Child Welfare: The Challenges of Collaboration

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Timothy Ross
The Urban Institute Press
254 pages. $29.50.

What happens when the many people and agencies that are responsible for keeping children safe – such as teachers, police, social workers, judges, lawyers and health care practitioners – must cooperate? Conflict and issues that cut across agencies, says Timothy Ross, who identifies four problems behind these clashes.

The “Tunnel Problem,” determined by a child’s entry point into the system, dispenses an agency’s services no matter what underlying needs might be; the “Information Flow Problem” happens when databases are incompatible and staff members don’t communicate between agencies. The “Diffusion of Responsibility Problem” stymies follow-through when one need, such as education, is addressed by multiple agencies; and “the Unloading Cases and Shifting Burdens Problem” results when agencies or parents “seek to rid themselves of troubled youth.”

Busy child welfare professionals can’t solve these snarls. But when New York City created the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to focus on children’s safety, its funding seeded research conducted by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. As director of Vera’s Child Welfare, Health, and Justice program, Ross brings experience from many disciplines to convey good news: Studies show that many of these cross-agency issues can be resolved.

Ross presents evidence on coordinating law enforcement and child protection, the effects of incarcerated mothers on foster children, status offenders’ experience in foster care, and a successful project that bridges juvenile justice and child welfare systems. One chapter analyzes how early adolescents’ experiences vary according to their routes into foster care. Another illuminates reasons older youths leave foster group homes without permission. The final chapter recommends tested strategies for addressing cross-agency challenges.

Anyone involved in child welfare will value these insights to help mend the “weak and broken strands” in the system’s “fragile web.” (800) 537-5487,