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A Wild Swing for Child Welfare

'Family reunification' movement needs to be tempered

September 10, 1996

The pendulum frequently seems to swing too far in one direction or the other when it comes to the child welfare system. In the 1980s, for example, it was rightly noted that there had been too much movement toward long-term foster care and away from families that, with the right support, could learn not to neglect or abuse their children. "Family reunification" became the legislative mantra in California and elsewhere.

In many cases, being returned to one's family was far better than being bounced from one foster home to another until being set loose in society as an adult with poor prospects.

But now a report from the Los Angeles County counsel on the local juvenile court system again describes a wild pendulum swing. In it, four juvenile Dependency Court commissioners are criticized on the grounds of repeatedly sending vulnerable children back to homes where they were likely to be abused. The report follows the county counsel's extremely rare action of refusing to send cases to a fifth commissioner because the counsel feared the same thing would happen again.

Legislative adjustments are ready for the governor's pen, and that's good. One bill puts the welfare of the child over the goal of family reunification. Another would make it easier for courts to put abused children up for adoption. But further steps are required.

Court participants and those who represent the children say they must take into consideration a child's wish to return home, even if there have been signs of abuse. Well, the nation now knows far better than before how difficult it is for a battered wife to leave an abusive husband. Surely in light of that knowledge it's easy to understand that a child, even more dependent than a battered woman, sometimes fails to want what is in his or her best interests.

Also, there's no money to throw at the problem, and that requires diligent thinking. Social workers said that they were too overwhelmed to provide some of the support needed to lead a family away from abuse or to monitor a family once a child had been sent back home.

That brings us to the Dependency Court commissioners, who also are under the gun, handling as many as 40 cases a day that could result in family reunification. But whatever their workload, the commissioners, who are appointed by the Superior Court and serve at the will of the court, can be viewed as the last line of defense for children who have already suffered abuse at the hands of dysfunctional parents.

The commissioners must be held to a higher standard, and they must be removed if they are not up to the responsibility.

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