By Melanie Blow, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
What's the best way to keep children safe when their families are investigated by CPS? Keep them out of CPS in the first place. How does a community do that? Adopt programs that have worked before, in novel combinations, and get the community's buy-in at every level.
This is exactly what's happening in Erie County, NY, right now. The county suffered from a staggering number of child murders—ten in three years. The county's CPS had been over-burdened to the point where it collapsed. County residents lost all faith in CPS and were desperate for change. The county was also struggling with adult domestic homicides. They had a solid infrastructure of service providers and some very progressive programs, but they also had police chiefs who weren't beacons of enlightenment.
I brought an understanding of maternal home visitation programs (such as Healthy Families America and Nurse Family Partners) as tools to prevent child abuse, neglect and fatalities to the Stop Abuse Campaign. Barry Goldstein, through The Quincy Solution, has developed the best practices that drastically reduce domestic violence crime within a community, and the Safe Child Act, a bill which ensures judges and court staff handle allegations of domestic violence and child abuse in more effective ways. As a certified trainer in child sexual abuse prevention, it was clear to me that the Stop Abuse Campaign had the know-how to build a system to prevent most Adverse Childhood Experiences in a community.
The Quincy Solution will prevent the almost 50% of abuse that involves domestic violence, maternal home visiting prevents the other 50%, and educating the county’s adults in child sexual abuse prevention would allow all adults to participate in keeping children safe, out of CPS, and from growing into tomorrow's struggling parents.
It's one thing to know how to fix a community's problems. It's another to convince the community to allocate the resources. Erie County was keen to make swift progress. New York State had investigated the county's CPS after the last child-murder of 2013. CPS workers had low morale and high caseloads. The county was committed to change, but focused on legislation to bolster CPS or reducing their caseloads, either through shunting CPS work into the criminal-justice system or discouraging reports.
I couldn't doubt their commitment to doing something to truly fix the problem. The question was whether we could get them to move their thinking upstream from responding to violence and embrace actually preventing it.
Our first meeting focused on the idea of primary prevention, and they were interested. We showed them how, after an initial financial investment, they would be able to save money and slash CPS caseloads within the first year.
Over 25% of CPS investigations in NY concern children under the age of 1. Most of these calls could be prevented through maternal home visiting programs, thus reducing the county’s CPS caseload. Statistically, most of the “false allegations” during custody disputes that vex CPS are actually not false—CPS workers are simply trained to regard them suspiciously, and court staff generally take the findings of a CPS investigation as gospel. The trainings of court staff that will be a part of Erie County’s Quincy Solution implementation should empower court staff to protect these children quickly, keeping them from becoming “frequent flyers” in CPS, thus reducing caseloads even further.
In terms of implementation, the adult-education-about-child-sex-abuse piece was very easy. It is very inexpensive, and the director of the Child Advocacy Center has taken ownership of it. The director of the county’s Healthy Families NY program is leading the rollout of their program to 100% of eligible mothers, since today only 6% of mothers who need help receive it. The gap lies in funding.
Implementation of The Quincy Solution is a little more complex.
An effective coordinated community response requires the participation of many different organizations, each with their own agendas and politics. The Quincy Solution is built on an effective coordinated community response, and we knew we needed a local leader familiar with the local culture who could obtain support from mayors, sheriffs, DA’s, judges, prosecutors, legislators, direct service provides, CPS, and the many new maternal home-visitors who will be hired. All of these professionals have different bosses, and some of whom have complex political relationships!
History is on Erie County’s side. As one of the first places in the nation to start a Family Justice Center, Erie County’s DV community believes in the importance of collaboration to end DV, and understands what legwork is needed. The team that implemented the Family Justice Center was led by the director of Catholic Charities, who administers most of the county’s DV services, and we were happy he agreed to extend that work into prevention by leading the coordinated community response to implement the Quincy Solution too.
Winning the community’s heart is the biggest challenge of implementing this plan, but it’s also the most rewarding part. When you talk about preventing things like child abuse and domestic violence, which have plagued our society since its dawn, most people don’t believe they are truly preventable. But when you talk about how each piece of this plan works, people start to understand. I spent a Sunday morning at a Buffalo Bills game, with paper copies of the petition we started on change.org, trying to get signatures. I was accompanied by the great-grandmother of one of the murdered children. Most people who passed us by didn’t want to engage with us, but those who did understood. Every one of them. And they understood why this is better than anything else the county has done.
We are in the early stages of making history in Erie County. I look forward to watching this unfold. I look forward to more press conferences, more allegiances, more connections based on making one beleaguered county a better place for kids to grow up in.
A message from the author: Hello, I’m Melanie Blow. I’m an advocate for child abuse survivors, and an advocate for policies and laws that prevent child abuse. I’m also a survivor of incest and a handful of other Adverse Childhood Experiences.
I’ve served on the Board of Directors for Prevent Child Abuse NY for over a decade, and have been heavily involved in their legislative advocacy efforts for most of that time. I’ve provided testimony at hearings, have spent endless hours educating legislators, and have vetted dozens and dozens of bills aimed at reforming CPS.
After watching CPS collapse in Erie County NY, a county near my heart and home, I designed a plan to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences in the county, using evidence-based best practices. I’ve convinced people, from the families of the murdered children, to professionals and advocates, to elected officials in state and county government, to invest in primary prevention of abuse and maltreatment, rather than growing CPS indefinitely and complaining about the consequences of abused children taking their toll on the county.
I am always willing to talk about child abuse, its prevention, the model we’re implementing in Erie county, and the survivor experience. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org