Is There a Minimal Standard of Care?

(Originally published September 2010)

Child welfare advocates, practitioners and other professionals periodically ask me about scholarship or case law that defines a minimal standard of care for families with open CPS cases or families whose children are in foster care. Surprisingly little has been published on this subject in child welfare journals; and case law is no more helpful than child welfare scholarship, at least in Washington State. Nevertheless, child advocates, caseworkers and other professionals who seek to apply defensible standards in making initial placement decisions, or decisions to reunify (or not), struggle with the question of reasonable parenting expectations for low income troubled families referred to CPS or seeking to regain custody of children placed out of the home due to abuse or neglect.


Generally, when parent advocates ask about a minimal standard of care that can be equitably applied in child welfare cases, they believe that child welfare caseworkers or CASAs are making unreasonable demands on low income or culturally different families. It is true that the lack of well articulated standards is an invitation to exercise of personal bias’ that may be compounded by ignorance of cultural practices outside the American mainstream.


When I worked for the Children’s Administration in Washington State, I was frequently surprised by the range of parenting practices neighbors, relatives and professionals viewed as “negligent treatment or maltreatment” warranting a CPS investigation, for example, sending children to school with sack lunches lacking fruits or vegetables, or a parent’s refusal to permit an extremely active child to be given Ritalin or some other stimulant drug. Mandated reporters, child welfare agencies and staff do more than apply laws and policies; they also determine the operational meaning of statutes with vague or ambiguous definitions of child abuse and neglect through daily decisions and social interactions among themselves and with persons making referrals and agencies providing services to families. This is one meaning of the common scholarly claim that child maltreatment is “socially constructed”.


However, the main reason (in my view) that parent advocates and child welfare agencies have not articulated minimal parenting standards is that any such standard is likely to raise “on the ground” expectations on families with open child welfare cases rather than lower them, not in every case but on average. Child welfare agencies in this country tolerate chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment (i.e., neglect plus physical abuse or sexual abuse) to a remarkable degree because they lack effective and affordable interventions, and because they are unwilling to place large numbers of children in out- of- home care for parental negligence that does not create an immediate threat to child safety. Nevertheless, any minimal standard of care likely to be accepted by communities can not endorse abusive and neglectful parenting, no matter how low level or “low risk”. Furthermore, a number of studies have found that residents of low income and/ or minority neighborhoods have higher rather than lower expectations of parents than child welfare agencies. At the front end of CPS investigation and family voluntary services, a widely accepted minimal standard of care might have an effect the opposite of the one desired by parent advocates and many child welfare practitioners.


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