Sunday, March 30, 2008

When the crusade passes by

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how it looks as though there’s finally been some significant improvement in Florida. Statewide, the number of children taken from their parents in 2007 declined 19 percent from 2006, the first real decline in nearly a decade.

But I also wrote that “even now, things are not going well everywhere. [Former Gov.] Jeb Bush’s strategy of decentralizing blame has paid off. The panics that follow high-profile tragedies now tend to be confined to one region.

“So what would happen if, in one region, such a tragedy caught the eye of the local newspaper? And what if, in that region, the leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families and the privatized lead agency was particularly weak? And what if, in that very same region, you had a newspaper columnist who publicly declared that the role model for his approach to covering child welfare is a demagogue, and a fictional one at that?

What would happen is that the region’s children would become a whole lot less safe. And that is exactly what has happened in the region around Fort Myers in Southwest Florida thanks to a succession of poor leaders, thanks to the largest newspaper in the area, the Fort Myers News-Press and thanks to a News-Press columnist.

As usual, the intentions were good. The paper’s crusade, now entering its third year, has been drenched in earnestness. It was touching when one editorial writer appeared genuinely shocked that a third child known-to-the-system has died – in spite of everything the newspaper had done.

The News-Press is far from the worst example. They’re actually more tolerant of dissent than many newspapers – as long as the dissent doesn’t run to criticizing the newspaper itself. They’ve run several op ed columns from NCCPR and our annual reports decrying the panic get covered – so far, anyway.

And now and then there’s been some remarkably insightful news coverage – even a major story that noted, albeit gingerly, how the News-Press itself contributed to a mass exodus of caseworkers that helped plunge the child welfare agency into chaos. (Unfortunately, the story produced only a bunker-mentality reaction at the editorial page.)

The newspaper tried to go beyond writing stories, convening various gatherings to try to find solutions. But the gatherings always left out birth parents – or anyone who represented them. So instead of solutions, all they got were clich├ęs.

Good intentions don’t make children safer. Sometimes, they put children in more danger. And the crusade at the News-Press is a classic example.

Two years ago, the Fort Myers region was performing badly, but not as badly as most in Florida. It took children at a proportionately lower rate – and it generally did better at keeping children safe.

Then came the horrifying death of Michelle Fontanez. It wasn’t just that there were ample warnings that Michele was in danger, there was allegedly a special callousness in the response of a worker assigned to the case. Told of strong evidence Michelle was in danger, the worker allegedly replied: “Not my problem.”

So the outrage from the News-Press was even greater than usual – and another newspaper children’s crusade was off and running. Unfortunately, the outrage was expressed in all the usual ways: News stories that regurgitated conventional wisdom and reinforced the impression that the kinds of mistakes made in this case are the only kind that agencies make and the only real problem is the failure to move more quickly to take away more children. So of course there was a foster care panic.

Just about everything about the coverage was predictable. After a year of bashing caseworkers, editors began to feel guilty so they assigned what I have come to call the “national model worker story.” The term comes from Mao’s China, where such stories were published to inspire the masses. In the child welfare version, a reporter follows around a caseworker hand-picked by the child welfare agency for her inspiring passion and dedication and learns that the workers are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” and that life and death decisions for children come down to a “gut feeling” or something like that.

For the News-Press the district office of the Department of Children and Families apparently looked for the caseworker most prone to bash birth parents. The newspaper obliged with a fawning profile. So now the message was reinforced: Good caseworkers rush in and rescue children from evil birth parents, bad caseworkers try to keep families together. Less than a year later, DCF returned the favor – hiring the reporter who wrote the National Model Worker Story to be its regional spokesperson.

But a few months later, another child “known to the system,” Zahid Jones, died. And it was back to caseworker bashing. But this time, it was even more damaging, since in this case, it does not appear the workers were at fault. Indeed, one of them was characterized in what would be her last performance review as “superb.” But that didn’t stop a News-Press columnist from branding her “incompetent.” After weeks of bashing in the News-Press, the column was the last straw. So, like nearly 90 percent of her counterparts in the region in the months since the News-Press crusade began, she quit.

Well before this story was published, I e-mailed the reporter a prediction about how the newspaper’s editorial page would respond to any criticism that it’s coverage prompted a mass exodus of good caseworkers. I wrote that the editorial page would evade the issue by setting up a straw man and suggesting that anyone who questioned the paper’s coverage just didn’t want the paper to be critical.

