Friday, October 31, 2008

As the FLDS case evaporates

    The Associated Press reports that the FLDS case, in which 439 children were torn from their parents, warehoused in hideous makeshift compounds and then shoveled into foster care "has largely evaporated…"

    So it has. Cases involving 402 children have been dropped, only 37 children remain under court oversight, and only one child has been returned to foster care.

    What remains is the enormous damage done to these children in the name of "child protection."

    One of the lawyers assigned to represent a child taken in the raid – not the parents, the child – told Dallas television station KTVT of the lasting harm she has seen:

Younger children who've regressed to wetting their beds.  Toddlers who've regressed to wanting to breast feed, when they've already been weaned. They pulled off the raid very well, but they didn't pull off the cleanup well at all.

    In response a flack for the Texas CPS agency said the children got "the best care the state could provide…"

    The really scary thing about that comment is, it's true: The care those children got really was the best the state could do. And, in case anyone has forgotten just how great that care was, here are the statements of the only independent observers to witness that care, mental health professionals brought in by the state itself. Excerpts are here. Links to the full statements are here.

    And all that suffering was for nothing. The State of Texas accomplished nothing by tearing apart all these families that it could not have done with a careful case-by-case examination, followed by going to court in those cases where it could make a case for court supervision.

    Texas CPS will argue that just because they've dropped almost all the cases doesn't mean there was nothing wrong. They'll argue that they dropped the cases after the parents agreed to sign service plans or jump through other hoops.

So what? There's nothing to indicate they couldn't have gotten the same agreements without resorting to the child welfare equivalent of the nuclear option.

    And the fact that almost all the cases have been dropped doesn't mean all the children are safe. Consider this disturbing excerpt from the KTVT story:

Despite everything that's happened,[FLDS parent Ben] Barlow says it's part of their religion for older men to marry underage girls.  He had this interchange with reporter Jack Fink.

Fink:  "It's against the law… having an underage girl marry an older man."

Barlow:  "That's true, that's true.  But the state says you must put on your seatbelt.  Do you always wear your seatbelt?  Not always.  If the girls choose to, heaven bless them.  That's none of my business what they choose to do."

F ink:  "Do they have a choice?"
Barlow:  "Yes, they do."

Fink:  "So they can say no, 'I don't want to marry an older man'?"
Barlow:  "Yes, they can."

    But the fact that some children of some ages in some families might be in danger does not justify taking all children of all ages from all families. And because Texas CPS grossly overreacted and cried wolf so often, it's going to be that much harder to protect those children who might, in fact, be in real danger.

    But then, all along, Texas CPS has responded to criticism by saying that the way they responded to the allegations against the FLDS is the way they handle every case. That's true. And that, of course, is the greatest tragedy of all.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Texas’ gift to child abusers

    In a post to this blog back in May, during the height of the furor over the seizure of hundreds of children from the YFZ Ranch in Texas, I wrote that the biggest beneficiaries of the "service plans" Texas tried to impose on the families would be, in fact, child abusers. "In particular," I wrote at the time, "an especially odious sub-species - husbands/boyfriends who beat and terrorize both their wives/girlfriends, and their children. The language in these plans is one more weapon for these abusers to use against the women and children in their lives.

"I refer specifically to this language:

"'A parent is also responsible if they allow anyone, including their husband or wife, to abuse the child, or if they otherwise fail to act and it results in abuse or neglect of the child. Thus, not stopping someone from abusing your child is as bad as abusing the child yourself.'

"Now, imagine a woman who has been beaten repeatedly by her husband/boyfriend. Imagine that the husband/boyfriend also is beating their children. Any expert on domestic violence will tell you that the most dangerous time for such a woman is when she actually tries to escape. But now there is one more reason for her to stay. If she threatens to call the police and seek protection for herself and the children, the abuser can waive this document in her face and say: 'Go right ahead; call the cops. They'll just call CPS and take away the kids – 'cause you're just as responsible for their beatings as I am!'

