Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Indian Child Welfare Act: The real tragedy is that it’s not enforced

Before ICWA: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1900
This is an expanded version of a column that appeared originally in the Chronicle of Social Change

Casey Jo Caswell of Lansing, Mich. made a terrible mistake. Homeless and jobless, she turned to Michigan’s child welfare agency for help raising her son, Ricky. But the agency offered no help with housing, no help with a job, and no help with education.  They told her to surrender the child to “temporary” foster care, and then rushed to terminate her parental rights.

Ricky was placed with middle-class foster parents in a nice, big home, first as a foster child, then
it became his adoptive home.

Once, during a counseling session, the Detroit News reported, the boy was playing with two plastic horses, when he said: “This little horse is going to die if he can’t be with his mother.” That proved prophetic.  Ricky Holland’s white adoptive parents murdered him. They stuffed his body in a trash bag and left it by the side of a road.

Yet in all the years since, no one has suggested that, because of this horror story, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), the law that spurred the rush to place Ricky in the home where he was adopted to death, should be repealed or curbed. That’s understandable. There’s an excellent case for curbing ASFA, but it shouldn’t be built on horror stories that unfairly stigmatize entire groups.

Yet Marie Cohen offers a similar horror story involving a Native American home (recycled from the far right Goldwater Institute ) as the only evidence in support of her claim in a column for the Chronicle of Social Change, that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) should be curbed – or maybe never should have been passed at all; she’s not clear about that. The Goldwater Institute has filed a class-action suit against ICWA.

Cohen dismisses in a single sentence the horrors inflicted on Native American children that led to passage of ICWA. In fact, from the 19th Century through the 1960s, American child welfare agencies tried to effectively eradicate Indian culture and, indeed, Indian tribes, through the expedient of taking away children. First, they were warehoused in hideous orphanages. Later, there was a campaign of mass adoptions. Melissa Harris Perry called the orphanages an “explicit cultural extermination mission.” The Lakota People’s Law Project is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

By the mid-20th Century people stopped actually saying “kill the Indian, save the child” but it took ICWA to change practice – though it hasn’t changed nearly enough.

Opponents of ICWA respond exactly as the Supreme Court majority dealt with the Voting Rights Act: Well, yes, racism used to be a problem, but not anymore!

There are two problems with this:

First, if you curb a bad practice by passing a law and then you eviscerate the law, it’s not hard to figure out what will happen next – witness the wave of voter suppression laws that followed the Supreme Court voting rights decision.

Second, contrary to what John Roberts and Marie Cohen seem to think, racism isn’t dead.

In 2003, Dewey Sloan, chief juvenile prosecutor in an Iowa county where Native American children were in foster care at a rate seven times higher than the rate for white children told the Des Moines Register, "I don't think there's anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse."

Or consider what happens to Native American children in South Dakota. That state tears apart families at a rate 80 percent above the national average.  And while Native Americans are 15 percent of the population, they are more than half of all foster children. The horrors inflicted on Native American children by the state were documented in a heart-rending series by NPR – in 2011.

NPR’s findings were confirmed by a federal judge last November. And, in another lawsuit, the federal government is charging the South Dakota Department of Social Services with discriminating against Native American job applicants.

So yes, there’s a problem with ICWA alright – the problem is it’s not being enforced.

And the right-wing propaganda about ICWA has been remarkably effective – even to the point of getting some on the left to help do their dirty work.

In Santa Clarita, California, Rusty and Summer Page took in Lexi, a child who is part Native American, knowing at the outset that the plan was to return her to her own father or, if that wasn’t possible, to extended family. But when the child’s tribe moved to do just that, the Pages went to court. When they finally ran out of legal options, they created a media circus. Though it was the Pages who stalled and stalled the return of the child, that didn’t stop them from claiming in a petition  -- on Change.org – that theirs was “the only family that she has ever known.” The claim was echoed in one news account after another.

The claim is false. Lexi was in continual contact with her extended family – and they already had taken in Lexi’s sister.

