Child protection needs our best efforts
To have a child welfare system that is good for the children, we need to do a few things differently.
By Jerome L. Blakemore, Special to The Commercial Appeal, April 15, 2009

The Memphis Child Advocacy Center on April 8 honored the memory of 14 children who died in Shelby County as a direct result of child abuse. The flag-raising ceremony highlighted the name of each child and offered insightful and informative messages from a number of speakers.

Jerome L. Blakemore
The ceremony brought further attention to the plight of vulnerable children in the metropolitan area. But if we go back to business as usual, the ceremony would have served not as a catalyst for change, but as another unkept promise to those children.

Child abuse is a global, national and local problem. More than 1,500 children die in the United States annually from abuse and neglect. Additionally, nearly 1 million children are victims of maltreatment. In Shelby County, there were 7,347 assigned child protective cases in 2008, down from 8,031 in 2007; through April 10, the number of child protective services cases this year had reached 2,160.

Clearly, child abuse and neglect are problems, and they are exacerbated by the fact that Memphis has the highest poverty index rate of the 51 urban areas in the country.

There is some good news, however. Shelby County, which typically has been seen as the part of the state that lags in progress and outcomes, is now consistently in the middle of the pack in the Tennessee Department of Children's Services indicators on quality. The county's response times have improved, there are more opportunities for staff development, and the county has reduced the number of children in state care.

Yet more needs to be done. To have a child welfare system that is good for the children, we need to do a few things differently, including:

Develop a strong child welfare agency that serves as the basis for providing a safety net for children and families.

Improve responsiveness of the criminal justice system in investigating and processing cases. This is critical if we are to protect our children.

Provide an assurance that safety is of primary importance.

Select good staff and provide quality, clinically informed supervision.

Provide training that promotes critical thinking, problem solving and skill development of parents and caregivers.

Recognize that the 100-plus child protective services staff employed in Shelby County cannot address the problem of child abuse alone. Everyone in the community must take child abuse seriously. Systems cannot alone intervene or prevent child abuse.

Recognize that families must participate in efforts to change their circumstances and increase their skills. Casework must be seen as a partnership with families, not necessarily as an adversarial relationship.

Return to good, old-fashioned casework.

Continue the application of processes and procedures from the Department of Children's Services "Brian A." lawsuit that were designed to address custody issues but also have creatively been applied to child protective services.

The department's move to a Multiple Response System (MRS) potentially could address many of these points. At the core of the MRS model, which was adopted in 2007, is a belief that the one-size-fits-all approach to investigating allegations of abuse or neglect is ineffective. It combines investigative, assessment and resource linkages approaches to understanding and addressing the needs of vulnerable children and families.

Is the new response a better promise to our children? Quite honestly, it's too early to tell, and if the Department of Children's Services continues with its typical practice of starting new initiatives and then retreating before they have had an opportunity to either show promise or fail on their own merits, we may never know.

Perhaps it's time to take a hard look at what works for the children in Shelby County, in an effort to realize two promises for them.

The first promise should be that if we again raise a flag to honor children it should be raised to celebrate the days, weeks and months in which no child has died because of child abuse or neglect.

The second promise is that we must be good for children by examining in detail and with rigor whether the new reform effort at the Department of Children's Services is succeeding in keeping vulnerable children safe. That examination should include assessing whether we have finally developed a system that is responsive, that engages families and that promotes real grass-roots partnership.

Jerome L. Blakemore is director of the Division of Social Work and faculty director of the Child Welfare Training Center at the University of Memphis. This is one in a series of monthly guest columns designed to focus public attention on issues that affect children. It is part of a Shelby County initiative to remind everyone, in every aspect of daily life, to "Ask First: Is It Good for the Children?" For more information, call the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth at 526-1822 ext. 249, or visit

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