"Similarly, a mother who has been planning a clandestine escape in the middle of the night, with her children, is bound to have second thoughts when she hears that CPS deems her equally responsible for the abuse of her child."

Now we have confirmation – from the Attorney General of the state with more polygamists than any other: Utah. According to the Associated Press:

[Attorney General Mark] Shurtleff said the Texas raid has made it more difficult for his office to get abused polygamist women to report crimes, and he's had to reassure polygamist communities that he isn't prosecuting their religion. … Ultimately, we have to convince them they have to fear their abuser more than they do us," he said. ….

So abusive men, especially those who also practice polygamy, owe a great big "thank you" to Texas Child Protective Services. Presumably those men's children won't be so grateful

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Nebraska mother fights back

    Several recent posts to this Blog have dealt with Nebraska's "safe haven" law, which allows parents to surrender children of any age, and the astonishingly callous response from Todd Landry, who runs the state's child welfare agency, when desperate parents of teenagers started to use the law.

One of the mothers responded to Landry in a letter to the Omaha World-Herald, reprinted below.   I disagree with the mother in her assessment of coverage by the World-Herald. I think their coverage has been exemplary, and compassionate.  But given her anguish, it's easy to understand why she feels as she does.  The reference at the end of the letter to "Von Maur" is a reference to shootings at an Omaha mall this year by a young man who had been the beneficiary of all the "help" the State of Nebraska cared to offer. 

From the Omaha World-Herald, October 4, 2008:

A mother's frustration

Editor's note: Lavennia Coover, who left her 11-year-old son at Immanuel Medical Center under Nebraska's safe haven law, sent this letter to news media and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to express her frustration with how the safe haven cases have been portrayed. Todd Landry, the children and family services director for HHS, said Coover misinterpreted what an HHS employee told her about when she would be contacted. They have been in touch with her since the letter was sent. John Melingagio, a Boys Town spokesman, said confidentiality rules prohibit him from confirming or denying a child's stay at Boys Town. "We empathize with what families are going through right now," he said.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am saddened by the response of the media in light of the Safe Haven Law. The article in Sunday's Omaha World-Herald crucified each and every child who was admitted under the law. From what I gather from the article, four families and myself have tried to get help for their children. After this article lists the mental status and the medications these children are taking -- what more confidential information is going to be given to the public for their entertainment? I hope and pray all of these children receive the much needed help they need and deserve without being sensationalized in the public eye.

There have been many bold statements made by officials in Nebraska about the parents/guardians who have utilized the safe haven law. I personally was offended by the statements made by Todd Landry -- children and family services director for the State of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. I have made contact with his office to speak with him, however was redirected and contacted by an administrator Todd Reckling, and I stated to him I did not leave my child under the safe haven law because I did not want to be a parent, nor did I not want the responsibility of being a parent. I was using the law because my son is a danger to himself and the family at home. I also stated I took him to the hospital I did because he needed more help than I am able to give him. While I was at the hospital I had to request to speak with the social worker on duty at the hospital. I also spoke to the police and the intake nurse for child and adolescents. During the time I was at the hospital trying to give all the information that I felt was needed to ensure my child got the help he desperately needed, the staff continually kept telling me that I could leave now! I gave my name and phone numbers and told the staff that if they needed anything else to please call me, because all I was trying to do was get the help my child needed and was unavailable to us in the area of Nebraska where we live. Todd Reckling also stated to me that I would be contacted within 48 hours of the whereabouts of my child and the next steps. It has been four days and I have not heard anything and when I try to find out I am unable to get any information.

Another statement that was made it that there is help out there for these families they are just not using them. This is not my first time dealing with these issues. I had another child who had many mental/behavioral difficulties and I contacted Boys Town for help. My child was admitted into their program and was there for 18 months with no improvement then asked to leave because she was too much for them to deal with. I then went to the Department of Health and Human Services for help. The help my family received from the state was as follows: the state took custody of my child, I was told I was a worthless parent and the judge didn't know if I deserved my other two children, the child whom they took custody of was in 14 different placements during a 3 1/2 to 4 year time. While in these placements the same behaviors continued, yet the judge still continued to blame me as a bad parent. My child is no longer under state custody, however her real issues of behavior and mental state were never truly addressed and dealt with.

