Tuesday, December 12, 2017

NYC child welfare chief takes credit for past commissioners’ success – even as he undermines that success

ACS Commissioner David Hansell
A New York Daily News story today is filled with lavish praise for the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.   Of course, all the praise comes from the Administration for Children’s Services itself – specifically, ACS Commissioner David Hansell.

Though the numbers he cites aren’t wrong (which is refreshing), the problem is the numbers that are left out.  Also left out: The fact that all the good news reflects the work of Hansell’s predecessors – not Hansell.

Hansell is, in effect, claiming credit for some genuine, long term success.  The time periods he cites vary but they all end on June 30, 2017.  Hansell wasn’t even named to the job until March, 2017.  So while the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day has indeed plummeted – over the course of 25 years – and that is a major success story, Hansell had nothing to do with it. It’s the work of better commissioners who used to run ACS and the efforts of family advocacy groups and family defenders. 

The numbers Hansell didn’t talk about

One number in particular is conspicuously absent. That number represents the glaring failing of Hansell’s own leadership – the foster-care panic that has led to a sharp increase in the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year.  In FY2017, entries increased by 13 percent – the first increase in children removed from their homes since 2009.

This actually understates the impact of the panic, because the time period in question, July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 – includes about three months before the tragic death of Zymere Perkins, which set off the panic.

That number, how many children a child welfare agency takes away over the course of a year - known as “entries into care” - is the real measure of whether an agency is committed to the better, more humane and safer option for the overwhelming majority of children – keeping families together.

Hansell didn’t start the foster-care panic. Zymere Perkins died toward the end of the tenure of his predecessor, Gladys Carrion (or, rather, it brought her tenure to an end), undermining significant progress made under her leadership.  But Hansell was, and is, in the best position to stop it.  He hasn’t.

The Daily News story also leaves out something important in this paragraph:

The number of children re-entering foster care after being reunified with family or placed with kin has also decreased, from 9.1% in fiscal 2015 to 6.3% in 2017.

What the story leaves out is fiscal 2016. That year, this figure was 7.8 percent. In other words, during Carrion’s tenure, there was a slow, steady improvement in this safety outcome, even as entries into care were decreasing.

The other key safety measure is ignored entirely: reabuse of children known to the system. That number declined during most of Carrion’s tenure – but it went up in FY17, even as the number of children taken from their homes increased.

Compounding the problem: For months ACS wouldn’t even give straight answers about the entry-into-care numbers. Recall all the dissembling and conflicting stories from ACS about the increase in entries, including Hansell’s erroneous claim that there was no increase.

 A cascade of other problems

The panic that has been, at a minimum, tolerated by Hansell also has caused a cascade of other problems such as a huge increase in court supervision cases. 

As the Center for New York City Affairs explains in this report, this clogs up the entire child welfare system. Court hearings are delayed, and it takes longer to actually set up the hoops through which the families must jump. Where families really do need help, the help is delayed, so family problems can worsen. 

The court delays, as well as new CYA bureaucratic procedures also are delaying when children are allowed to leave foster care and return home.  That, rather than the excuse Hansell gave the Daily News, is the more likely reason for a sharp decline in reunifications in FY 2017.

And, of course, caseloads for investigators are increasing, giving them less time to find children in real danger.

The bottom line is this: Even as Hansell brags about past success, his own approach to child welfare is undermining that success.

If he ever stops the foster care panic, then David Hansell will have something to brag about.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NCCPR in WitnessLA: Power, privilege and foster care – how a northern california politician bent an entire child welfare system to his will

Meet Matt Rexroad. He is an ex-Marine who describes himself as “an influential part of California politics for more than 25 years.” The Sacramento Bee calls him “A no-nonsense political consultant who works to elect Republicans.” His clients have included the state Republican Party the McCain presidential campaign and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. He’s also a former mayor of the city of Woodland, in Yolo County, near Sacramento, and a current member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

About four years ago, Rexroad and his wife took in a foster child, an infant he liked to call “Bonus Baby.” The Rexroads took the boy in because, according to the Bee, they believed “their family could handle a new addition and because of their Christian faith.” We don’t know Bonus Baby’s race, but the odds are about two in three that he is nonwhite. The odds are even greater that his family is poor.

