Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For once, a tough act to follow in Florida

For the first time in nearly a decade, a new Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families will have a tough act to follow.

DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, who resigned today (July 29), demanded common sense and a sense of urgency from everyone at DCF. He led by example. He understood it is only common sense that the more you overload a child welfare system with false reports, trivial cases, and children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, the less time you have to find children in real danger. He understood it is only common sense to work to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty instead of confusing that poverty with "neglect." He understood it is only common sense that there can be no child protection without family preservation.

Most important, General Butterworth (the title the former state Attorney General prefers) listened. He listened to the current and former foster children who told him how devastating it was to them to lose their families.

Under General Butterworth's leadership, Florida saw its first significant decline in entries into foster care since 1998 – with no compromise of child safety. Indeed, regions that did more to keep families together tended to do better on key child safety outcomes. (For details see NCCPR's Florida Rate-of-Removal Index.)

The new secretary, whoever she or he may be, must do exactly what Bob Butterworth urged in his resignation letter: "Keep it going." That new secretary also will have to focus intense attention on the biggest remaining "problem child" within DCF itself – the Fort Myers region, where an ongoing foster-care panic has torn apart hundreds of families needlessly and dramatically worsened child safety.

In his resignation letter, General Butterworth said that DCF has become "a national leader in protecting children and nurturing families." That's a bit of an exaggeration. Florida is not yet a national leader. But it is no longer a national disgrace. And Bob Butterworth deserves enormous credit for that.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More than enough “contempt” to go around

The group of adults that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) wants a federal court to hold Washington D.C. in contempt because the District has failed repeatedly to live up to terms of an agreement to fix its child welfare system.

    It's not clear what this will accomplish, since no one knows what remedy the court might impose if, indeed, it finds D.C. in contempt. But at least it almost certainly won't make things worse. Washington was held in contempt before, in 1994. That time the court put the entire child welfare system into receivership, and it was run by a court-appointed receiver. In the 20 years since this litigation began the period of receivership and the time just afterwards, when the District was still "on probation" and had to be on its best behavior, were the only times the district's child welfare system actually improved.

    So if there is another receivership, odds are things will get better again – if only because everyone from top administrators to frontline workers won't have to live in constant fear of Mayor Adrian Fenty's grandstanding as he tries to score political points by making them scapegoats.

    But legal definitions aside, the city is not the only entity that has shown contempt for Washington's vulnerable children.

    Aside from Fenty himself, no one was in a better position to stop the system from spiraling into chaos than the people at CR. They had to know this was going to happen. They had to know that Fenty's Queen of Hearts response to the tragedy of the Jacks children, whose bodies were discovered in January - his firing of anyone who had come anywhere near the case – would set off a huge foster-care panic. They had to know the panic would drown workers in so many cases that it would be impossible for them to do their jobs. Yet they remained silent for more than six months.

    What could they have done? In court, perhaps, not much. You can't go marching into court and say: "Your honor, precedent from all over the country tells us that, because of how Mayor Fenty responded to the Banita Jacks case the entire system will collapse in six months – so please hold them in contempt now."

    But CR takes pride in working its will through media as much as through the courts. Very early in her career CR's executive director, Marcia Lowry, was a reporter, and she likes to say she still is. Had CR raised hell early on, had CR condemned Fenty's approach in the wake of the Jacks case, had CR insisted on a rational method of screening the influx of calls to the D.C. hotline, had CR condemned the foster-care panic and demanded that it stop, had CR said it wouldn't tolerate a take-the-child-and-run response to the Jacks tragedy, and had CR used its media-savvy to put these points across, the system almost certainly would not have collapsed. Untold numbers of children would have been saved from the trauma of needless foster care – and others would have been saved from abusive parents, because caseworkers would have had the time to make better decisions.

     But it's been a long, long time since CR was a progressive force in child welfare. The group is so much a part of the establishment that its board once was chaired by corporate raider Carl Icahn. (See The Children wronged by Children's Rights) CR is as much a captive of a take-the-child-and-run mentality as Mayor Fenty. Faced with a stark choice of reconsidering its anti-family bias or seeing the D.C. system collapse, it said nothing about curbing the foster-care panic while the D.C. system collapsed.

