Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Court Monitor: Michigan budget cuts may be illegal


No Hollywood studio is ever going to buy the rights to the report of an independent court monitor overseeing a child welfare system lawsuit settlement. And if you want to find the real news, you have to go past the executive summary.

Because the bombshell in the first report of the monitor overseeing the court decree governing child welfare in Michigan is buried in some genteel language at the top of page 34: Remember those slash and burn budget cuts in prevention and family preservation imposed by the head of the state's Department of Human Services, Ismael Ahmed, - even as he lavished rate increases on agencies that institutionalize children? According to the independent monitor, the cuts may well be illegal. They may violate the consent decree. As is discussed below, these cuts also are setting up some newly-reunified families to fail.

That leads to one crucial question: Why couldn't the group that brought the lawsuit, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) – figure that out? And why aren't they doing something about it – the way plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit in Illinois did in a similar situation earlier this year?

NCCPR first raised these questions when the budget cuts first were revealed months ago. We've come back to the theme repeatedly since then, as a search of this blog for posts mentioning Michigan will make clear. But CR remained silent. They didn't go to court, they didn't even protest. After we pointed out their silence, months ago, they hinted at action in a "tweet" on Twitter, but they didn't deliver. Now, months later, they offer some tepid comments in a press release.

Why? You'd have to ask them. But if you wanted to craft a lawsuit, a settlement, and a post-settlement enforcement strategy designed to thwart efforts to keep families together and promote the taking of children from impoverished families for adoptive placement with middle-class strangers, it would be hard to top the approach that CR has taken.

So CR sits idly by while prevention and family preservation are eviscerated in order to fund a hiring binge of child abuse investigators and foster care workers – and to promote the only form of permanence CR really seems to support: Adoption.

To the extent that this has failed, and to the extent that there has been any real progress in Michigan, (and the report shows there has been a little progress) it is because outside advocates, like NCCPR, have raised hell about CR's approach and problems in the settlement – and, it turns out, because of what amounts to a rebellion among frontline caseworkers. (More on that tomorrow).

CR waited for the monitor to point out what any lawyers who really cared about the best interests of children would have been shouting about from the start: "Early analysis suggests that … service cuts are not consistent with the Settlement Agreement commitments to increase investments in services" [p. 34]. The settlement agreement is legally binding on the state.

The monitor's report also notes that "some of these eliminated services are identical to those identified by DHS in its permanency backlog gap analysis and by Michigan State University in the Needs Assessment as being already scarce for children and families involved with the child welfare system" [p. 33]. Those two documents also are legally required by the settlement.

Didn't CR notice this? Or did they simply not care because they were getting more money for foster care and child abuse investigations, at the expense of prevention and family preservation?

In Illinois, when similar slash-and-burn budget cuts threatened a longstanding consent decree, the plaintiffs in that suit – the Illinois Branch of the ACLU – didn't sit around waiting for a monitor's report. They went straight to court – and got the cuts stopped. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that the Illinois settlement emphasizes working to keep families together – turning that state into, relatively speaking, a model of child welfare success.

In contrast, I haven't even seen CR speak out against the Michigan cuts, until its tepid press release today, much less use its enormous legal clout to fight them.

Setting up families to fail

The budget cuts also threaten one of the few substantive successes in Michigan reported by the monitor: The state is ahead of schedule in reunifying children in a "backlog cohort" – child welfare-speak for a great big group of children who have been trapped in foster care more than a year even though the goal is reunification. (Not surprisingly, most of this progress was made in cases where DHS directly supervises the case. The state's powerful private agencies, which are paid for every day they hold a child in foster care, are behind schedule in reunifications).

But successful reunification depends on ongoing help to the family after it's back together. Ismael Ahmed's budget cuts threaten those very services, increasing the likelihood that the children will come back into foster care.

Of course, if that happens, Ahmed's buddies at the private agencies can then scapegoat the reunification instead of the failure to support that reunification. They'll say "See? We shouldn't be reunifying these families? Let's just go back to rushing to terminate parental rights and pushing adoption-at-all-costs."

A win-win for Ahmed and his friends, a lose-lose for children.