I predicated they would say:

“Our job is not to do PR for DCF. We're not going to look the other way when children die. We're not going to downplay it or cover it up.”

And here’s what they actually did say after the story ran:

“Press coverage may not always be utterly fair, but the solution to this problem cannot be to soft-pedal news about the abuse and killing of children or run cover for investigators."

Of course, no one was asking the News-Press to “soft-pedal” anything. But is it really too much to ask that the newspaper show sufficient skill to draw a distinction between a caseworker who allegedly says a child in danger is “not my problem” and a caseworker who apparently did everything right but still was unable to protect a child?

Through all this, both the DCF district and the privatized lead agency handling foster care in the Fort Myers area were in turmoil. All the usual heads rolled. The “leaders” who emerged produced a reform plan that reads like something out of Dilbert – it’s filled with plans to hold meetings to make more plans to hold more meetings. And the “leadership” apparently decided that their survival depended on pandering to the newspaper’s worst instincts.

The regional director for a huge swath of Florida, including Fort Myers, even speculated that people in Fort Myers just might be inherently more brutal than people elsewhere. "I don't know if it's supported by data,” Cox said. “All the data you need is Michelle, Zahid, Jason.''

Right. Let’s not let those darned inconvenient facts – like the existence of other places in America where three children “known to the system” have died in two years -- get in the way. And we certainly wouldn’t want to know how Fort Myers is actually doing based on actual data!

But for those who cling to the old fashioned notion of judging systems by data instead of by the latest horror story, here’s what the data show: They show that the efforts of the region’s leaders, and the crusade by the News-Press have left the vulnerable children of greater Fort Myers a whole lot more vulnerable. While entries into care were falling almost everyplace else, in the Fort Myers region they’ve soared 50 percent in two years. But, as usual, that only overwhelmed the workers and left children less safe. In 2007, reabuse of children left in their own homes increased by 15 percent. Foster care recidivism – the proportion of children sent home from foster care who were taken away again soared by 50 percent.

And, in case anyone is wondering who Jason is, I think Cox meant Joshua, as in Joshua Jenkins, the third child known to the system to die in spite of everything the News-Press has written; the third child to die even as the crusade passes by.

I’ll get back to the columnist, and his peculiar choice of role model, in a future post.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A guarantee for Major Shingledecker

Readers of this blog may remember Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County, Fl. Sheriff’s Department. She chairs Florida’s Child Abuse Death Review Team – the bunch that wants to be sure and bring an extra dose of misery into the lives of almost every family that loses a child to an accident – and put the surviving siblings at grave risk of further trauma through foster care - by accusing those parents of neglect. (See “Drowning in Misinformation,” Jan. 6, for details)

So it’s no surprise that where Shingledecker runs the show, children are a lot more likely to be needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar than in places with more enlightened leadership.

Last week, we noted the progress being made in most of Florida in reducing such needless removal. Even Shingledecker’s county has made some progress. But if her county were its own separate region it would have the second worst rate of child removal in the state. The rate or removal in Manatee County is more than 50 percent above the national average.

Manatee is one of several Florida counties where the sheriff’s office, not the Department of Children and Families, makes the initial decision on removing a child. But that’s not the problem. The sheriff also is in charge of child abuse investigations in nearby Hillsborough County. But Hillsborough takes away children at a dramatically lower rate than Manatee – while doing better on key measures of child safety. Details are in NCCPR’s latest Florida Rate-of-Removal Index. No, the problem, good intentions notwithstanding, is the approach taken by Maj. Shingledecker.

That was clear when she tried to justify her actions in a story in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

For starters, the story raises questions about whom, exactly, Shingledecker is most interested in protecting:

Shingledecker says the agency and investigators there are liable if they leave a child in a home and something bad ultimately happens. "We come under the gun for, 'Why didn't we remove the child,'…”

More to the point, though Maj. Shingledecker undoubtedly means well, when it comes to the inherent harm of foster care, and the risk of abuse in foster care, it looks like Shingledecker doesn’t have a clue. According to the story, Shingledecker is willing to offer a deal, of sorts:

She says she is willing to leave more children in their homes -- as long as the social service interventions can "guarantee" the safety of the child to investigators.