After two years, the Rexroads decided that Bonus Baby would be better off with them. They applied to adopt the little boy. The Child Welfare Services division of Yolo County’s Department of Health and Human Services felt that Bonus Baby could safely return to his own home. The Rexroads hired a lawyer, went to court, and lost.
But the real story is what happened next. The number of children taken from their parents skyrocketed, and child safety worsened. Read about it in NCCPR's column for WitnessLA

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Child welfare and sex trafficking: The problem with residential treatment centers for sexually trafficked youth is residential treatment itself

The New York Times published a story Wednesday about how some residential treatment centers are having problems “treating” victims of sex trafficking. The problem: the young people keep running away.

The story focuses on two institutions, Pleasantville Cottage School and Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls in Westchester County. According to the story:

People who have worked in child welfare in and around New York City say there is a pipeline from centers like the ones here back to the streets, where children fall prey to the abuse that they were supposed to escape. Over the last 18 months, the state, which oversees residential treatment centers like Hawthorne, stopped sending children to Hawthorne and to the nearby Pleasantville Cottage School. Among the 51 centers statewide, Hawthorne and Pleasantville are the only ones to have faced such severe sanctions over missing children in recent years.

Although not mentioned in the story, both institutions also have had severe problems in the past. For example, a 1990 New York Newsday story found that Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was
 plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

The “dilemma” that overlooks the obvious

Wednesday’s Times story goes on to discuss the supposed dilemma: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls opted to go the jail route. They’ve added security cameras, new lighting and “installed a six foot high fence that stretches 200 feet through trees and bush.” The institution may have been prodded by the fact that the Westchester County town where it is located started imposing a $250 fee for every call about a missing child.

And, of course, the institutions say the solution is to give them more money for programs that “engage” the residents – because the more than $400 per day per child they already get clearly isn’t enough.

But once again, the institutions and their supporters overlook the obvious: The solution to the problems of institutionalizing children is to stop institutionalizing children.

There is overwhelming evidence that residential treatment is a failure.  Even the former head of one of their own trade associations was forced to admit that  they lack “good research” showing
residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

There is nothing a residential treatment center can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound services – in which an intensive array of services are provided to young people in their own homes or in foster homes.

That’s what the Westchester Journal News found in 2009 when the failures of institutions in Westchester prompted the newspaper to take a long, hard look at institutionalization, and at better alternatives.  Unfortunately those excellent stories no longer are available online, but I’ve highlighted some of their findings here.

And if anyone still doesn’t believe Wraparound is a better option, even in the toughest cases, have a look at this video from Karl Dennis, who pioneered that approach.

The fundamental failure of institutionalization

If anything, sexually trafficked youth appear to be a particularly poor choice for institutionalization.  It is a classic example of the fundamental failure of institutionalization - the idea that taking children who have endured severe trauma and putting them all together in one place at precisely the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure somehow is a good idea.

It should be obvious that this approach would lead to precisely the pipeline referred to in the Times story. Indeed, what the Times found in the Westchester institutions, and worse, has been the pattern all over the country.

The Times story also says this, citing the head of the agency that oversees the Westchester RTCs:

The majority of the children return to their homes or are sent to a foster home or other setting closer to their families in less than a year 

That is another indication that, had they used Wraparound, the chances are excellent that the children need never have been institutionalized in the first place.

The headline on the Times story is: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?”

And the answer is obvious: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Foster care in Oregon: The horrors keep on coming

The horrors happen everywhere, but they’re more likely in Oregon, a state which, year-after-year, tears apart families at a rate well above the national average.

The state of Oregon has paid $750,000 to three English-speaking foster kids who were placed in the Gresham home of Spanish-speaking foster parents and forced to wear filthy clothes smelling of urine and sleep in a windowless basement.
Two of the three brothers also were sexually abused by another, older male foster child -- and they were unable to tell that to their foster parents because their foster parents didn't speak English, said Portland attorney David Paul, who represented the brothers.
Paul said the brothers' isolation was made even worse because child-protection workers with the Oregon Department of Human Services failed to regularly check on the boys.

The story is only the latest in a “spate,” as newspapers love to call such things, of high-profile cases involving abuse of children in Oregon foster homes, group homes and institutions.

But perhaps the most interesting, and in some ways, the most tragic, part of this story can be found toward the end:

The biological mother lost custody of her sons under allegations that she failed to protect them against another adult who posed a threat, Paul said.

The Oregon Department of Human Services then proved itself guilty of exactly the same thing.  But there’s more:

When the state finally pulled them from the Gresham foster home, the boys returned to her care and they are now living with her with no oversight from DHS, Paul said.

Which raises an obvious question: Did the children ever really need to be taken in the first place?  If there really was another adult from whom the children needed to be protected, could that other adult have been removed from the home instead of the children?