Many of us who have children with behavior disorders are judged and criticized for whatever action we make concerning our children. The public has judged that we were wrong in using the law to get help for our children. There are many families in Nebraska dealing with similar issues and do not know where to begin to go and get help. These children are deemed troublemakers and the families are deemed dysfunctional, which in turn causes undue blame to be put on the parents/guardians and their parenting skills.

Do we really want another Von Maur incident to occur before there is a recognized need for help for these children?

Lavennia Coover

Friday, October 24, 2008

Vindications approach 400

    Texas authorities have now dropped cases involving 393 FLDS children. Cases involving 72 children are pending. Only one child has been returned to foster care. The lead lawyer for the state in these cases predicts that all but a handful of cases will be dismissed by the end of the month. According to the Deseret News, the lawyer made that prediction in the same e-mail in which he announced his own resignation. He refused to say why he is leaving.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nebraska: Here comes the judge (to make everything worse)

    If my previous posts concerning Nebraska's "safe haven" debacle have left the impression that I think Nebraska's child welfare agency hasn't done anything right, that's not quite the case. The agency actually made one relatively good decision – and a clueless judge promptly stepped in to try to screw it up.

    It involves one of the saddest of the safe haven cases, the case of the Staton family. The family always had had a difficult time making ends meet – indeed, at one point the children had been taken solely because of the family's poverty. When the children's mother died, their father became so desperate that he resorted to the safe haven law, leaving his nine children at a hospital. Fortunately, the children's extended family rushed in to help (indeed, they say they wish the father had thought to turn to them first).

    It's the Nebraska child welfare agency that should have rushed in to help the father, providing him with both all the help and all the reassurance he needed to raise his family. But at least they did the next best thing – they took the relatives up on their offer and placed the children in kinship care. One relative took two of the children another, a great aunt, in an amazing act of generosity, immediately opened her home to the other seven.

    But that wasn't enough for one Elizabeth Crnkovich, the judge hearing the case. Instead of praising the great aunt to the skies and thanking her for her extraordinary compassion, Judge Crnkovich complained that, before she took in all those children, she didn't buy them each their own bed. Instead, the children had to share beds and sleep on air mattresses. The judge also was upset that, with everything else she had to do to accommodate seven children – including looking for a larger house to live in - the aunt had not immediately arranged school enrollment.

    So, after everything else these children have endured, including the death of their mother and the break-up of their family, the judge ordered them uprooted again and placed with strangers. Fortunately, the child welfare agency appealed and that stayed the judge's ruling. But that still leaves one crucial question unanswered:

Don't juvenile court judges in Nebraska get any training?

    The answer would seem to be no, since any such training almost certainly would include this fundamental point:

An air mattress in the home of a loving relative is better for a child than a bed in the home of a total stranger.

    Is that really so hard to grasp?

The lawyer for the children themselves understood perfectly. He got that the placement was right. He was the one who raised the issue of living conditions, but only in an effort to get the judge to order the child welfare agency to provide more help to the aunt. (He must feel awful about bringing the problems to the attention of a judge whose response would be so callous and so clueless.)

But wait, it gets worse.

In arguing that every air mattress should have been purchased and every detail attended to before the children were placed with their aunt, the judge said: "I don't know what the rush was."

    Right. What's the rush? Let 'em rot in separate homes with strangers, or a hospital ward, or a "shelter" or wherever it was these children would have wound up had it not been for the generosity of their relatives.

    No matter how much the child welfare community disagrees on everything else, everyone – everyone – gets that when children are torn from their family there should indeed be a rush to get them into a placement that is as close to their own family as possible, as soon as possible – and the younger the child, the greater the need to "rush." Children don't experience time the way adults do. Every time the system dawdles, it magnifies their suffering. And while people in child welfare systems often fail to act on this knowledge, at least they possess this knowledge.

