Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: Lame excuses for trying to divert funds from Milwaukee

Last month on this blog, I reported that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) is trying to misuse a federal waiver process to siphon child welfare funds from Milwaukee to the rest of the state.

Last week, the news website Urban Milwaukee followed up and reported on DCF’s excuse.  Fredi-Ellen Bove, a DCF division administrator, first tried to claim that “any savings realized by Milwaukee [through reducing foster care] would have reverted back to the federal government.”

That’s grossly misleading.  Savings revert to the federal government under the current system, in which states are reimbursed for every eligible child they place in foster care.  But a key advantage of a waiver is that you get to keep the savings from reducing needless foster care, as long as the funds are reinvested in child welfare.

Urban Milwaukee wasn’t suckered.  The website reports that when she is pressed on the matter …

Bove concedes the state made a choice to spend the money in a different way. “We reached the conclusion we don’t need waiver dollars to meet the needs in Milwaukee.” Bove says Milwaukee has a stronger support system than other counties, with 12 months of “post-reunification” care by counselors after a child’s case is over, while other counties lack this.

But this, too, is an evasion.  For starters, it was DCF’s own stupid decision to seek only a narrow waiver focused exclusively on post-reunification services. (The Wisconsin proposal and proposals from other states are available here.)  Second, the existence of this one program has not magically wiped out all of Milwaukee’s child welfare problems.

Indeed, it strains credulity to think that Milwaukee, where children are torn from their families at a rate significantly higher than many other cities and where the child poverty rate is more than 34 percent, really needs the money less than, say, Ozaukee County, where the child poverty rate is six percent.

But if Wisconsin DCF really believes the issue is spending waiver money most efficiently, that’s all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to turn down Wisconsin’s waiver proposal entirely.

Thirteen states have applied for ten waivers.  Massachusetts, for example, is proposing to spend $20 million per year on its five-year waiver initiative.  Wisconsin, in contrast, proposes to use only $7.1 million in funds for its waiver, and the total doesn’t get that high until the fifth year.

Since the law only allows ten waivers per year for three years, surely the federal government owes it to American taxpayers to use those waivers to provide the most real benefit to the greatest number of children.  So it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money to waste a waiver on Wisconsin’s current proposal.

Fortunately, the federal government can issue ten more waivers in 2013 and another ten in 2014.  Wisconsin should go back to the drawing board and return with a comprehensive proposal to serve all children who otherwise might be placed in foster care or remain trapped there.

If Wisconsin DCF needs some help, the current proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State are good models.  You can read about them in NCCPR’s Report Card on all of the publicly-available waiver proposals, on our website here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Foster care in America: NCCPR issues Report Card on child welfare waiver proposals

Today, NCCPR releases a Report Card evaluating, and grading, all nine publicly-available proposals for waivers from federal child welfare funding rules. These are the grades:

Arkansas                  B+
Colorado                    B-
Illinois                        F
Massachusetts          B
Michigan                   C-
Pennsylvania             B-
Utah                            B+
Washington State    B+
Wisconsin                 F

The full report card is available on our website here

Monday, August 20, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: State wants to rob Milwaukee to aid other counties

HHS should reject Wisconsin’s 
child welfare waiver proposal

            There is nothing unusual about a rivalry for resources between a big city and the rest of the state.  Think New York City vs. Upstate, Chicago vs. Downstate, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh vs. rest-of-state etc.

            But I’ve rarely seen anything as blatant as what the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families proposes to do to Milwaukee.  In shocking, explicit detail, its proposal for a child welfare funding waiver describes how the state would confiscate savings made by improving Milwaukee child welfare and use that money in every Wisconsin county – except Milwaukee.

            Wisconsin is one of 13 states that have submitted formal proposals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for waivers from federal child welfare funding rules, though only eight of the proposals currently are available on the HHS website.   Under the waivers, federal money that normally can be spent only on foster care can be spent on better alternatives as well.  Since the better alternatives also cost less, reducing foster care generates savings.  Under a waiver, the state can keep the savings, as long as the money is reinvested in child welfare.

            In most states, child welfare is run directly by the state.  In about a dozen states, individual counties run child welfare.  Wisconsin is among those dozen, but it’s a curious hybrid: At least partly as a consequence of a lawsuit by the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights,” the state Department of Children and Families runs child welfare in Milwaukee directly, through a division known as the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW). 

            The Wisconsin proposal is a slapdash, slipshod effort. (Contrast it to, for example, the much bolder, far-reaching proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State.) Wisconsin proposes to make extremely limited use of waiver funds to finance only one innovative service: help to families after they have been reunified to prevent the children from reentering foster care.  And the services they propose to provide appear to be largely “soft” services, like counseling, instead of the concrete help families need most.

