Commentary

The only way to end abuse in children’s institutions is to end the institutions

November 29, 2023 5:30 am

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed how the state is ignoring allegations of abuse in residential treatment facilities for children. But that’s only the start of the problem, writes Richard Wexler. (Efi Chalikopoulou/ For LPM)

Recent news stories illustrate both the terrible harm Kentucky’s “child welfare” system inflicts upon its most vulnerable children and the root cause. Until the findings in these stories are examined together the harm will never stop.

The ultimate harm can be seen in the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s expose of how the state systematically ignores abuse of children institutionalized in “residential treatment.”  Over and over children’s stories of vicious abuse were not believed. In more than half the “unsubstantiated” cases the children were not even interviewed before the cases were closed and their claims dismissed. The story also revealed that, remarkably often, the places where young people alleged abuse occurred were places where video cameras were not present or mysteriously didn’t work.

The reason for this is no mystery. As I told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, when the state is investigating abuse in a foster home or an institution they are investigating themselves because they put the child there. That creates an enormous incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.

But that’s only the start of the problem. Even were there no physical or sexual abuse in residential treatment, children still don’t belong there — because residential treatment is inherently abusive. Study after study tells us that residential treatment doesn’t work. Period. Full stop. There is nothing residential treatment does that can’t be done better and at less cost by providing wraparound services either to a child’s own family or, when placement really is needed, to a foster family. 

Those trying to justify all this say we have to institutionalize children because we have a shortage of foster homes — and, they claim, these children are so difficult no home could possibly handle them anyway.

That excuse brings me to the second story: It includes data showing that Kentucky, already an extreme outlier when it came to taking away children, got even worse in recent years. As of 2021, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Kentucky tore apart families at a rate 50% above the national average — even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

Defenders of this obscene rate of removal may cite the repeated claim that Kentucky often leads the nation in child abuse. But there’s no evidence for that. The very document used as the source for that claim specifically warns against making state-by-state comparisons because there are vast differences in what states consider abuse or neglect and what caseworkers “substantiate” — and enormous subjectivity in those decisions.

If Kentucky leads in anything it may be No. 1 or close to it in confusing poverty with “neglect.”  Nationwide, 26% of cases involved caseworkers saying there was physical or sexual abuse, 76% alleged neglect, which often means poverty. (The numbers exceed 100% because there can be more than one allegation.)  In Kentucky, 13% alleged physical or sexual abuse and 92% alleged neglect.  

Until last year Kentucky’s definition of neglect included: “Does not provide the child with adequate care, supervision, food, clothing, shelter, and education or medical care necessary for the child’s well-being.” Last year the legislature tacked on “…when financially able to do so” but in other states where that language was added, it’s routinely ignored.

It all comes together in the case of nine-year-old Ian Sousis.  His grandparents had custody since he was an infant. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism. He kept running away. All the grandparents needed was therapy for the child and help to be sure he was never out of someone’s sight. Had they been rich they easily could have purchased both. But they’re not rich. So they had to turn to the state, which offered no alternatives except institutions. Hours after running away from such an institution he drowned in the Ohio River.  Six weeks later, an even younger institutionalized child, Ja’Ceon Terry died a horrifying death.

Now consider what would happen if Kentucky stopped the rampant misuse and overuse of child removal. Think of all the places that would open up if Kentucky simply reduced the number of children it tears from their homes to the national average. And think of how many children, now institutionalized, could be in those homes — or their own homes — if the families got intensive wraparound services.

And consider one thing more: Had Kentucky been doing this all along Ian Sousis and Ja’Ceon Terry might be alive.

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Richard Wexler
Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org, based in Alexandria, Virginia. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a journalist. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of "Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse" (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

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