Sunday, March 29, 2009

P.S.: The Homicide numbers don’t help ACS’ case

PAY NO ATTENTION TO MOST OF THE STATISTICS IN THIS POST -THEY DON'T REALLY TELL US ANYTHING ABOUT THE SAFETY OF NEW YORK CITY CHILDREN.

So why even mention them? Please read on.

In the previous post to this Blog, I pointed out that, in the wake of a surge in removals of children from their homes, deaths of children "known to the system" in New York City also soared. In response, the City's Administration for Children's Services claimed deaths of children known-to-the-system went up because reports alleging maltreatment went up, so more children are known to the system. We responded that the percentage increase in deaths far exceeds the percentage increase in reports.

ACS also said: Don't pay attention to the total number of deaths, look instead only at those ruled homicides. It's only because they suggested this measure, that I'm bringing it up now.

In its print edition, the Daily News published ACS data providing the number of child abuse homicides back to 1998. It turns out that, when one compares the three years starting in 2006, when the surge in child removals began, to the previous three years, child homicides increased by 50 percent – the same percentage increase as deaths of children known-to-the-system. But reports alleging maltreatment increased by only 23 to 26 percent.

Here are the data for 2006 through 2008 in summary:

Reports alleging maltreatment: up 23-26%

Deaths of children known-to-the-system: up 50%

Deaths of children known-to-the-system ruled homicides: up 50%

Children taken from their parents: up 55%

So, what should one conclude from the homicide figures? Probably, nothing. And that's for a reason for which we all should be grateful. Though each is a terrible tragedy, the number of child abuse deaths labeled homicides is so low, particularly for a jurisdiction as large as the City of New York, that it can fluctuate due to random chance.

Similarly, one should probably pay no attention to the fact that the worst year for child abuse homicides since 1998 was 1998 – the same year ACS took away more children than any on record, and a year when reports alleging maltreatment were lower than during the recent surge.

And one should ignore the fact that from 2001 through 2003, as ACS was emphasizing family preservation and the number of children torn from their parents was going down, and reports alleging maltreatment declined by only six percent, child abuse homicides were cut by more than half – from 14 to six.

Yep, one shouldn't pay any attention to those figures – until, that is, the next time some demagogic pol or clueless reporter tries to blame deaths of children known-to-the-system on efforts to keep families together, when all available evidence points to the opposite, that efforts to keep families together make children safer.

I'm only mentioning these numbers because it's ACS that suggested limiting any fatality comparison to homicide numbers, not total deaths.

Similarly, it's only because, at the end of 2005, one reporter for The New York Times claimed there had been a "series" of child abuse deaths and blamed them on efforts to keep families together, that I'll point out that the number of child abuse homicides that year – ten – was half the number in 1998. Reports alleging maltreatment were down only 13 percent. And,entries into care had been cut by nearly 60 percent. (Of course, as I've noted before, the Times reporter had an explanation for this: "it was a series," she said, "but not statistically.")

So here's what we know: The homicide numbers don't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared. The deaths known-to-the-system number doesn't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared. Most important, more reliable measures, measures to which we should pay attention, rates of reabuse and foster care recidivism, don't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared.

Long ago, when I was just starting out as a reporter, it was actually the head of an adoption agency who said something I've never forgotten: "The burden of proof should always rest with those who believe children don't belong in families."

ACS has not met its burden.

Footnote: The notion that there had been some kind of unusual “series” of child abuse deaths in late 2005 is not the first time America’s most prestigious newspaper suckered itself into perpetuating a myth. One of the most notorious examples was the subject of a fascinating segment of the WNYC Public Radio series On The Media. You can hear it on the program’s website here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UPDATED, MARCH 26: The “surge” that failed

There is an update at the end of this post

There's a very depressing number that wasn't available for a long time and now, finally, is public.
The latest issue of Child Welfare Watch
a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future, has the number: 49. That's the number of child fatalities in cases previously known to the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) in 2008. That's the highest single-year figure since 1993, which is as far back as I've ever been able to find data. And the total for the most recent three years, 134, is the worst three-year total.

That means, by the standard used most often by media and politicians, the "surge" in New York City has been a huge failure. What surge? The surge in "get tough" rhetoric from ACS, the surge in new policies encouraging things like automatic confiscation children born to mothers who already have children in foster care, and, most of all, the surge in removals of children from their homes – all of which followed the death of Nixzmary Brown in January, 2006.