Almost every news account claims the child was sent to relatives, in the words of one story, “all because of her Native American heritage” and ICWA.  But federal law also calls for giving preference to relatives, and keeping siblings together – precisely because both practices are best for children.

Indeed, in a series of tweets, Nicole Cliffe, editor of The Toast explained the entire case better than most of the mainstream media.

 Cohen bemoans the fact that under ICWA, child welfare agencies are supposed to make “active efforts” to keep families together, theoretically a higher standard than the “reasonable efforts” required for non-Native children.

But the reasonable efforts requirement was never enforced and was rendered effectively meaningless by ASFA.  In Michigan, where Ricky Holland died in his adoptive home, 40 percent of judges surveyed admitted that they lie and certify that “reasonable efforts” were made to keep families together even when they don’t really believe it. 

And the fact that four separate studies since 1996 found that 30 percent of foster children could be home right now if the families simply had decent housing further illustrates that in practice “reasonable efforts” often means zero effort. So in real life, “active efforts” means ever-so- slightly more than zero. 

When it comes to the treatment of Native American children, that’s the real horror.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Child abuse in Texas: Things you should not do in an emergency

Photo by James Cridland
The Dallas Morning News reported last week that: 
Tens of thousands of infants and children believed to be in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, even death, are not being seen promptly by state child abuse investigators — and thousands of them haven’t been checked on at all. …
Across Texas, on an average day, nearly 700 unseen children are classified as extreme cases — “Priority 1” in the agency’s terms …
But the most staggering numbers come from Harris County, where about 1,300 children who are supposed have already had a face-to-face contact with a caseworker haven’t been seen. The unvisited children account for about 22 percent of all cases referred to that office in March and April, The News’ analysis found. 
The reason all these children aren’t being seen?  Caseworkers are overloaded.

A Morning News editorial correctly calls this “an emergency.”

Here are some things you should not do in an emergency:

● Texas should not be investigating and taking away children from a Harris County family like this one.

● Texas should not be investigating and taking away children from a Harris County family like this one, either.

● Texas should not be taking away children at a rate we now know is far above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

And Texas journalists might want to spend some time watching out to be sure that the new spending required to meet the terms of a federal court decision isn’t stolen from the few things being done in that state that actually work – like this, in Bexar County.

Then, maybe, caseworkers actually would have time to get to all those “Priority 1” children they’re not seeing now.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Child Abuse: The not-really-all-that-shocking truth

Imagine you read an article that began like this:

“A reckoning is coming in gerontology. New studies show that when a group of 95-year-olds is followed for five years, a greater proportion die than when they are followed for only one.”

You’d probably think it was a story from The Onion. You’d probably think the same if you read a story saying that people followed for five years, versus those followed for only one, are more likely to catch cold, fall in love, get in an auto accident, take a dream vacation, or discover the presence of gambling at a certain cafĂ© in Casablanca.

And yet we are supposed to be shocked – shocked! – when a study that follows children for five years finds more of what authorities define as abuse and neglect than studies focusing on a single year.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

NYC Dept. of Investigation uses Trump-style tactics to attack City child welfare agency

The New York City Dept. of  Investigation could have investigated the City's
child welfare agency without sinking to HIS level. --Photo by Gage Skidmore
If there were a Donald Trump School of Fearmongering-By-Horror-Story, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI), Mark Peters, would graduate with honors.

Peters issued a report on the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) blasting the agency for alleged systemic failings that contributed to two child abuse deaths and one near fatality.  At least the report strongly implied the failings were systemic – Peters provided no actual evidence for this.

Peters got exactly the headlines and stories he apparently craved: “ACS Conducts Lax Investigations Into Child Abuse And Neglect,” says Gothamist,  “Rampant ACS Failures Let 2 Children Die and Allowed Abuse: Investigators,” said DNAInfo.  Or, as the New York Post put it:

The Administration for Children’s Services is so rife with “investigatory failures and deficient casework, lax oversight of foster care providers and a lack of data collection’’ that it may “actually have put [kids] in harm’s way,’’ according to Mark Peters, …

The report itself substantiates none of this. Indeed, the methodology makes such substantiation impossible.