    The bias is reflected in the contempt motion itself. The motion complains about the Washington system's failure to live up to commitments concerning getting children adopted. But there is not a word about the system's failure to keep families together, and its failure to reunify families.

    At one point, the motion complains about the District's failure to live up to its agreement concerning visits between caseworkers and children, caseworkers and parents, and siblings. But it says nothing about another vitally important form of visitation – visits between children and parents. And while the motion lists several reasons why visits are important, it omits any reference to their importance for reunification.

    As I said, CR was a better organization long ago than it is now. And the D.C. litigation is so old that the underlying agreements actually are better than anything CR likely would negotiate today. The D.C. decree also has a particularly good court monitor. So even with all the problems in CR's approach, holding the system in contempt just might do some good.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A sensible way to deal with alleged criminals

    It seems that in Texas, they've discovered an amazing new way to deal with alleged criminals who allegedly engage in criminal acts of child abuse: the criminal justice system. Yes, now that higher courts have stopped Child Protective Services from persecuting the alleged victims in the FLDS case, law enforcement is going to try prosecuting alleged perpetrators.

    Five members of the FLDS have been indicted on what The Salt Lake Tribune calls "charges related to sexual assaults on underage girls." What a novel approach! Guilt or innocence determined by actual evidence. Children protected by removing the alleged abuser from the home instead of the child.

    I've said from day one that the issue in the FLDS case is not religion, the issue is child rape. If children were raped, the rapists should be tried, convicted and sent to jail. That way, children are protected without having to endure the emotional torment – and risk of abuse – of foster care. And children are protected without having to be separated from their mothers.

    There is always the risk, of course, that in some twisted quest for vengeance against a sect that made them look like idiots, Texas authorities also will go after the mothers on "failure to report child abuse" charges. They've already done that with one of the men. But if the allegations in the FLDS case are true, many of the mothers were rape victims themselves. No one has ever satisfactorily explained when, exactly, a woman – or a girl – living on the FLDS compound goes from "vic" to "perp." If, in fact, the needs of children are paramount, Texas will put those needs ahead of any quest to get even with the mothers.

    And who knows? Maybe this whole go-after-the-alleged-abuser-instead-of-the-victims idea will catch on.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Straight down the memory hole

Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty announced the resignation of the director of the Child and Family Services Administration, Sharlynn Bobo, on Wednesday night – in part because the agency can't seem to do anything efficiently.

Well, not quite.

According to the trade journal Youth Today: "By Thursday, Bobo's biography had been removed from the agency's website, as had the summary of the executive staff. Also removed was the press release detailing the agency's contacts with the five-month-old and his family." This is a reference to the case in which, for the first time since January, CFSA refused to scapegoat a frontline caseworker after a high-profile tragedy. That was one of Bobo's last acts before her "resignation."

Meanwhile, the city's attorney general, Peter Nickles, who, with Fenty, has really been calling the shots all along, insisted to The Washington Post that all the problems at the agency are temporary, and resulted from events following the Jacks family tragedy in January. The chair of the relevant D.C. Council committee, Tommy Wells, was even worse, suggesting on WAMU Public Radio's Kojo Nnamdi Show Friday that the agency was almost entirely fixed and functioning splendidly before the Jacks case.

Leaving aside the fact that the events since January were made vastly worse by the bungling of Fenty and Nickles, and the grandstanding of Wells, the claim is contradicted by one report after another from the independent court-appointed monitor overseeing the system. Yes, there was progress, but reports repeatedly cited continuing, serious problems. One example: the report in November, 2007, two months before the discovery of the deaths of the Jacks children, in which the monitor singled out issues requiring "immediate and intensive action."