I'm not terribly keen on using fatalities as a measure, even in New York City, one of the very few places where, arguably, the system is large enough to detect a pattern. But more reliable measures, reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster care "recidivism" also show that the surge has failed.

And, as anyone who has read this Blog from the beginning knows, none of this is hindsight.

Back in late 2005, when The New York Times was linking every death of a child "known to the system" to efforts to keep families together – and claiming that there had been a "series" of such deaths – we pointed out that there was no such series, the rate of such deaths was about the same as in previous years. (The reporter who made the claim later would famously explain that "it was a series – but not statistically.") We also said the most likely way to increase such deaths was to overload a child welfare system with false allegations, trivial cases and needless removals of children, therby making it even harder for caseworkers to find the children in real danger.

So now, entries into foster care are up 55 percent from their record low in 2005, and what does ACS have to show for it? A real series of deaths of children "known to the system" and a deterioration in more reliable measures of safety as well.

Meanwhile, ACS faces drastic budget cuts, the subject of a City Council hearing yesterday. According to the Times, "council members said laying off workers at the agency risked another disaster like the case of Nixzmary Brown …" which just goes to show the infinite capacity of some politicians for doublethink.

In fact, the disasters never stopped – the number of such disasters actually increased, with all those new workers simply chasing down all those new allegations. Now, some of the workers will be gone – with no change in the mentality that encourages anyone and everyone to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, and no change in the pressure on the remaining workers to rush cases needlessly into court and take children first and ask questions later.

And the doublethink isn't limited to politicians. According to The Daily News, ACS "'looked at the system and said this is what's necessary to prevent [a case like Nixzmary Brown] from happening again,' said Jennifer Marino Rojas of the Children's Defense Fund. 'Now they're cutting back.'"

No, Ms. Rojas. The cases like Nixzmary Brown never stopped happening. You, and much of the media, stopped paying attention because the cases didn't fit the storyline: that ACS' get tough on families approach had somehow made things better. When it actually made things worse, everyone looked the other way.

Try to imagine what things would be like if ACS still were taking fewer than 5,000 children per year instead of more than 7,400. For starters, children would be safer, because workers would have more time to find the children in real danger.

But also, ACS would be spending less money. Because not only is keeping children in their own homes the better, safer option for most children most of the time, it also happens to cost less. A large chunk of the ACS budget gap is caused, in fact, by all that needless foster care and all that time and money spent dragging cases into court – because ACS workers are now so afraid to leave children in their own homes without a court backing them up.

The last time I wrote about ACS, I said it might be time to change the title of NCCPR's report on the agency. No doubt about it; that time has arrived.

UPDATE, MARCH 26: THE SPIN GETS DESPERATE AT ACS

In desperately trying to spin the huge increase in deaths of children “known to the system” ACS is falling back on the crutch it’s been using to explain every failure for the past three years – it’s all supposedly because reports alleging child abuse have gone up.

Of course deaths of children known to the system have increased, ACS says, after all, there are more children actually known to the system.

But there is one big problem with that reasoning:

Depending on which set of numbers you use, the increase in reports since 2005 is anywhere from 23 percent to 26 percent. The increase in deaths of children previously known to ACS is from 50 to 60 percent.

Unfortunately, a story in today’s Times doesn’t allow for an apples-to-apples comparison – it compares the increase in reports from 2005 to 2008, but the increase in entries into care only from 2007 to 2008.

Second item from the ACS Department of Spin: We shouldn’t pay attention to deaths of children known to the system anymore, since some of them are accidents. Now ACS tells us we should pay attention only to homicides.

Hard to know where to begin on that one.

For starters, deaths of children known to the system has been the measure of choice for the media in New York ever since the Times claimed there had been a “series” of such deaths in late 2005, and blamed them on efforts to keep families together. (It also tends to be the measure of choice for media all over the country.) There was no such series – back then the rate of such deaths had been largely unchanged for several years.

Now that the deaths really have increased, even as ACS takes far more children, suddenly we’re supposed to ignore this number?

Actually, this isn't the first time ACS has tried to persuade New Yorkers to do just that. After the death of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995 was followed by a huge increase in removals of children - and an increase in deaths of children "known to the system" the agency pulled the same stunt. Here's how the Times reported the story back then.