Even if everything goes the way the state wants, by the end of the  waiver period, only $7.1 million per year of what now is spent on foster care would be shifted to better alternatives.  That’s less than ten percent – and it would take five years even to achieve that.

            But here’s where Wisconsin’s plan goes from merely pedantic, mediocre and unambitious to appalling: Of that $7.1 million, $1.2 million, or 17 percent, doesn’t come from the waiver at all – it comes from money that is, in effect, stolen from the vulnerable children of Milwaukee County to be redistributed to the rest of the state.

DCF is arguing that in Milwaukee County they’ve already done such a great job putting plans in place, that they’re sure they will reduce reentries even without the waiver.  Since the waiver lets them keep money saved through this reduction, DCF plans to take these savings and divert the money to Wisconsin’s other 71 counties, instead of spending it on bolstering services in Milwaukee.

Or, as the waiver proposal itself puts it, on page 13:

To the extent that [the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare] BMCW experiences success in reducing its re-entry rate, the IV-E demonstration project waiver will build on the successful experience in BMCW to replicate and expand post-reunification support to the 71 non-Milwaukee counties.  Specifically, federal IV-E and state matching funds that are not utilized for [foster care] maintenance costs in Milwaukee due to lowered out-of-home care caseloads will be reallocated to non-Milwaukee counties to fund the administrative and service costs of twelve months of post-reunification support.  [Emphasis added.]

And check out pages 21 and 22, where the state seems almost gleeful as it explains in detail how Milwaukee savings will be siphoned off to the rest of the state.

As far as I know, the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR), has been silent about Wisconsin’s waiver proposal – I don’t know if they’ve even read it.  Will they actually stand silent as the state of Wisconsin proposes to siphon child welfare funds away from the county where they have a consent decree?  Unfortunately the answer may be yes.  These are funds to keep children out of foster care, as opposed to funds to “improve” foster care.  And, of course CR has made clear over and over that it is indifferent, at best, and hostile, at worst, to keeping kids out of the system.

CR may well remain silent even though CR has a special responsibility to speak up.  It was CR’s lawsuit that set in motion the chain of events that led to the state taking over child welfare in Milwaukee.  Were county government still responsible for child welfare it would have been a lot harder for the state to pull a stunt like this.

            Under federal law, HHS can award up to ten waivers per year for the next three years. There are 13 proposals for this first round of waivers. The Wisconsin proposal should be sent immediately to the scrap heap.  The state should be informed that the federal government will not be an accomplice to siphoning funds from one part of a state to another.

Next week NCCPR will issue a Report Card on all eight publicly-available waiver proposals.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Child welfare in DC: Ask for housing help, lose your kids?

            One of the many false claims from America’s latter-day “child savers” – to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves – is the claim that “we never take away children because of poverty.” 

            Point out the fact that most state laws define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter – a perfect definition of poverty – and they’ll reply that in some of those states the law specifically makes an exception if the lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter is caused by poverty.

            But, of course, the child savers have all sorts of ways around petty annoyances such as what a law actually says.

            Recall the case from Texas in which a family was torn apart for lack of housing and the flack for the child welfare agency blithely explained that the children weren’t being torn from their loving parents because they were poor, but because they were in an unsafe living environment.  “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment,” she explained.

            And now we have the spectacle of Washington, D.C., enacting what looks for all the word like a cruel, calculated plan to stop families in desperate need of housing from seeking help from the D.C. government.

            As the D.C. blog Policy and Poverty first reported in May, the plan is simplicity itself.  When someone calls the center that is supposed to help homeless families, the center promptly turns around and turns them in to the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) – the agency that investigates child abuse and takes away children in the District.

            The Policy and Poverty blog notes that this is done despite the fact that

As the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless notesDistrict law specifically states that “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.”

            CFSA claims it hasn’t actually taken any children as a result of these referrals.  But as the Blog also notes, CFSA has admitted that of all the children it tore from their families in 2010, 35 were placed primarily because of “inadequate housing.”

            And what CFSA will admit is only the tip of the iceberg.  As I’ve noted previously on this Blog, an independent evaluation by CFSA’s own Citizen Review Panel found a serious and widespread problem of needless removal of children from their homes.

            In a Washington Post story in June, Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare – and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors – cut to the heart of the matter:

What’s unusual about D.C., White believes, is that the overburdened city is using its new warning to reduce the number of families in its system by scaring away parents …  who might be able to scrape by sleeping on couches, with friends and family or in their cars.

“These people are simply walking in the door for assistance and people don’t have shelter and they’re saying, ‘We’re calling CPS on you? ‘ It’s ridiculous,” White said. “It is scandalous. I’ve never seen it done this blatantly.”

