Putting Brennan first: A community bands together for safety’s sake

A knock at the apartment door disturbed an otherwise peaceful day. Expecting no visitors, Sarah Baillif opened the door anyway. The woman on the other side identified herself as a social worker from the Carver County, Minn., child welfare system. She said she was there to help.

On impulse, Baillif placed her hand gently on her swollen tummy. She was seven months pregnant.

Five years earlier, a different Minnesota county had removed her and her husband’s first child from their care after discovering that the little boy had serious bodily injuries consistent with physical abuse. To resolve the case, the Baillifs agreed to surrender parental rights to their son permanently.

“No, we are not going to go through this again,” Baillif told the worker before slamming the door in her face. The worker slipped her business card under the door, hoping the couple would see fit to call her. After a moment to catch her breath, Baillif grabbed the phone to call her husband, Brian, at work.

The young couple had believed they were permitted legally to raise another child someday without interference. But they were mistaken. Now in a panic, they figured they had two options. They could pack up their things and go on the run in a desperate attempt to keep their baby. Or they could call the social worker, Sarah Manthei, and find out if she meant what she said. If they ran, they’d be in a constant state of wandering and wondering.

“There was no avoiding it,” Sarah Baillif said. “Not calling only would have made matters worse.”

Manthei meant what she said. Her goal was not to remove the baby from his parents, but rather to keep the family together – as long as the Baillifs could demonstrate that they would be able to keep their child safe.

Children in American can be safe if we rely less on foster care and invest more in the types of innovative child welfare strategies that reduce the risks of abuse and neglect.
Children in American can be safe if we rely less on foster care and invest more in the types of innovative child welfare strategies that reduce the risks of abuse and neglect.

In the past, the Baillifs never would have been given a chance to keep their second child because of what happened to their first. Child protective services would have taken baby Brennan from the Baillifs at the hospital and placed him immediately into foster care.

In this case, though, Brennan never entered foster care. He didn’t need to.

Since the day Brennan was born, Sarah and Brian Baillif have been raising their son in the bucolic town of Waconia, 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis, in the same apartment where Manthei showed up that day. The Baillifs are together as a strong family that celebrated Brennan’s first birthday last December. Through the efforts of the child welfare system and the court system working in tandem with the family, Brennan has a solid network of people surrounding him to advocate on his behalf.

Brennan is supported. Brennan is loved.

And Brennan is safe.

Keeping children safe from child abuse and neglect remains the primary mandate and principal concern of child welfare systems across the United States. As systems place fewer children into foster care and – as an alternative – provide more in-home services to at-risk families, questions have been raised as to whether children are as safe today as they were when foster care caseloads were at their peak.

A new Casey Family Programs white paper on child safety examines evidence and concludes that the number of children in foster care can be reduced without affecting the overall safety of children. In fact, there is reason to believe that by reinvesting the money saved from lower foster care caseloads into innovative child welfare practices and community services, the potential exists for children in America to be safer – and families more stable – than ever before.

Instead of waiting for vulnerable families to fail, child welfare systems are working proactively with parents so that they can raise their children safely and successfully.

In Carver County and other communities across America, child welfare systems no longer pigeonhole parents who are vulnerable or have pasts that denote risk. Instead of expecting those families to fail, systems are working with them to improve their chances for success.

When risks of abuse or neglect exist in a home but no imminent danger is present, child welfare systems are joining forces with communities to help vulnerable families so that the children can remain safe at home. This is the best way to serve children and their families, and the communities where they live. Research shows that children who have been removed from their families and placed into foster care fare much worse than their peers – both as children and as adults – in the areas of education, employment and mental health.

Understanding what is best for the children, families and community it serves, the child welfare system in Carver County has implemented a highly structured practice that gives parents an opportunity to demonstrate they can keep their children safe, thus making child removal the last resort.

“What would the Baillifs have done if we automatically terminated parental rights and put Brennan into foster care?” asked Dan Koziolek, child and family manager of Carver County Community Social Services. “Would they subsequently have moved to another state, where they wouldn’t have been detected and had another baby?

“Sure, we could have patted ourselves on the back for removing Brennan, but these parents are young enough – and have enough of a desire to raise a family – that they conceivably could have a dozen more kids. We would have isolated this family and they would have lost their support network that ultimately is going to help these parents keep their children safe.”

For the Baillifs to keep Brennan legally, the Carver County child welfare system had to file a court petition stating a compelling reason for not terminating their parental rights. In order for the system to have faith in the Baillifs, the couple needed to demonstrate to Carver County that their baby could remain safe in their care.

There were reasons to think the Baillifs, still in their 20s, could keep their baby safe this time around. Married for seven years, they were more mature than they were five years ago as individuals and as a couple. Both now have stable jobs – Sarah as a manager at a sandwich shop and Brian as an assistant manager at a gas station. And this pregnancy was planned, where the previous one was not.

