Child safety training emphasizes teamwork

May 15, 2019

This week, teams of child protection professionals from across the state gathered for training aimed at improving the child welfare system.

The training included the decision-making process that determines whether children are removed from parents’ custody or remain at home, and safety assessments and safety planning to ensure the well-being of children.

Child safety training

Jurist in Residence John N. Hudson of Natchez, who works to assist Youth Courts across the state, said the program is meant to help child welfare professionals analyze each situation where there has been a report of abuse or neglect to determine whether there is a way to create a safe environment for a child to remain in the home, and the steps to take. The program is intended to show “this is how to structure your decision making process. This is how to think through it, the important questions that you need to ask,” he said.

The program, “With Teamwork Our Kids Win,” was presented on May 13 in Ox-ford, May 14 in Madison and May 15 in Gulfport. Youth Court judges and referees, Child Protection Services workers, law enforcement officers, Youth Court prosecutors, attorneys for parents and children, guardians ad litem and others who work with children gathered as teams. Every county was asked to send a team. About 700 people were expected to partici-pate.

The team approach means that participants “will join in critical training that brings everyone to the table so that we talk the same language and also share a common core of val-ues,” said Rankin County Court Judge Thomas Broome, co-chair of the Commission on Chil-dren’s Justice and chairman of the Mississippi Council of Youth Court Judges.

At the program in Madison, Yazoo County Court Judge Betsy Cotton was surround-ed by nine people who deal with some aspect of child protection in Yazoo County. “For me, it’s having everyone here understand the process,” she said.

Hinds County Court Judge Johnnie McDaniels said the team approach is beneficial. It’s a matter of “are you all on the same page as a team?” he said.

Warren County Court Judge Marcie Southerland hoped to enhance the teamwork approach. “I hope we all have a better understanding of how to move through the process.”

Principal speaker Robert Wyman Jr., an attorney and consultant for the Judicial En-gagement Team of Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, told participants at the Madison program that the different disciplines represented at each table have a shared objective, the well-being of children. Although Youth Court proceeding regarding abuse and neglect begin as adversarial ones, all who have a part in it are working to safely reunify a child with family.

“This is not criminal court. This is not drug court. It’s parenting and poverty court,” Wyman said.

Youth Courts and the Department of Child Protection Services emphasize making reasonable efforts to keep children at home with parents rather than removing them to foster care. The idea is to avoid unnecessary removals, provide services to help parents create a safe environment, and work toward reunification in cases where children do have to be removed from parental custody.

Judge Hudson said, “We surely recognize that there are cases where a child is not going to be able to remain at home, but those should be a rarity, not the rule.”

The number of children in state custody reached a high of more than 6,100 in July 2017, according to the Department of Child Protection Services. The number of children in state custody in cases of suspected abuse and neglect has declined to 4,700 as of mid-May, according to CPS.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice, said during a break, “What we know now is that we cause great harm to the children by removing them from the family.” Justice Beam, who is also co-chair of the Family First Initiative, said, “Children do better if we can help their families to raise them. There will always be a need for foster families and adoption, but we need to do all we can to strengthen our families. That should be the first option.”

Lauderdale County Court Judge Veldore Young Graham said, “I work in the child welfare system to effectuate change. I think change is important because the old way of busi-ness has not worked and we need to find a new way to do it.”

The approach is one of finding a family’s strengths and building upon those rather than just identifying problems, Wyman said.

Wyman walked participants through the American Bar Association model program, Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys. The ABA model says that determining whether a child will be safe to remain in the home with parents depends upon a threat of dan-ger, the child’s vulnerability, and a family’s protective capacity. The ABA model evaluates in-home safety plans in terms of whether a plan is sufficient, feasible and sustainable.

Wyman emphasized the need to re-assess children’s safety and the safety plan amidst changing circumstances. He de-scribed the initial safety assessment as “like a carton of milk in an unplugged refrigerator.” Conditions in the home can change from what they were when the social worker knocked on the door the first time.

Wyman talked about assessing parents’ progress toward reunification. He said, “The model calls for us to ask at every hearing, “Can the children go home today?”

The Teamwork training program was funded by Casey Family Programs and the Court Improvement Program of the Ad-ministrative Office of Courts.