Monday, October 29, 2007

Dumb and dumber in Indianapolis

A four-month-old baby in Indianapolis is in lots and lots of pain from teething. She’s crying for hours. Nothing seems to work. So her mother tries a folk remedy: swabbing whisky on the baby’s gums. (The belief that this helps apparently is widespread. A Google search for “whisky and gums and teething” produced 17,700 hits, including articles trying to dissuade parents from the idea). So mom tries it. It doesn’t work.

But then things take a serious turn for the worse. According to the baby’s grandmother, mom then figures if applying whisky to the gums doesn’t work, maybe putting it in the baby formula will. The baby passed out. The mother calls an ambulance. According to police, the baby had a blood-alcohol level of 0.048. Fortunately the baby was unharmed.

"She wasn't doing anything to hurt the baby, and she thought she was helping the baby because the baby had been up all night crying," the grandmother told Indianapolis television station WRTV. "It wasn't anything in malice or intent to harm in any way, shape or form."

What the mother did was dumb, and it was dangerous. What the child protective services agency did was dumber – and also dangerous: They took away the baby.

That’s bad enough anyplace, it’s worse in Indianapolis, where every child removed from the home is parked first at an orphanage. The younger the child, the greater the potential for enormous emotional trauma from separation. That, of course, is without even reaching the issue of the rate of abuse in foster care and orphanages. And, though it is hard to tell from the news account, it appears the child was placed with strangers, and not with her grandmother, which at least might have cushioned the blow.

The point here is not that the child welfare agency should have done nothing. If a mother can make one dumb, dangerous mistake like this, she might make another. But instead of taking the baby out of the home, how about bringing help into the home.

It wouldn’t take the kind of intensive help I usually recommend, either. All that might be needed is the kind of Healthy Families America home visiting approach that the child welfare establishment is always talking about. (This program gets good results; the model which uses trained nurses to do the visits does better.)

Law enforcement did not exactly acquit itself well either. The mother faces criminal charges not only for neglect, but also for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

When background-check fetishism backfires

Last week, I told the story of how Ohio lawmakers, and journalists, became mired in background-check fetishism. They did not respond to the death of Marcus Fiesel, who was killed by his foster parents, by asking why the county that put him in foster care takes children at one of the highest rates in the state. They did not respond by asking if the overuse of foster-care was prompting the county to lower standards. They simply assumed that better “background checks” would solve the problem.

But the Cincinnati Enquirer went further. Apparently the newspaper decided that if the counties weren’t doing good enough background checks, the Enquirer would do the checks itself. All the newspaper needed were the names of all the state’s foster parents, and other pertinent identifying information.

The newspaper filed a request under the state’s freedom of information act. But the state agency that oversees the county agencies that run foster care in Ohio refused. The issue is now in court.

But the Ohio Legislature appears poised to pre-empt the issue. The version of the background check bill which passed the Ohio House of Representatives includes an amendment specifically keeping foster parent names a secret.

News organizations are having a fit – and they’re right. It wouldn’t make a huge difference if newspapers could do their own checks on foster parents, because the reason such parents get into the system isn’t primarily because agencies don’t do enough checking, it’s because agencies are so desperate for beds that they lower standards. But it might make some difference, and that’s reason enough. It just might prevent a tragedy, and if it can’t do that, at least it might help hold agencies accountable for their errors after-the-fact.

But the debate actually reveals something much sadder: how far behind most of Ohio is when it comes to best practice in child welfare. It also reveals how the state’s journalists sewed the seeds of their own defeat on this issue: creating and nurturing the very stereotypes that have come back to haunt them.

The case for secrecy boiled down to one argument: the Myth of the Stalking Birth Parent. After all, if news accounts are to be believed, birth parents who lose their children to foster care are the quintessence of evil. The only time you hear about them is when they’ve tortured, raped or brutalized a child. It’s not that these stories are inaccurate, it’s that they leave the public confusing the aberration with the norm. And, no, I’m not saying the aberrations shouldn’t be reported. I’m saying the stories that put the aberrations into context are missing.

And even birth parents who are not sadistic brutes get demonized. It happened to Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother, who was vilified in editorials and letters columns, and by some politicians, far more than the foster parents who stuffed Marcus in a closet until he died and then burned the body.