Now, both Fenty and Wells, are rushing to embrace recommendations from the court monitor – selectively. They like the ones that just involve throwing caseworkers at the problem, but apparently have no interest in anything that actually would require CFSA to change the way the agency does business. And of course they've ignored the most important part of the monitor's recent Council testimony – the part where she says:

"The District of Columbia will never have enough child protective services investigators if the only response to an overwhelmed family is a call to the Hotline and the removal or threatened removal of a child from his or her family."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dog bites man

Yesterday morning, I noted that Washington D.C.'s Child and Family Services Administration actually had responded to a child welfare tragedy by not firing the caseworker. I said the agency even seemed to be rushing out a statement in order to stop Mayor Adrian Fenty from wielding his ax. In short, it looked like CFSA Director Sharlynn Bobo was standing up for her workers and standing up to the mayor. By yesterday afternoon, WAMU, Washington's public radio station, reported that the mayor was equivocating just a bit in his previously unequivocal support for Bobo. Last night, the mayor announced that he had accepted Bobo's resignation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Man bites dog!

…or the equivalent in Washington, D.C. The headline on a story in today's Washington Post could have been: "Child Dies; Caseworker Not Scapegoated!" Yes, it really happened. D.C.'s Child and Family Services Administration rushed out a statement defending the caseworker in the most recent tragedy, in which a five-month-old infant died while sleeping on a sofa with his 15-year-old mother. According to one public official, the mother may have accidentally rolled over on the infant while they slept.

CFSA acted so quickly to defend the worker that I have to wonder if they were trying to get the word out before Mayor Adrian Fenty could fire her. Yes, according to the agency, the worker did everything right, but remember, according to Fenty, that doesn't matter. If a child dies, and CFSA knew about the child, the mayor says, "there can be no excuses."

And, indeed, had anyone wanted to fire the worker it would have been easy. To borrow a phrase from Maine foster parent Mary Callahan, who applied it to how workers often treat birth parents, there were plenty of "gotcha moments" in this case if the mayor wanted to take advantage of them. According to the Post:

A report came April 29 that "an infant was not getting regular checkups." CFSA gave this account: The social worker visited the home the next day and the following day, May 1, and left information on the door about contacting her, because no one was home. That Sunday, [two days later] the boy's maternal grandfather called the social worker on her cellphone, and the social worker saw the family [another two days later] May 5.

Now, think back to the Banita Jacks case. The caseworker there did even more. Responding to a report from a school social worker, she went to the home, found no one home and left a note. Later, after the school social worker called in another report, a police officer went to the home and found nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the caseworker returned – with police – the following day, but no one answered. The next day the caseworker tried again.

So apparently the worker in the Jacks case tried even more than the caseworker in the most recent tragedy. Yet the worker in the Jacks case was raked over the coals in the media – and fired – for not doing more.

One could argue that the Jacks case was different because the allegations in the original reports to the child abuse hotline in that case were more serious. But that is counterbalanced by the fact that law enforcement investigated and found no problem - something the "gotcha gang" has almost willfully ignored since that case became public.

Indeed, had the child in this most recent case died on any day between May 1 and May 5, odds are the worker would have been fired this time as well. And no one would be saying she'd done enough because the allegation was less serious.

Here's what actually happened next, according to the Post:

[During the May 5 visit, the caseworker] found that the mother and her child had not received medical checkups since birth and that the mother and a sibling did not go to school regularly. The social worker also saw that the child had been sleeping in a car seat and got the mother to agree to place the infant on his back in a bassinet. She contacted a local program to get a crib and set up medical care for the infant, the mother and her sibling. This included a May 30 home visit from two registered nurses to talk about infant care. By June 2, the social worker found that the family had gotten a portable crib on its own.

Very good work, particularly in light of the enormous caseloads facing most CFSA workers. But did anyone keep checking to see if the mother was using the crib?

And, of course, there's still another question: The worker apparently did everything she should have done – in this case. But how many other cases does she have? If she has more than 20 or 30, odds are there's some other case where she hasn't been able to do everything she should. What if the child who died had been from one of those cases? Gotcha!

