Is Illinois an accessory to child murder?
November 9, 1993
Dead babies, broken families, drug use and gangs, pregnant 12-year-olds—children in Illinois do not need a Dickens to chronicle their misery but a Dante. The special panel commissioned by the Cook County Chief Judge in 1993 to investigate the strangling of a little boy by his deranged mother in effect found the state's child welfare system an accessory to murder. Such episodes are usually taken as ipso facto proof of the need for a more energetic state effort on their behalf. But those grim stats may be proof instead that Illinois' child welfare agencies already do too much, but badly.
Improving child welfare in Illinois means more than improving the state's Department of Children and Family Services, just as improving DFCS means more than implementing court-ordered "reforms" that neither expand nor improve the agency's programs. Requiring DCFS to actually administer its own programs amounts to radical reform in Illinois terms, but at best that merely makes the inadequate more efficient, not more effective.
The culprits are several, including a General Assembly that has given DCFS an impossible child protection mandate, and a state employees union that defines incompetence as standard practice that can't be blamed on someone else. Yes, yes, there are many good people working in agencies such as DCFS. Their goodness is not in dispute; their competence is. As Sir Toby Kind of New Zealand—a pre-Spock revolutionary in infant care—once put it, "We must remember that in the rearing of children ignorance tempered by kindness is not sufficient."
The complaint is general that the state's child protection system does not work. In fact it works quite well—in meeting the needs of its actual rather than its putative clients. It keeps unemployment low in the helping professions, it keeps the costs of coping with social disorder agreeably low to the taxpayer, it provides a platform from which governors and legislators may trumpet their concern for the unlucky. Bureaucrats love it; if we see more programs to improve service delivery than we see improved service delivery, it is because the system is set up to run programs rather than deliver services. It does all this at the expense of a constituency—children --that is incapable of redress save for their withdrawal from the society that wronged them.
Putting an abused or neglected child into DCFS custody changes her situation rather than improves it. One kind of abuse or neglect is merely traded for other kinds of abuse. (Inadequate health care is one; so are protracted separations under a foster care system exploited by clients and caseworkers alike as an adjunct to an inadequate welfare system.) Grown-ups may decline to judge well-intentioned child abuse actionable under the criminal statutes, but most children are not mature enough to appreciate such distinctions.
The Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago recent studied Illinois' family preservation program and confirmed that what happens in the family is not always the result of what happens to the family. Indeed, the reverse often is true. A genuinely preventive approach would ameliorate the causes—mainly economic change and social isolation—of family breakdown. Kids don't need a better DCFS, they need better moms and dads, and that takes real jobs paying real wages and houses in real neighborhoods.
Taxpayers will not countenance such improvements at their expense. That is cheap. We also direct the efforts of our bureaucracies from problems they can solve—running public works programs, handing out money—to problems they cannot, such as fixing broken families. That is stupid. And in our Puritan anxiety to not reward the undeserving we punish the innocent. That is sinful.
Nothing about today's child welfare controversies is new, except our ignorance of how old these problems are. Most of the "new" ideas being floated in Illinois have in fact been tried before in the state. Reform school is being reborn as today's "residential school," and about the only difference between old‑fashioned "friendly visit" case work and "family preservation"‑style intervention is the name—and the cost.
Rethinking kids' programs might do more good than refinancing or reorganizing them. A recent example is the attempt by the Joyce Foundation to redefine handgun violence—the leading killer of teenaged males—as a public health crisis rather than merely a law enforcement issue.
The orphanage is being revived (or rather reinvented) as a means of dealing with unwanted children. Today's well-managed examples bear little resemblance to their sorry predecessors, being usually small dormitory-like facilities with high kid-to‑staff ratios. Unfortunately they aren't cheap, and while the savings in avoided social costs from crime or dependence would seem to make the economics of the new orphanage more attractive over the long term, neither politicians nor bureaucrats keep books that way.
If Illinois cannot or will not spend more on kids, then it should spend what it is willing to spend where—and when—it will do the most good. Why not push the state's traditional 12‑year committment to schooling far forward in the lives of kids, from ages 5-18 to ages 0-13? Instead of publicly-supported high schools that are increasingly expensive and irrelevant, spend the money on infant nutrition, parent training, health screening, and enrichment programs, and child care for working parents. That would leave work, apprenticeships, and non-mandatory high-school‑level schooling as the alternatives for adolescents; arguably, that would improve child programs at both ends of the age spectrum.
As for DCFS, it cannot be said to prevent child abuse, even if it functioned the way it is supposed to, since a child must be abused to come to its attention in the first place. Nor does DCFS cure, at least as presently administered, because its incompetence almost always makes bad situations worse.
The wiser policy would be to disband the agency. Child abuse is a crime, and might be better treated as a crime rather than as bad parenting, with intervention left to a specialized agency of law enforcement trained to recognize the difference.
Not practical? Of course it isn't. Doing good never is. Decent people will ask, But who will protect the children? To which honest people must reply, who protects them now? ■