Tomorrow: The frontline rebellion that helped save kinship care in Michigan

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A consistent conservative gives meaning to “family values”

In a previous post to this Blog, I wrote about a Wall Street Journal columnist who challenged liberals who are appalled by the failure of authorities in Florida to return Riqfa Bary to her family in Ohio. He argued that we should be equally outraged by a New Hampshire court that forced a home schooling mother to enroll her child in public schools because the court didn't like the way the mother was educating the daughter concerning religion.

I wrote that the columnist was right about the New Hampshire case – and also called it to the attention of a very good columnist in that state, who wrote a column condemning the court decision. But I argued that the columnist had flunked his own test, since he could not bring himself to take on his fellow conservatives and argue for Rifqa's return.

But another conservative has done just that. He is someone in a particularly good position to know the facts of the case and he has been there, almost literally, from day one. He is Craig McCarthy, an evangelical Christian and, for the first three weeks of the case, the court-appointed lawyer for Rifqa's mother.

Once the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released its report finding no evidence for Rifqa's claim that she'd be killed if she returned home, McCarthy was free to write about what he knows of the case – and to urge his fellow evangelicals to reconsider. He did so in this op ed column in the St. Petersburg Times.

McCarthy writes:

I was annoyed as a Christian, as an officer of the court and as a litigator (in that order) that many with whom I agree on many issues were so willing to disregard the notion that a parent has the right in this country to raise and influence a child without governmental interference, unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect that is credible and not based on stereotypes or based on the beliefs or actions of what people who are not the parents might think, feel or do.

I know that feeling. It's the same one I get when my fellow liberals forget everything they claim to believe about civil liberties whenever someone whispers the words "child abuse" in their ears. (The FLDS case being one example, the common liberal willingness to deny due process protections and open, public court hearings to families in these cases being another.)

There have been two other noteworthy columns on the Rifqa Bary case. Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas offers another dose of common sense. And, taking off from a point first raised by Thomas, fellow Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell writes a hypothetical news story in which a Christian child runs off to the home of a radical Imam and claims her Christian parents will kill her because she's embraced Islam.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

More evidence for a primary tenet of family preservation (and from such an unlikely source.)

…that tenet being that people can change.


"Resources have been added to the child welfare system for the past two decades without a measurable improvement … Adding resources, staff, more training, and other resources to child welfare reform has not yet resulted in measurable improvements, a reduction in child fatalities, or increased child well-being."

--Richard Gelles, Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, December 1999.


"They need more money, more workers, fewer caseloads, but by the time reports are published, everyone has moved on."

--Richard Gelles, Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, Washington Post, August 25, 2009.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Statistics abuse in L.A.

The Los Angeles Times ran a response to NCCPR's op ed concerning the foster-care panic sweeping through the county. In claims that echo those of the county Department of Children and Family Services, almost word for word, Susan Edelstein, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA, engages in some shameless statistics abuse.

First, she claims there is something wrong with the methodology NCCPR used to determine how many children are taken from their parents each year. That methodology is known as - counting. We measure the number of children taken away each year by looking at DCFS' own count of that very number.

That figure shows a 23 percent increase since 2003. In contrast, the adjunct professor relies on the number of children who happen to be in foster care on any given day. But that number can rise or fall for a variety of reasons unrelated to the number of children actually taken from their parents. For example, a large number of children aging out of the system with no place to go can cause this "snapshot number" as it's called, to decline.

The adjunct then compares the number of children taken from their parents in 1998 to the number a decade later and finds a decline.

We've never disputed that there was such a decline - for the first half of that decade. But the adjunct neglects to mention that the rate hit a low point in 2003 - and the current rate is, in fact, significantly higher than the rate in 2003.

The adjunct also challenges NCCPR's statements concerning a landmark study of the harm of foster care. Rather than go back and forth on this point, I hope people read it and decide for themselves.

That's why we include a link to the full study from the home page of our website, It's included in the item called "The Evidence is In."

The adjunct, who apparently does a lot of training, then says that her 40 years of experience tells her that the answer to everything is - more training. But training is no substitute for due process - especially when the trainer herself engages in statistics abuse. Perhaps it's time for the adjunct to retire and allow people with new vision and new ideas to handle the training.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

CR’s new low


There are all sorts of incentives that push everyone from frontline caseworkers to judges to take away more children. Those same incentives push child welfare agency chiefs and government officials to demand such action.

