Children have needs, problems, and vulnerabilities that jeopardize their well-being. Unlike adults, though, children do not have the knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to proactively manage this jeopardy. They cannot personally assure that their needs are met, that their problems are appropriately resolved, and that they are adequately protected from the myriad of conditions and circumstances to which they are vulnerable. As a response to the age-related jeopardy of children, each community funds and develops an array of services and resources specifically for children. Among these are schools, faith-based programs, health services, recreation facilities, mental health and substance abuse programs, police agencies, daycare services, public child protection agencies, and many others. Collectively, these programs and services represent the community’s commitment to the well-being and long-term success of its children.
This array of services and programs in each community may be thought of as the Children’s Safety Net. On the one hand, the Children’s Safety Net provides services and resources to meet the individual needs of children and to resolve their unique problems. On the other hand, it compensates for the special vulnerabilities of children by standing as a guardian in harm’s way.
Fortunately, the Children’s Safety Net is in place. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and imperfect. It sometimes does not include the exact resource or specific service required to fully meet each child’s particular need or to completely resolve each child’s unique problem. Further, it cannot protect children from every risk to which they are vulnerable. Nonetheless, the Children’s Safety Net represents each community’s best effort to care for and to care about its children.
Parents are every childs first and most important resource. They meet their childrens needs, help with their problems, and keep them safe. The Children’s Safety Net is intended to supplement and increase the ability of parents to manage their children’s age-related jeopardy. For children, the primary safety net is their parents. The Children’s Safety Net provided by the community is, then, secondary and has a supporting role.
For most parents, their collaboration with the Children’s Safety Net is adequate and very successful. Their children’s needs are met, their problems are resolved, and they avoid the harms and dangers to which they are vulnerable. It takes strong parents and a strong community to protect a child and for most children, the strength is there on both sides of the equation.
As successful as the collaboration between parents and the Childrens Safety Net is for most children, it fails for many. The reasons are varied and complex but in every case, the parents and the Children’s Safety Net have each failed. The parents have failed to meet their children’s needs, to resolve their problems, to keep them safe. The Children’s Safety Net has not enabled the parents to succeed in meeting their obligations to their children.
An important reality in this shared failure is the simple truth that the success of families is the responsibility of parents. The Children’s Safety Net can and does enable most families to be successful. Even so, it cannot prevent their failure anymore so than the fire department can prevent houses from burning when people do not follow normal home fire-prevention procedures or anymore so than the health care system can keep people healthy when they refuse to follow medical advice or cooperate with their health care providers. When parents will not or cannot do what is needed to succeed, they will fail. Neither the Children’s Safety Net nor the community can prevent all parent failure. When parents do fail despite sincere efforts to enable their success, their children nonetheless have the right to succeed and the community has a responsibility to enable their success.
Recognizing that some level of shared failure is unavoidable, communities require participants in the Children’s Safety Net and others in the community to notify the child protection agency (the agency) anytime parents have failed to meet their children’s needs, to resolve their problems, or to keep them out of harm’s way. Every community has a reporting process that identifies instances of known or suspected parent failure.
The majority of parent failure reports involve known or suspected neglect of children. Parents are thought to have neglected (failed) to meet their children’s needs, to adequately resolve their problems, or to keep them safe. The neglect may be failure to appropriately supervise the child, failure to provide safe and adequate living conditions, failure to arrange for needed medical care, or other circumstances where the parents have not met their responsibilities as their child’s primary safety net.
In a smaller number of the reports, a member of the child’s household is known or suspected to have abused the child by causing serious physical or emotional harm. This includes any sexually oriented contact with the child by a parent or other person.
Still more children (dependent children) are at risk because their parents cannot care for them. Reasons include issues such as parents being in jail, substance abuse, mental illness, hospitalization, accidents, or parents otherwise being unable to care for their children. Additionally, many children are dependent simply because their parents refuse to care for them. For these parents, abandoning their children is preferable to coping with their unruly or delinquent behavior.
Abused, neglected, and dependent children in circumstances like these become the community’s responsibility. The agency and other members of the Children’s Safety Net work collaboratively to supplement and increase the parents’ capacity to care for their children. This shared effort continues until the parents resume their primary role and succeed as their children’s primary safety net. If they cannot or will not succeed within a reasonable amount of time, the agency identifies replacement parents (relatives or adoptive families) for the children. Alternatively, it provides or arranges for independent living housing and services for older adolescents.
When childrens parents fail, their safety, permanence, and age-appropriate self-sufficiency become the community’s responsibility. No single agency in the community can meet this extraordinarily complex challenge by itself. This simple truth notwithstanding, the Children’s Safety Net can and must accept this critical responsibility, no exceptions, no excuses.