The stereotypes run so deep that the evil of birth parents was the one issue on which all legislators could agree. The sponsor of the secrecy bill, himself a former foster parent, conjured up horror story scenarios of birth parents stalking and terrorizing foster parents. A backer of openness responded – by arguing that birth parents are so sneaky and conniving they’ll find the foster parents even if agencies keep their names secret.

But the overwhelming majority of birth parents are nothing like the stereotype. They haven’t brutalized their children. They have not raped their children. They have not tortured their children. They are a lot more likely to simply be poor, or perhaps to be poor, uneducated and depressed – like Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother. And whatever else one may think of her, I don’t think anyone familiar with her believes she ever was likely to track down and assault a foster parent.

So the fraction of dangerous birth parents is tiny to begin with. It is even more absurd to think that among that tiny faction are lots of people who will obtain lists of foster parents and then manage to track down the particular foster parent who has their child.

In fact, among the 30,000 news stories about child welfare in NCCPR’s database, I don’t recall even one reflecting that scenario. There are very rare examples of other bad things happening: birth parents kidnapping their children during visits and even assaulting a caseworker. In one recent Kentucky case, the caseworker was killed. And the fact that I don’t think I have a news account of a birth parent assaulting a foster parent doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. But it is so rare that any foster parent who doesn’t want his name made public as a result of this fear also had better never leave the house – because I’ll bet the odds of being hurt in an auto accident are far greater.

But the larger issue is what this says about how foster care is done in Ohio. Best practice in child welfare says that, in most cases, birth parents are not just going to know who the foster parents are, they’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. In the best programs foster parents work as mentors to birth parents – working together to help the child. It’s common practice in Cuyahoga County as part of the Family to Family program (a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which also funds NCCPR).

It is not done in every case, nor should it be; some birth parents really are a danger to their children. But in good systems it is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Yet no one from the Governor on down seems to realize this. Certainly no one at the state agency that oversees Ohio’s county child welfare agencies has pointed it out – on the contrary, they seem to be reinforcing the fear-mongering by supporting secrecy. So one can only wonder about how far from best practice things really are in most of Ohio.

And saddest of all, most journalists seem to believe the stereotypes as well.

The secrecy amendment has produced an enormous amount of coverage and lots and lots of outraged editorials – the quantity and volume of journalistic outrage always tends to increase when reporters’ own interests are at stake. But none of these stories or editorials confronts the foster parents’ fear head on; none tries to actually refute it with facts about birth parents. Rather the editorials offer some decent arguments about avoiding another tragedy like the death of Marcus Fiesel and a lot of the usual boilerplate about the public’s right to know, which always sounds self-serving coming from journalists.

One can only wonder if legislators would have been so quick to vote their irrational fears of birth parents if news coverage hadn’t done so much to stoke those fears in the first place.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Take that, Osama bin Laden! Now you'll never be a foster parent in Ohio!

We can all breathe easier now. Under legislation likely to reach the Governor’s desk soon, Osama Bin Laden will be barred from becoming a foster parent in Ohio. Under the bill, terrorism and soliciting or providing support for terrorism will be added to the list of crimes that automatically disqualify foster parents.

And authorities will be watching out for any record of such crimes because they’ll be required to perform more rigorous background checks. Because Ohio lawmakers know that the easiest way to cheap glory after a foster-child dies is to wallow in background-check fetishism. But the Ohio story is particularly instructive because of a new wrinkle. The quick-and-dirty solutions and the stereotypes promoted by news organizations are coming back to haunt them.

The story begins, of course, with a tragedy.

Tragedy changes child welfare systems. When media pay sustained attention to some horrible failing in the system, usually the death of a child “known to the system,” that system will change. Usually, it will change for the worse. Usually, the attention will only set off a foster-care panic.

And, as noted previously on this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse. Even if the child died in foster care, that still often leads to an increase in placements. That’s largely because of a pernicious double-standard that characterizes much child welfare coverage. If the child dies at the hands of a birth parent, it’s supposedly proof that the system does too much to try to keep families together, and broad systemic changes – most of which boil down to “take the child and run” – are needed. If the killer is a foster parent, the case is written off as an aberration, and it’s assumed the problem can be solved by visiting foster homes more often, toughening licensing standards and doing better “background checks” on foster parents.

