Montana’s Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee (in the state I live) turned heads in June when it made the decision to consider cutting the department’s budget by $93 million during the next two years. That’s a 15 percent reduction during the last biennium and on top of cuts proposed by Governor Steve Bullock during the legislative session.
Recently revised revenue projections revealed an additional ten percent cut will be required. Since then a daily war of words has played out in the newspapers. Democrats in the minority party have decried the fate of our state’s children, while the state Republican majority have stayed hard and fast in the need to maintain fiscal conservatism – even in the light of homeless and neglected children running abandoned in the streets at ever-increasing numbers.
The Child Services department has struggled to deal with an increase of children in care. In 2008 there were 1,507 children in foster care. By 2016, the number of foster kids had grown 111 percent to 3,179. And as of June of this year, the number has risen again to 3,454 kids. Methamphetamine use by parents has fueled the number of severe child abuse cases and fatalities. More than 1,000 foster kids had parents who were using meth. That’s four times as many as in 2010. Welcome to the new realities of life in idyllic rural America.
Child abuse and neglect cases filed in court more than doubled to 2,321 — up 125 percent from 2010 to 2015. Yet the caseworkers handling the flood of calls, the permanent staff in the state Division of Child and Family Services, actually decreased 4 percent. The 2013 Legislature provided more money for Child and Family Services, but ordered reductions in employees – figure that one out. In Montana caseworkers carry workloads that “far exceed national standards.” This is compounded by the fact that working conditions are atrocious. Computer systems are older than many tasked with working on them, resulting in an average job tenure of less than two years. By the time they’re fully trained, they’re burned out and out the door on the first bus out of town (since they can hardly afford anything else).
Child Welfare Is Not A Cold
Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, carried several bills during the last legislative session, among them was one to designed to create more pilot projects to look at working with families who come into contact with Child and Family Services before they go to court. The bill passed the House with a 99-0 vote even with a $75,000 fiscal note attached. The bill would revive a pilot project approved last session that is meant to let division employees work with children and families on treatment plans before having to file a court case.
While on the surface this program seems like a logical answer … it’s nothing other than window dressing – and on a dirty window at that. More studies looking at what we already know. A statewide allocation of $75,000 is hardly enough to buy donuts for the planning meetings – let alone actually doing something that these studies might come up with. And tell me where are the people going to come from to do this pre-emptive intervention when there isn’t enough human resources available to handle the cases they already have. This is just more of government vying for press over production. After the local news crews pack up and go home – the children behind the soundbites will still be making Top Romen for themselves at home (if they have one) and falling through the cracks at ever-increasing numbers as their so-called parents are busy “chasing the bag.”
While I applaud the efforts of Dudeck and her recognition that efforts need to be focused before-the-fact … they’re still nowhere enough, nor far enough before-the-fact. Governmental efforts to deal with societal child maladies are too often treated like the common cold. We look at the symptom thinking if we mask them with a short-term solution like a Tylenol (or in the child’s case – foster care), with time it’ll pass. Let the virus run its course and endure the discomfort in the interim. But even with a cold, eventually – sooner than later there’s a test for an infection. And if the test is positive then antibiotics are prescribed. Without them, the problem will only get worse. Somewhere underneath there’s an underlying cause. Waiting out a child’s social problems and hoping they’ll pass is tantamount to waiting out an infection. The prognosis will not be good … possibly even fatal.
Where’s The Community?
Governmental departments operate in silos. It’s a little of poor design and obsession with protecting turf. They seldom communicate, let alone coordinate efforts. Conducting a deep dive into a community’s true problems is well beyond the scope of any of their job descriptions – whatever the silo. Child service problems are normally attributed to unemployment, drug use, lack of affordable housing – or all of the above. These causes are really just symptoms too. Dig deeper, the more complex the situation gets … and yet the solution may be more simple.
Take drug use. Addiction is not only a psychological problem – it also has sociological and even anthropological components. A drug user or alcoholic could have PTSD or other psychological issues contributing to a dual diagnosis. Neither component of the diagnosis can be treated separately or without consideration for a person’s environment. Treatment rarely works when the patient is returned to associate with the same peer group they left (or were removed from). Yet where do they go? Most of the time – right back to where they were in the first place. This is their familiar point of social contact. Helping them find another one, one more conducive for a positive change in behavior, is far beyond the “job” of the governmental social safety net our society has become addicted to rely on.
