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Tiziana Dearing: "Prevention should be a rallying cry for Massachusetts." (brighter than sunshine/flickr)

What is the state of child welfare in the state of Massachusetts? The discovery of the body of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver in a piece of luggage along a highway in Sterling on April 18 has sparked intense debate about how to fix the state’s Department of Children and Families, the organization that exists to protect our most vulnerable children. Oliver, whose mother and boyfriend were charged last December in connection with his disappearance, was last seen by a DCF worker on May 20, 2013. The boy’s short, tragic life has renewed scrutiny on funding for child protection and the overall condition of our child welfare system. We’ve been here before, and what we have learned is that overhauling DCF won’t be enough, because these problems start long before DCF gets involved.

I believe in prevention, which means investing in preventative approaches instead of spending on remediation after a crisis has happened. No amount of after-the-fact investment will bring back Jeremiah or fix his broken family. This approach also means keeping young men out of prison and helping families stay in their homes, rather than spending more on shelters once they are homeless. Prevention it is also significantly less burdensome to public resources than the back-end actions we take when we don’t invest first.

We’ve been here before, and what we have learned is that overhauling DCF won’t be enough, because these problems start long before DCF gets involved.

Prevention should be a rallying cry for Massachusetts.

Consider the little girl who spends the night on the floor of a restroom because her mother — as this state requires — has to prove that she and her child have spent at least one night in a place unfit for human habitation before they can qualify for homeless benefits.

In the prevention world, that girl never became homeless, because her mother qualified for, and received, subsidized affordable housing and a childcare subsidy, neither of which ran out, which allowed her to accumulate some savings without penalty in order to become self-sufficient.

According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, as of mid-May of this year, Massachusetts had approximately 4,600 homeless families and pregnant women. The state was paying nightly to shelter 1,889 of those families in motels, because of insufficient shelter space. Imagine your kids trying to do their homework in a small hotel room, or your teenagers trying to get privacy to dress or bathe, or your own efforts to figure out how to prepare and serve a nutritious, affordable meal without a kitchen.

Assume, for a moment, that the state rents all of those motel rooms at $25 per family, per night. That’s just over $47,000 per night. The state has been housing roughly 2,000 families in motels nightly for more than five years. Meanwhile, as of January 2011, the waitlist in the commonwealth for subsidized Section 8 housing was 103,226 families long.

Average rent for a Boston-area, unsubsidized, two-bedroom apartment runs to $1,350 to $1,450 per month. A mother earning minimum wage needs to work 130 hours per week to afford such an apartment, or she has to earn at least $26 per hour. Massachusetts’s state minimum wage is currently $8.00. It will top out at $11.00 in 2017.

Beyond homelessness, food insecurity affects 35.4 percent of families in the U.S. that are headed by single mothers, according to Project Bread. In Massachusetts, 17 percent of our children are going to bed and waking up hungry. When I ran Catholic Charities, we fed children in our early education and care programs the amount of nutrition required for the whole day, because we knew that for some of them, the next meal would not come until tomorrow.

When will we learn? We can pay up front, or we can pay later. Either way, we pay, so why not invest in the option that stands the chance of providing the best outcomes for our children?

While federal SNAP and WIC programs drive down food insecurity and improve child health and well-being, they don’t go far enough. According to a study in the New England Journal of Public Policy, as of 2008, SNAP benefits fell short by $2,520 per family, per year, for Massachusetts families trying to buy even the minimal level of nutrition. Yet, in 2010, hunger-related issues cost the U.S. health care system $130 billion.

While much of this argument is financial, the human outcomes are the most important — and the point. Childhood vulnerability affects learning, long-term mental and physical health, life expectancy, ability to contribute to the community, overall happiness…the list goes on. We can measure the money, but the impact is on all of our children’s hope and belief in their futures.

When will we learn? We can pay up front, or we can pay later. Either way, we pay, so why not invest in the option that stands the chance of providing the best outcomes for our children?

Prevention is what states do when they are serious about protecting their children and families.  TWEET Massachusetts needs to be serious now.

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Tags: Beacon Hill, Family

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Deconstructor

    I appreciate this perspective and, as a social worker, could not agree more that prevention is where our focus needs to be when it comes to the protection of children and the wellbeing of families. It’s tricky though, so many of the dynamics present within families and systems do not have a beginning and end, meaning, it’s hard to get ahead of them to be “preventative” because they are cyclical and often deeply rooted in a complex web of broken systems. I am wondering about Dearing’s ideas for prevention and systemic change. It seems to me that we need much more than reform, we are in need of revolution. I am curious about what others think about what that prevention looks like – the concrete changes that need to be put in place to confront these deeply rooted social issues and social systems.