Some of those incentives are personal. Most caseworkers, judges, etc. are middle class. It is far easier for them to identify with middle-class foster and adoptive parents in sparkling suburban homes than with impoverished birth parents in cramped, messy apartments. It's easy to just assume the children would be "better off" with people like "us" instead of people like "them."

Some of those incentives are political. Though caseworkers often say they're "damned if we do and damned if we don't" in fact, in more than 30 years of following child welfare, I've never heard of a caseworker being fired, demoted, suspended, or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers if a child died or was seriously hurt in her or his own home. The same is true of judges, agency chiefs and pretty much everyone else who comes anywhere near child welfare.

You can take away huge numbers of children needlessly, subject perhaps one-third of them to abuse in foster care itself, destroy the psyches of many of the rest, and have them emerge years later, unable to love or trust anyone, and while the children will suffer terribly, the worker or the judge or the agency chief will endure no penalty. They might even be praised for it, gaining a laudatory nickname like "The Terminator" or "Cap'n Hook." When it comes to taking away children, you're only damned if you don't.

But the worst incentives are financial. No, governments don't "make money on foster care" as some have claimed. But while safe, proven alternatives to foster care cost less in total dollars, the huge amounts of money the federal government reimburses states for foster care can make it cost less for states to use foster care than to use those better alternatives. And private agencies, typically paid for every day they hold a child in foster care, do indeed make money on foster care. (For details, see NCCPR's Issue Paper on financial incentives.)

It's impossible to wring out all the lousy incentives; the best that can be done is to try to balance them – so they cancel each other out and leave parties free to make decisions on the merits.

One state has taken a tiny step in that direction – so, of course, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) – is trying to stop it.

The state is Tennessee, where apparently, in some counties, judges are so fanatical about child removal they're tearing apart large numbers of families even when the state child welfare agency itself doesn't want them to. So the state passed a law that offers one tiny check and balance. Once a county gets so bad that it is taking away children at a rate three times the state average (which, by the way also happens to be just about the national average), the county itself has to foot the bill for those additional placements.

How many counties is this likely to affect? Maybe one. According to The Tennessean, only one county placed children at a rate so obscenely above the national average in FY 2008, none in FY 2009.

But even the idea that somewhere, somehow a judge might pause and think more carefully before tearing apart a family is more than CR can stand. So they're seeking a temporary restraining order to block implementation of the law.

Their argument, of course, is that judges might be influenced by financial issues instead of "the best interests of the child." That might make sense in a world of pristine purity where there were not one incentive after another pushing for foster care even when it's against those best interests. What Tennessee does is try to balance the overwhelming pressure in one direction with a little pressure in the other; sort of like, oh, I don't know, balancing a scale.

CR also argues that children in counties where close to three times the state average number of children are being taken won't get the same "protection" as children in other counties because judges might hesitate to tear them from their parents. Wrong again. If a county is tearing apart children at a rate nearly triple the state average those children are less protected. They are less protected from having their poverty confused with neglect, less protected from abuse in foster care, and less protected from having their psyches destroyed by being bounced from foster home to foster home – just because the local judge is so fanatical he's tearing apart families even when the child welfare agency itself would rather he didn't. (Recall the landmark studies showing that, in typical cases, children placed in foster care usually fare worse even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.)

This law helps put those children on an equal footing with children in counties where judges are not such removal fanatics.

And finally, CR seems to have learned the lesson that when all else fails, they should cry meth. CR argues that the one county that once exceeded the 300 percent threshold also had the most seizures of meth labs. But CR does not say what proportion of children taken away came from those labs. Home meth labs themselves are a tiny part of the meth problem, however. And when the issue is addiction to meth, as opposed to making it oneself, meth is just as treatable as addiction to any other drug. Details are in NCCPR's publication, Epidemic of Hype.

There is no excuse for trying to stop one small step toward restoring balance and common sense in child welfare. And, saddest of all, there was a time when CR's founder and executive director, Marcia Lowry, understood that.

More than 20 years ago, Marcia brought to a Congressional hearing the lead plaintiff in one of her class-action lawsuits – a 12-year-old named Boyd, forced to endure five years in foster care just because his mother lacked adequate housing. At the time Marcia was crusading to enforce a 1980 law requiring "reasonable efforts" to keep families together.

''Boyd's mother had a difficulty, not a very serious difficulty, but it took her five years to get her children back,'' Marcia testified, according to a New York Times story. ''There was never any question of abuse with this family. These are children who are supposed to be protected by this very fine legislation. But reasonable efforts were not made in this case or in thousands of cases.''