    Even the head of Nebraska's child welfare agency, Todd Landry, got it.

    But not only is Judge Crnkovich apparently unaware of the impact of delay on children, there's also a question of whether she has a vindictive streak.

    At a subsequent hearing, the father asked to visit his children. The judge denied the motion – on grounds that, because her earlier order was being appealed, she couldn't rule on the entirely-unrelated request for visitation. That sounds an awful lot like taking a swing at the child welfare agency for daring to appeal her earlier ruling – and not caring that the blow landed, once again, on the Staton children.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If you want compassion in Nebraska, call a cop

    While the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and in particular its Director of Children and Family Services, Todd Landry, show appalling callousness toward families driven by desperation to use the state's unusually broad "safe haven" law, the Lincoln, Neb. Police department is taking a different approach.

    According to the Omaha World-Herald:

[Lincoln Police Chief Tom] Casady criticized state lawmakers and state health agencies that portray mental health care and other services for children as easy to find and simple to receive. People consider using the safe haven law, he said, in large part because they find the existing services lacking. He said that necessary help for parents in distress isn't always available on nights and weekends and that children fall through the cracks if they aren't deemed suicidal or violent.

"I'm a little mystified that people are so surprised by this outcome," Casady said of the 19 safe haven children. "People seem to be exposed to this for the first time. I've had these fed-up parents crying in my office for years and years."

Lincoln police officers often engage the parent when called to a safe haven case. They try to determine what problems the family is having and suggest an alternative if they know of one. Twice, a child destined to be abandoned under the law has ended up in temporary psychiatric care at a Lincoln hospital because of this interaction, Casady said.

But don't expect similar help from cops in Omaha, where they do little more than process the paperwork.

There's a similar divide among hospitals. Some do nothing but accept the child. The head of the social work department at Creighton University Medical Center says they're not going to try to help families keep their children because "we feel we'd be putting a child potentially in harm's way." Right. Like consigning a child to the Nebraska foster care system isn't "harm's way." What she really means, I suspect, is "If we persuaded a parent to keep her child and then something went wrong, we might be sued."

At first, Immanuel Medical Center responded in the same manner as Creighton "…but then we started to talk," the hospital's chief operating officer told the World-Herald. "We said: 'What if we could intervene and make a difference?'" And so far they have, for three families.

Of course, Todd Landry has his own solution to how to help these families, and no one who's read his other comments will be surprised at what it is: Shove the problem back under the rug. As the World-Herald reported:

Landry believes state lawmakers should change the law to apply only to newborns up to 72 hours old. "You fix that situation, and I think all these other questions disappear," he said.

The questions – and the families – don't actually go away, of course, they just "disappear." Apparently for Landry, that's all that matters.

Fortunately, not everyone in power in Nebraska supports Landry's sweep-it-under-the-rug approach. Even as lawmakers line up to support the 72-hour limit, the World-Herald reports that State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha also plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for families to get help without surrendering their children.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nebraska’s gift to comedy

Oh, that Todd Landry! Does the children and family services director for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services have a great sense of humor or what?

In a previous post to this blog, I discussed what happened when Nebraska, the state with the worst record in the nation for tearing apart families, passed a "safe haven" law allowing children of any age to be left at hospitals, among other places, no questions asked. Landry immediately scapegoated the desperate families. Then, as word of the law spread and two families from other states started using it, Landry responded with all the grace and compassion that has become his hallmark, telling the Omaha World-Herald:

"This is not what we intended when we said we wanted to increase Nebraska tourism."

Yep, the guy's a laugh riot.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More institutionalized abuse in Connecticut

    An earlier post to this Blog discussed the fact that the State of Connecticut spends great gobs of money on child welfare, while still managing to produce consistently lousy results. The reason: So much of the money is wasted warehousing children in institutions. Another example came to light today, reports The Hartford Courant, as the state Child Advocate and the state Attorney General issued another scathing report on another abusive institution. This time, the practice in question was holding children down and subjecting them to forced intramuscular injections of drugs to make them easier to control. The report says the children were "assaulted with needles."

