For a few minutes, it actually seems like they're in agreement. It is Wednesday, Jan. 31, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School is hosting what Dean Michael Fitts calls a "heavyweight fight" between two of the country's pre-eminent child welfare experts, Martin Guggenheim and Richard Gelles. American governments have come up with only two responses to cases of reported child abuse or neglect: Either separate a child from his parents (which is traumatic for child and family, and raises the possibility that the child will be harmed by his new caretaker), or provide services and support to the family (which may leave the child vulnerable) [Cover, "The Deluge," Doron Taussig, Jan. 11, 2007]. Child welfare agencies apply these strategies on a case-by-case basis, but struggle over which side to err on.
Guggenheim, a professor of law at NYU, is an advocate of family preservation. Gelles, dean of the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice, pushes foster care and adoption. Historically, it's been very hard for advocates to find any middle ground.
The debate, held in front of a large crowd in Penn's Levy Conference Room, is an academic exercise, but it might actually mean something. Beginning last fall, the Inquirer ran a series of articles about problems in Philly's child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services (DHS), including several about children who died at their parents' hands after coming under the department's watch. Mayor Street responded by firing Commissioner Cheryl Ransom-Garner and appointing a review panel. Thus far, these actions have only confused social workers and caused the number of children being removed from their families to rise. But there is a chance admittedly small that the city will take this opportunity to make systemic reforms. And some of the people who will oversee that process, including Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty, are in attendance.
Guggenheim, who sounds every bit like a distinguished lawyer, begins by using flourishes, climaxes and denouements to declare that we are a "pathetic nation." We have high rates of correctable problems like asthma and lead poisoning, he says, but choose to focus on a "socially invented problem" like child abuse, which affects far fewer children. "He says the serious problem is bad parents," the lawyer intones, gesturing toward Gelles. "I say the serious problem is us."
Gelles does not respond in kind. If Guggenheim plays the dramatic orator, Gelles' act is the sober teller of hard truths. Yes, he agrees, "it is a racist, classist, sexist system." But having chosen not to build a safety net, we have to be prepared to remove children from a small percentage of parents.
"We use [structural inequities] as a smokescreen for the fact that there are really dysfunctional families," he says. "They're there because they just can't do it."
On this last point, Guggen-heim nods: "I agree," he says.
The men move on to discuss the nitty-gritty of child welfare, which leads, oddly, to more agreement. Guggenheim says we have a "sham system" that tests compliance rather than a parent's ability to raise her child. Gelles bemoans the fact that agencies like DHS simultaneously conduct investigations and provide supportive services. Each mission, he says, corrupts the other.
Then, Gelles proposes a solution: More than 60 percent of investigated reports are unsubstantiated and there is enough data to predict which those will be. Agencies could offer those families services, and investigate only the more serious accusations (later, he will suggest eliminating the investigative function of child welfare and letting police investigate crimes against children). The only issue will be "where to draw that line," he says.
Of course, we're in fantasyland when we talk about eliminating a central function of a $600 million bureaucracy like DHS. But this seems like a significant point of agreement, something the policymakers in attendance can build on. Things are looking up until, about halfway through the debate, the experts look at an actual case.
It's the redacted file of a 3-year-old who's covered with bruises. When DHS goes to see the family, the mother attributes the marks to horseplay with a babysitter's child (the babysitter disputes this claim). The father just paces, disengaged. How would the panelists handle this case?
Guggenheim says he would ask the family, "Are you satisfied with the condition in which we found your daughter? How can we help?" Gelles says there's still a lot of data to be collected, but seems confident that both mother and daughter are being abused by the father. Gelles wouldn't necessarily remove the child, but he's thinking about it.
Clearly, they see the case on different sides of the line Gelles referred to.
And that's the rub. Two experts, on opposite ends of the spectrum, can agree that, in some small percentage of families, children should be removed. They can agree that other families should get help, and they can agree that, in an attempt to balance these two functions, we've grown a giant bureaucracy that is an unhealthy mixture of the two. All they have to do is draw that line. But damn it, they just can't.