And then the Times quoted Boyd: ''They took almost five years away from my life," he said, "and I'm only 12.''

Four recent studies have found that 30 percent of America's foster children are like Boyd - they could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing. But I have no doubt that, were a child like Boyd to show up at CR's offices today, their reaction would boil down to: "Go 'way kid, ya bother me."

In Tennessee, CR has just betrayed such children yet again.

This Blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks; barring extraordinary circumstances, I don't expect to be posting again until the week of Sept. 21. (Of course, I'd said that yesterday, too.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A columnist flunks his own challenge

A columnist for The Wall Street Journal issued a challenge Sunday to those of us who are outraged by the failure of a Florida court to send Rifqa Bary back to Ohio. William McGurn says we should be equally outraged by what is happening to Amanda Kurowski, a ten-year-old girl in New Hampshire.

If the facts are as McGurn states, and other news accounts suggest that they are, he's got a point.

Child Protective Services isn't involved in this one. It's a custody case. Mom has custody and Dad didn't like the way Mom was educating the child – she was homeschooling her. There is no evidence that this has harmed Amanda – on the contrary, the court concluded that "the evidence supports a finding that Amanda is generally likeable and well liked, social and interactive with her peers, academically promising, and intellectually at or superior to grade level."

So, what's the problem? According to McGurn:

The father has had long-standing complaints about the effect of home-schooling on his daughter's "socialization," even though Amanda has already taken classes at the school and participated in extracurricular activities. But the order appears to be based on the guardian ad litem's worry about Amanda's "rigidity on faith." The order also accepts the same guardian's conclusion that Amanda belongs in a public school because she "would be best served by exposure to different points of view at a time in her life when she must begin to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior and cooperation in order to select, as a young adult, which of those systems will best suit her own needs."

Now, as it happens, that view of how children should be educated precisely matches my own. But just as I wouldn't want, say, Antonin Scalia giving me orders about how to educate my child, I don't want some judge I happen to agree with telling Amanda Kurowski's mother how to educate hers – not even if it was the non-custodial parent who asked the judge to make that decision.

So, Mr. McGurn, on behalf of "the family values left" I gladly accept your challenge. But you seem to have flunked it.

Having suggested that we on the left would be hypocrites to not see these cases as the same, McGurn then says the Rifqa Bary case is different because she said she'd be killed if she returned home. So, McGurn says, the judge should "take his time" because "the fear of an honor killing—even in the United States—is not irrational." His evidence: A grand total of three alleged cases of such killings. With those odds, Rifqa Bary is at far greater risk of being struck by lightning – every time she goes to and from the courthouse in Florida – than she is of facing an honor killing in her own home.

If a child can be torn from Muslim parents because there have been three alleged honor killings in the United States, then every Christian should be suspect because, very, very rarely, one of them blows up a clinic where abortions are performed or kills a doctor who performs them. And if a child can be kept from her parents based on evidence so absurdly – so irrationally - slim as in Rifqa Bary's case, after the parents are cleared by law enforcement in two states, then any family in any disfavored group, including homeschoolers, is at that much greater risk.

As is explained at the end of an earlier post to this Blog, it is the very fact that Rifqa soon will turn 18 that makes action so urgent, and makes leaving her in Florida the greater risk to her future happiness and well-being.

A footnote: The New Hampshire and Florida cases have something else in common: Both are afflicted with clueless "guardians ad litem" (GALs). Sometimes they're lawyers, sometimes they're volunteers, but either way they're often a huge problem. That's because their job is not to speak up for what the child wants but for whatever the guardian, in her or his infinite wisdom, happens to think is best. In an assessment of the Kurowski case, New Hampshire columnist Lily Robertson writes that after seeing GAL's in action in a number of cases, "I've become convinced that GAL actually stands for "Going Against Logic." I think she's on to something.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why time matters for Rifqa Bary

In the end, some court somewhere probably will put an end to this farce, and Rifqa will be sent home. But by then, will it be too late to heal the family?

First, a recap:

Rifqa Bary's family emigrates to America from Sri Lanka so Rifqa can get the very best medical care after an eye injury. They wind up living in Columbus, Ohio.