The way to know how any agency typically fails is to examine typical cases.  DOI could have truly helped New York’s vulnerable children by examining a comprehensive, random sample of case files.  That would have given DOI an excellent sense of how – and how often – ACS makes mistakes.  And it almost certainly would have revealed mistakes in all directions; with caseworkers wrongly placing some children in foster care even as it wrongly left other children in dangerous homes.

Instead DOI opted for the Trump approach – wild extrapolation from horror stories. DOI chose to focus only on three horror story cases where children were killed, or nearly died in their own homes – leaving the misimpression that this is the only kind of error ACS makes. Then DOI painted with the broadest of brushes, suggesting with little or no evidence that the failures in the horror stories were widespread. For reasons discussed below, this approach to “investigating” risks making all children less safe.

What DOI did here is the equivalent of examining the failures at The New York Times that allowed Jayson Blair’s made-up stories to get into the paper, and then claiming that the Blair case proves the Times suffers from a widespread, systemic problem of fabricating news stories.

DOI claims that they don’t know how widespread the problems really are – even as they imply that they’re probably rampant – because ACS didn’t have precisely the data DOI wanted at the time DOI asked.

That’s a copout.  Had DOI chosen to look at a random sample of cases, that problem would have been solved – the random sample would tell DOI, and the rest of us, - if a given failing was isolated or widespread.  But it would be less likely to get Mark Peters into the newspapers and on TV.

And there’s another reason DOI can’t accurately generalize from the horror story cases.  Apparently, the deaths and the near-fatality occurred in 2014 – only months after Bill de Blasio became mayor and named Gladys Carrion to run ACS. (Oddly, the report itself never mentions when the deaths and the near-fatality took place – I had to find that out from the Daily News.) And in two of the cases, the errors cited in the report began fully 12 years earlier, spanning a time period ACS was engulfed in a foster-care panic, a huge sudden surge in removals of children from their homes – following the death of Nixzmary Brown in 2006.

DOI even was highly selective in its choice of horrors. Surely the case of Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu, who allegedly was allowed to abuse children placed in his foster home by ACS and its private agency contractors for decades, was just as worthy of investigation.  That case is a reminder that foster care is no panacea.  And study after study shows high rates of abuse in foster care itself.


In two places, DOI did cite actual data.  But in one of these places, DOI was remarkably selective.

The report notes that the rate at which children left in their own homes are maltreated again – 16 percent - has not declined in recent years.  And yes, that rate is too high.  (The only acceptable goal is, of course, zero.)  But DOI does not mention that this rate is lower than the 17 percent in 2011 and 2010.  The rate also was 17 percent in 1998 – the same year that the city took away more children than any other in more than two decades.  So to imply, as the report does, that this rate would decline if only more children were torn from their homes, is irresponsible.  Indeed, given the rate of abuse in foster care, any such implication is dangerous to children.

The report authors also wrote as though they were shocked – shocked! – that private child welfare agencies contracting with the city don’t take part in a mad rush to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 17 months.  Yes, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act requires this – under some circumstances.  But there are multiple exceptions. 

And that’s fortunate.  Because the mad rush to TPR has led to an explosion in the number of “legal orphans” – children who “age out” of foster care with no ties to their birth parents and no adoptive home either.

When a private agency supervised by ACS doesn’t seek TPR within the required time frames it means that in some cases they did indeed fall down on the job. More often it’s probably because, as AP aptly documented just a few days ago, the city and its contracted private agencies are realizing the harm in that approach.

And the fact that an agency fails to document a “compelling reason” not to file for TPR does not mean no such reason exists. It may just mean the agency failed to do all the right paperwork.

As for DOI’s hyperventilating about these agencies supposedly violating federal law – I doubt there is a child welfare agency in the country that manages to comply every time (and those that come closest, as the AP story aptly documents, probably are doing children a lot more harm than those that don’t).

The recommendations are not the problem

Of course it’s possible to learn lessons by examining the worst failures, as long as it’s understood that those failures don’t, in and of themselves, tell us what is systemically wrong with ACS, or any other agency.

