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PERSPECTIVE ON CHILD PROTECTION : Punishment by Public Penury : Overwhelming and worsening caseloads in dependency court ensure that victims of abuse won't get adequate help.

February 01, 1996|ARON LAUB | Aron Laub is an attorney in Los Angeles who handles dependency court cases

You get what you pay for. This maxim of the marketplace is as true for government services as it is for the purchase of private-sector housing, transportation, clothing and food.

Contrary to what is currently passing for wisdom, the federal mandate for family reunification is not the cause of failures in child protection services. The true problem, the overwhelming problem, is the refusal on the part of the public to pay for the services it wants in proportion to the gargantuan size of the needs being served.

I speak from experience with just one element of the child protection system: juvenile dependency court. In California, this branch of the Superior Court oversees the provision of government services to families in which there has been child abuse.

The goal in dependency court is to determine if an allegation of abuse is true, and, where it is true, to protect the child by forcing the parents to become involved in psychological counseling, parenting education classes or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Often the child is separated from the parents until they have shown through their actions that the child will not be at risk if returned. If this can be shown, then the "reunification" of the family is mandated by law.

It is routine for an attorney who has worked in dependency court for a couple of years to have 300 cases. If you start with 52 weeks and subtract two weeks for sick leave, three weeks for vacation and 10 days for holidays, then multiply the remainder by 40 hours, you get 1,800 work hours per year. This allows an attorney who wastes not one minute of each eight-hour day to give six hours of effort to each case per year. If the attorney doubles his efforts and works 80 hours a week, then his cases will get 12 hours of service a year.

In that 12 hours of service, the attorney must meet with his child client, make court appearances, make and receive phone calls, write and read letters, read reports, do legal research, draft motions and petitions, interview witnesses and visit the child's home in order to view the family setting. So even doubling the workweek, giving 300 clients the service they want and deserve is humanly impossible. Each child becomes a file in a pile.

Everyone working in the dependency system is drowning. I have represented children, parents and foster parents. Few have ever received the service and respect they needed and deserved from social workers. When I first started doing this work, I wondered if the hostility that social workers so often show toward the families they are supposed to serve was an expression of some perverse personality trait common to those who choose the profession. It's not, of course. Well-intentioned, underpaid people who want to help others and who are forced to confront crisis after crisis without ever having the time needed to effectively perform their helping function eventually resent those whose demanding needs can never be met.

What does the future look like? The Republican Party is effectively waging a war on the poor; the children of the poor are the ultimate victims. When social programs are cut, the suffering of the poor increases and the likelihood of child abuse by a parent under stress rises. Most of the parents forced into dependency court were themselves abused as children. When these parent-victims are overwhelmed by pressure in their daily lives, they often become the victimizers of their own children.

As the incidence of child abuse expands in our constricting economy, the number of cases in the flooded dependency court system will rise. Do we really want to help these abused children? Government-supported child care, jobs and education for low income parents would be the most effective way to decrease the number of child abuse cases. But the public does not appear to want to make that kind of investment.

If we will not pay for prevention and must limit our spending to "protecting" children who have already been abused, then our dependency court system needs enough social workers and lawyers to do the job. This, too, will cost a lot more money than we are currently spending. Tax money. Our money. We will get only what we pay for.

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