The hardest job Published: January 2, 2011 12:38AM
Updated: December 30, 2010 01:01AM
The state of Utah should have enough pride in itself and enough concern for the most vulnerable among us that it will maintain its child welfare system at a high level of performance even without the federal lawsuit that hovered over the Department of Child and Family Services for 14 years.
But the latest evaluation of the system by state officials suggests that it will take more than pride and concern for the state to fulfill its basic human responsibilities in this area. It will take leadership. It will take money. We can only hope it will not take another lawsuit.
The Utah Office of Services Review explained recently to members of a legislative committee that interviews with DCFS workers and members of families who have been involved in the system, together with a scoring of statistical benchmarks, show that the department has maintained a level of performance above that ordered by a federal court in a case that began in 1995 and officially closed almost two years ago. But they also noted that scores on some of those benchmarks have been declining for four years.
The declines come in some of the most crucial areas that DCFS faces, such as meeting the goal of placing abused and neglected children in a permanent home and keeping those children protected and served while in transition. Long-term agency planning, reviewers say, has also suffered.
This first thing that needs to be said about that news is that DCFS has one of the hardest jobs imaginable. It involves dealing with seriously dysfunctional families, abused children who still love their parents, and neglectful parents who are nonetheless devastated when their children are removed. Then there is the imprecise task of determining which families can be saved and which should be put legally asunder for good.
Add to that a depressed economy that pressures both families and the state, a political climate that is averse to spending any more money than absolutely necessary, and a culture that commendably does not see government as the first option for dealing with personal problems. The result is an over-stressed bureaucracy, where caseworkers are underpaid, overworked and emotionally vivisected even as the children and families they are supposed to help remain in danger of falling through the cracks and getting less than they need to recover.
Utah’s taxpayers, its lawmakers, its collective soul, must never forget that the needs of abused children and distressed families never end. Neither does our responsibility to meet those needs.