Oh, is that all. Then how about holding yourself to a similar standard: You can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child you remove ever will turn out worse for the experience than had the child been left in his own home. You can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child ever will be abused in foster care on your watch. And you can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child ever will be harmed because the officer who should have spotted the problem was too busy dealing with a case where the child never needed to be taken in the first place.

Do we have a deal?

I didn’t think so. Because no sheriff or child welfare agency can guarantee that; any more than it can guarantee that every child it leaves in her or his own homes will never be abused – or have an accident.

But if you persist in remaining one of Florida’s last holdouts for a take the child and run approach, even as most of the rest of the state passes you by, there are some things I can guarantee:

--I guarantee that hundreds of children will be traumatized for life after being needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar and bouncing from foster home to foster home. One major study found that only one in five former foster children does well in later life. Another found foster children typically fared far worse even than comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.

--I guarantee that many children who could have remained safely in their own homes instead will be abused in foster care. Several studies reveal abuse in one in three foster homes and the record of institutions is worse.

--I guarantee that more children in real danger will be missed because your officers are so busy dealing with children needlessly taken away. That’s why, for all your talk about safety, areas taking proportionately fewer children, such as Hillsborough, do a better job keeping them safe.

There is a term for mindlessly throwing one child after another into a foster care system we know churns out walking wounded four times out of five: It’s called child abuse. Guaranteed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Florida: The fever breaks

For most of this decade no problem in child welfare seemed more intractable than Florida. In 1999, then-Gov. Jeb Bush named Kathleen Kearney to run the state Department of Children and Families. Kearney is a profoundly tragic figure in American child welfare. A former Broward County judge she really cared about the children and really wanted to do the right thing. But to her, the right thing was pretty much always to tear apart the family. Indeed, Kearney was so fanatical about tearing apart families that one of her first acts was to change the name of DCF’s Division of Family Safety and Preservation. She erased the last two words. “I don’t dare say ‘reunification’ in her presence,” one DCF official said.

At the same time, Gov. Bush embarked on a massive privatization scheme that seemed to have one primary purpose: to decentralize blame. Apparently, the idea was to create so many different players in so many regions that blame for the next tragedy would be unlikely to make it all the way to Tallahassee.

In 1999, the number of children torn from their homes soared by 50 percent over the previous year – from about 14,000 to more than 21,000. It was the worst statewide foster care panic I’ve ever seen. NCCPR warned that if Kearney did not change course and abandon her take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, the entire system would collapse. Three years later it did, the collapse symbolized by the fact that a young foster child, Rilya Wilson had disappeared for 15 months before anyone in the agency even noticed. Some reporters and, privately, even some within the system began to wonder if that small group from Alexandria Va. that predicted all that had happened might be on to something.

But though the Rilya Wilson case forced Kearney out, Kearneyism had taken root. Year after year, statewide, the number of children torn from their parents would stay at the same high level, somewhere between about 19,000 and 22,000.

The panic had all the usual dreadful effects. Not only were the lives of thousands of children destroyed by needless foster care, workers were so inundated with false reports, trivial cases, and needless removals that child safety also deteriorated. Deaths of children “known to the system” shot up, and more reliable indicators of child safety, notably reabuse of children left in their own homes, soared. It’s all documented in a series of NCCPR reports on Florida child welfare, available on our State Reports page.

Then a regional director in a relatively small DCF district got fed up. Alan Abramowitz had been sent to Volusia and Flagler Counties to fix a major mess. Privatization had gone particularly badly there, and there was a huge spike in removals. Abramowitz soon saw how much harm the misuse and overuse of foster care was doing to children. So did the new head of the privatized “lead agency” in the district, Ron Zychowski. They worked together to turn things around, reducing removals with no compromise of child safety.

They were so successful that Abramowitz was transferred to the Orlando district, where he began a similar transformation.

Meanwhile, another gutsy leader, Jeff Rainey, took over the privatized “lead agency” in Hillsborough County ( metropolitan Tampa). He, too, saw the enormous harm of needles foster care. He partnered with the Hillsborough County Sheriff, David Gee, whose office handles child abuse investigations in the county, to dramatically reduce entries into care. The Tampa area has some of the best safety outcomes in its region.