    The state Department of Children and Families replies that there were only "a few" cases. (According to the Courant, the report documents 16 incidents) and, have no fear, they've required a "corrective action plan." That'll teach 'em to mistreat kids! But the Attorney General and the Child Advocate say the institution has been plagued with problems for years.

    But even the Advocate and the A.G. are missing the point. The problem isn't just abusive institutions. The problem is that institutionalization is inherently abusive – residential treatment simply doesn't work. Even if every institution were staffed by people who had the best intentions, had the best possible training and did the best they could, children still would be harmed and, secondarily, a lot of taxpayer money still would be squandered.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More than 3 in 4 FLDS cases dropped

The vindication count in the FLDS case now is up to 338, according to a count in the Salt Lake Tribune. There are 100 cases not yet decided. One child was returned to foster care. That means for more than three of every four children – and counting – all the trauma inflicted when they were torn from their families was for nothing. And, by the way, the cost of the FLDS case alone exceeds the entire cost of a tiny family preservation program Texas started. And even this small program failed to reach most eligible families, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The latest word in cruelty to children: Nebraska

At the rate things are going, it may become a verb: to "Nebraska" one's children, meaning, to become so utterly desperate that you drop off children of any age at a hospital, anywhere from Omaha to Scottsbluff, then turn around and leave.

    "Did you hear about Fred and Susan?" a neighbor might say. "They both lost their jobs, their home was foreclosed and they got so desperate they had to Nebraska their children."

    In one sense it all began when Nebraska became the last state to pass a so-called "safe haven" law. Such laws were intended to prevent people from abandoning infants in dumpsters, by letting them leave newborns at hospitals, fire stations and other designated locations, no questions asked. But the Nebraska law didn't specify infants. So some parents left older children, often teenagers. One 18-year-old was so desperate to get help he even tried to "abandon" himself. And as the situation began attracting national attention, twice (so far) parents and grandparents began arriving from other states to use the law and leave a child behind.

    So much is so sickening about this that it's hard to know where to begin. There's the head of the state human services agency, who thought the suffering of so many families was an opportunity for sick humor, there's the judge whose astonishing ignorance made one family's suffering even worse, or there's the fact that, with hindsight, it's entirely predictable that the state where this would happen would be Nebraska, among the cruelest states in the nation when it comes to treatment of vulnerable children and families.

    But it may be best to begin with the possibility that Nebraska inadvertently wound up doing such families, all over the country, a favor – not by inventing a new form of child abandonment, but by calling attention to desperation that's always been there, and practices that have always existed.

    On Sept. 28, the Omaha World-Herald, which has done excellent work on this story from the start, published brief profiles of all the families who had used the law to that point. There is every indication that every parent or guardian involved in these cases dearly loved their children. The common theme is desperation. Most of the cases involved parents or guardians at their wits end coping with the violent behavior of mentally ill teenagers. One case, involving nine children, involved an impoverished widowed father at the end of his rope. In that case, the World-Herald reports, the family had been desperate before:

In March 2004, the children were placed in foster care because their home was filthy and had no gas, running water or phone. Court-appointed psychologists noted that the couple cared for their children deeply. But the two couldn't find stable work, so they didn't have enough income to pay bills and rent. The father looked for a second job to supplement his income. Without a high school diploma or a GED, he found good work hard to come by.

Had the state of Nebraska lifted a finger to help with these concrete problems in 2004, perhaps the father wouldn't have thought his only option was to surrender the children to foster care again last month – after his wife died. (Later, relatives would say the father could have turned to them – but when the state itself actually tried to do that – the only thing it's done right in this whole mess - a judge got in the way, a story I'll try to get to in a future post.)

    But one of the many tragedies of American child welfare is that parents like this father and the others in Nebraska have been taking such desperate measures for a century or more.