So even when the child dies in foster care, the result of all the press attention often is the same lousy system only bigger.

Systems only get better when the coverage gets more sophisticated. That’s what happened in Maine, after Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her mother and killed by his foster mother and in Missouri after Dominic James was taken needlessly from his father and killed by his foster father. In both states, news coverage began by focusing on the narrow issues of visits, licensing and background checks. But in Maine, reporters began to wonder why a child was more likely to be trapped in foster care in that state than in all but five other states. (When poverty rates were factored in Maine’s record may have been the nation’s worst). In Missouri the Springfield News-Leader and then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began asking why Missouri was taking children at a rate well above the national average – and why the Springfield area took children at a rate far above the state average.

Perhaps most important, the newspapers’ approach to birth parents changed. For starters, birth parents began to exist. They were quoted in news stories. And they were treated as three-dimensional human beings, instead of monsters who appeared in the newspapers only when they were accused of torturing or murdering their children. The News-Leader even sent a team of journalists to Alabama to examine the groundbreaking reforms there.

The focus on the real problems led to real solutions. Today, at least 22 states hold proportionately more children in foster care than Maine, and the number of children taken from their parents has dropped significantly. Missouri also has seen a marked drop in removals. And in both states, there has been no compromise of safety.

But it’s been a different story in Ohio in the wake of the death of another foster child, Marcus Fiesel. He, too, was taken needlessly from his mother, Donna Trevino. He was taken by the county-run child welfare agency in Butler County, near Cincinnati, an agency plagued with problems for many years, and an agency that takes children at one of the highest rates in Ohio.

The newspapers in Butler County, essentially one newspaper under a variety of names, did the best they could. But they have a small staff and an even smaller amount of space for news stories. The papers, part of the Cox chain, are laboring under a “redesign” that makes the original USA Today look like The Wall Street Journal. Under the circumstances, the reporters and editors performed admirably, especially the county government reporter at the time the story broke.

But the dominant newspaper in the region, the Cincinnati Enquirer, performed less admirably. They “flooded the zone” with reporters, but, with one notable exception, those reporters largely regurgitated conventional wisdom. From day one, they became mired in background-check fetishism; feeding readers a steady diet of stories and commentary suggesting that, if only background checks were tightened, such tragedies wouldn’t happen.

That’s not entirely wrong, of course. Comprehensive background checks make sense; occasionally they will weed out a dangerous potential foster parent who might have gotten through otherwise. That makes them worth doing, as long as they’re done sensibly, without creating the debacle that occurred in Utah, where botched implementation of an extra level of checking wound up delaying kinship placements for weeks and actually increased the danger to children. (See “Utah’s Big Bureaucratic Blunder,” the September 16 post on this Blog).

Where background checks become a problem is when they become the be-all-and-end-all of reform, a way for politicians and journalists to declare victory and get out without facing the real problems. In other words, exactly what’s going on in Ohio now.

Lack of a complete background check isn’t the main reason for foster-care tragedies. Not even close. There were plenty of warning signs already known about the foster parents who killed Marcus Fiesel and he was placed in that home anyway. That’s what often happens when child welfare systems take too many children. They wind up begging for beds. And beggars can’t be choosers.

But the Enquirer made up its mind almost from day one. Within weeks of the discovery that Marcus was dead, an Enquirer editorial made clear that real change already was off the agenda:

...we urge policymakers, agencies and the public - all of us - to focus on three critical, and practical, ways to improve the odds for children like Marcus. They are:
--Fine-tuning, or simply enforcing, regulations that will directly improve foster children's care.
--Improving the recruitment, retention and training of strong, stable foster care families.
--Improving communication about the foster care system - and within it.

And while, of course, there was no declaration of an equally-narrow focus on the news side, the news stories stuck to a similarly narrow focus.

Meanwhile, coverage of child welfare in the Enquirer’s home county, Hamilton, consisted almost entirely of horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system,” allegedly at the hands of vile, sadistic birth parents. So it’s no wonder that most readers, and Ohio legislators, thought of all birth parents in those terms. Even Marcus Fiesel’s mother wound up vilified, excoriated in editorials and letters columns to a far greater degree than the foster parents who had tied Marcus up, stuffed him into a closet and, after he died there, burned the body. (One reporter was a notable exception, but her finely-crafted, carefully nuanced portraits of the birth mother were, in effect, drowned out by the chorus of birth parent bashing.)

