Christie Appelhanz: Task force must focus on abuse and neglect prevention

Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.

Legislation establishing Kansas’ new child welfare task force missed a critical piece of the puzzle. We urge task force members to widen their focus to include child abuse and neglect prevention.

 

The Legislature asked the task force for specific recommendations on the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ administration of child welfare, protective services, family preservation, reintegration, foster care and permanency. These topics have two things in common: They seek to help a child and family only after there has been child maltreatment; and progress on each of them is more likely if fewer children suffer abuse or neglect to begin with.

Real progress on prevention is possible because most child maltreatment happens when good people in struggling families are stretched to the breaking point. The National Academies of Science reports that three-fourths of child maltreatment involves neglect, not abuse. As examples of “child neglect,” the Kansas Department for Children and Families lists “failure to provide the child with food, clothing, or shelter necessary to sustain the life or health of the child.” In other words, poverty. But being poor and being evil are very different things. They require very different societal responses.

Even in cases of abuse, financial strain is a risk factor. A nationwide study of children’s hospitals found that every 1 percent increase in parents’ 90-day mortgage delinquencies corresponded to a 3 percent increase in hospital admissions for physical child abuse.

Yes, we must often remove children from their homes after abuse or neglect. But that superficial analysis obscures a more damning truth: when maltreatment happens, we have already failed those children, by not investing in the resiliency of their families.

Children thrive when we can keep them safely at home. As research shows, they have better outcomes, including improved health and academic performance, and fewer behavioral issues.

Progress on prevention would also free up scarce resources for children who can never safely return home. Those resources could fund foster parent recruitment and training, foster placement monitoring, support for foster families, and permanency solutions like guardianship and adoption. In short, strengthening Kansas families so we can safely remove fewer children from their homes makes solving every other problem on the task force’s agenda easier.

What should the task force do? First, it should consider recommendations that build on this year’s effort to mend Kansas’ badly frayed economic safety net. Kansas communities already have a network of nonprofits and health care providers offering supports – from home visiting for new parents to child care, mental health and substance abuse treatment to job training – that can help families manage known maltreatment risk factors. The task force should recommend ways to make it easier for families to access them, as well as increased funding to expand their reach. And because financial strain is closely connected to abuse and neglect, any serious prevention strategy must also include strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, KanCare and other initiatives that help families weather tough times.

This commentary is signed by one organization, but the author speaks for many. The views expressed here are shared by the Kansas African American Foster Care/Adoption Coalition, Kansas Appleseed, Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Kansas Family Advisory Network, and Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

The law creating the task force wisely gave its members discretion to study “any other topic the child welfare system task force or working group deems necessary or appropriate.” We all urge them to use that discretion and prioritize child abuse and neglect prevention. Doing so is the best way to make this the last child welfare task force Kansas kids ever need.

Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.

 

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