When I wrote my book on child welfare, Wounded Innocents, (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995) nearly 20 years ago I cited an Orlando Sentinel story about a mother in Florida who desperately loved her two children, four-year-old Lisa and two-year-old Amanda, but was homeless. Fearing that the state would take them away, she "voluntarily" surrendered them, to the state, at first temporarily. "She figured giving the kids up for temporary custody was her best chance of keeping them," the Sentinel reported.

"Lisa and Amanda's mother visited them at the church day care facility every day. By fall she was talking to a church worker about giving the girls up for adoption. Because she thought that "was going to be better for them than anything she could ever give to them. She did love the girls. If she could give them up, they could be taken care of, sent to college," the worker said. … The girls said their mother "'had water in her eyes' when she said goodbye. The mother left a necklace - a chain with a big heart and two little ones - behind as a remembrance. She told Lisa to tell Amanda that she loved her. And she left."

    More recently, many newspapers, including the World-Herald, have done excellent stories and series on parents who have no choice but to surrender their children to the tender mercies of the state because it's the only way to get them mental health care. It happens thousands of times ever year but, except for those occasional news stories, it goes almost unnoticed.

    In the recent Nebraska cases, had the "Safe Haven" law not been available, odds are the parents or guardians would have resorted to some other less publicized means to surrender their children. So Nebraska lawmakers have at least brought the problem out into the open – albeit by accident. In that state, calls to revise the law are being accompanied by calls to give parents better options.

    But the latter will be a much tougher sell, particularly in Nebraska. Because while such problems exist everywhere, odds are they're worse in Nebraska, a state where even the top human services official seems to revel in condemning the desperate and adding a little extra pain to all they've suffered already. There seems to be a Nebraska mentality that says: If a family can't do everything on its own it's no good, so we should take the child and run, or encourage the parents themselves to turn them over to the state, then turn around and condemn them for it. This can be seen in the comments of Todd Landry, children and family services director for the state's Department of Health and Human Services, who insisted that the case of a desperate, widowed, unemployed, impoverished father of nine has nothing to do with poverty – and who snidely dismissed all of the parents as just being "tired of their parenting roles."

    Landry was far more generous in his assessment of the state's own ability as parent. In one case, involving a young man who had been bounced from one "residential treatment center" to another, until he aged out of the system, at a cost of more than $265,000 Landry praised the young man's care saying "All appropriate services were provided when needed for as long as needed." He actually said this after the young man, Robert Hawkins, shot and killed eight people, and then himself, at an Omaha shopping mall. (And, by the way, Hawkins' father only surrendered the boy to the state when his health insurance ran out and he couldn't afford mental health care for the boy.)

    But it's not just Landry's insensitivity that suggests the state is exceptionally cruel – just look at the numbers. Over and over again, Nebraska is a contender for child removal capital of America. Year after year, whether one calculates the figures based on total child population or impoverished child population, Nebraska tears apart families and throws children into foster care at one of the highest rates in the country. And, when one looks simply at the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, again, Nebraska is among the very worst. (One of the out-of-state children left in Nebraska came from a neighboring state with statistics that are almost as bad, and a human services agency that is almost as cruel: Iowa. And, sure enough, a spokesman for Iowa's human services agency sounded almost as callous as Landry, declaring that the Nebraska law "doesn't mean you should throw up your hands and stop being a parent and haul your recalcitrant teenager over to Omaha when the going gets rough." But at least Iowa took the child back, let her stay with her family and now promises help.)

    Still another indication of the Nebraska mentality can be seen in the case of a 12-year-old who was released from eleven months of "residential treatment" at an Omaha hospital two- and-a-half weeks ago. According to the World-Herald, his grandmother said there was no improvement – not surprising given what the research says about residential treatment. On Sunday, the grandmother says, the boy tried to kill himself by cutting his wrist with a nail. Earlier he'd threatened to kill a neighbor boy. So grandma asked the boy's aunt to take him back to the hospital – for treatment. Grandma says the hospital simply assumed she was abandoning the child under the "safe haven" law. Now she has no say in what happens to him, and the boy has been stashed in a group home.