We'll know the scapegoating has really ended and real reform can begin when there is a tragedy and CFSA puts out a statement like this:

"The worker in this case has an outstanding track record, repeatedly going the extra mile for children and families. But this time, she simply had so many cases that she couldn't get to the one where a child died. We refuse to respond by throwing her to the wolves."

The day that happens is the first day CFSA will move toward having fewer tragedies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nauseous or nauseating?

The single most important comment about the current crisis in Washington, D.C. child welfare came at a public hearing yesterday. Actually, it might be the most important comment about any child welfare system. It came from Judith Meltzer, the monitor appointed by a federal court to oversee a consent decree concerning child welfare in the District. Here's what she said:

"The District of Columbia will never have enough child protective services investigators if the only response to an overwhelmed family is a call to the Hotline and the removal or threatened removal of a child from his or her family."

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty should read that quote first thing every morning. So should every governor in states where child welfare is state run. So should every county executive where counties are in charge. And so should every leader of a child welfare system.

Meltzer also presented data at the hearing which make clear that the impact of the foster-care panic caused by the mayor in the wake of the discovery of the deaths of four children in January is even worse than I'd thought. What should scare the heck out of everyone is Table 1 in her written testimony, which looks at a few of what might best be called "canary in the mineshaft" indicators - things that are absolutely basic, easy to quantify, and vital to keeping children safe. Performance on these indicators hasn't just declined, it's plummeted.

So it should come as no surprise that still another child has died in a case "known to the system" in Washington.

But all we've seen in response is more posturing; particularly from the chair of the relevant committee of the D.C. Council, Tommy Wells, who said: "I feel like throwing up."

I know the feeling. But here's what makes me feel like throwing up: Self-indulgent, chest-thumping, grandstanding politicians who at best were AWOL as the D.C. Child and Family Services Administration descended into chaos and at worst threw gasoline on the fires of foster care panic.

Wells also called the latest tragedy (actually second-to-latest, this was before he knew about the case revealed late yesterday) "unfortunately a predictable result" of the current crisis.

No kidding. But if it's so predictable, why didn't Wells do anything to stop it?

Where was he before the bodies of the children of Banita Jacks were discovered in January, when he received report after report from the court monitor about the huge problems at CFSA – including those that required immediate action?

And where was he afterwards, when the entirely-predictable foster care panic began?

-- Why didn't he call on the mayor to reassure mandated reporters that, while they should call the hotline when they have reasonable cause to suspect maltreatment, they should not call in anything and everything just to protect themselves from censure, dismissal or prosecution?

-- Why didn't he call on the mayor to have CFSA create a rational system for screening calls to the hotline – one in which operators politely ask careful, open-ended questions. According to an annual federal survey, nationwide, more than 38 percent of all calls are screened out – even though typically the criteria for screening out a call are, in fact, far too strict. In D.C. ten only ten percent of calls are screened out, and, by some accounts the figure is even lower. (The federal data are available here: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm06/table2_1.htm )

Yes, if you do this, you may miss some cases in which children are in real danger. But you miss more cases now, by inundating workers with so many cases that some files just sit on workers' desks. There will always be screening in child welfare. The choice isn't screening vs. no screening, the choice is rational screening vs. irrational screening.

--Why didn't Wells tell the mayor to wield his ax, as needed, after investigating carefully and drawing distinctions, instead of simply firing anyone who came anywhere near the Jacks case. That led to the surge in needless removal of children from homes that were safe or could have been made safe, even as it also led to leaving more children in danger. That, more than anything else, led to the current crisis; and Tommy Wells did nothing to stop it.

--And Wells is still copping out – saying he's lost confidence in CFSA Director Sharlynn Bobo as though somehow she is relevant. Bobo is a figurehead. Mayor Fenty makes the firing decisions, Mayor Fenty accelerated the panic. But clearly, for Wells, Fenty is untouchable.

Of course some might argue Fenty was right this time, because in the case of Isiah Garcia, the worker handling that case had been suspended two years earlier. That's possible. I've said from day one that I don't know if the workers in this case and the Jacks case deserved to be fired – but neither does the mayor.