But they don’t think that way in Oregon, a state where a take-the-child-and-run mentality goes back decades, a state where year after year, children are taken away at a rate well above the national average.

And, again from the story, this is the result:

"They come back a shadow of their former selves," Paul said.

The story also leaves one key question unanswered. These children spoke only English and were placed in home where the foster parents spoke only Spanish.

My guess is the reverse is more common. How many Spanish-speaking foster children can’t make themselves understood to their foster parents because those foster parents speak only English?  What, if anything, is DHS doing about it?  And who, if anyone, among Oregon journalists, will try to find out?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A new study confirms the obvious: Florida is taking away far too many children

Even using a method that tends to bias findings toward removal, the study found a massive amount of needless intervention into the lives of families.

The findings were so striking that even the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare – couldn’t ignore them:

[A] study out of one of Florida’s most populous counties suggests that much of this new influx [of children into foster care] could be handled without the use of an out-of-home placement, and in some cases, without much child welfare involvement at all.
Broward County (seat: Fort Lauderdale) tested its current child welfare decision-making process against a predictive analytics approach, which relies on data collection and machine learning to predict likely future behavior. The study, conducted by a group of researchers and supporters of predictive analytics modeling, suggests that 40 percent of cases referred for either a foster care removal, intensive services or both could have been handled with less-intrusive options.

The Florida findings should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the foster-care panic that has engulfed the state for the past three years.

The study doesn’t break down what proportion of removals were unnecessary; the 40 percent figure is for all cases in which a court either ordered removal or the “services” for families, such as counseling and parent education.

But if even half  - 20 percent - of the removals are unnecessary that’s more than 3,500 Florida children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love every year - shoveled into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five, and placed at high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

All that misery is being inflicted on children because, three years ago, the Miami Heralddecided more children needed to be taken away – and because what passes for leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families caved in to the Herald’s campaign to smear efforts to keep families together.

When "help" doesn’t help

There’s another important finding from the study:  Providing the kinds of “help” that makes the helpers feel good – forcing parents into “counseling” and “parent education” -  instead of giving families what they really need, usually concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, can be worse than not intervening at all.

Again, no surprise.  Advocates of family preservation have been making this point for decades. Now, even the CEO of ChildNet, the nonprofit in charge of providing the services in Broward County, agrees, telling the Chronicle:

 “It might not be that my child was removed because I was bad parent, but that I’m homeless,” [ChildNetCEO Emilio] Benitez said. “If I lost my job, and I just don’t have stabilized housing, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. But we almost always make them go to parenting classes.”

 The one surprise in the study

But one thing is a surprise: Predictive analytics tends to magnify the biases of child welfare workers. If, even using predictive analytics, it’s clear that Florida is taking away too many children, the study almost certainly underestimates the extent of the wrongful removal problem. In other words, the study underestimates the harm that the Miami Herald and the weak-kneed leadership at the Department of Children and Families have done to children.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Arizona court decision offers another chance to see how a child welfare agency really works

And, as usual, the picture is ugly.

An Arizona Court of Appeals decision illustrates how
the Arizona Department of Child Safety undermines child safety

Monday’s post to this blog discussed a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals overturning a lower court decision to approve a request from the state child welfare agency to terminate a mother’s parental rights.

That post focused on how the case was part of a pattern by the state’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) to, in fact, undermine child safety by taking away the children of battered mothers.  That is so harmful to children that one expert has called it  “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

But this case also illustrated many other failings in the Arizona system – failings that are common in child welfare agencies throughout the country.

Like the Connecticut case discussed in NCCPR’s analysis The DCF Revenge Machine, this Arizona case is one of those typical cases that dominate the caseloads of child protective services workers.  And the failings of the agency are typical as well.  As such, this case is another of those rare opportunities to take a close look at the day-to-day failings of America’s child welfare establishment.

But I’ll let the court do most of the talking.

Failing #1: Sloppy casework

From the court ruling:

In the summer of 2016, a new case manager was assigned.  The new case manager testified at the severance hearing that she mistrusts Mother’s judgment and ability to protect the children from future abuse.  But  … [t]he case manager testified that in reaching her conclusion she read several but not all of the parent-aide notes (which total 145 pages), never met with Mother outside of court hearings, only consulted with one of the service providers who worked with Mother, never attempted to confirm her suspicions that Mother and Father were still dating, never observed Mother with the children, and never visited or attempted to visit Mother’s home to see if it would be safe for the children.