Also, while a category like deaths known to the system can include some accidents, as the Daily News explains, looking only at those labeled homicide leaves out an enormous number of cases where ACS may have some culpability.

The way child abuse deaths are defined can be remarkably subjective. For instance: In a family with a history of alleged neglect, a toddler manages to get out the back door, wanders off and drowns. Accident or “neglect”? It may well depend on whether the water was a pond behind a trailer park (neglect) or the pool at a McMansion (accident). (See Drowning in Misinformation Jan. 6, 2008.)

And what do you think ACS would have said about using deaths of children “known to the system” as a measure had they gone down?

Finally, as I noted in the original post above, and every time I’ve commented on the spike in child fatalities in New York City since it first became known two years ago (and since NCCPR warned it was likely three years ago): I’d much rather use better measures such as foster care recidivism and rates of reabuse.

Those measures also have deteriorated since the surge in removals. Someone might want to ask ACS about that, if only to watch the spin machine go into overdrive.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

UPDATED, MARCH 22: How much damage can “Children’s Rights” do in just one state?

There is a brief update at the end of this post.
A group called Michigan's Children just put out an analysis of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposals for spending on human services. But here's the bottom line: Big cuts in prevention – at least $38 million – to help finance a big increase in spending on foster care and institutionalization.

That includes not only cuts in programs specifically aimed at family support and child abuse prevention, (much of it, as noted in NCCPR's Michigan report last month, actually funded by TANF surplus money that's supposed to help poor people become self-sufficient) but also cuts in concrete help for impoverished families, such as eliminating a planned raise in pathetically-low welfare payments and eliminating a raise in rates for day care providers.

The $38 million figure does not include de facto cuts in a slew of other programs, at least one of them a national model, which are being level funded in the face of increasing need – the same programs cited in NCCPR's Michigan Report in the section called "The coming TANF train wreck."

The whole thing is nuts.

Michigan's settlement with the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights requires lowering caseloads. The Michigan Department of Human Services has responded in the typical bureaucratic way - assuming the only way to do this is to hire more workers (as opposed to, say, increasing prevention and taking fewer children). So now the new workers will be hired by cutting prevention money – and that almost guarantees more cases. So all Michigan gets is the same lousy system only bigger.

Brilliant.

Worse, while rates for people who provide day care so single parents can work will be cut, rates for expensive, largely worthless residential treatment centers will be increased.

The two people most responsible for these absurd priorities are Marcia Lowry and Ismael Ahmed.

Marcia runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights – a group that long ago abandoned any reform effort that involved working to keep families together and instead claims it can "fix" foster care. She negotiated a settlement that allows Michigan to bleed prevention to fund more and more foster care. So instead of a repaired system, you just get a bigger one.

Ahmed runs Michigan's Department of Human Services. He replaced Marianne Udow who was the first DHS leader in more than a decade who actually understood child welfare – which made her a threat to the state's "foster care-industrial complex," it's network of powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care. Ahmed is probably a good guy – but he's clueless - a pushover for anything the private agencies ask for. So it's no wonder they're practically swooning over Ahmed – and the settlement.

One of the leaders of the "foster care-industrial complex," Jim Paparella, Executive Director of Child & Family Services, Capital Area, and one of the most regressive voices in Michigan child welfare, (his exercise in "truthiness" on behalf of one of those awful parking place "shelters" was discussed in an earlier post to this Blog) sure sounded like a man in love when he wrote this in an October, 2008 op ed in the Lansing State Journal:

The settlement resulted from many long months of hard work and was accelerated by newly appointed DHS officials who came aboard last fall. Refreshing from the perspective of private nonprofit agencies in Michigan is the crystal clear vision, direction, and open-mindedness demonstrated by the new leadership. Over the past year, a strong sense of mutual respect and trust has been cultivated between the public and private services sectors, providing the sound foundation that will be needed to implement the major reforms called for in the settlement.

What Paparella really is saying is: Marianne Udow wouldn't give us whatever we wanted – Ismael Ahmed will. And sure enough, even as prevention is cut, Ahmed comes through with more money for institutions. At the same time, the proposed budget includes a cut in Family Group Decision Making, a program similar to a key component of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family program – a program Ahmed already has curbed and which many of the private agencies hate. (The Casey Foundation is a longtime funder of NCCPR.)