On the other hand, according to a good story in The Washington Post, backlog was an issue when the worker was suspended in 2006 as well. It's also possible that the worker could have done good work in some other part of CFSA had she been transferred. Or she might have been able to do her job better had she gotten good supervision – instead of no supervision. And, of course, it is not a great idea to take a worker you already know can't keep up with a backlog and hand her 50 cases.

Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor, said the mayor "cannot wish this problem away." He can't threaten it away either. The only way this problem will be solved is if CFSA somehow can be made a Fenty-free zone.

But until that happens, even the monitor's own short-term recommendations won't work. (Her long-term ideas are excellent).

The short term ideas revolve around bringing in more people to investigate all the cases that have piled up. Transfer people from other parts of CFSA, bring in retired caseworkers, have supervisors and administrators investigate cases, raise pay for people willing to work for CFSA, and so on.

But as long as every worker is terrified of being "Fentied" - made a scapegoat and being fired if something goes wrong regardless of actual fault - then there will be no other response. All the new workers will be chasing ever more new cases and all you'll wind up with is the same lousy system, only bigger. (This is, in fact, pretty much what has happened in Texas, for example, over the past four years).

--Imagine how much more morale is going to plummet if you start forcing people in other jobs to do these investigations - and then fire them whenever something goes wrong, regardless of actual fault. You could ask for volunteers, of course, but you're not likely to get many when they know they're putting their careers on the line.

--As for offering more pay: How much more money would you need to be paid to play Russian Roulette with your job?

The new hiring and transferring and temporary assignments will work only if they are accompanied by two things:

--That rational method to screen calls to the hotline mentioned above.

--Some mechanism to insulate the department from the mayor's serial grandstanding.

That would require one of three things to happen, each admittedly highly unlikely:

--Sharlynn Bobo would have to stand up to her boss, the mayor at which point she would, of course be fired. Her replacement then would have to stand up to the mayor as well, until firing successive CFSA chiefs became politically untenable. (Think of Watergate and Nixon's "Saturday night massacre.")

--The court could order the mayor out of the hiring and firing process. That would require plaintiffs in the current court case governing Washington child welfare to go to court and ask the court to insulate hiring and firing from the mayor. Given that the suit was brought by Children's Rights – a group which seems to have no problem with foster-care panics - that's unlikely to happen.

--The mayor needs to figure out that he was wrong, apologize and promise to stay out of hiring and firing decisions at CFSA. That's probably least likely of all.

Actually there is a fourth possibility - and maybe the only hope. The public has to change its mind about the mayor's Queen of Hearts approach to management. The mayor has essentially acknowledged that he is playing to the crowd. If the mayor's constituents decide that, having seen what happened the first time, having seen it backfire, they're not going to be fooled again, if they make clear they know the difference between accountability and scapegoating, then the mayor is likely to back off.

I'd like the mayor to do the right thing because it's right; but I'd gladly settle for having him do the right thing because it's become popular.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

UPDATED JULY 13: “Washington” vs. “D.C.”

UPDATE: If the account in this story from The Washington Post is accurate, the family at the center of this latest tragedy is exactly the sort of family that could have been helped by longstanding reforms planned for the Washington, D.C. child welfare system. But the reforms have been delayed for years. And now, thanks to Mayor Fenty's penchant for serial grandstanding, the city's child welfare system has gone from agonizingly slow progress to moving full-speed backwards.


My previous post dealt with the latest child welfare tragedy in Washington, D.C. It recapped the appalling response of Mayor Adrian Fenty to a previous tragedy, the deaths of the children of Banita Jacks – a response that boiled down to shouting "Off with their heads!" The Mayor fired anyone who had come anywhere near the case, without regard to whether they'd actually done anything wrong. Of course that only exacerbated the foster-care panic that followed the tragedy itself. Of course caseloads soared. Of course, when a caseworker has a caseload that has surged to 50 – that's fifty – s/he may not be able to make face to face contact in every case the way s/he should. And of course, that can lead to another tragedy.

