ELIZABETHTOWN - The Essex County Office of Child Protective Services hopes to utilize a new program in cases of abuse and neglect - and experts say the new approach is both effective and efficient.
Two representatives from Child Services addressed the Essex County Board of Supervisors May 11 during a meeting of the Human Services Committee.
Cindy Estus, director of services for Social Services, said the Family Assessment Response program, or FAR, aims to avoid situations where a child is removed from a home.
"Removal of children from their families is traumatic and often has long term negative impacts," Estus said. "To make home safe and stable is a far better option."
When child protective legislation was first introduced nearly 50 years ago, its goal was to address only the most serious instances of abuse and neglect. But Estus noted the penalty for parents has always been the same, regardless of the situation.
"The same consequences may be in place for something as little as not ensuring your child was wearing proper winter clothing up to being responsible for the death of a child," she said.
Caseworkers respond to a variety of situations, many of which can be avoided through more communication. Sue Ann Caron, Supervisor of Child Services in Essex County, says FAR serves as a sort of monitoring program. Rather than respond to calls of distress, a child, neighbor or teacher can call early in the cycle of neglect, putting parents and caseworkers in touch from the beginning.
"Better results are achieved when parents are engaged as partners with the child welfare agency," Caron said. "The goal then becomes to assist the families to become a more cohesive and self-sufficient family."
In this scenario, the social worker becomes a facilitator or resource manager, as opposed to being solely an expert and compliance manager.
"Essentially, you're looking at a shift from costly, punitive measures to family-building," Caron added.
The FAR approach also looks at the broader picture, instead of focusing in on a particular incident. The program considers family income, overall health, a parent's employment situation and even the mother or father's mental health.
In addition, the family's structure, hierarchy, culture and heritage are weighed as factors into the child's status.
"The FAR program also changes the way our caseworkers are viewed," Caron said. "Too often, when a worker shows up, the thought process is immediately, 'this person is here to take away my child,' when it should be, 'this person is here to help.'"
Safety issues are not ignored, however. A standard 24-hour safety assessment is still performed, as well as a seven-day screening period. If the situation is deemed to dangerous, the FAR program falls away and traditional measures are taken to ensure the child's health and safety.
Essex County will begin taking on FAR cases in central Essex County beginning Sept. 1. Staffing allows child services to begin addressing cases in Elizabethtown, Lewis, Keene, Essex, Willsboro and Westport. After six months, an additional caseworker will be assigned to handle cases in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and the Wilmington area.
Caron says case studies show the FAR program is working. Minnesota, the most widely-studied state where FAR is being used, showed during initial phases that 30 percent of child protective cases were being referred to FAR, while 70 percent were handled using traditional methods.
"Two years later, that completely flipped and 70 percent of the cases are now being tracked by FAR and only 30 percent of the cases are actually going toward the traditional response track," Caron said. "So I think that definitely the research supports this."