Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mayor Fenty makes his priorities clear

    In the wake of another tragedy involving Washington D.C.'s child welfare agency (see previous post to this Blog) Mayor Adrian Fenty wanted to be sure everybody knew one thing above all else. According to a story in today's Washington Post:

"D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who denounced social workers' handling of the Banita Jacks case this year, pointed out that the adoptions were approved before he took office."

And what could possibly be more important than that?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Quick – abolish adoption!

    No, I don't really mean that. On the contrary, although it has often been misused, adoption is a vital component of child welfare, transforming the lives of thousands of children every year. Some birth parents truly are unfit and in many such cases their children really should be adopted.

    But if public and media response to child welfare tragedies were consistent, there would, in fact, be calls to abolish adoption in the wake of a case in the news today.

    It is a case with gruesome and eerie parallels to the case of Banita Jacks, the Washington D.C. mother accused of killing her children and leaving their decomposing bodies in the family home for months. In this new case, The Washington Post reports, the mother allegedly killed two of her children and stashed their bodies in a freezer in the basement. A third child, severely beaten, escaped from the home. In this case, however, the accused is the mother who adopted the children – from the Washington D.C. foster care system.

    After the Jacks case, there was a foster-care panic, a huge rush to take children from their homes – egged on by local media who supported Mayor Adrian Fenty's rush to scapegoat any employee of the D.C. child welfare agency who had come anywhere near the case. And all over the country, horror stories about birth parents killing their children are followed by calls to curb efforts to keep families together.

    So, now that a parallel horror has occurred in an adoptive home, will there be similar calls to rush children back in to their own homes? Will there demands to curb a rush to "adoption at all costs"? Don't bet on it. No, the usual pernicious double standard is likely to kick in: When the accused is a birth parent, it means there's a systemic failure, when it's a foster or adoptive parent, it's a fluke, supposedly fixable by tinkering with background checks or licensing standards.

    In fact, when adoptive parents kill it usually is a fluke – just as when birth parents kill. Though there is strong evidence of an alarmingly high rate of abuse in foster care, the same is not true in adoptive homes; apparently when parents make that extra commitment to adopt, it makes a difference. So, in fact, there shouldn't be a wholesale effort to curb adoption based on this horror story. The kind of consistency I'd like to see would be the kind that acknowledges that both kinds of tragedies are, thank God, extremely rare, and neither should be a basis for setting policy.

    There is one public policy change that should emerge from this tragedy – and one that should not.

    The one that should emerge is a questioning of the practice of paying states and localities bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. The federal government now pays state and local governments up to $8,000 a head for such adoptions. (These are payments to governments – I am not talking here about subsidies to adoptive parents.) So in this most recent case, placing three children in the home of the adoptive mother who allegedly killed two and beat the third may have netted the District of Columbia $24,000. A bill awaiting signature by President Bush includes a provision raising the bounties as high as $13,000 per child in some cases.

The bounties create a clear incentive for quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Indeed, the bounties are at the heart of a scandal that has engulfed the State of Kentucky, involving tearing children needlessly from their own parents to rush them into adoptive homes. NBC Nightly News summed up the scandal well in this story.

    There are two other problems with bounties:

They encourage states to place children with families that may not be able to handle them and don't realize what they're getting into – increasing the risk that the adoption will disrupt. No one really knows how often this happens, because child welfare systems rarely ask questions to which they don't really want to know the answers. But some data are available in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

They have helped create a generation of legal orphans, with no ties to birth parents but no adoption either. The bounties have created a mad rush to terminate parental rights. But terminations are outrunning actual adoptions. That's one reason why the number of children who "age out" of the foster care system with no home at all has increased dramatically since the bounties began.

All of these are greater problems than abuse in adoptive homes – so, in fact, this latest case is not a reason to re-examine the bounties; it's the other problems that demand such a re-examination.

    But instead of looking at the bounties, which are enormously popular politically, there are likely to be calls to demand that adoptive parents be supervised by government in some way. That would be a huge mistake. The whole point of adoption is the message it sends to children: These people are now mom and dad. Period. You are no different in their eyes – or in the eyes of the government – than a child who was born to them. You no longer have to worry that you will be taken away on a moment's notice because some caseworker feels like it. Therefore, adoptive parents should be subject to no greater amount of restriction, regulation or oversight than birth parents. The way to reduce abuse by adoptive parents is to be more careful before the placement, not to stick the child welfare agency's nose into their business afterwards. Otherwise, it's no longer an adoptive home at all; it's just foster care by another name.

