Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hell is for Children

Every state (and some major cities/counties) has a department/agency that is tasked with helping and protecting children who may be in unstable homes or are the victims of abuse and/or neglect. These agencies tend to be severely understaffed with woefully inadequate equipment and operating under severe budget constraints.  A lot of these agencies have also had their primary mission of goal of doing what is in the best interest of the child changed into preserving the family.

Employees of these agencies are in a noble, if thankless, pursuit: The preservation of a child’s life.  These employees work long, stressful hours and are often on call 24/7 for extremely low pay.  Facing high caseloads (in Arizona, the caseload for each “caseworker” monitoring families is 31 while those monitoring children is 26 which is 60% above state standards) and heartbreaking cases, there is a high turnover rate.  Continued budget cuts only threaten to exacerbate these trends.

Legislators (especially conservatives) love to hate child protection agencies.  They see these agencies as being threats to families and specifically to parental rights.  These legislators are the one who changed the mission from doing what’s in the best interest of the child into preservation of the family.  They also see such agencies as easy targets for budget cuts.  But no matter how many constraints they put on such agencies, legislators never take responsibility for the inevitable deaths that occur.

These agencies will never be perfect, but we can work toward making them more perfect.  We can start by increasing funding to hire more caseworkers (including increasing pay and benefits).  We can also increase funding to purchase needed equipment and software for caseworkers to better access information and track cases.  More money won’t be able to do it all though.  We also need legislators to stop thinking of child protection agencies as the enemy and instead as a much needed safeguard for the least among us.

The constant demonization of child protection agencies does no one any good, especially when legislators are more at fault for an at-risk child’s death than they care to admit.  Legislators need to understand that when they cut any part of the social safety net, they put more strain on child protection agencies.  When they cut the budgets of child protection agencies on top of cutting parts of the social safety net, they set up situations where more children will die.  Children who could have been saved.

If the Arizona Republic notes, in a rare moment of conscience, that we need to “respect the problem”, you know the issue is grave.  The question is: Will the Arizona Legislature do right by the children in need of protecting or will they kick the can down the road and allow more senseless child deaths to occur on their watch?

I weep for our children as this is Arizona and our legislature is not known for doing the right thing.

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