Many communities across the country are working to not just respond to reports of child abuse, but to prevent them. Now the Fresno County Department of Social Services is looking to catch up to the national trend, and the potential model for the way forward could come from a very unlikely place.
In Huron, a remote farming town of about 8,000 people, you can find two trailers that house the Westside Family Preservation Services Center, run by Jeannemarie Caris-McManus.
The community center is filled with a constant buzz of people young and old looking to connect.
Sometimes, the question is as simple as “can my husband come here to study?” Sometimes it is more severe, like women fleeing an abusive husband, or handling reports of neglected children.
The center is also ground zero for what the county calls “differential response”, which is a fancy way of saying intervening with a family before suspected child abuse or neglect begins.
Caris-McManus believes you can prevent child abuse and neglect by addressing some of the root causes such as poverty, food insecurity, and lack of social support. And she works hard to create an environment where clients feel comfortable asking for help.
“If you have a culture of love, and if a person can feel your respect, and if a person genuinely can feel that you are not there because you think you are going to ‘fix’ them, then no matter how horrific the situation, then you can do it,” Caris-McManusis says.
The goal is to step in at the first reports of suspected at-risk children and refer them to programs like this one.
“And so we work to strengthen the families so the children can live in a safe and stable environment. So we have parenting classes. We have victims of violence classes. We have women’s support groups. We organize trips for the families,” Caris-McManus says.
This program is small but could soon be a model for the rest of the county.
The Fresno County Department of Social Services is proposing shifting roughly $3 million toward differential response. They believe by partnering with community groups like this one, they can head off child abuse before severe damage is done.
“So before there is trauma to the child, they can access and hopefully seek help or get preventative services so the children aren’t traumatized,” says Delfino Neira. He’s the director of the department and the driving force behind changing how the county responds to suspected child abuse.
Neira has been on the job for about two years. He says he wants to put more focus more on borderline cases of suspected child abuse and neglect rather than waiting until the county is legally required to intervene. He believes this could have the effect of reducing total cases overall.
“The biggest intervention in a family is the government intervention, and we are the government. And we need to be respectful of that. We need to be careful of that. And at all times we need to work with our partners to see if somebody else can work with the family. Because it is very intrusive and once it happens, we can’t pull back,” says Neira.
To be clear, the county is required to investigate all claims of child abuse. When they are found to be legit or are, in other words ‘substantiated’, officials must respond. Differential response is about the other cases that don’t require a legal response, but where children might be at-risk.
To do that, the county is considering funding a total of seven sites like the one in Huron.
The idea isn’t revolutionary or even new. Other counties have been moving toward this approach for years. Kern County started differential response more than ten years ago.
According to Jayme Stuart with the Kern County Network for Children, they have seen a 35% decline in substantiated child abuse cases since 2008.
She says the program is working.
“So instead of the families just not receiving any kind of a response in terms of supportive services until the next subsequent referral comes down the road, maybe, we are going out saying ‘we understand that someone in the community is concerned about the safety or well-being of your child and we would like to offer support,’” Stuart says.
She says the program has also helped to produce a decline in the number of kids in foster care.
While the program seems to have promise the challenge for Fresno County is funding.
Neira is recommending reallocating $3 million in money that the department is already spending on other services.
Part of that money currently goes to CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates. They represent they represent foster kids in court.
CASA executive director Nathan Lee says if the county follows through on this plan it could mean as much as a 25% reduction in funds for CASA.
Lee says that puts CASA in a tough spot: how do you balance the needs of the most desperate children versus helping early on to keep them out of that cycle?
“No doubt that there is going to be good value that comes from it. Our concern is that CASA is a community asset. And if we lose that level of funding, it will result in the erosion of our ability to do our mission. And I think our community and the foster children who are in the greatest need will suffer for it,” Lee says.
Lee is quick to say they also share the department’s goal of reducing child abuse, but he doesn’t want to see the funds come at CASA’s expense.
Jeannemarie Caris-McManus who runs the site in Huron also has a word of warning for the county.
The centers must be part of the fabric community and listen to people without being be condescending.
“If you have come to help me, stay away. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. If you have any other approach than that, if you are coming just to deliver services, it is going to fail,” Caris-McManus says.
The Department of Social Services is still very early in the process of establishing the sites for the differential response program. Because of how the contracts work, the real action probably won’t start in earnest until next summer.