So it’s no wonder that legislators quickly figured out that the path to cheap glory was to cash in on background-check fetishism. They’ve gained plenty of good press with legislation to increase training for foster parents (as if foster parents need to be trained not to kill foster children) toughen licensing standards and, most of all, do lots of new, improved background checks. In the process, lawmakers may have stuck a couple of time bombs in the bill. The bill goes beyond to ruling out Osama Bin Laden. It also may rule out some fit relatives, including those who may have committed minor offenses long ago, and, under some circumstances the bill may rule out one-time battered women from becoming foster parents. And, while the language is not clear, it may be setting the stage for a Utah-style debacle.

As this is written the Ohio Legislature is on the verge of passing a final version of the bill, after which you can bet they will preen about how they “cracked down on child abuse” and issue pious proclamations about how, thanks to their background-check bill, Marcus Fiesel did not die in vain. Then they’ll declare victory and get out.

The Enquirer has already praised them for it. When the bill passed the State Senate in June, the Enquirer wrote in an editorial that “with this action the Legislature has chosen not to let [Marcus Fiesel’s] brief life pass unnoticed. His legacy can be rules that will serve as safeguards for other children. “

But the praise was a little premature. The bill acquired an amendment in the Ohio House. It seems the Enquirer overplayed its hand, the background check fetishism and the birth-parent bashing combined in a way no one could have expected – and now the stereotypes Ohio newspapers helped create are coming back to haunt them. One could cherish the irony, if not for the fact that it’s likely to make the entire state child welfare system even worse.

That story in a future post.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Update: Turning foster parents into welfare queens will cost $1 billion

So now it’s official. The group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” – apparently on the assumption that the “right” children crave more than any other is to spend more time in foster care – is out with its report trying to justify the notion that foster parents should be reimbursed for every dime they spend caring for foster children. (See the previous entry on this Blog).

It was obvious from the start that this would cost a fortune. But because the amount CR wants to lavish on foster parents is even greater than I’d expected, the price tag is even larger than I’d imagined. Not that CR actually offers a total, of course. But using data from the report, a very conservative estimate is that doing what CR wants done would cost at least one billion dollars a year. That’s one billion dollars that could be used for, say, rent subsidies for birth parents, so they don’t lose their children because they lack housing, which CR says should go instead to help foster parents pay their utility bills – and cover extra wear and tear on the furniture. That’s one billion dollars that could be used to help parents pay for day care so they don’t lose their children because of “lack of supervision” charges, going instead to foster parents to cover every penny of whatever it may cost them to send the same children to day care.

And we’re not just talking about necessities here. CR wants foster parents reimbursed for the cost of after school activities and admission to movies and amusement parks. They even want the government to pay a foster parent to buy his foster child a teddy bear or a video game.

The excuse CR offers for proposing what amounts to a billion dollar transfer of funds from the poor to the middle class is that low reimbursement rates supposedly are contributing to America’s “shortage” of foster parents.

But for starters, America doesn’t have a shortage of foster parents. America has a surplus of foster children. Spend another $1 billion on housing, day care and other help for struggling families and a large number of foster homes would empty out in a hurry. (One third of foster children could be home right now if their birth parents just had decent housing). And that would be the end of the foster parent “shortage.”

But even if one believes we need more foster parents, there is little evidence that a giant pay raise is the way to get them. For starters, CR offers no evidence that states which pay high rates have less of a “shortage” than states paying lower rates. Furthermore, as it happens, another group released a report yesterday, the National Council for Adoption. Their press release cites a poll in which foster parents are asked why they quit. The top reasons have nothing to do with money. Rather, they cite lack of support from child welfare agencies and poor relationships with caseworkers. And that is just what one would expect from a group that is, on the whole, generous toward children, in every sense of the term.

But it turns out that CR has almost as much contempt for foster parents as it has for birth parents. Because CR apparently believes foster parents are so greedy that they won’t even buy a foster child a toy unless the government picks up the tab.