Perhaps the notoriety will prompt Nebraska lawmakers finally to rethink not only the safe haven law but their entire take-the-child-and-run approach to vulnerable children and families.

    In future posts, I'll write about that judge who made everything worse, about Landry's astonishingly cruel sense of humor, and about a mother who replied eloquently to Landry. In the meantime, one can only hope no other parent becomes so desperate that she believes her only choice is to Nebraska her children.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A memory lapse at “Children’s Rights”

In the previous post to this Blog, I discussed the risks in encouraging a mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs – and the fact that the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" is increasing the pressure for exactly that kind of mad rush in Washington, D.C. But I'm not the only one who has raised concerns about undue pressure for adoption. Here's what none other than the executive director of Children's Rights, Marcia Lowry, told a Congressional committee in 2003:

"… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers."

I have to admit, when I posted the item below, I'd forgotten Marcia said that. But apparently Marcia forgot, too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Setting the stage for the next tragedy?

Two children are found dead in a freezer, possibly because of the enormous pressure on the Washington, D.C. child welfare agency to boost adoption numbers. So what do the people at the group that arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" do? They reach a new agreement with the D.C. government including a clause that further ratchets up the pressure for adoption-at-all-costs.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Supply and demand

    There is an old Peanuts cartoon in which several of the characters are trying desperately to find some way to keep Snoopy warm as he sleeps atop his dog house on cold winter nights. Finally, Linus offers a suggestion: Why not have Snoopy sleep inside the dog house? The other characters simply roll their eyes; to them the idea was too absurd for words.

    I often think of this cartoon when reading child welfare stories; most recently last week, when I read an AP story about how the lousy economy is making it harder to find enough foster parents. The story is filled with unexamined assumptions about this "shortage" and how harmful it is to children.

There is one comment after another from saintly foster parents who just can't make it in today's economy what with the terribly low pay they get. (How do the impoverished birth parents from whom these children are taken make it? The story doesn't say.) There even were complaints that some foster parents were not reimbursed for the cost of day care for their foster children. Presumably, that would include children taken from their own parents on "lack of supervision" charges when they couldn't afford day care.     

But almost all of the story takes place in Oregon. In 2006, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Oregon took away children at a rate more than 50 percent above the national average. Oregon took children at a higher rate than all but 15 other states. But you can search the story in vain for anyone offering a common sense suggestion like: Why not ease the "shortage" of foster parents by seeing if Oregon can stop taking away so many children needlessly? But then, I guess such a suggestion it would be as preposterous as, oh, keeping the dog warm by having him sleep inside the doghouse.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vindications top 300

    The number of FLDS children whose cases have been dropped has reached 304. That means CPS effectively admits that it could have accomplished whatever it was it set out to do without traumatizing those 304 children by throwing them into foster care. Only one child has been returned to foster care.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Adoptive parents and criminal records

    According to news accounts, Renee Bowman, the woman suspected in the gruesome killing of her two adopted children, children for whom she'd first been a foster parent, had a misdemeanor conviction for threatening to hurt someone, twice filed for bankruptcy and lost her home to foreclosure.

    The worst response to this would be some kind of knee-jerk demand to bar anyone with a record like that from becoming an adoptive parent. There are a great many very good, loving parents who have brushes with the law at some point in their lives. As for bankruptcy and foreclosure – a lot of very good people who probably never thought it would happen to them got the shock of their lives when the housing crisis hit.

    There have been many cases across the country where wonderful people, particularly grandparents, have been denied custody of their grandchildren because of some minor and/or long ago offense, and the grandchildren have suffered terribly for it. If the D.C. child welfare agency or Mayor Fenty or the DC council jerk their knees in the direction of some absolute rule that people can't adopt if they've committed a crime like misdemeanor "threats to do bodily harm" it will only compound the tragedy. Indeed, the harm of going to this kind of extreme is aptly illustrated in this column from the Houston Chronicle.