    If nothing else, this case illustrates that, whether the accused is an adoptive parent or a birth parent, the worst way to make public policy is based on the latest horror story.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Help wanted: Figurehead

Previously on this Blog, I've discussed how Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's penchant for grandstanding took a fragile child welfare agency and plunged it into chaos, after he fired anyone who had come anywhere near a high-profile tragedy – without regard for whether they actually were at fault. I also noted how, months later, when the head of the child welfare agency finally showed signs of standing up to the Mayor she was promptly fired – and all trace of her existence was removed from the agency website.

Of course, that means D.C. needs to hire a replacement. Get a load of the ad they've posted on the Child Welfare League of America website. The most interesting part is the first paragraph, which reads as follows:

Working as the Director of the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) is an opportunity to work in one of the most rewarding and challenging posts in District government. The Director of CFSA will fulfill Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's commitment to improving outcomes for the District's most vulnerable children and families. Mayor Fenty is looking for an exceptional leader, characterized by innovation and "outside the box" thinking, to motivate and support frontline workers, supervisors and senior management within the agency. The Fenty administration employs individuals who combine energy, enthusiasm, achievement, and an ability to attract and motivate other exceptional people. The administration is less focused on people in similar positions in other cities and more focused on pure talent. Backgrounds in either the public or private sector, characterized by innovation, uncompromised vision, and imagination set candidates apart. The Fenty administration will hold its agency heads accountable in achieving targeted results. Respect for the public trust and the commensurate integrity are mandatory prerequisites. Years of experience will be considered alongside responsiveness, aptitude and adaptability.

I count two uses of the word "child" or "children" (including the name of the agency) and five uses of the word "Fenty" It looks like the primary job responsibility is remaining under the mayor's thumb and saying "how high?" when the mayor says "jump."

Granted, I've seen very few ads for child welfare agency chiefs – but the descriptions of the two comparable jobs advertised on the CWLA site, one running a private agency and one leading the state-run child welfare agency in Georgia, are not drenched in political ego like the D.C. ad. The Georgia ad touts the benefits of living in Georgia, as one might expect, but it doesn't even mention the governor. Granted, too, that politicians are not known for their humility. But does anyone really think the best candidates are going to be attracted to a job like this?

For all previous posts about the D.C. child welfare mess, you can use the search function on this Blog. I'm sure the mayor would be pleased to know you can find them just by typing in "Fenty." "Fenty."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Leave Hitler out of it

    Caseworkers for child protective services agencies can and do come into people's homes and, acting entirely on their own authority, take away those people's children. In the process, they often do very severe, lasting damage to large numbers of children, even though most caseworkers mean well.

    But here are some things that CPS workers do NOT do:

    They do NOT herd those children into cattle cars.

    They do NOT tell the children they are going to take a shower, send them into gas chambers and turn on the Zyklon B.

    They do NOT engage in the systematic, mass extermination of a people.

    And until and unless they start doing these things, no one has any right to call CPS workers Nazis, Gestapo or throw around any of the other Third Reich rhetoric that pollutes the child welfare debate.

    Aside from the fact that such rhetoric is grossly unfair to people who, however wrong they often are, generally are not trying to harm anyone, aside from the fact that invoking Hitler is the surest way to lose all credibility with journalists – many of whom want any excuse to ignore families victimized by CPS -- throwing around the name of Hitler and terms like Gestapo demeans the millions who really were victims of Nazi atrocities; and is an affront to the survivors and their families.

    "But if it happened to you," some might say, "if they took your child, wouldn't you feel like the people who did it were Nazis?" Probably. But the fact that one feels something doesn't make it fact, and doesn't make those feelings any less offensive to those for whom Nazi atrocities were literal truths.

    But there's no need to take my word for it. It was the topic of this excellent video essay by America's foremost broadcast journalist, political commentator and media critic; by which I mean, of course, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Vindications up to 291

    Texas CPS has now dropped cases involving 291 FLDS children, according to The Deseret News, which has been keeping a running count. That means CPS effectively admits that it could have accomplished whatever it was it set out to do without traumatizing those children by throwing them into foster care. There are 147 cases yet to be decided. Only one FLDS child has been returned to foster care.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hey, big spender

(Most links in this Blog entry will take you summaries of news stories in the archive of The Hartford Courant. The Courant charges a fee for the full text).