In addition to the increases in funding for foster care and institutionalization, funding for adoption also is going up. That's not a bad thing in itself – adoption is a vital part of any good child welfare system. And there is nothing wrong with helping adoptive parents with the costs of adoption, even without a means test. But in past years, poor people in Michigan actually have been forced to, in effect, subsidize adoptions by middle-class families, since $41 million in adoption subsidy money came from TANF – money meant to be used to help poor people become self-sufficient. The Michigan's Children analysis doesn't say if this still is going on, but odds are that's unchanged.

So forget the huge report soon to emerge from the giant "Task Force" Ahmed named – the one that will be packed with platitudes about prevention. (I wonder if it will say that "children are our future"?) And don't believe the canned op ed pieces that will be written for task force members to fill in some blanks and pass off as their own in their local newspapers. (According to a power point presentation on the Task Force website a committee is preparing the "template.") The real story is in the budget. And the real story is ugly.

I first took a look at the budget analysis after reading an op ed by Jack Kresnak, a former Detroit Free Press reporter who now runs Michigan's Children. He called for an increase the tax on beer to avoid the budget cuts. At first I thought that was a good idea – after all, I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But looking at where Ismael Ahmed and Marcia Lowry have persuaded the Governor to increase spending makes it clear that any new money supposedly for prevention would only be used to free up more existing funds for more foster care and more money to institutionalize children. There's no point in raising taxes just for the same lousy system only bigger.

By the way, there are people who have complained that posts like these, and NCCPR's Michigan Report are too "inflammatory." (Hard to believe, I know.) I can live with that. There are a lot of good people at DHS and even the private agencies, where they've persuaded themselves that their largely worthless institutions aren't largely worthless. But that doesn't change the fact that, for decades, DHS and the private agencies have been hurting the children they're supposed to help. Isn't it time to light a fire under them?

UPDATE, MARCH 22: The New York Times Florida Newspapers have a story about a guy named Don Winstead, the man picked by that state’s Governor to oversee how Florida will use its federal stimulus money.  According to the story, Winstead has been “praised for helping the state land a federal waiver for foster care that earned the state extra money and more flexibility on where the money was spent.”
            That is, of course, the same waiver that Michigan first accepted, and then turned down at the last minute.  You would think Winstead’s counterpart in Michigan - whoever it was who made that idiotic decision to turn down the waiver - at least would have the decency to own up to it.
            And one would hope the Task Force would demand answers about the waiver and include them in its own report.  But don’t bet on it.  The Task Force, which meets again tomorrow, doesn’t seem interested in lighting a fire under anyone.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A governor with something to brag about

    Governors usually try not to talk about the child welfare system in their state – unless of course they're issuing some proclamation celebrating the state's annual adoption day.  Other than that, they prefer to keep silent since there is so little good news to report.  A perfect example of the "duck and cover" school of non-leadership is Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.  (See The wrong choice for HHS, March 1).
                But things are different in Maine.  This year, for at least the second time, Gov. John Baldacci made a point of mentioning child welfare during his State of the State address.  That's because Baldacci has something to brag about.

"Smaller government doesn't mean we settle for less effective government," the governor said. "Let me give you an example. In Child Welfare, we have worked with families, schools and communities to reduce the number of children in foster care by one-third and to double the percentage of children placed with relatives and families. Government gets smaller, and children are healthier and happier."

Two people are primarily responsible for this. One is Mary Callahan, a longtime foster parent who got fed up with the fact that almost every child placed with her could have remained safely in her or his own home if only the birth parents had gotten as much help as she was getting as a foster parent. She wrote a book about it, Memoirs of a Babystealer, and led a successful grassroots reform effort. (One of Callahan's presentations to Maine leaders, given before things turned around, is on NCCPR's website here.)

The other is James Beougher, director of the Office of child and Family Services in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Beougher is part of what I have come to call the the Michigan Child Welfare Brain Drain – good people with innovative ideas who got fed up with having their efforts thwarted by craven political leadership in that state. So they took those good ideas to more receptive states and localities – and wound up giving their political leaders a chance to actually brag about child welfare.