She's an honor student and a cheerleader, neither of which suggests that her parents are fanatical fundamentalist Muslims.

Her form of adolescent rebellion is to renounce her faith and embrace evangelical Christianity, ultimately joining a Facebook group that includes husband and wife evangelical pastors from Florida.

Somehow, just as she is turning 17, she apparently becomes convinced that, as a result of her conversion, her father will kill her. In fact, in the most revealing portion of her heartrending videotaped interview she insists he has to kill her because Islam supposedly demands it.

Someone pays for a bus ticket so she can run away from home. The pastors say they didn't do it, but they know who did, and won't tell.

For days, while her desperate family searches for her and, one imagines, wonders if she is even alive, the pastors don't tell authorities that Rifqa is living with them.

When they finally come forward they exploit Rifqa via the media interview mentioned above.

The Department of Children and Families places Rifqa in a Florida foster home.

In 48 other states, the child welfare agency probably would realize very quickly that Rifqa's fears are absurd and send her home. But since this is Florida, the case immediately is politicized. (I say 48 other states instead of 49 because the one other state I can imagine behaving as Florida has is Texas, as seen in the FLDS case.)

Perhaps the absurdity of DCF's position is best seen by following a suggestion from Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas and trying to imagine what would happen had the religions been reversed. In other words, what if a child from a loving Christian home were persuaded by militant Muslims she encounters on Facebook to convert to Islam. She then runs away and is hidden for days in the home of a radical Imam. She and the Imam then insist that her Christian father will kill her for renouncing her faith.

But Florida Governor Charlie Crist is running for the U.S. Senate and he faces a primary challenge. Compared to his predecessor, Jeb Bush, Crist has been a moderate and he needs to shore up his base. So, just as Bush did, Crist exploits the plight of a child to play to that base – and DCF promptly caves in, working to hold Rifqa in Florida.

DCF claims it just wants the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to investigate and make sure Rifqa would be safe if she returns home. Meanwhile, John Stemberger, an attorney who runs the right-wing Florida Family Policy Council, a group that helped prolong the agony of Terry Schiavo's family in another notorious Florida case, volunteers to serve as Rifqa's lawyer. DCF and the court allow him to participate even though normally children in these kinds of cases get only the equivalent of a CASA - charged with advocating for whatever the CASA thinks is best for the child. (Rifqa winds up with both, and while usually the CASA-equivalent is a volunteer, this time she's apparently another lawyer.)

I've often decried the hypocrisy of some on the left when it comes to child welfare issues; this case reveals the hypocrisy of those on the right who apparently think family values are for Christian families only.

Meanwhile back in Columbus, even Franklin County Children's Services, one of the nation's worst when it comes to needlessly taking children from their homes, concludes there is no reason to believe Rifqa won't be safe in her own home. They reach an agreement with Rifqa's family to place her in a local foster home while offering counseling to the family. And the local District Attorney writes a letter to the Florida court assuring it that law enforcement in Columbus is quite capable of keeping Rifqa safe, thank you.

FDLE concludes its investigation – but the judge agrees to seal the report, so the public can't find out what's in it. And who asked that the findings be sealed? Stemberger – the same lawyer who plasters his Fox News interviews about the case on his website.

At a court hearing yesterday, a lawyer for Rifqa's mother starts to discuss the FLDE report. Fortunately she manages to mention that, of course, the FLDE report was "very favorable" to Rifqa's parents and found "no indication whatsoever" of abuse. And that raises another question about DCF: Since their original position was they were just waiting for the FLDE investigation, now that FLDE has reached its conclusion, why isn't DCF urging the court to send Rifqa home?

But before the attorney for Rifqa's mother could say more, the CASA-equivalent jumps in and demands that the mother's lawyer be silenced because the report is sealed. (Leave it to a CASA-equivalent to make everything a little worse.)

As I noted in yesterday's Blog, in many ways Florida has a significantly better child welfare system than it had just a few years ago. A key to those reforms has been a new policy of maximum openness and disclosure. It's now common, when news media go to court seeking records in case, for DCF actually to go with the journalists in support of the motion.

So the immediate question is whether that commitment to openness will be the next thing to be sacrificed by DCF to support Gov. Crist's attempt to become Senator Crist.

