On April 13, the Center for Health, Science, and Public Policy and the Journal of Law and Policy cosponsored a symposium, “Reforming Child Protection Law: A Public Health Approach” to discuss strategies to improve child protection laws.
The first panel, moderated by Professor Karen Porter, addressed the role of risk assessment in child protection. Panelists included Professor Marsha Garrison, Professor Clare Huntington of Fordham University School of Law, and Dr. Sheila Smith, Early Childhood Director of the National Center for Children in Policy. The panelists discussed various risk factors associated with child maltreatment, including poverty, domestic violence, maternal depression and parental substance abuse. Huntington noted that “there is a strong correlation between the quality of a child’s environment, the nature of the parent-child attachment, and academic success later in life.”
The second panel, moderated by Professor Tara Urs, focused on different approaches to child maltreatment prevention. The panelists included Professor Cynthia Godsoe, Professor David Olds of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and Dr. Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Chicago and Director of the Center for State Foster Care and Adoption Data. Godsoe discussed the procedural justice potential of “differential response,” a new alternative to adversarial child protection investigation and intervention. Olds described the Nurse Family Partnership Program, one of the few maltreatment prevention programs that has consistently shown success in reducing maltreatment in at risk populations. Wulczyn presented data showing that the system in which a child protection case was processed was a more powerful predictor of family reunification than individual case characteristics such as race.
At lunch, the Honorable Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, Administrative Judge for the Family Court of the City of New York, delivered an impassioned address about the proper role of the courts in child protection proceedings. She explained that child maltreatment and placement in foster care are both strongly associated with poverty and lack of education. She urged that prevention was thus a key to reducing the level of abuse or neglect: “At-risk families should be identified earlier on, children of immigrant families cannot be ignored, and comprehensive services in New York should be more readily available.”
Another panel, moderated by Professor Porter, addressed the systemic strengths and weaknesses of the current child welfare system and the various ways it could be improved. Panelists included Professor Martin Guggenheim of the New York University School of Law, Dr. John B. Mattingly, Senior Fellow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Professor Jonathan Todres of Georgia State University College of Law. Mattingly identified several problems inherent in child welfare systems and discussed the need for strong internal leadership to achieve significant systemic change. Guggenheim argued that child welfare services should focus on providing voluntary services to at-risk families. Todres used child trafficking as a lens to consider broader child protection issues. He described the failure of criminal enforcement and the politicized atmosphere in which decisions about child protection are made. He urged that the child protection system must address the underlying behaviors of families and identify community partners who can help support them.
The symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion that focused on appropriate state responses to a hypothetical case study involving a troubled family.