And, by and large, the specific recommendations in the DOI report appear to be reasonable; though it’s hard to be sure since, again somewhat oddly, the report does not include all of the recommendations.  The problem with this report is its overall tone, as if Peters is nostalgic for the days in which a take-the-child-and-run mentality plunged ACS into chaos, destroyed thousands of families needlessly – and made all of the city’s children less safe. 

Since 1995, foster-care panics have occurred twice in New York City – and both times children became less safe as a result.  Starting such panics is easy; stopping them is a lot harder. 

It must never be allowed to happen again.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Child welfare Finance: Beware of “The Triad”: The bill they’re backing has become a Trojan horse

Time to take a close look at the "Family First Act"
To read the rhetoric coming from the foster care-industrial complex lately, you’d think that the private child welfare agencies that need a steady supply of foster children to stay in business had undergone a conversion worthy of Saint Paul.

Suddenly they’re all talking about “more should be done to keep kids in families” and how the federal government should be spending more on “prevention.”  They’ve even created a website called Keeping Kids in Families, (run by a group that actually calls itself the “Triad” partnership)  with infographics implying that they want to change funding priorities.

Don’t believe it.

They’ve stolen the rhetoric of reform, while getting rid of almost all of the substance.

Indeed, you have to spend a long, long, time poking around the website to even find the specifics about the legislation they urge people to support.  There’s a reason for that.

What these groups really are supporting is a plan for legislation (it’s not even a bill yet) called the Family First Act.  (This analysis is based on this outline from Senate Finance Committee staff, and a similar memo circulating among some child welfare groups.  So instead of referring to “the bill” I’ll be referring to “the outline.”) 

Like so much in child welfare, the original proposal was born of good intentions – and it might have made a pretty good bill. But it was quickly watered down.  In its present form, it opens up funding only to very limited forms of prevention.  And it does nothing to curb the current huge, open-ended entitlement for foster care.

In its present form the Family First Act is a Trojan Horse.  It leaves the false impression that its passage would lead to fundamental child welfare finance reform – thereby removing the pressure to make real changes, and possibly setting the stage for efforts to funnel even more money into foster care.

Child welfare funding today

Foster care is funded through a large open-ended entitlement program known as “Title IV-E.”  For every eligible child, the state picks up a large share of the tab – the share varies from state to state.  Roughly 44 percent of foster care cases are eligible for this reimbursement, and that percentage declines ever so slightly every year.  That’s because of something called “The lookback,” which I’ll get to below.

In contrast, a much smaller pot of money, called Title IV-B, is available for services to help keep children out of foster care – and that money is not an entitlement.  (Details are in this NCCPR Issue Paper.)

What the Family First bill would do (as far as we can tell)

The Family First Act outline calls for allowing IV-E funding for some services to keep children out of foster care.  However:

--These could be almost exclusively “soft services” – the “counseling” and “parent education” that typically do nothing to actually keep children out of foster care, but make the helpers feel good.  The one exception: Some forms of services might be available for “substance abuse prevention” – whether that also includes drug treatment is not clear. In addition. when a child is placed with her or his parent in a residential substance abuse treatment program, federal foster care reimbursement could be used to pay for the child’s care.

Totally absent are what families so often really need: Aid for child care, housing, or simply basic cash assistance to ameliorate the worst aspects of the poverty that often is confused with “neglect.”  This reportedly was in earlier proposals but was negotiated away early in the process.

The outline calls for allowing very limited aid of this sort under Title IV-B – but that’s the one that has almost no money in it, and is not an entitlement, so this means almost nothing.

The outline does allow emergency cash assistance if the child is placed with a grandparent or other relative.  In other words: In a case where the allegation is “lack of supervision” the new federal money could not be used to help the child’s parents pay for day care.  But if the child were placed with grandparents, federal money could help them pay for day care.

The problem is compounded by the criteria any prevention program must meet to be eligible for funding.  By the time the provisions in the outline are fully in effect the standard of proof would be so absurdly high that almost nothing would qualify.

