A Tale of Two Cities: How a Community Can Help

By Heitfield, Heather | Nation's Cities Weekly, July 30, 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Cities: How a Community Can Help


Heitfield, Heather, Nation's Cities Weekly


With formal child protection systems typically housed at state or county levels, many cities -- and community members -- feel that they have little or no role in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. But a city's approach to child abuse prevention can have an enormous impact on the lives of children and their families.

Consider, for example, the hypothetical story of "David" below. The different story versions show the importance of community-wide participation for formal child protection.

City A

The county level child protection agency operates on a limited budget, providing traditional intervention services to families in immediate crisis. The community distrusts the child welfare system and few at-risk families receive comprehensive support. Many non-profit organizations operate on tight budgets and receive limited community support. Teachers and social service providers attend training sessions where they learn about mandatory child abuse reporting laws.

* David's stepfather loses his job. He begins drinking heavily and hits David's mother frequently.

* At a quarterly parent-teacher conference, David's teacher reports that his grades are slipping and that he is withdrawn in class. Although the abuse is escalating, David's mother is afraid to ask for help. She fears her son will be removed from home. David starts displaying behavioral problems at school.

* David's gym teacher notices unusual bruises on his arms. As mandated by law, he reports his suspicions to the school administration. Child protective services are called immediately.

* County-level social workers conduct a thorough investigation of David's family. Community members and friends noted recent family stress, but no one suspected family violence. The caseworker discovers a similar report that was previously filed but never substantiated. This time, there is physical evidence to support the allegation.

* The caseworker presents the evidence to a family court judge, who removes David from his home and places him into temporary foster care. The judge orders David's stepfather to enroll in a parenting class and attend AA meetings. The overworked caseworker gives the stepfather phone numbers of different social service providers.

* David is placed into a foster home with three other foster children. The oldest foster child hits David frequently, so he is placed into another home. David changes schools again and adapts to a new foster family.

* David's stepfather receives the court ordered social services. The caseworker determines that David can now return to his family and the court complies. David returns home. His stepfather stops attending his meetings.

* David's father isn't violent for several weeks but becomes increasingly frustrated when he can't find work. His abusive behavior soon escalates.

* David's mother calls the police during one incident of domestic violence, but chooses not to press charges. A few weeks later, an allegation of child abuse is made by a concerned neighbor and David is once again temporarily placed into foster care.

* David is getting into trouble at school. He is fighting frequently, showing signs of depression, and experimenting with alcohol. He is arrested for drug possession and appears in juvenile court. A judge places David on probation and recommends that he enroll in various treatment programs provided by the county. David does not comply.

* David's stepfather continues to be abusive. David drops out of school and moves away from home. He has several encounters with the police because of substance abuse problems.

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A Tale of Two Cities: How a Community Can Help
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