That may well be what happened in Washington, D.C. A story in today's Washington Post suggests that, as in the case of Banita Jacks, without benefit of hindsight, this was a case that needed attention, but not necessarily one that should have been placed at the top of a pile of 50 cases. But of course that didn't stop Fenty from playing to the crowd again and, once again, immediately firing the caseworker.

Scapegoating the frontline worker is nothing new, of course. Indeed, it's pretty close to standard operating procedure. What was different in the Jacks case was the extent to which Fenty was praised for it. There's no way to underestimate the joy in parts of the city. One could almost imagine people running through the streets rapturously shouting to each other: "Have you heard? Have you heard? They fired someone! They fired someone!"

Why such rapture? I think it has to do with the unusual demographics of Washington, D.C. Those demographics create continual conflict between what are really two cities; call them "Washington" and "D.C."

Washington is populated by an extraordinary power elite – a concentration of high-powered federal officials, diplomats, lobbyists – and journalists – greater per square mile than any American city. (New York, after all, is a lot bigger.) These are people used to getting what they want, when they want it. D.C. is populated by the working class people who make the city function – or not. D.C. resents Washington's alleged arrogance and sense of entitlement, while Washington hates D.C's alleged laziness and incompetence.

Where do the two cities, and their mutual resentments, meet? Places like the Department of Motor Vehicles – or anyplace else Washington has to go to get some basic document or service from D.C.

I've lived across the Potomac for about 12 years, and the tales of dreadful service by D.C. civil service are legend. Think of the very worst experience you've ever had with "customer service" – the kind where the person who's kept you on hold for 20 minutes knows he's giving you a hard time and then twists the knife by ending the conversation with "have a nice day" – and you get an idea of what it's said to be like. And to top it off, to add to the fury – no one ever gets fired. That's the legend. How much of it is real and how much of it is that sense of entitlement, I don't know. But there is a palpable fury at civil servants in Washington beyond what may exist elsewhere.

So in the Jacks case, Mayor Fenty played to the resentments of Washington brilliantly with his obscene display of grandstanding. It seemed as though every resident of Washington who ever felt mistreated by D.C. was thinking: "It's payback time!" That might explain the sheer viciousness of the Washington Post editorial endorsing the Jacks case firings, an editorial which suggested that everyone at the D.C. child welfare agency was lazy and/or incompetent -- Washington's classic stereotype of D.C.

And the rush of sheer joy at the fact that, at long last "they fired someone!" overwhelmed everything else, including what the mass firings might do to children caught up in the system, almost all of whom, after all, come not from Washington, but from D.C.

Yet now, the Mayor has pulled the same stunt again, apparently counting on Washington to be more interested in another rush of vicarious payback than in the fact that it's vulnerable children who really will be forced to pay. Indeed, according to the Post, Fenty claims he rushes to fire people because, in the Post's words "that is what constituents demand." I think the people of Washington and D.C. are better than that. After all, we all know the proverb that begins "fool me once, shame on you…"

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The definition of insanity…

…is, of course doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that definition, a story in today's Washington Post proves that the administration of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is certifiable.

Let's review:

The decomposed bodies of four children, allegedly killed by a mother who apparently went mad, are found on January 9. The D.C. Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA), knew about the family. They had chances to save the children, though some of those chances are apparent only in hindsight. At the crucial turning point in the case, a social worker might have been lazy – or she might simply have had too many other cases that looked more urgent. At precisely the time when horror and fury needed to be channeled into real solutions, the mayor opts to yell "off with their heads!" instead, and fires anyone who came anywhere near the case. The head of CFSA, Sharlynn Bobo, stands with the mayor when she should be standing up to him. For details see: Return of the Queen of Hearts and The floggings will continue until morale improves.

