by Elizabeth Gibbons
In Oregon, Senate Democrats have boosted the state’s child welfare program by $30 million in an attempt to reform the failing system. This budget increase follows public hearings held by democrats to question, and in some respects, shame child welfare agency bureaucrats into implementing improvements. This all comes on the back of a biting audit that proves Oregon has not followed through on any reforms in the past decade, despite the knowledge that their system is ineffective and jeopardizes the safety of the children in their care. Rep. Buehler (R, Bend) has called for an additional $50 million to speed up the reform process, he further argued that it was the job of the Senate to take the lead in these changes. Some of the proposed changes include centralizing abuse headlines (a project that has been on the books for some time), expanding child care subsidies to foster parents, and recruiting more, qualified parents. A major problem that Senator Steiner Hayward (D, Portland) argues must take priority is the overwhelming staff turnover; she suggests strengthening the infrastructure, increasing training, and providing more support to employees.
New legislation in Arizona requires child welfare workers to have court approval to remove a child from their home. However, there are exceptions for urgent circumstances. Defining ‘urgent circumstances’ is the tricky bit that requires policy workers to navigate federal court rulings, family-rights supporters, and the judgment of the individual child-welfare investigator called to the scene. These circumstances, called “extringent circumstances” and referring to situations so dire there is not time to obtain a warrant, have to be defined by the Arizona Senate. This new legislation is the final piece needed to create a warrant system in the juvenile courts, a system that was demanded by lawmakers last year in reaction to the thousands of children clogging the foster-care system due to hasty removals. The argument goes that if police need a warrant to search a home, they need a warrant to seize a child. This new system must be in place by July 1, 2018. In order to expedite the warrant process and ensure a speedy removal in cases of unsafe conditions or abuse, child-welfare workers can request a warrant electronically from any of the 15 juvenile courts to a judge who will be on call 24/7. The success of this new legislation hinges on the full disclosure and objectivity of the Department of Child Safety.
There is a shortage of lawyers trained in child welfare law and/or willing to take child welfare cases in Massachusetts—a situation anyone familiar with child welfare law will recognize. However, Massachusetts state legislators are trying to address this lapse in representation! Last fall, judges noted that cases in which parents stood to lose custody of their children were being postponed because there weren’t enough lawyers to take the cases. This lack of legal representation hindered the state’s ability to either reunite a family or remove a child from harm. Furthermore, it forced vulnerable parties, namely at-risk children and families in need, to remain in limbo, without access to treatment or support. To quote one judge, it was ‘a constitutional emergency’, solved by raising the hourly rate child welfare attorneys get paid—at least temporarily. This increase in pay is not guaranteed. The Massachusetts state Senate recently passed a spending bill, but did not include increased funding for lawyers. The difference will have to be worked out by legislators, but for the moment, the Massachusetts court system is working to quickly provide stability and support to children and families.
Elizabeth Gibbons is CWLA’s editorial intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.