And even if drugs were the problem, how did the situation get to the point that there was no safety net for the child available other than the government. Where are their friends and their parents? Where is the family? Where’s the community? It’s understandable it’s possible for someone to go off the rails, whether they have a child or not. But to have this happen and there be no one there to help – especially in the case of the helpless, is not understandable … nor is it acceptable. Has our society become so torn apart and callous that even the basics needs of our children are looked at optional? And are they subjected to the same budget priorities as digging a hole in the ground to build a road out in the middle of nowhere where maybe five pickup trucks an hour will use.
Animals abandoned by their packs and herds in the wild seldom make it on their own. Why should we expect a different fate for humans? Is it we think it’s alright to just “go it alone?” Have we become so collectively stubborn that we don’t think we need help? Or do we know we do, but just can’t find anyone – anyone but the government, which is pretty much a feel fall into Dante’s Hell. If those who need basic neighborly help can’t find it … what does that tell us? How far are we willing to go to let this John Wayne, Clint Eastwood loner Hollywood prototype manifest into reality. At the end of the day John and Clint could get off their horse and go home to a house, a soft bed and a hot meal cooked by someone who loved them.
Outside of Hollywood in our real lives – this doesn’t seem to be the case. And with it we take our youngest with us on this journey of living hell. Where did they sign up for this? Many, policy makers included, wholeheartedly believe “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I suppose in some circumstances that’s true. But for the ones it’s not – there will be a lot of carnage. Is this the Machiavellian society we want?
Rebuilding The Middle Ring
In 2014, Marc Dunkelman wrote an excellent book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, “The Vanishing Neighbor.” In his book Dunkelman introduces the concept of the Middle Ring. The ‘Middle Ring is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media. Unfortunately the “middle” is not holding, collapsing from pressures on both sides. Social media has brought our closest contacts closer and expanded our reach to include “weak ties” that we know only through cyberspace. Compound this with the proliferation of politically segregated cable and internet news outlets, we have little time or attention for anyone else, physically or philosophically. And what suffers are our neighborhood acquaintances, our communities and the memories of what they used to stand for.
There’s been much discussion in the last decade about the decay of the American community, at least as we like to remember it, or as Hollywood portrays it. But really it’s the loss of the Middle Ring we’re seeing. We still have communities, they’re just not inhabited by “our neighbors.”
“Few Americans today say they know their neighbors’ names, and far fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis. Pulling data from the General Social Survey, economist Joe Cortright wrote in a recent City Observatory report that only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.” (Community Ties in an Era Isolation)
It’s the loss of these neighbors who were physically around that could be counted on (often without even asking) that’s creating a social divide in America. In the past, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression.
We didn’t have to agree with them politically, socially or otherwise, but we knew them and they were still our neighbors. And we could count on them.
But with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. That worked fine, but that reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our Middle Ring began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then.
And now it seems as if we’ve all but lost our Middle Ring. Maybe not physically. There’s still people who live next door and down the street, but we don’t know them. Maybe we’ve never even met them. We don’t know where they’ve been or where they want to go. And it kind of makes it hard to help them get there.
In this time of Trump we’re going have rely on our neighbors as the government is on a fast track to absolve itself of any responsibility of the well-being of the populace it supposedly represents. I guess they feel if we a have a horse and a cowboy hat we’ll be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and ride off. This being the case – maybe we can use this governmental neglect as wake up call. Maybe we can face the inevitable that the days of Roosevelt may have irreparably aged. And from it, maybe we can usher in a new age, one not based on Leviathan to take care of us, but rather one that values the Middle Ring and the benefits of having neighbors close. This involves work on our part though. The government can’t legislate that we go meet our neighbors. It can’t make us shovel out the driveway of the elderly woman down the street … let alone move in with her. And it can’t make us be a friend with guy down the street who’s glued to Fox News 24/7 and overcome whatever ideological differences we may have. And it shouldn’t.
Isn’t it time we take back our communities and neighborhoods? It’s not that anyone or anything really took them from us. They’re still there, but they need care like a garden. Left unattended, they’ll dry up or get taken over by weeds – figuratively and literally. The way we start this “garden” restoration project is by rebuild our Middle Ring … and recognize the solution has been here all along no matter the age or their plight.
That shovel is waiting … and so is the woman down the street and the child cooking Top Romen.
If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up time to have a conversation.