That’s because the outline continues the profound double-standard for what constitutes an “evidence-based” practice in child welfare: If it’s an alternative to foster care it must be able to dot every I and cross every t on the most rigorous form of evaluation. Lizbeth Schorr, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, has several excellent articles on why this is an unwise approach in human services.  And in child welfare, there is the additional problem of a profound bias among many of the “scholars.” But the same standard does not apply to foster care – in fact, the outline contemplates continuing funding-as-usual for foster care despite the overwhelming evidence that, for most of the children placed there, it’s a far worse option than family preservation.

So state and local child welfare agencies would end up with the theoretical “right” to spend federal money on preventive services – but almost none of the services actually would qualify for funding.

A ceiling, not a floor

One could argue that the outline should be supported because at least it doesn’t make things worse – and there are some improvements around the edges.  And one could argue that this at least would set a precedent for using Title IV-E funds for prevention – it could be said to be a floor on which more reform could be built.

But it’s more likely that this bill would be a ceiling, not a floor.  Once the bill was passed, all the pressure for real reform – ending the foster-care entitlement - would go away.  Everyone could say: “See, we’ve now given child welfare agencies all the funding flexibility they need!” And if, by some chance, the number of children in foster care doesn’t drop, that will be cited as evidence that financial incentives were never the issue, and all those children really, truly need to be in foster care.

That’s when the foster care industrial complex will come charging back, seeking what they really want all along – an end to the “lookback.”

As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the lookback, the number of children eligible for federal foster care aid under Title IV-E decreases ever so slightly each year.  As a result, the foster-care industrial complex is finally feeling the heat – they know that if they don’t support some kind of change, federal foster care funding is going to dry up completely – though not for another 50 years or so.

So they want the fake reform of the Family First Act, followed by some form of end to the lookback.  (Details on how the lookback works and why we need it are here.)

And that’s exactly why those of us who want real reform should not settle for the Family First Act.  Rather we should let the heat keep rising on the foster-care industrial complex, until they’re willing to support the real reform.  That means ending the unlimited, open-ended entitlement for foster care and converting it into an inflation-indexed flat grant, that could be used both on foster care and on all kinds of prevention and family preservation programs.   

Similar problems with provisions on “congregate care”

The Family First Act also attempts to curb the use of the worst form of “care,” group homes and institutions, by putting some limits on when federal foster care money could be spent on such placements.  One could argue, again, that this is better than the status quo, since currently there are no limits, even on paper.

But the outline has so many ifs, ands, buts, and assorted other loopholes that the limit appears largely meaningless. And by actually creating a category of placement called a “Qualified Residential Treatment Programs” (or worse, one summary of the bill says these would have the oxymoronic name Quality Residential Treatment Programs) the bill runs the risk of “institutionalizing” the idea that there is something acceptable about institutionalizing children.

Now, about the Triad

The people behind that Orwellian Keeping Kids in Families website are a who’s who of the foster-care industrial complex.  The group is calling itself “The Triad for Results-Based Funding for Safe Children and Stronger Families” (you’d think they would have at least run a basic Google search for “Triad” before coming up with that name).

Leading the Triad is the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a group that has little to so with either one.  Rather, it is a trade association made up largely of private agencies that oversee foster homes and run group homes and institutions.  These agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care. The Alliance is led by Susan Dreyfus who came to the group after an undistinguished tenure running two child welfare systems. A good indication of where Dreyfus stands is the fact that, as a member of the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities she voted for the Commission’s awful recommendations.

Dereyfus’ group is joined by the National Organization for State Associations for Children, which actually is a collection of state federations dominated by foster care providers.  So two-thirds of the Triad has a vested interest in opposing any reform that actually would curb the huge open-ended entitlement for foster care funding. And there’s no downside for the third member of the Triad, the American Public Human Services Association, since the outline offers more money for limited forms of prevention without touching foster care.

The fact that these groups are supporting the Family First Act is not a reason to oppose it.  On the contrary, I’ve said repeatedly that child welfare is a field filled with good people who keep doing the wrong things for the right reasons.  If someone wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, I’ll take it.

But the Family First Act is not the right thing.