You hear it all the time. The problems in our child welfare system would be fixed if we just spent more money. But those heartless politicians don't care about children because children don't vote, blah, blah, blah.

There is some truth to it, particularly in states like Texas and Arizona, which are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to child welfare spending. But similar claims are made all over the country, even in states that spend vastly more than the national average. Take Connecticut – please.

Connecticut has been failing to comply with a consent decree to fix its child welfare system for nearly 20 years. (Even if it did comply, it's one of those typically mediocre decrees entered into by the group that arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights so it wouldn't do all that much good.) Every few years there's a new scandal over mistreatment of children in one institution or another, or a judge finds that caseworkers lied to hold a child in foster care and on and on. The state routinely takes away children at a rate well above the rate in model systems.

And yet, Connecticut spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the nation.

Why the apparent contradiction? Because of where the state keeps putting the money. The great paradox of child welfare is that the worse an option is for children, the more it costs. Safe, proven alternatives to foster care cost less than foster homes which cost less than group homes which cost less than institutions. But Connecticut's Department of Children and Families seems to have a fetish about institutionalizing children. They love it! Their response to the first of two foster care panics caused by the state's disgraced former Governor, John Rowland, was to build a series of institutions, parking place shelters for children. And when The Hartford Courant reported that a major study, commissioned by DCF itself, found that the shelters were an expensive failure the agency responded swiftly: It yanked the study off its website.

Later, when pressure built to the point where the state promised to close some of its large institutions, DCF decided to replace them not with keeping children in their own homes or placing them in therapeutic foster homes, but rather with smaller institutions.

It's been the same with juvenile justice. In fact, a corruption scandal over construction of a hideous new juvenile jail forced Rowland out of the governor's office and into a jail cell of his own. (He's now served his time, making the ex-Conn. Governor an ex-con.)

The fanaticism for institutionalization, and for taking children, is so extreme that Connecticut is one of the states that diverts surplus funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) into child abuse investigations and foster care.

TANF is the replacement for Aid to Families with Dependent Children under welfare "reform." TANF funds are supposed to be used to help impoverished families become self-sufficient, by providing things like job training and child care.

But in 2006, the Courant reported, Connecticut diverted more than $100 million in TANF funds from low income child care into child abuse investigations and foster care. In other words, money that could have gone to help poor families find day care was diverted instead into investigating families on "lack of supervision" charges – when they couldn't afford day care.

The most recent scandal involves a state-run psychiatric hospital for children called Riverview. The issue is the use of physical "restraints" – a polite term for anything from grabbing an unruly child to tying him down to a bed with leather or Velcro straps to administering "fast acting medication."

According to the Courant, a report from the state's Child Advocate found that even as other institutions around the country are trying to reduce the use of restraints, at Riverview, their use has doubled in the past 18 months.

And how much does it cost to warehouse children, dope 'em up, and tie 'em down in the name of helping them? A mere $860,000 per child per year. But why stop there? Hold a child at Riverview for 14 months, and the cost will top $1 million. That's got to be some sort of record.

If all this were actually helping the children it would be worth every penny. But there's no evidence that Riverview is doing the children any good. The children would get far more help, at less cost, by using Wraparound programs to bring all the help the children need right into their own homes or foster homes. Heck, for $860,000-per-year-per-child, a psychiatrist and support team could move right in and live with the family.

I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But states like Connecticut give a bad name to those few places that use funds wisely and well. The bottom line is that if you spend very little on child welfare you are guaranteed to have a lousy system. But spending more doesn't guarantee a good one. States like Arizona and Texas need to spend more and spend smarter. Connecticut just needs to spend smarter.

That won't be easy. Not only has the state been plagued with years of leadership in its child welfare agency that's been mediocre or worse, it also has the usual chorus of grandstanding legislators – including one, State Sen. Edward Meyer, who promptly promised to call a hearing in response to the report on Riverview.

But Meyer has a track record of showing no interest in anything beyond grandstanding. He views "permanence" for children solely in terms of adoption. And he has displayed a remarkable double standard on the matter of institutions.