Lawyers for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said they first began hearing from families who had been threatened with investigation this winter and now many of their clients avoid seeking help.

One woman who recently testified at a[D.C. city] council hearing wept as she described her fear that she would lose custody of her younger son, a 16-year-old honor student, after the family was evicted from their apartment in April and ended up sleeping in Anacostia Park.

“I’m just so afraid,” she said. “They tell me they’re going to come and have my son taken away. I can’t deal with that. My boys is all I know.”

            Most disappointing is who it is who turns out to be behind this cruel policy.  In the District helping homeless families is the responsibility of the Department of Human Services.  That agency is run by David Berns, who earned a national reputation as a reformer for transforming child welfare, and significantly reducing foster care, in El Paso County, Colorado.

            If anyone ought to know better, it’s Dave Berns. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Child welfare in Connecticut: This is what progress looks like

            About a year ago on this Blog I wrote that Joette Katz, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, was the gutsiest leader in American child welfare. 

            At the time, I wrote that when Katz resigned from the Connecticut Supreme Court to take the job the previous January. 

she immediately set about trying to reverse the take-the-child-and-run mentality that has dominated Connecticut DCF for decades. The state takes away children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average, when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state.  And it warehouses children in group homes and institutions at one of the highest rates in the nation.

But most important, Katz refused to back down after the death of a child “known to the system” made headlines.

One year later, Katz’ courage is paying off.  According to an excellent story in the Hartford Courant:

Reforms have begun to take hold at the state's $820 million child-protection agency, a department that lurched from crisis to crisis with child-removal, institutionalization, and public spending rates that far exceeded the national average year after year.

Eighteen months into the tenure of Commissioner Joette Katz, child advocates, lawmakers and outside observers say they see significant and encouraging signs of improvement at the Department of Children and Families. …

There are fewer kids in large residential centers, fewer kids in out-of-state placements, fewer child removals with no immediate effect on child safety, fewer kids returning to DCF custody after having been reunited with family, and more kids living with relatives or significant family friends as foster parents, DCF records show.

The director of the state’s leading child advocacy organization, Connecticut Voices for Children, is impressed:

"[Katz is] telling the workers that she knows that every decision they make — remove the child, leave the child — entails risks. She's asking the workers to consider the whole broad array of resources available to a family, including the extended family. And she recognizes that simply removing a child is, in itself, a trauma, sometimes a needed trauma, but still a trauma. And that is a sea change for this department.''

So are legislators in both parties:

"Each death is so laden with emotion — you want to be sick,'' said state Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden, the ranking Republican on the legislature's select committee on children.

"Still, there needs to be a measured response, not a knee-jerk reaction,'' said Suzio. "From Joette Katz we are getting judicial temperament along with an intense commitment to her mission. Remember, this was an agency that couldn't clean up its act. Now, we're seeing improvement on a steady trajectory. It's still early, but she is staying the course.”

The co-chair of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children, Rep. Diana Urban, also is supportive:

Where past DCF administrations "pulled back and became ultraconservative” [after high profile tragedies] Katz "is empowering her workers to make decisions about individual cases,'' said Urban, a Democrat of North Stonington. "When she's here, in front of us, she's backing up her workers. She is not shrinking from the reforms.''

Katz has made clear she has no plans to change that:

"We can't be in a reactive, crisis mode all the time … We are not going to go around just putting out fires. We are not going to stop taking educated risks and exercising our professional judgment. Like police, like fire, tragedies will happen, even if you do everything right.''

Katz also knows what happens in the wake of the usual response to high-profile tragedies: A foster-care panic, a sharp sudden spike in removals of children from their homes.  Such panics only overload caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger.  Foster-care panics make all children less safe.

Even the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, which has a decades-old consent decree in Connecticut, isn’t getting in the way -  so far.

How long can the progress last?  Who knows?  Sometimes reform-minded leaders cave as soon as there is a high-profile tragedy.  Katz has not.  But in other cases, a new governor takes office and decides to put political expediency ahead of policies that truly protect children.  It happened just that way in Connecticut nearly two decades ago. 

A reform-minded DCF Commissioner had made significant progress.  Then in 1995, shortly after then Governor John Rowland took office, a child “known to the system” died.  Rowland exploited the tragedy and reversed all the reforms.  Nine years later, Rowland resigned in disgrace and was jailed for corruption.  The agency he wrecked did not start to recover until Katz became commissioner.

Could history repeat itself?  Of course.  But even if it does, for every day Katz’s reforms stay in place, Connecticut children face less risk of being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.  For every day the reforms stay in place, children who really must be taken from their homes are more likely to be placed with a relative and less likely to be institutionalized.  And for every day the reforms stay in place, DCF caseworkers will be less overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. So they’ll have more time to find children in real danger.