  • Nicole

    One way or another, we end up paying, so why are we so willing to pay for incarceration and so unwilling to pay for programs that will allow more people to grow up without committing crimes? I feel like instead of a war on poverty, we have declared war on the impoverished. If you are struggling to pay for rent or food, if you are uneducated, unemployed, or working for minimum wage, then you are a lazy person who has made bad choices and are unworthy of help. If you commit a crime, you are a bad person who should be locked away in a prison where we will spend a fortune to house you and feed you, you will do no useful work, and eventually you will be re-released into society no more capable than before of earning a living crime-free. Yet suggest training programs in prison or jobs programs for parolees, and people scream that they don’t deserve it.

    This isn’t about what people deserve, it’s about what makes it a safer and better place for everyone to live for the lowest cost. Prisons are not cheap, and the cost of undereducated and unemployed people is incalculable. When people don’t have to worry about the basics- food and shelter- they can focus on education and work. Poor people are people- the vast majority want to work and improve their lives, but we treat them all as if they are just out to scam the system. I think that says a lot more about “us” than “them.” When there are opportunities to get better education and training, and when people have jobs that support them, crime goes down and the economy goes up. It isn’t a matter of spending more, just spending better, and getting away from the need to punish people for being poor in the first place.

  • Deborah J. Doucette

    As a grandparent who has raised and adopted a grandchild and been deeply involved in the issue of grandparents who are forced to rescue grandchilden, My book, RAISING OUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN: ROOM IN THE HEART, has just been released. I have interviewed and been in contact with hundreds of grandparent headed families and I can tell you that the root of many problems with DCF in regards to the families that I see, is the narrow mandate for “re-unification” with the birth parents rather than what is in the best interest of the child. Keeping families together is the key to saving children: security, stability, belonging – these are things only family can provide. Social Service departments are overly dependent on the Foster Care Industry – a failed system. Early intervention with troubled and/or impoverished birth parents is critical. Equally as important is changing the mindset of Social Service agencies away from the narrowly defined “re-unification” to include grandparents and other kin, not just as way-stations, but as re-unification destinations. And then providing these grandparents and kin who are trying to keep the grandchildren out of harms way, with services to deal with the damage done by abuse and neglect of failed and often addicted birth parents. As of now, the “Catch 22″ of “The System” is that grandparents are often required to become part of the overburdened and failed Foster Care Industry as liscensed Foster Care Providers – a system from which they have fought to free their grandchildren – in order to get the services the children require. It is past time for child protection agencies to stop looking at each other as solutions to the problem, stop depending on Foster Care as a savior, and start asking families what they need.

  • Aaron

    And all I heard on the news this morning was how great it is that the stock market hit a “record high”. The tale of two cities that is the U.S. is becoming depressingly hypocritical. As Elizabeth Warren said, our economic system is actually a “trickle up” deal. We are continuing to impoverish the majority while enriching a small percentage at the top. If health is wealth, which I believe, then we are doing the opposite of what a “rich” country should do. It’s not a conspiracy theory to suggest that sickness makes the health care industry obscenely rich. A population in perfect health is the very last thing they want, contrary to their disgusting advertising campaigns. How can they overbill an account thousands of dollars if nobody came in for treatment, because they were healthy and didn’t need treatment? What a concept! Your prevention argument is a refreshing voice of reason, and makes very good sense. The sub-prime crash could have easily been prevented and saved trillions of dollars and avoided huge misery for most. And the mother of all crises that we are not preventing is climate change. 60,000,000,000 dollars to rebuild after Sandy is just the beginning, and yet, with disaster capitalism, somebody made a lot of money in the deal, so the status quo is just fine with those folks. Our whole approach to building a healthy and happy society is insane. It’s like we’re building a house a cards, with flashy, expensive, gold-covered cards, but a house without a strong foundation, how long will it last?

  • amazonjn

    I was hopeful when I heard “prevention” in this costly problem. Of course, there are some women who will lose a job, partner, etc. but what of those who look at quitting school, partying, rejecting contraception or abortion, and using children as a means of getting an apartment, food, and lifestyle of living off those who sacrificed? This is what you’ll see in, e.g., the UK. How do we prevent irresponsible human breeding? What incentives will re-direct reproducers to producers?

  • J__o__h__n

    Speaking of prevention . . . family planning is the solution for potentially unfit parents.

  • Lawrence

    Planned Parenthood. Being responsible enough to NOT have kids you can’t afford or don’t have the capacity to raise.

    And, child abuse has little to do with income. There are many poor families that are functional, producing children that go on to higher education etc..

    Your financial solution is not necessarily going to provide “well-being” for families. Love, care, and nurturing the child is what counts the most.

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