UW News

December 3, 2001

Improving quality of child protective services in Washington, Oregon, Alaska is goal of $2.2 million grant

Aside from the Internal Revenue Service, perhaps no government agencies are the object of more scorn than state child protective services organizations (CPS).

To help these agencies in Washington, Oregon and Alaska improve their services, the Children’s Bureau of the federal Department of Health and Human Service has awarded the University of Washington a $2.2 million grant over five years to establish a CPS Quality Improvement Center, called Frontline Connections.

The Northwest Institute for Children and Families in the UW’s School of Social Work will administer the center. Its goal will be to identify and evaluate new programs that can make a difference in the lives of children, particularly among black and American Indian families who are disproportionately represented on the rolls of CPS agencies in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, said Katharine Cahn, director of the institute. The center also will focus on improving services to single-parent families where children often become victims of neglect.

“We are not taking very good care of the children in our society and we need to improve our services,” said Cahn.

“Child protective agencies are in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. People in the United States believe in privacy and autonomy, so what goes on in a family isn’t thought to be a public matter. And we don’t like the idea of an agency coming in and telling a family how to raise a child. But as a community, we have a big heart and people are outraged when a child is hurt or killed. We can’t stand it if the system makes an error.”

The new UW center will work with the Division of Family and Youth Services in the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services; Children, Adults and Families of the Oregon Department of Human Services, and the Children’s Administrations of the Washington Department of Social and Health Service.

The center’s initial efforts will focus on a needs assessment and evaluation with child researchers and key thinkers in each state who are trying to solve systemic CPS problems. By March, Cahn will go to a regional advisory group that includes the heads of the three CPS agencies and representatives of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the Black Child Development Institute and the Casey Family Program to pick four programs to be field-tested. Funding of these demonstration programs is expected to start in the fall of 2002.

Cahn said one of the focuses of Frontline Connections will be to develop programs that will be effective in helping American Indian and black families because these groups are over-represented on CPS case rolls. However, she emphasized that all programs the center will test will be useable with any family in the CPS system.

“National studies have shown there is no difference in abuse rates for American Indian or black families from other groups,” she said. “But there is a differential response. Blacks and American Indians are involved in the system longer and are more readily pushed back into the system. But the level of services to these groups is low. They either just languish or become lost in the system.”

Cahn said neglect cases are often more difficult to work than those involving physical injury.

“Sometimes when CPS workers are dealing with a depressed single mother, family life may be chaotic, but it is not always clear if a child is safe. If a mother is depressed and can barely get out of bed, she might put out a peanut butter sandwich for the child’s lunch. The kid goes to school, eats half the sandwich, comes home to an empty house, watches TV and eats the other half of the sandwich for dinner,” she said.

Cahn said children raised in these kinds of circumstances may have great difficulty later in life making emotional attachments to other people. States generally have very poor services for mothers and families in this kind of situation and need to improve how they handle neglect cases.

“CPS is basically a crisis-driven institution that is putting out fires. We need to take a look at what CPS needs. We want to be clear we are not the experts. The CPS caseworkers are,” said Cahn. “What we can do is identify areas where they are being innovative and share this with others states. Legislators want to know what works and what will help children turn out better. This is a quality improvement program that is designed to show and demonstrate programs that do work.”
For more information, contact Cahn at (206) 685-1675 or kcahn@u.washington.edu,
or Indra Trujillo, project manager, at (206) 616-7508 or indra@u.washington.edu