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Idaho Health and Welfare Director: The child welfare process explained

Idaho State Capitol - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
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Great Seal of the State of Idaho tile work at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

When it comes to child welfare cases, our highest priority is to keep children with their families whenever that can be done safely, writes guest columnist Dave Jeppesen.

Given an increased interest in the child welfare system, I would like to share a bit of the process and the role of the Department of Health and Welfare.

First, I need to be clear that specific child welfare cases are confidential, and we cannot release any details about specific cases. We often would like to be able to say more, but that would violate the rights of the families and children who really need support and assistance, not to mention the stigma that might happen if their personal circumstances were made public.

When it comes to child welfare cases, our highest priority is to keep children with their families whenever that can be done safely, or to help the family address safety issues so a child can return home safely. In particular, there is a growing false narrative that parents should be fearful to seek medical care. Nothing could be further from the truth. Parents should always seek medical care and advice when their children are ill and for regular wellness checkups.

As we have shared with the media, in general, below is how the child welfare process works:

If someone is concerned about the safety of a child, they can call the department by dialing 211, or 855-552-KIDS (5437) or their local law enforcement. Referrals can come from anyone, but they often come from a health care worker, teacher, law enforcement or other Idaho resident who has concerns about a child’s safety. (Just a reminder that everyone in Idaho is a mandated reporter if they have information a child may be the victim of abuse or neglect.)

When a referral is received, it is reviewed, and a determination is made if what was called in meets the priority guidelines for assignment.

If the referral meets the guidelines for assignment, it is prioritized for a safety assessment based on severity. For those where the perceived danger to the child is high, a social worker and possibly law enforcement will visit the family to check on the child very quickly. Based on that visit and in consultation with the social worker and possibly health care workers, law enforcement will make the decision about whether to declare that a child is in imminent danger.

If that decision is made, then law enforcement places the child in the temporary custody of the state through the Department of Health and Welfare until a shelter care hearing in court can be held. That hearing will take place in no more than 48 business hours. The judge will hear all the evidence from the family, the social worker, law enforcement and others, and possibly review a safety plan if one is agreed to by the family and will issue a decision about whether the child will be released to the family or will remain in the state’s custody because safety issues have not been addressed by the family.

If the child goes back to his or her family with a safety plan, a social worker will be assigned to work with the family on a case plan ordered through the court to address the safety issues that led to their child being placed in care. The social worker will meet with the family on a frequency determined through the safety plan put in place to make sure the terms of the safety plan are being followed and the child is safe.

If the child remains in the state’s custody, the department will continue to work with the family until the safety concerns are resolved. The Adoption and Safe Families Act allows for parents to have 12 months to resolve the safety issues. If safety issues can’t be resolved and the child can’t be returned safely to the home at that point, then the department can petition the court for termination of parental rights. We always hope it doesn’t come to that, but it sometimes does, unfortunately.

Bullying, harassment tactics are inappropriate

Currently, there are people protesting in or near our downtown location, and we respect the right for people to protest.

Now, I want to talk about something that is happening that is both personal and troubling to me. That is when protestors target specific people, including our employees. Harassing and bullying specific people is inappropriate and wrong.

Legal processes are in place and the Department of Health and Welfare must follow them. No amount of harassment will allow us to deviate from the established legal process. And those legal processes are there for the benefit of everyone.

Needing services or information?

Due to a spike in calls from those sharing their thoughts or opinions, our phone lines may be busier than usual. If you need services or information, please continue to call, or visit our website at https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/.

We want to recognize the hard work and commitment of DHW’s social workers

In observation of March as Social Worker Month, DHW recognizes how our own social workers care about Idahoans, work daily to strengthen Idaho families, and want to make a difference in the lives of Idaho’s most vulnerable residents.

Social workers are focused on helping Idahoans meet their needs with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable or living in poverty. As noted in a 2018 Guardian article, “When social workers are active in a community, it tends to have a positive impact on crime rates, health statistics, school attendance, and employment.”

In thousands of ways, social workers help people of every age and background, all across the state. The most well-known aspect of social work is providing direct services to residents. They also help guide people to critical resources and counsel them on life-changing decisions.

Social workers, even when faced with huge obstacles and criticism, work selflessly and compassionately to keep Idaho’s residents safe and secure. The great work our social workers do despite these obstacles is amazing, and I want to thank and recognize them for their hard work and commitment to Idaho.