Among the most interesting sections of the opinion is where the court blasts DCS for relying heavily on a single note from a parent aide – and misinterpreting that note. Again, from the opinion:

This entry (one of dozens made over the course of eight months) is not proof of Mother’s inability to protect the children. To the contrary, it shows that Mother was concerned with Father’s treatment of I.R. and confronted him about it. Nor is there a single notation in 145 pages of parent-aide notes to suggest a pattern of selection of abusive partners by Mother, or abuse by Mother. According to the parent-aide provider’s records, there was not a single instance of Mother failing to come prepared for a visit nor a single situation involving Mother that required the assistance of the parent aide. Every entry notes the love and affection Mother showed for the children.

Given the extent to which caseworkers tend to be overloaded in Arizona and in most of the country (largely by false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with “neglect”) there is no reason to believe what happened here was unusual. 

Failing #2: A crappy “psych eval”

No matter what the reason for removal, parents almost always are forced to undergo a “psychological evaluation.”  That’s because of another child welfare obsession – trying to turn every family problem into a mental health issue – instead of facing up to what often is the real issue: poverty. 

That orientation, combined with the fact that the people doing the evaluations typically are paid by the child welfare agency means that, as one lawyer put it long ago, “Nobody walks out of [a psychological evaluation] with a clean bill of mental health.” There is evidence from across the country, that psych evals often are a sick joke. See, for example, this ProPublica story.

In the Arizona case, the court found that the evaluation was “untethered to the evidence” and questioned whether it ever should have been admitted into evidence at all.  The decision suggests that DCS stacked the deck by being selective about what it told the evaluator – and then the evaluator compounded the problems because of his own biases. According to the decision:

Conspicuously absent from the information the Department gave the psychologist is any reference to the 14 months of services Mother had successfully completed or was currently receiving. Mother had — without exception — tested negative for drug use; successfully closed out of her drug-testing service because of the lack of any positive test; closed out of drug rehabilitation because the service provider determined that no drug treatment was necessary; participated in domestic-violence counseling and group meetings; and successfully completed at least eight months of parent-aide services and supervised visitation, where she always came prepared and showed proper parenting skills.…
Because he neither considered the available information nor attempted to evaluate Mother’s parenting skills, his conclusion that she is unable to successfully parent for the foreseeable future is not reasonable evidence of Mother’s parenting ability. Indeed, the foundation for his opinion is so lacking that we question (though we do not here decide) its admissibility.

Failing #3: The hype about drug abuse

In light of the fact that we are currently drowning in hype and hysteria over drug abuse and child welfare, the most useful part of the decision may be how the court concluded that both the Arizona child welfare agency and the psych eval misrepresented the issue of drug use by the mother:

Mother never tested positive for drugs, and the service provider concluded that she needed no services to address drug abuse.[Emphasis in original.] Yet the psychologist opined that Mother was at a high risk of relapse and was only sober because “she sees herself in trouble.” …
According to the psychologist’s own notes, Mother experimented with a variety of drugs before turning 21 and regularly used marijuana thereafter, but she ceased all drug use when J.R. was born (when she was 25) and had not used drugs for at least three years. The Department failed to inform the psychologist of Mother’s negative drug tests and the treatment provider’s determination that she did not need drug treatment - - even the evidence he had did not support his conclusions about drug use.

NCCPR has long supported creating a strong “rebuttable presumption” that court hearings and most case records in child welfare cases should be public.  Details are in our Due Process Agenda.  But that’s not because we think those records are Holy Writ. On the contrary, they are one side of the story – the child welfare agency’s side of the story.

There’s almost always another side.  But few reporters – or appellate courts – are willing to look for it.  Fortunately, one appellate court in Arizona did.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

On #GivingTuesday help NCCPR Keep fighting to reform child welfare

Today is #GivingTuesday, the one day of the year that I point out that there’s a donate button just to the left of the headline for this post. (Or if you’ve subscribed to this blog and you are reading this in an email there’s a link for donations right here: http://bit.ly/2A4rFKp)

I don’t make a lot of pitches for funds because most of the people caught up in the child welfare system are poor, and they need every dollar they have to fight to get their children back and rebuild their lives.

And, fortunately, NCCPR can go a long way on just a few thousand dollars per year. That’s because we’re now an all-volunteer organization. So, if you can afford it, and if you think the work of NCCPR is worthwhile, please click the link to the left (or here http://bit.ly/2A4rFKp to donate.)  And click here to find out more about NCCPR’s accomplishments: http://bit.ly/2zBtrmH

Thank you.

Richard Wexler, Executive Director