Colin Witt is a juvenile court judge in Polk County. One of the things he reminds the “team” is that not only are we there to do good, we are also there to avoid harm. He doesn’t say this because people set out to harm families. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes we are trying so hard to do the right thing that we aren’t aware of the harm we are causing. And it’s not always possible to do both good and avoid harm.

For example, removing children from abusive homes is sometimes necessary to keep them safe, but even when that’s the right decision, it still harms the family; it’s traumatizing for kids and parents to be separated like that. Anyone who practices in juvenile law knows of that tradeoff; are the kids going to suffer more harm by being removed or being left in the home?

Less clear, although perhaps intentionally so, are the things that harm parents in our zeal to protect kids. Some would say that’s acceptable. Parents made “bad choices,” and now are suffering the consequences. What they fail to consider is that those consequences affect the entire family; they are sometimes hardest on those who had absolutely nothing to do with the “choice.” And sometimes we make bad assumptions. We assume kids want to be in a safe stable home away from abusive parents, when the reality is they want their home to be safe and stable; they want to live with their parents.

My philosophy has always been that the best way we help kids is to help their parents get healthy and be good parents. But we sometimes create additional obstacles that can make reunification seem like an insurmountable goal to the very people we are trying to “help.” Much of this has to do with poverty, of course, but many of these families were teetering on the brink of poverty before DHS became involved.

For example, there may be multi-generation families living together. Let’s say mom is using drugs. She “comes to the attention of DHS,” and it is determined that the children must be removed. At that point, DHS tries to find a relative placement to ease that separation for the child. Oftentimes that’s a grandparent. So far, so good. The problem now, though, is that mom lives with this grandparent. So “removing” the child actually means the opposite: the child stays in her home with the grandparent, and mom must “remove” herself.

I’m not saying that’s wrong, per se. But here’s what happens now—mom is likely homeless. That may mean she’s sleeping in a car, or it may mean she is staying with “friends” (who may be the people she uses with), or forced back into a relationship with an abusive partner. Yes, there are “shelters,” but these are often full, with a waiting list. And because she really had no warning that she was going to be homeless, she’s not on the list.

Now that we’ve added “get stable housing” to her list of already challenging things to do (go to therapy, get “clean,” leave your abusive relationship, visit your kids, stay involved…), is it any wonder that parents fail or ultimately give up?So have we helped the kids? Or harmed them? Are we basing decisions on what could happen, or what is likely to happen? If the parent has been using for a year, and only now was “caught,” is there really a risk of “imminent” danger?

I’m not saying DHS and the courts shouldn’t be involved; I’m just not sure removal is the right answer when it compounds the problem.[1]

But let’s say removal is appropriate. What if there was a shelter specifically designed for parents who become homeless as a result of involvement with the juvenile court? What if that shelter was staffed with social workers who could “supervise” visits between parents and children? That could offer some of the services specific to juvenile court parents, and assist with transportation? That could offer parenting classes, budgeting classes, and other things that would help parents trying to get better? Not to mention support groups.

Another, different problem arises when the custodial parent “comes to the attention of DHS,” that involves the noncustodial parent. Let’s say mom is the custodial parent, and the kids are removed due to her substance use disorder (let’s further say her drug of choice is meth). Dad has been paying his child support and seeing his kids every other weekend as ordered. He has a job, stays out of trouble, and minds his own business. But he does use marijuana “socially.” Never when he has the kids, and there is never any “paraphernalia” lying around.

But now DHS wants him to submit to a drug screen. When it comes back positive, they want him to have a substance abuse evaluation and treatment. They want him to have a mental health evaluation, even though there’s no indication he needs it. And so now, we have an otherwise appropriate parent who uses a drug that in some states is legal, but in this state is deemed so illegal that it can result in him not being considered as a safe placement option for his kids.

Again. Are we helping or harming?

What if the custodial parent’s involvement didn’t automatically trigger “involvement” for the other parent? Does their past “good behavior” when parenting their children count for nothing? Should we require DHS to identify specific harm that would be reasonably likely (as opposed to possible) to occur if the child were placed with the noncustodial parent?

The third problem has a pie-in-the-sky solution, but stay with me.

I sometimes have cases where the DHS worker is largely MIA. This is frustrating, of course, but when there is a family crisis, it goes far beyond frustrating. A motion claiming DHS has failed to provide “reasonable efforts” to reunify can be filed but will be unlikely to succeed, in part because of the funding implications.[2] I’ve heard of a judge removing a DHS worker from a particular case, but while this may not have the same monetary consequences, it does create more inconsistency for a family that often desperately needs stability and consistency.

What if, instead, we paired up DHS workers? Let’s say that each caseworker has 50 cases (I know that’s not DHS’ number, but let’s pretend that’s a more accurate number based on a different (and I would argue more accurate) definition of a “case”). What if we instead assigned 60 cases to two (2) workers? Each worker would be lead on 30 cases, but would have access to the files of their secondary caseload. If a worker knew s/he was going to be gone (vacation, FMLA, etc.), s/he could “brief” the back-up worker on the cases most likely to need attention in his/her absence; the back-up would have access to those files if, in fact, attention to that case was needed. And if an unexpected crisis arose and the primary DHS worker assigned to the case was unavailable/nonresponsive, the back-up could assist.

You could even go a step further, and say that each worker’s balance between court involved cases and differential response ones starts at 20/10 (for example – those might not be the right numbers), with a maximum of 25 court-involved cases. If a differential response bumped over to court-involved, giving the lead worker more than 25 court-involved cases, some of those cases could shift over to the back-up in exchange for differential response cases. Again, it should be relatively seamless since both workers are familiar with the others’ cases.

The problems identified are just a few I see in juvenile court. Whether or not these are the right solutions, or are even feasible—I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that no one is really thinking about new solutions. We’re spending our time tweaking old ones. This isn’t really due to people not caring; it’s more about a lack of time to come up with new solutions and then finding the resources (time, money, people) to test and then implement them.

What are your thoughts?


[1] Yes, I know about differential response, but that does not involve the courts. At removal and adjudication, we look to whether removal is appropriate at the time of that hearing. It almost always is. So the divide starts to look like differential response (family assessment) is for non-removals, and court-involvement is for removals. Even though one of the “reasonable efforts” questions when the court is involved has to do with what has been done to prevent removal.

[2] Reasonable efforts are those things that are designed to lead to reunification. It’s hard to see how some of the things DHS often includes in its list are designed to “reunify.” To be fair, some of the things attorneys claim should have been provided but weren’t, are things that may be important, but may not necessarily help to reunify the family. The more impoverished the family, the more of these things are on the list.

Do No Harm
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