The thought of a civil servant in D.C. actually getting fired sends such paroxysms of joy through the city's power elite that their feelings of vicarious revenge for anything that's ever happened to them at, say, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, overwhelms any other consideration – such as whether the mass firings of people without first finding out if they actually did anything wrong will plunge the agency into chaos. And sadly, CFSA is never all that far from chaos to begin with. (The war between the power elite and the civil service in D.C. is something I'll try to get to in a future post.) The Post offers up a vicious editorial suggesting that everyone who works for CFSA is lazy, incompetent or both. And the chair of the relevant City Council committee, Tommy Wells, proves that, to steal a line originally used about a certain U.S. Senator, the most dangerous space in D.C. is the distance between Tommy Wells and a television camera and/or reporter's notebook.

The mass firings do indeed plunge CFSA into chaos. CFSA is perhaps the only child welfare agency in America to require that every caseworker have an MSW degree. Workers who know that MSWs are very much in demand in child welfare and they can get jobs elsewhere leave to get jobs elsewhere. Social work graduates CFSA wants to recruit say "no, thanks." Meanwhile, every "mandated reporter" terrified of being blamed for the next horror story calls in anything and everything to D.C.'s child abuse hotline. So even as children are traumatized, sometimes, perhaps, for life, by needless foster care, and even as they are placed at considerable risk of abuse in foster care itself, average caseloads for CFSA workers soar from 12 to 20 – with many carrying more than 30 cases.

All of this was laid out on June 3 in this excellent story in the Post. The story virtually predicted what would happen next. And now it's confirmed:

Another caseworker tries to reach a family where abuse is suspected by phone two or three times. But once again, as in the case last January, the caseworker never makes face-to-face contact. Another child dies. It's all in the Post today.

So guess how Mayor Fenty responds? He fires the caseworker. The supervisor is merely placed on leave (perhaps the mayor's way of showing he's acquired a sense of nuance?)

As is true with the workers in the previous case, I can't tell you for sure that the mayor is wrong. Maybe in this instance the caseworker was lazy; sitting around with her or his feet up on the desk shooting the breeze, when s/he should have been knocking on the family's door. Or maybe s/he was simply too overwhelmed to get to every case. Support for the latter theory comes from the fact that this worker reportedly had a caseload of 50 – that's fifty – and had not made contact with the children in 17 of those 50 cases.

And here comes Tommy Wells, promising to hold a hearing on Monday and demanding to know "How did this happen…?"

How did it happen, Councilmember Wells? Read that Post story from June 3; it explains exactly how it happened. It happened because, while it can happen in any child welfare system at any time, you made it more likely to happen in D.C. now – you, and Sharlynn Bobo and, especially, the mayor.

And the mayor already has set in motion events which, if they're not stopped, make it even more likely to happen again.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Does D.A. stand for Disingenuous Always?

Readers of this Blog know there's been considerable controversy in Kansas lately concerning comments made by the Secretary of the State Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Don Jordan. He accused the District Attorney's office in the state's largest county, Sedgwick, of bullying, yelling at, screaming at, cussing at, and threatening SRS caseworkers in order to get them to hype the allegations against families contained in affidavits presented to the court. When Jordan found out his comments would become public he begged forgiveness from the D.A. and claimed he'd merely been pandering to the group he was meeting with, Citizens for Change.

The comments prompted another Kansas group, Sunflower Community Action to protest at the home of the District Attorney, Nola Foulston. Some of the protestors became loud and nasty – and other protestors, to their considerable credit, calmed them down.

But about a month later, when protestors turned up at a campaign event for Foulston, the D.A. allegedly showed no such restraint, reportedly cursing at the protest leader. Later, Foulston invited some of the parents to meet with her – but even in the invitation, she couldn't resist a sarcastic aside about the earlier protests. All this is recounted in a story in today's Wichita Eagle.

After reading the story, I don't know which is more appalling, Foulston's disingenuousness or her immaturity.

In essence, her response to every concern raised by these anguished mothers boils down to: "Not my problem." She repeatedly tells the mothers to go get better representation from their lawyers. But it's not as if these mothers are able to choose their lawyers and give them fat retainers.