Then, in 2007, a new Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, named one of the state’s most respected former public officials, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth to run DCF. Butterworth is a Democrat and the joke at the time was that Crist wanted to be sure that when the state’s most hopeless agency failed, the other party was blamed.

Butterworth’s first move was to end the obsessive secrecy at the agency. No more stonewalling. When the agency made mistakes they’d own up - fast. When reporters went to court to get records about botched cases, Butterworth didn’t fight them – he joined them. And then there was the matter of lawsuits filed on behalf of children the agency had harmed horribly and who would need a lifetime of care. Previous policy was to fight them for years and try to outlast the plaintiffs. Butterworth said the state did, indeed, owe these children care, and he moved to settle – sometimes for millions of dollars.

Now, I was a reporter for 19 years. The really smart government officials know that when they actually play straight with reporters, it throws us off our game; we don’t know how to cope. Butterworth’s candor bought him time – time to learn child welfare without being blamed for every new crisis. And he learned well.

He didn’t do everything right. In a Miami case much like the case of Elian Gonzalez, he pandered to the Cuban exile community, needlessly prolonging the case. And in a tragic case involving Florida and Wisconsin, he washed his hands of the case when the child was found in Wisconsin, even though she’d probably be best off placed with a grandmother in Florida.

But mostly, Butterworth has gotten it right. The more time he spent listening – especially to current and former foster children – the more he realized what a terrible mistake the Kearney take-the-child-and-run approach had been. So he began turning more and more to Abramowitz, dubbing him the agency’s “firefighter.” Over the past year, he’s run the DCF district in Palm Beach County, effectively been in charge in Pinellas County for a short time, and now he’s taken on what is always the toughest challenge in the state, Miami.

Even as leadership was changing direction, districts were gaining a new tool to allow the change to work: Money. Not more money, not in a state as stingy with basic human needs as Florida, but more flexibility with the federal money they’ve got.

In all his years as Governor, Jeb Bush did exactly one thing right in child welfare. He probably only did it as a favor to his brother, but nevertheless he did it: He made Florida the only state in the nation to accept a “waiver” from restrictions on federal funding for child welfare.

In exchange for accepting a fixed amount of money, instead of an amount that escalates when more children are taken away, more than $100 million per year that used to be limited to funding foster care also can be used for safe, proven programs to keep families together. In one move, the waiver both took away a perverse incentive to tear apart families and provided new resources to keep those families together. (Michigan almost took advantage of a similar waiver, but that state chickened out at the last minute.)

The results of all this can be seen in NCCPR’s latest Florida Rate-of-Removal Index, released last week.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the state saw a significant reduction in the number of children torn from their families. Removals were down 19 percent, to under 17,500.

In every district where it is possible to compare (in some districts the boundary lines have changed) fewer children were taken in 2007 than in 2006. Even in the district with the worst record this year, the Jacksonville area, the new administrator in charge of DCF in the area, Nancy Dreicer, is making moves to reverse course and embrace safe, proven programs to keep families together.

The fever of family destruction that has gripped Florida child welfare since 1999, and done so much harm to the state’s vulnerable children, finally may have broken.

The main reason is that the state now has some leaders so committed to children that they are willing to paint targets on their own backs in order to do the right thing. And that’s what Butterworth, Abramowitz, Zychowski, Rainey, Gee and Dreicer have done.

That’s because there are plenty of people in Florida, in government, media and the advocacy community, still wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach – a kind of Kearney Government in Exile. They’ll try to smear the reformers by scapegoating them for the next high-profile tragedy. In effect, they’ll be making a cynical bet – wagering that Floridians will forget all the horror stories, the surge in deaths of children ‘known to the system,’ and the general decline in child safety that occurred during Florida’s Years of Panic, from 1999 through 2006.

And even now, things are not going well everywhere. Jeb Bush’s strategy of decentralizing blame has paid off. The panics that follow high-profile tragedies now tend to be confined to one region.

So what would happen if, in one region such a tragedy caught the eye of the local newspaper? And what if, in that region, the leadership at DCF and the privatized lead agency was particularly weak? And what if, in that very same region, you had a newspaper columnist who publicly declared that the role model for his approach to covering child welfare is a demagogue, and a fictional one at that?

That story in a future post.