In child welfare, this is what progress looks like.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why they hype: A rare moment of candor about phony child abuse numbers

Catching up with The Associated Press, which did the story last year, The New York Times published a story in June about how the hype and hysteria surrounding the Penn State scandal obscures the fact that rates of child abuse in general, and child sexual abuse in particular, actually have been declining significantly.

Two advocates are remarkably candid about one of the reasons for this: It’s because so many of their fellow advocates want it that way.  According to the story:

Mark Chaffin, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, had one possible explanation for why it was hard for some people to accept the numbers. "The child abuse field has always been one that felt like there was not enough public policy attention, so the narrative reflected that. It's at crisis proportions; it's getting worse every year; it's an epidemic," he said. "So when people hear that the rates are going down, it really is sort of a challenge."

Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, notes that many child advocacy groups depend on government financing, and good news always brings mixed feelings. One of them is the fear that if the issue does not seem dire enough, the money might dry up.

"It is very risky to suggest that the problem you're involved with has gotten smaller," she said.

Even if it happens to be true.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Honoring outstanding journalism about child welfare

            The Journalism Center for Children and Families each year gives awards to what judges chosen by the center consider the best journalism about children’s issues.  This year, the center honored three outstanding examples of broadcast journalism.

            For starters, in the audio category, the center honored NPR’s superb series about what the South Dakota child welfare system is doing to Native American families in that state.  This series already had received one of the most prestigious honors in broadcast journalism, a George Foster Peabody award.

            One of two runners-up in the same category was another NPR series, in co-operation with the PBS series Frontline and the non-profit journalism website ProPublica, about innocent people wrongly convicted of killing their children – and the guilty-until-proven innocent mentality that often was behind the prosecutions.

            And in the long form video category, honorable mention went to a segment of the PBS series Need to Know about the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children.

            The full press release from the Center is available here. Below are excerpts from the press about these three winners and links to the stories:


WINNER: "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families," NPR, Laura Sullivan, Amy Walters, Barbara Van Woerkom, Alicia Cypress, Alyson Hurt, Nate Rott, Quinn Ford, John Poole, Susanne Reber (ed.), Steve Drummond (ed.), Keith Jenks (ed.) and Jonathan Kern (ed.)

This outstanding investigation reveals the troubling financial incentive that’s fueling the placement of hundreds of Native American children in foster care. The practice is a disturbing echo of the past, when the U.S. government routinely pulled Native youth from their families and forced them to attend boarding schools. The stories of adults who return home after being sent away to foster care illuminate the human toll on Indian tribes whose very survival depends on children knowing their relatives and learning their culture. The judges said, “This series epitomizes what radio does best: Get into your head, into your heart, under your skin in a way that other media just can't.” In response to the series, U.S. lawmakers demanded action from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

RUNNER-UP (tie): “Post Mortem: The Child Cases,” NPR, PBS Frontline and ProPublica, NPR personnel: Joseph Shapiro, Sandra Bartlett, Coburn Dukehart, John Poole, Susanne Reber, Keith Jenkins, Barbara Van Woerkom, Nelson Hsu, Aly Hurt, Stephanie D'Otreppe, Alicia Cypress, Anne Hawke, and Katrine Elk; ProPublica personnel: A.C. Thompson, Chisun Lee, Marshall Allen, Aarti Shahani, Mosi Secret, Krista Kjellman Schmidt, Al Shaw,  Jennifer LaFleur and Robin Fields; Frontline personnel: Lowell Bergman, Carl Byker, Andres Cediel, Arun Rath,  Raney Aronson-Rath, David Fanning and Catherine Upin; California Watch Personnel: Ryan Gabrielson

This series uncovers how a justice system that relies on tainted medical evidence and flawed conclusions from the coroner can condemn innocent people in prison for the worst of all possible crimes: the murder of a child. A grim topic explored in depth and without sensationalism, the series found that almost always, accused parents and caregivers are poor people of color, whose families are irreparably destroyed by heinous allegations and wrongful convictions. In addition, NPR found the physician who coined the term “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” who at age 95 admitted he was troubled to see his diagnosis used in murder cases.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Drugs in the System,” PBS Need to Know and The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, Sarah Fitzpatrick and Mar Cabra
An eight-month investigation revealed that children, especially those in foster care, were being prescribed powerful medications in combinations that left them lethargic and morose. Foster kids in U.S. were receiving antipsychotic drugs at nine times the rate of other children in the Medicaid system. Adoptive and foster parents detailed the monumental challenges they faced weaning their children off of meds in order to get to know the real child and enable them to develop a healthy attachment. This story made a sizable splash, leading to a Government Accountability Office report and hearings on Capitol Hill. Judges praised the reporting for being “voice for the voiceless.”