The court ignores the FLDE findings, the Franklin County Children's Services findings and the Franklin County District Attorney – and orders Rifqa held in Florida for at least another 30 days. He orders "mediation" in the case. But whether or not Rifqa's evangelical friends caused her fears by brainwashing her, as some have alleged, there is no question they are stoking those fears now. Stemberger has said he, too, is convinced Rifqa's father could kill her, telling, "She is a person who is ripe for apostate killing or mercy killing." That doesn't bode well for the mediation sessions.

And if all this doesn't raise enough doubts about the judge, the Orlando Sentinel reports that, in a state where everyone's consciousness should have been raised by one news story after another about the misuse of psychiatric medication on foster children, the judge himself actually asked if Rifqa should be doped up. Fortunately, even the CASA-equivalent had the sense to say no.

Eventually, Rifqa probably will be sent home. But by then it may be too late.

In less than a year, Rifqa will be free to leave home and go anywhere she wants. Once she's 18 no one can, or should, stop her. Whether or not she was "brainwashed" in the first place, it's clear that the evangelicals she's fallen in with, including her own lawyer, are stoking her fears, thereby widening the rift between Rifqa and her family.

So with every day this goes on, the odds that she'll ever be able to reconcile with her family diminish – and the odds increase that Rifqa will remain estranged from her family for years. Do we really want her to realize what's happened to her only when it's too late, perhaps after the death of one or both parents?

That's a pretty high price, even for a U.S. Senate seat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

UPDATED, 5:45 PM: Just when I thought it was safe to say nice things about Florida…


…the Florida Department of Children and Families caves in to another governor and politicizes another human services case.

This is something of a habit in Florida. Every few years a case comes along which gives a conservative governor a chance to shore up his political base – and the Department of Children and Families promptly caves.

DCF isn't only responsible for children – so it was involved in then Gov. Jeb Bush's astonishingly cruel attempt to politicize the case of Terri Schiavo. But one would hope that even a governor of Florida would understand that children should be off limits. The record shows they don't. The last two governors have felt free to order the child welfare agency to play politics with children's lives.

A few years ago, it was a 13-year-old foster child who wanted an abortion. Somehow Bush got wind of it and demanded that DCF try to stop it. Then there was the Cuban child who wound up in the hands of wealthy, powerful Cuban-American foster parents – through no fault of his Cuban father. DCF tried to deny the child the right to live with his own, loving father, and, in fact, managed to force a compromise at the child's expense. (This is not the notorious Elian Gonzalez case, in which DCF had little involvement, but it was similar enough to be branded Elian II in many quarters.) This case lasted long enough for both Bush and his successor, Charlie Crist to order DCF to put its huge thumb on the scales of justice against the father – which both hurt the child and cost taxpayers $250,000.

Right now, DCF is in court mounting a half-hearted defense of the state's law banning gay people from adopting, even though it's obvious the agency knows the law hurts children.

But all that at least began when DCF had so many other failings that politicization was the least of it. DCF really has improved a lot in the last couple of years – but not when it comes to halting the practice of putting politics ahead of children.

Which brings us to the case of 17-year-old Fathima Rifqa Bary, which is scheduled to be the subject of another court hearing today.

The case, and DCF's inexcusable behavior, were so perfectly summed up by Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas that I don't need to summarize here. The Sentinel even sent a reporter to Bary's home – her real home - in Ohio, no small feat in these days of newspaper budget cuts. That story makes even clearer the harm being done to this entire family because Gov. Crist is running for the Senate, faces a primary challenge and needs to pander to his base.

While one might expect as much from a politician, especially in Florida, it would have been nice if, once, just once, a DCF leader stood up to it. But no. DCF argued to keep Rifqa in Florida, which only will prolong everyone's ordeal. One need only watch the widely-circulated video of Rifqa on Youtube to see that every extra minute this case drags on makes everything more difficult for the family and, especially Rifqa.

Not only did DCF take the wrong stand, DCF Secretary George Sheldon personally came to court for the case (something, you may be sure, he does not do every day). Indeed, if he's got that much time on his hands, he could put it to far better use, by say, addressing Florida's ongoing problems of misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children. (Florida's problems in this regard are no worse than any other state's but, DCF has been astonishingly candid about them - and for that, Sheldon deserves credit.)

Sheldon also met personally with Rifqa and her lawyer. He apparently felt no need to meet with her distraught parents and their lawyer.

