. I think it would be beneficial if there were a formalized partnership between the two agencies. Of course, the success of this potential merger is dependent upon organizational change. If the proposed merger simply relocates juvenile justice under a different agency umbrella and nothing about the day-to-day operations or treatment philosophies change, one should not expect to see improved outcomes for the adolescents and their families.