It’s also often said that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  That’s true.  But the Family First Act is not good.  It is, at best, mediocre.  And the good should be the enemy of the mediocre.

Friday, April 22, 2016

UPDATED: How to get a liberal to renounce everything he claims to believe in: Whisper the words “child abuse” in his ear

UPDATE, MAY 10: It happened again.  This time the "suspicious" passenger was writing something in what another passenger apparently took to be a secret code.  Actually, he was an Ivy League professor writing equations.

The Professor told The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell that, "It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump’s voting base."

Except, of course, when the issue is child abuse - then it becomes the ethos of too many on the Left as well.

Why is the kind of behavior that got the left rightly upset with Southwest
 Airlines, considered just fine when the fear is about child abuse?
By now, most people have heard about the Muslim student who was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic and reported him to the flight crew. Of course. Young male + Arabic = terrorist, right?

My fellow liberals were outraged – and rightly so.  The story made The New York Times, and was the subject of this segment on The Daily Show:

All that is exactly as it should be.

But compare that response to what happens when the same sort of “if you see something, say something” extremism is applied to child abuse:

As I noted in a previous post to this Blog, a post at Medium by Michele Booth Cole, who runs a “Child Advocacy Center” in Washington, urged us to turn in anyone we think might be sexually abusing a child if “you just get the feeling that something’s not right.”  In other words, the author of this post, a so-called child abuse professional, is urging all of us to behave exactly as the passenger on that plane did – report someone based on essentially nothing.

Yet the comments on this post were almost entirely favorable. The column got one endorsement after another – such as this one: “even a 1% risk of a child being at risk is worth saying something, and you can do so anonymously.”

Yes, isn’t it great?  Unlike that airline passenger, who at least had to reveal her own identity to the flight crew, you can accuse someone of child abuse based on absolutely nothing with no accountability at all!

This advice is given even though the consequences of a false report – for the child – are a lot worse than being thrown off an airplane.

As I noted in that previous post, Cole writes that

You may never be sure and you don’t have to be sure. If you report your suspicions, the professionals in law enforcement and child protection will follow up and find out what’s happening. You could literally be saving that child’s life.

Or you could be bringing down a world of misery upon that child.

First of all, referring to the child protective services workers who will respond to the call as “professionals” often is a stretch.  In Washington, D.C., where Cole is located, they’re generally well-qualified.  More typically, however, you’re talking about someone with a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course.  Law enforcement often isn’t any better.

These total strangers will interrogate the child about the most intimate aspects of her or his life.  That’s what happened in this case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (with my organization’s Vice President acting as pro-bono counsel for the family).

Often that interrogation will be followed by a medical examination that, if anyone else did it, would be sexual abuse.

All this harm occurs before we even reach the issue of the child protective services worker possibly panicking – depending on whether a high-profile tragedy is in the news at the moment – and consigning a child who was not abused to the chaos of foster care.

Sometimes all this has to be done anyway.  The problem of child sexual abuse, like all child abuse, is serious and real. But starting this process in motion should be based on more than “you just get the feeling that something’s not right…”

Other advice given by Cole is even worse – at one point she actually encourages the dangerous practice of distracted driving.  Seriously.  She writes:

Let’s say a school employee needed to give a child a ride home, and only the two of them would be in the car. The adult and/or the child could be on a cell phone the whole time, giving a running description of the drive to the child’s parent or caregiver.

I've put a great big National Safety Council infographic at the end of this post in the hope that Cole will understand just how dangerous and irresponsible that suggestion really is, and everyone else will see how extremism and paranoia in the war against child abuse can trump research and sound judgment.

  More generally, her ideas would lead to a generation of paranoid adults raising a generation of terrified children. In fact, it’s worth comparing Cole’s column to the comments made by the right-wing Republicans in the Daily Show video.

Odd how easily we on the left understand all this when the issue is terrorism, and how easily many of us forget when the issue is child abuse.

Read more about how the normal due process and civil liberties protections liberals fight for in other fields don’t exist in cases of alleged child abuse.