    These kinds of issues in a potential foster or adoptive parent's background should be treated not as red flags, but as yellow flags – cause for caution and cause to slow down. Take a hypothetical case in which the same record turns up tomorrow – so there is no issue of hindsight. In such a case agencies need to ask: What, exactly, were the circumstances surrounding the misdemeanor conviction? Were the bankruptcies a result of irresponsibility or circumstance? Do they suggest someone who might be becoming a foster parent for the wrong reasons?

Those are the kinds of questions which should be answered before a child is placed in any foster or adoptive home.

What we need to know in the Bowman case is: Were these questions asked? Was there a diligent effort to get honest answers? And if not, was that because of pressure to get adoption numbers up?

It is possible that the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency didn't even know about the problems in Bowman's background. The screening was subcontracted to a private agency – and it's not clear how much that agency knew, and how much that agency told CFSA. But now, details are starting to emerge, and they are disturbing. According to today's Washington Post:

In 1999, according to D.C. Superior Court records, Bowman, in a vehicle, pulled alongside [a] 72-year-old man's car and angrily demanded that he pay her for damages to her car caused during an earlier accident. The man, who was with a woman, quoted Bowman as yelling: "I want my $900. . . . If that [expletive] wasn't sitting next to you, I'd whup your [expletive] right now." He said Bowman continued to follow him and threaten him that day, at one point saying she would "get the drug boys around the corner" to break into his house and beat him. Bowman received a 6-month suspended sentenced and was put on probation for a year.

Had Bowman sought to adopt a child for the first time many years later, and had she had a spotless record after this one incident, then there would be reason to proceed with the adoption. But the first adoption occurred only two years later.

But this incident raises other questions: Bowman was foster mother to these children before she adopted them. Was Bowman already a foster parent when this happened? Did CFSA know about the incident? If not, why not? If so, did CFSA, at a minimum, step up supervision of the Bowman home?

And underlying all of this is the enormous pressure for adoption-at-all-costs. If the private agency knew about Bowman's problems and didn't tell CFSA, or never checked her background thoroughly, is that because everyone is under so much pressure to get those adoption numbers up? If CFSA knew and went ahead anyway, is that because of the rewards, financial and otherwise, that come with increasing adoptions?

Federal data show that CFSA's most "successful" year for adoptions – by far – was 2004, the same year two of Bowman's children were adopted. Indeed, this was the one year D.C. did well enough to collect bounties from the federal government because the number of finalized foster child adoptions exceeded a baseline number in federal law. The adoption of two children by Renee Bowman that year probably brought in $16,000 for CFSA. (Again, I am speaking here of bounties paid to state and localities, not the perfectly legitimate subsidies paid to the many good, caring adoptive parents all over the country.)

And it's not just the bounties that put the wrong kind of pressure on frontline workers and agencies. There's also pressure because boosting adoptions is the one and only sure way for a child welfare agency to get good press. How many times have you read some treacly feature story about "adoption day" when the courthouse is opened on a weekend, adoptions are finalized en masse amid cake and balloons etc. Every child welfare agency knows that the good press is guaranteed - and no one is going to look too hard at how the numbers were increased. (By the way, has anyone wondered: Given that child welfare agencies always claim their priority is reunification, why do almost no child welfare agencies anywhere in the country have special days to celebrate reunification?)

As I said two days ago, the main reason bounties and other incentives for adoption-at-all-costs are a problem is not that they will lead to many cases like this one, such cases are very, very rare. But the bounties do create incentives for quick-and-dirty slipshod placements, and that can cause a whole host of other problems for children.

Unfortunately, there already are signs that D.C. is looking at answers that are simple, obvious, - and wrong. According to the Post, some want to divert attention by focusing narrowly on how background checks and screening are done. But that won't change anything if nothing is done about the underlying incentives to ignore what is uncovered during the screening process. Others are talking about "post-adoption monitoring." But that is a contradiction in terms. If an adoptive family is "monitored" by the government after the adoption, then it's not an adoption. It's just foster care by another name. What's needed is not a change in post-adoption monitoring, but a change in pre-adoption incentives.