A year ago, DCF finally moved to close another abusive institution, Lake Grove. But there was no praise from Meyer – and no hearings on the abuses at Lake Grove. On the contrary, Meyer dismissed the problems there as "a few mistakes in pharmacological procedures and limited cases of abuse." It's probably just coincidence that Lake Grove was in Meyer's own district.

FOOTNOTE: We'll probably be learning a lot less about the problems at DCF in the future than we have in recent years. Some of the finest child welfare reporting in the country was done by Colin Poitras at the Courant. But a few months ago, like so many other journalists around the country, he resigned.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A guest commentary from “unstrung”

A newspaper in Texas ran a depressingly typical series of stories over the weekend: Almost all birth parents are at best sick at worst evil; children suffer as the taxpayers are forced to lavish services on these dreadful people, etc. etc. In the entire series, the reporter never so much as speaks to an actual birth parent – or if he did, none of the comments appears in any of the stories.

Occasionally, a family who lost their children because of poverty turns up, only to disappear again after a throwaway sentence, leaving lots of questions unanswered and any real insight into the real failings of the system unexplored.

For instance: There's mention of a homeless couple living in a tent. Why doesn't the "service plan" call for the Texas child protective services agency to help them find housing? Or the mother who couldn't afford the bus fare to visit her child. Why not provide the bus fare? Why should a child be deprived of the chance to live with his father because a judge fears that finding a job a car and a place to live will take time away from the almighty cookie-cutter parenting classes that somehow turn up in every "service plan"? Why are requirements related solely to poverty imposed on the father at all? If the reporter were laid off by his newspaper (hardly unthinkable nowadays) and someone repossessed his car, would that be cause to repossess his children? At a minimum, why not help the father find the job, the car and the place to live? And why in God's name should children have to be deprived of their mother because she doesn't have child care so she can raise them while she works?

But none of these questions is raised in the series. To do so would be to distract from the series' "master narrative:" In this series full of stereotypes, the only good birth parent is a groveling birth parent, one who realizes the error of her or his ways, jumps through every hoop and begs for forgiveness – or, better yet, does the only "unselfish" thing an impoverished birth parent can do – give up the child to the obviously superior middle-class foster parents – the people like us.

While the series was filled with horrors about where the children had been, there was barely a word about the harm likely to befall many of them in foster care. In cases where the issue almost always is balancing harms, the reporter gave readers no clue that there were any harms to balance. As far as this reporter is concerned, home is hell and foster care is heaven, simple as that.

So it was left to a reader to set him straight in the comments section on the newspaper's website.

I don't know the reader's name; like most she used a pseudonym, calling herself "unstrung." But instead of spewing venom, as is the norm in newspaper website comment sections, she filled in some of the gaps the reporter missed. I don't agree with everything she wrote, but she came a lot closer to the mark than the journalist. This is her comment [all emphasis in original]:



As I look back on my own childhood, I know that if the times had been different, I would have become a ward of the state. My mother had an anger problem - a bad one. Truthfully, I believe she was mentally ill. But you know what? I loved (and continue to love) my mother dearly. She is a good person, grieved by her own shortcomings.

She was an overly stressed, hard-working single mother (my father was in prison) and I truly believe that she loved me beyond measure; however, when she "punished" she really over did it. Weather it was chopping my hair off, screaming vile insults at me, or whipping me with a switch until I...well, it was difficult.

But, at the same time, she read me bedtime stories, she would rub my back gently with her fingernails, she always kissed me goodbye or goodnight, she was my protector against anyone else who intended me harm, she taught me about a forgiving and merciful God, she taught me so many things. I cannot imagine my life without her. Had the state "intervened on my behalf" and removed me from my dear mother, they would have killed my spirit.

I am now going on 50 years old. I'm a tough cookie, and you can't put much past me. I know there is a lot wrong with this world, and people fall way short of the goal, but there is nothing, nothing like the love of a child for their parent...I don't care how screwed up that parent is. Psychologists call it "protecting the abuser". I choose to call it LOVE IN ACTION.

The truth is, we can't foresee which parent is going to cause irreparable harm or death to a child. Child services has no clue. The courts have no clue. We simply do not know. Sometimes a difficult childhood may kill us...sometimes it makes us better adults. I thank God I had the mother I did. Yes, she could be downright mean at times. And she could also be the most tender, loving individual in the world. Perhaps what should be addressed here is the TOTAL LACK OF DECENT MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR THE POOR IN TEXAS.

