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Toward An Open Structure Paradigm For Child Protection

Above, I described how the universe of abused and
neglected children is limited to only a portion of maltreated children within
any particular jurisdiction. Child protection is a closed structure including
many maltreated children while excluding most others. This exclusion results
from the report pool including only those maltreated children who come to the
attention of a reporter and who are then actually reported to the child
protection entity serving the jurisdiction. The report pool is further limited
by the somewhat arbitrary definitions for abuse and neglect representing a
boundary between children included in the report pool and all other maltreated
children who are consciously excluded.

Similar closed structures are seen in other areas of
child protection practice. For example, consider the children who are judged to
be “adoptable.” One might presume any child who has no available relative with
whom to live is adoptable simply as a result of his (or her) not having an
appropriate, permanent home with a member of his extended family. This is not
the case. In particular, older children are likely to be excluded from the
adoption pool and assigned to alternative custody arrangements. They are judged
to be too old for adoption. These children grow up in foster care or in other
impermanent settings. Unfortunately, this outcome is sometimes also seen for
younger children.

Children with significant disabilities, behavior issues,
developmental deficits, medical problems, and emotional difficulties are also
frequently excluded from what we may refer to as the adoption pool. Other
children who appear to be in the adoption pool are passively excluded due to
the challenges associated with identifying appropriate families who might
consider adopting the specific children. Children from minority groups are
especially vulnerable to this type of exclusion. The result is an active
adoption pool that effectively excludes more children needing permanent homes
than it includes.

This traditional closed structure approach to serving
maltreated children is present throughout child protection practice. Those
maltreated children who come within the scope of child protection as a result
of entering the report pool are further reduced through a screening process that
reduces their number to those who are determined to be abused or neglected,
using the current, fuzzy-edged definitions. Within the remaining group,
children are categorized and sub-grouped in ways further restricting the
services and opportunities to which they have access. Assuredly, many children
fair well within this closed structure approach as they move from compartment
to compartment within the overall structure. The dilemma relates to those
maltreated children who are actively or passively excluded from the potential
benefits of those services and opportunities from which they are excluded.

Traditional legislative and administrative responses to
the challenges and negative outcomes for children usually focus on the
weaknesses and shortcomings seen in the various elements and processes
comprising the structure and sub-structures constituting child protection.
Usually this leads to new or modified rules and procedures and often to
significant finger pointing. Still, it is rather like trying to improve the
functioning of a train. It may be possible to enable the train to run faster or
more smoothly. Nonetheless, it is still a train and still must be contained to
the track with each car following the one in front of it.

No matter how thoughtful the new rules or how enlightened
the new procedures, child protection is a closed structure excluding many if
not most maltreated children for reasons unrelated to what we know to be in
their best interest, if we were clever enough and creative enough to get it right
for each child in need of protective services. Clearly, the need is to
transition from the traditional closed structure arrangements to an open
structure capable of including all children in need of protective services and
likewise capable of delivering the exact services and opportunities needed by
each child, one child at a time.

Fortunately, there is some indication child protection is
seriously entertaining the idea of open structures and is consciously moving in
that direction. This is first appearing in relation to the screening activities
mentioned above. There is serious discussion about moving away from classifying
children as abused and neglected and simply viewing maltreated children as
children in need of protective services. This may help with the fuzzy boundary
restricting which maltreated children do and do not get into the report pool.
It also may help with opening the fuzzy boundary between abused and neglected
children and all other maltreated children discussed above.

Unfortunately, this does not address the fundamentally
closed nature of child protection structures. Similarly, the current
differential response (alternative response) initiative helps with the boundary
issues but does not help much with the closed nature of the general structure.
Further, the internal compartmentalization remains unchanged. The conceptual
need is to transition the traditional closed structure paradigm to a paradigm
whose structure is open, inclusive of all maltreated children, and fully
capable of doing the right things right, the first time, on time, every time,
for every child, one child at a time, with no child in need of protective
services excluded for any reason.

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