To evaluate the Baillifs’ ability to protect Brennan, Carver County used Signs of Safety, an assessment tool developed in Australia and one of several effective practices used across the United States that help caseworkers determine whether child removal is necessary.

Since implementing Signs of Safety, the number of children in foster care in Carver County has dropped to a level comparable to 1993 – a time when the county’s child population was half of what it is today. At the same time foster care placements have gone down, fewer repeat cases are coming back into the system – an indication that the children remaining at home are staying safe.

Caseworkers are making more informed assessments on whether a child can remain safely at home. This has reduced unnecessary child removals.
Caseworkers are making more informed assessments on whether a child can remain safely at home. This has reduced unnecessary child removals.

Under the requirements of Signs of Safety, the Baillifs assembled a “safety network” – a group of friends, family, neighbors and co-workers committed to the safety of their baby. Two weeks after Manthei first sat down with the Baillifs, she showed up at their apartment to meet the couple’s safety network. Eleven people were sitting in the Baillifs’ living room when Manthei arrived with pizza and sodas. She was impressed.

After Brennan was born, the safety network expanded to include someone from his day-care center who is mandated by law to report any evidence of child maltreatment. Like other members of the safety network, her focus was Brennan’s safety, not Sarah and Brian’s desire to raise him.

“One of the many benefits of establishing a safety network is that those people are going to be around for that child long after we have closed our case,” Koziolek said.

As part of Signs of Safety, the Baillifs and the safety network crafted a blunt statement expressing the specific safety concerns for Brennan. As part of that process,the Baillifs had to divulge their past to members of the safety network, not all of whom knew the details of what happened to their first child. The Baillifs learned who their true friends are, and they made new close friends as a result.

“No one wants to hear that about your life,” Sarah Baillif said. “But it helped remind us what the focus was.” Carver County also set strict guidelines that the couple was required to follow after Brennan was born. One slip, and the county would not hesitate in removing Brennan from the home.

“There was a tremendous amount of hands-on supervision of the parents to make sure the child was safe,” said Carver County District Court Judge Kevin Eide, who presided over the case. “The Baillifs were very cooperative with Carver County. More than once, they expressed the knowledge that in some other places – and perhaps even five years earlier in Carver County – they would have lost this child, too. They were grateful to be given this chance.”

For the first week after Brennan was born, a member of the safety network stayed in the home around the clock. For the next couple of months, safety network members had to check up on the family in person at least two or three times a day. During that time, it was common for a safety network member to be in the home six hours a day. A public health nurse also regularly visited the family.

For months after Brennan was born, Brian was not allowed to be alone with his son – even when Sarah was showering or walking the dog.

“It was like I was a single mother, living with my husband,” Sarah Baillif recalled.

Also as part of Signs of Safety, the couple took part in a structured role play in which a parent hurt a child. Sarah and Brian were forced to view the situation through the eyes of the opposite spouse and of the young sibling.

“It was like a Lifetime movie,” Brian Baillif said. He played the role of the father comforting the brother, who was hiding under a bed. Manthei and others observed the role play to see if Brian would display empathy for the scared child. He did.

The Baillif case is now closed – although Brennan’s safety network is still in place, strong as ever.

“It’s nice that we haven’t had to do all of this on our own,” Sarah Baillif said.

The Baillifs said being able to raise Brennan at home while the county assessed their ability to keep him safe has made a huge difference in Brennan’s life.

If he had been in foster care during that time, “there would not have been the bonding that we have now,” Brian Baillif said.

“Having Brennan stay with us helped remind us of our goals,” Sarah Baillif added. “We did this for one purpose. We did this all for Brennan.”

Safety first

Child abuse and neglect

The rate of confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect continues to decrease in the United States. The rate peaked in 1993 at 15.3 per thousand children. The number of child abuse and neglect incidences decreased from 900,642 in 2005 to 762,940 in 2009, a decrease of 15.3 percent.
The rate of confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect continues to decrease in the United States. The rate peaked in 1993 at 15.3 per thousand children. The number of child abuse and neglect incidences decreased from 900,642 in 2005 to 762,940 in 2009, a decrease of 15.3 percent.

Repeat maltreatment

Repeat maltreatment
One way to measure child safety is to track repeat maltreatment, which the federal government defines as a confirmed report of child maltreatment that occurs within six months of a previous confirmed report for the same child. Nationally, the repeat maltreatment rate has declined
since 2005.

Improving safety by helping families

Rather than removing children from their families at the first sign of trouble, child welfare systems are focusing on keeping children safe at home and keeping families together.

For example, an increasing number of systems are using the practice of alternative response to help low-risk and moderate-risk families in which children face no immediate safety risks. In the past, these families often would have been investigated but then had their cases closed without being offered services.

Alternative response

alternative response
With alternative response, families may volunteer to receive community services to address any chronic or escalating stresses in the home, giving parents access to the tools they need to raise their children safely and successfully.

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