Ironically, I am married to a man with (guess what) severe mental illness. He is not abusive to me; however, he cannot hold a job hostage, which causes us a great deal of financial distress. His own mind abuses him worse than anything I've ever endured. We don't have insurance, nor enough money for him to get the help that he so desperately needs. MH/MR is A JOKE AND A SHAM!!!

Our own children are grown - happy, productive, prosperous citizens. But I know many parents are having their children taken from them simply because they are mentally ill and may not even be educated enough to know it.

A typical symptom of mental illness is drug addiction - our bodies will invariably seek out what it needs for survival. In and of themselves, being drug addicted or mentally ill are not sufficient reasons to remove a child from their parents. And VIOLENTLY DANGEROUS parents are not "safe" simply because they passed a drug test.

Urinalysis should not even be an issue in the courtroom. A "dirty" UA does not prove a parent is unfit any more than a "clean" UA proves that a parent is loving. But what urinalysis DOES DO is discriminate against the mentally ill.

How many of us were raised by alcoholic parents? Yes, it sucks at times. But would we have preferred to be wards of the state? NOT ME. Drug addiction is the modern day alcoholism (not that alcoholism has become obsolete by any means). The mentally ill, the drug addicted, and the alcoholic can all be very loving people.

LOVE conquers every evil. Let's fight for LOVE. If our society would get off of this money-driven "war on drugs" thing and actually TREAT THE DISEASE then perhaps we could actually enhance the lives of our citizens - adults and children alike.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Another kind of vindication

    Every few days I've been noting the number of additional families vindicated in the FLDS case in Texas. (The number of children whose parents effectively have been cleared now is up to 268). But there was vindication of another sort in Washington D.C. yesterday. An arbitrator ruled that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was wrong to fire three social workers who had some involvement in the case of the children of Banita Jacks. (See the previous Blog entry).

    The Washington Post reports that the arbitrator ordered the union workers reinstated, with full back pay plus interest, and he ordered the firings expunged from the workers' records. The City plans to appeal. Three others also were fired, but they are management and so have no protection from mayoral grandstanding.

    The decision reveals that the mayor's behavior was even worse than previously known. He didn't just swing his ax wildly, firing the workers with no investigation. In fact, he and his henchmen went through the trouble of dredging up technicalities to use as excuses for the dismissals. Said the arbitrator: "Basic notions of fairness and due process have not been met in this case." He added: "Not only had the Mayor ordered their dismissal without any investigation, it is undisputed that he issued a further order prohibiting any consideration of [a] hearing officer's [earlier] recommendation to overturn the dismissals."

    The decision is a rebuke not only to the Mayor, whose actions, as the Post story put it, "began a downward spiral in an agency still recovering from years of problems," it's also a de-facto condemnation of all those who recklessly cheered on the Mayor at the expense of the city's vulnerable children, back when he first fired the workers.

    And it's not just in child welfare where the chickens are coming home to roost. Post columnist Colbert King has a scathing column about a court hearing where a judge excoriated Fenty and other city officials for failing to abide by a consent decree to help another vulnerable population, students in need of special education.

The tragedy of Adrian Fenty is not just that he's a serial grandstander – that can be said about many pols. The special tragedy of Fenty is that he seems incapable of anything else.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

There’s no such thing as a “stop loss” in child welfare

    That's the thing about working in child welfare in Washington, D.C. (or anywhere else). It's not like joining the National Guard and getting shipped to Iraq. If the mayor treats you like dirt, tars you and all your colleagues with the same broad brush, and makes clear he'll fire anyone anytime he wants, with or without cause, if he thinks he'll benefit politically – then people are likely to look for work elsewhere. In droves.

    The Washington Post reports that, in the months after the Mayor made scapegoats out of every worker who came anywhere near the Banita Jacks case, 59 social workers – about one quarter of the workforce – resigned. This at the same time as the foster-care panic instigated by the mayor increased the number of calls to the hotline, the number of cases investigated, and the number of children torn from their families.

    It's still more evidence that the only accomplishment of Mayor Adrian Fenty's exercise in crass political expedience has been to put D.C.'s children in more danger.