Getting tough to get child welfare reform efforts back on track

We don’t relish the prospect of taking the defendants in our child welfare reform cases back to court. We would much prefer that they implement the court-ordered reforms we secure for abused and neglected children without the need for further legal pressure.

But sometimes, when progress stalls and kids get put back in harm’s way as a result, we have no choice but to get tough and take action.

Over the past few months, for exactly these reasons, Children’s Rights has filed motions for contempt of court against the states of Connecticut and Georgia, and the District of Columbia. All three are subject to court orders mandating the reform of their child welfare systems, and all three had made progress to varying degrees before their reform efforts stalled either entirely or in particular areas.

Our recent actions in all three cases have produced positive results and started them back on the road to reform.

  • In Connecticut, a long-standing reform plan has produced a lot of benefit, including timely and adequate investigations of abuse and neglect and a wide range of new services for children and families. But along the way the state got sidetracked and decided to address its shortage of families for kids who need them by building a large number of shelters and institutions, instead of recruiting and supporting families. When we couldn’t nudge the state in a better direction, our contempt motion succeeded in obtaining a commitment to develop an additional 850 new families for children over the next two years.
  • In Georgia, agency progress in finding permanent families for children has also stalled, but the pressure of our contempt motion there has drawn the attention of a major foundation, which may well fund an ambitious initiative that will break through the limitations that seem to be immobilizing the state.
  • In the District of Columbia, the child welfare agency had been progressing for years before it plateaued at an inadequate level and well-publicized child fatalities applied pressure that the fragile agency couldn’t withstand, sending it spiraling into a free fall. We have brought in an expert team that will either help the agency get back on its feet or, if that proves impossible, ask the federal court to take control of the system — as it did more than 10 years ago.

All three of these cases illustrate exactly why the court orders we secure through our reform campaigns are so important. It is simply not enough to propose solutions to persistent problems of child welfare systems and hope their leadership will implement them. The accountability that comes with court enforcement is vital to ensuring that real progress — and real improvements in the lives of abused and neglected children — get made.

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