Hands free not risk free
Provided by The National Safety Council

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Texas Hide ‘em: Nearly Two-thirds of state’s foster care placements are “off the books”

The repeated claims that Texas takes proportionately few children are false.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

The claim has been made over and over by Texans who want the state to take away more children: Texas, it is claimed, takes away children at a much lower rate than other states.

That claim always hid more than it revealed.  But now it turns out that the claim is flat-out false in every respect.  Because now we know that when Texas tells the federal government, and the public, how many children it placed in foster care in a given year, Texas simply leaves out nearly two-thirds of the placements.

Texas does this by slapping a different label onto these placements.  They’re called “parental child safety placements.”  They are a form of kinship care – that is, placement with extended family or friends of the family instead of with total strangers.  Kinship care almost always is a  better,  safer option than stranger care. But it is still foster care.

Here’s how it works. The state Department of Family and Protective Services decides to remove a child from the home.  In order to make the process easier – for the agency, not the family – they essentially blackmail the parent: Give us the child and let us place him “informally” with a relative, without involving the court, or we’ll go to court and your child might wind up with a stranger – or worse, in one of our wonderful Texas institutions.

And make no mistake – once the child is gone, the child welfare agency and maybe, at some point, a court, but not the parent decides when or if that child will ever come back. It is a foster-care placement in everything but name.

The federal government understands that these placements are, in fact, foster care and should be counted as such.  As we noted in a previous post to this blog:

Federal regulations define foster care as :

24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility. 

The regulations go on to say that

the State is required to count a placement that lasts more than 24 hours while the child is in foster care under the placement, care or supervision responsibility of the State agency” 
 Note that it does not say “custody” of the agency, only “placement, care or supervision responsibility.”

What we did not know when we put up that previous post, and the real shocker in all this, is how widespread the practice is. 

Officially, Texas took away children 17,357 times in 2014 – at least that’s what Texas reported to the federal government.  But according to a December, 2015 report from a  “roundtable” of “stakeholders” convened by the Texas Supreme court Children’s Commission there also were 34,000 so-called parental child safety placements. 

According to the report, about 4,000 of those PCSPs later became officially-counted foster care placements, so counting those 4,000 would be double counting. But that still leaves 30,000 foster care placements in 2014 that Texas simply chose to call something else.

Or to put it another way, Texas has been hiding more than 63 percent of its foster care placements from the federal government – and from anyone else trying to compare the rate at which states take away children.

Put back those off-the-books placements and Texas is apparently taking away children at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

Of course, that assumes Texas is the only state that cheats this way.  That’s almost certainly not the case.  We’ve known for nearly a decade that Kansas has its own way of cheating.  And kinship care is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cheating. But I doubt that there are many states that cheat to the extent of hiding nearly two-thirds of their entries into foster care.  Maybe everything really is bigger than Texas.

The reason all this is coming out in the open is that PCSPs now are under attack by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who wants to crack down on these kinship care placements, not because they’re off-the-books, but because two of them were the scenes of headline-grabbing horror stories.  (And, of course, nothing ever goes wrong in other Texas placements.)

So now, caseworkers are afraid to use PCSPs, and traditional foster-care placements are skyrocketing.  Soon, we may finally see an official figure on entries into foster care that is closer to reality – but thousands of children will pay the price, by losing out on the chance to stay with relatives.

There are other revelations in the “roundtable” report:

The report notes that “PCSPs are not really voluntary when the alternative is removal of the child.”  The roundtable participants also noted that, since the state doesn’t have to go to court first, “the parent does not have a lawyer or understand the child welfare or legal system.”

There’s also a truly Orwellian twist:

In theory, federal law requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together before resorting to foster care. In fact, this has never been enforced and the law is full of loopholes. But Texas actually claims that, if they put a child in foster care and call it a “parental child safety placement” they’ve met the “reasonable efforts” requirement – because, supposedly, that’s not foster care.

One other point about the Roundtable and its December, 2015 report: Scott McCown, the state’s leading champion of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, served on the roundtable.  So I don’t understand why, one month after the report came out, McCown, still was repeating his claim about Texas having an unusually low rate of removal.