The very fact that Rifqa has a lawyer is highly unusual. In Florida, children in such cases are not entitled to them. Rather, they are assigned Guardians ad litem (usually not lawyers at all, but essentially CASA volunteers) who advocate not for what the child wants, but for whatever the guardian happens to think is best.

As readers of this Blog probably know, I believe children should have lawyers and their mandate should be to advocate for what any child old enough to express a rational preference wants. So I believe Rifqa should have a lawyer arguing for her position, even though her position is tragically wrong. But how is it that DCF and the Florida courts managed to make an exception and allow a lawyer to represent this one child in a child welfare proceeding?

Most shameful of all is Sheldon's disingenuous claim that all they're doing is watching out for Rifqa's safety. Thomas' column makes clear the absurdity of the claim. But also, that was, of course, the excuse for all the horrible things Florida did to children before recent reforms. In fact, it's the excuse for terrible things done to children all over the country by child welfare agencies – think of the FLDS raid, for example, or every time a child's poverty is confused with neglect in the name of "erring on the side of the child." Or, better yet, just think of it as the Dick Cheney defense. After all, all that torture during the (George W.) Bush Administration was in the name of "safety," too.

It sends a terrible message to frontline workers to say, in effect, "we now realize how harmful foster care is to most children most of the time, so we will no longer hide behind safety to justify needless foster care – except in the politically-charged cases."

I'm not really sorry that I've been saying nice things about Florida. It is, in fact, a much improved child welfare system over the one that existed just a few years ago. Although the agency still has a long way to go, DCF has been doing an admirable job of wringing the wrongful removal out of the system.

Now, if it could just do the same with the politics. Today's court hearing would be a great place to start.


But no, it was another victory for politics - Rifqa stays in Florida. And to top it off, the judge has imposed a gag order. DCF's signature reform over the past couple of years has been openness; if the agency can appeal the gag order and does not do so, then its signature will be hypocrisy.

At one point in today's hearing, the lawyer for Rifqa's father urged the judge to "let common sense prevail.

Clearly, he forgot he's in Florida.

UPDATE, SEPT 3, 3:05 p.m.:

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Franklin County Children’s Services, the county-run child welfare agency in Columbus, is convinced Rifqa will be perfectly safe in her own home. That’s particularly significant because, as it happens, few agencies in the entire country normally are more fanatical about taking away children than Franklin County Children’s Services. For details, see NCCPR’s report on Ohio child welfare.

● The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did its own investigation and filed a report with the court in Florida. But when the Orlando Sentinel asked for a copy, it was denied because the judge sealed it. The request to seal the report, and prevent the public from knowing what’s in it, at least for now, was filed by Rifqa’s lawyer, who, of course, is trying to keep Rifqa away from her parents. I wonder what he doesn't want us to see?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Rubbing salt in a family’s wounds

In yesterday's post to this Blog, I noted that even though they settled a class action lawsuit against the child welfare system in Mississippi, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights has made no public comment on the fact that Mississippi confiscated at birth a child from a loving mother at birth just because the mother, Cirila Baltazar Cruz, can't speak English.

Now they've added a little insult to the family's injury. No, they're still not talking about the case. But their latest newsletter brags about how well things are going in Mississippi, under the headline "Strong Leaders in Place to Carry Out Mississippi Child Welfare Reforms."

I'm sure that Ms. Cruz will be delighted to hear it.

Tomorrow: The problem they haven't fixed in Florida.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

UPDATE: No English, no child (and no help from the group calling itself “Children’s Rights”)

Time magazine now has picked up on the story of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, the mother in Mississippi whose child was confiscated at birth because the mother doesn't speak English. The story first was reported by the Jackson, Ms. Clarion Ledger, but the paper never followed up and the original story now is available only in the paper's paid archive. But it is discussed in detail in this June 18, 2009 post to the NCCPR Blog. As noted at that time, the Southern Poverty Law Center has stepped in to help.

But one group remains conspicuously silent. As I noted in that previous post:

There is one other group that could be a big help here. They settled a class-action lawsuit about the Mississippi system. They [were] even bragging about alleged progress in that state on the home page of their website [on June 18]. And they are enormously skilled at P.R. But so far, I've seen no public comment on this case from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights.

Apparently one child's right to a loving mother whose only crime is an inability to speak English makes no difference to CR.