When you're indigent you have to take the lawyer you're assigned. And all over the country that's going to be either:

--A grossly overwhelmed public defender with no time to deal seriously with the case.
--A grossly overwhelmed lawyer from a firm with which the court has a contract, with no time to deal seriously with the case.
--A grossly overwhelmed lawyer who takes these cases on the side to make a few extra bucks, and has neither the time nor the inclination to deal seriously with the case.
--A solo practitioner operating out of his briefcase who needs a huge volume of these low-paying cases to make ends meet and so will have neither… well, you get the idea.

A crucial issue raised by the mothers was inaccurate information in petitions presented to judges at the first court hearing after their children had been taken. At this hearing, judges must decide whether to approve the removal after-the-fact. Of course they almost always do.

The first thing Foulston did was essentially admit that often the petitions are inaccurate. She told the mothers that because there supposedly is not enough time to draw them up, they often contain "boilerplate" paragraphs which may not be accurate representations of a specific case. But in Kansas, prosecutors have 72 hours before that first hearing, plenty of time for an assistant district attorney to review a case and write up an accurate petition dealing with the specific circumstances of that case. There is no excuse for inaccurate "boilerplate" paragraphs – and no excuse for judges accepting petitions that contain such paragraphs. After all, we know from Don Jordan that the assistant district attorneys have plenty of time to, shall we say, talk the case over with SRS workers before the hearing.

Foulston says all the responsibility rests with these terrified overwhelmed birth parents. They're supposed to spot the errors and demand that their court-appointed lawyers challenge them. But aside from all the problems noted above, there's another: Parents may not even meet their lawyer until minutes before, or sometimes after the first hearing – so how in the world can they challenge what's in the petitions at that hearing?

Of course there are exceptions, dedicated self-sacrificing attorneys and those who work for legal aid and legal services agencies which may take a small number of cases. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, a parent can walk into court with a cardboard cutout of a man in a three-piece suit and get about as much representation as impoverished parents get in these cases. Nola Foulston knows it. And no one in Kansas is in a better position to change it if she wants to.

Imagine what power it would have if Nola Foulston herself went to Topeka and demanded that the legislature fund an institutional provider of defense counsel for indigent families, counsel with a passion for the job, low caseloads, and support staff to challenge the boilerplate and devise their own alternative case plans – plans that would give families what they really need instead of endless hoops to jump through.

They have such a program in many counties in Washington State. (It's described in detail in NCCPR's Kansas report). And the Washington State Attorney General's office, which does what D.A.'s do in Kansas in these cases, strongly supports it. New York City is setting up such programs as well – with the strong support of the City's child welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services.

That's because Nola Foulston's counterparts in these communities know it's not a matter of getting "bad parents" off – rather, it gets cases that don't need to be in court out of the system quickly, giving everyone more time to focus on children in real danger. It gets families the help they really need so children don't have to endure the agony of needless foster care. And when parents really are partially at fault, a good lawyer can persuade a parent to do what she needs to do while demanding the help she needs to do it.

We'll know that Nola Foulston is serious about justice for children when she is ready to demand enough funding to provide real justice for families.

The other issue here is maturity. If anyone has cause to lose their temper it is someone who is in anguish over the fate of her children, taken from her and placed in the chaos of foster care. If anyone should be able to keep her temper under control, even when provoked, it's someone with all the power of law enforcement behind her who also is a community leader charged with setting an example. Yet the Eagle story makes clear that it was one such parent, Annette Jones, who displayed calm and maturity throughout, acknowledging the misbehavior of some of her own fellow protestors, while Foulston sank to sarcastic asides in her invitation to the meeting, and even, reportedly, to shouting curses at a protest leader at another event. "Cussing," by the way, is one of the things Don Jordan said the assistant district attorneys do when they bully his caseworkers. If that is, indeed, happening, could they be learning by example?

In the story, Foulston is quoted telling the parents that "It is not my purpose to fly over Sedgwick County on a broom, removing children from their families." But when you've got the full power of the police behind you and judges who will rubber stamp anything, who needs a broom?