Mr. President: It's not too late to change your mind about Sebelius and nominate John Baldacci to run HHS instead.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tomorrow: A follow-up to NCCPR’s Michigan report

    Tomorrow morning, NCCPR releases its Michigan Rate-of-Removal Index, which compares the propensity of Michigan counties to take children from their parents. The Index and press release will be posted on www.nccpr.org, with a link from the State and Local Reports page.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why child welfare is improving in Florida – but not in Michigan

There is more evidence that Florida, once synonymous with child welfare failure is making significant improvements. And there are lessons in Florida's progress for the Obama Administration and the other states – especially Michigan.

    Florida has an unusual waiver which allows it to spend federal money normally restricted to foster care on better alternatives as well. Florida is the only state-run system to have such a waiver. Michigan accepted the same deal, but, after issuing press releases announcing its acceptance and doing all sorts of media interviews to tout it, the state suddenly slinked away from the deal at the last minute. Sadly, this kind of behavior is typical for Michigan, as is documented in our recent report on Michigan child welfare.

    A condition of the waiver is periodic independent evaluations. The most recent is available here: http://centerforchildwelfare.fmhi.usf.edu/kb/flres/IV-E%20Semi-Annual%20Progress%20Report%204%20%20SFY07-08%2012-19-08%20final.pdf It covers the period ending with Fiscal Year 2007. Among the findings:

The rate of reabuse of children within six months after a case has been closed was cut in half.

    In addition to statewide figures, the independent evaluation also measures results for Florida's semi-autonomous regions. The best record on avoiding re-abuse was in the Miami region - where the former DCF regional administrator, Alan Abramowitz, put a very high priority on family preservation.

    The Miami region also had one of the best records on the other key safety measure, foster care recidivism – that is, the proportion of children discharged from foster care to parents or another family member who re-entered within 12 months. The Tampa region, another with a strong emphasis on family preservation, also did particularly well.

    There was significant statewide improvement on the proportion of children for whom a case was opened who had to enter foster care within a year. The figure was 15.7 percent in FY 2007, down from 23.3 percent the year before. And again, the Miami region was among the top performers.

    One reason these data are so important is because of the implications for federal child welfare policy.

    President Obama says he wants to curb entitlements and end wasteful spending. Making the Florida waiver the norm instead of the exception – at a minimum on a voluntary basis – would be a great way to do both. Ideally, the Obama Administration would move to close the open spigot of foster care funding and require states to accept their foster care payments as a flexible flat grant, which could be used both for foster care and for better alternatives.

In Florida the data are important for another reason: The backlash.

What backlash? The one that hasn't happened yet. But it will.

    When you stop taking so many children, you hit a lot of vested interests right in the wallet. That's probably one of the key reasons Michigan chickened out. And there are plenty of other people who simply can't get past the take-the-child-and-run mentality and its simple, visceral appeal.

    Since no system can prevent every tragedy, sooner or later another high-profile death of a child "known to the system" will galvanize Florida, the way the case of Kayla McKean did more than a decade ago.

    That's when the take-the-child-and-run crowd; the people who view the horrors of Florida's foster care from 1999 through 2006 panic as "the good old days" will come out of the woodwork, fingers wagging, and try to scapegoat reform for the tragedy.

    They're counting on everyone forgetting all the tragedies during the era of foster care panic in Florida. They're counting on everyone forgetting that, even as entries into care soared in Florida, so did deaths of children "known to the system." They're counting on everyone forgetting Rilya Wilson, and the chaos her case symbolized. (And if readers of this Blog don't remember that name, it kind of proves the point.)

    And they're counting on everyone ignoring data like those in this new, independent study, which show that Florida's new emphasis on family preservation is making children safer.

    Florida still has a long way to go. Like Michigan, the state is among those hardest hit by the economic collapse, and the child welfare agency and programs that agency uses to keep families together are going to see budget cuts. But unlike Michigan, at least Florida has the waiver to cushion the blow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The foster care Twilight Zone

    Quick: How many children are trapped in foster care on any given day?

    The usual answer is about half a million.

    But a new study suggests this figure may be way too low. It suggests the existence of a foster care Twilight Zone that traps another 300,000 children who never show up in state or federal statistics.

    The good news: These 300,000 children at least are in kinship care, which cushions the blow of foster care.

    The bad news: This kind of kinship care clearly is foster care by any common sense definition. But states are getting away with keeping these placements off the books.

    So even as state and federal policymakers claim that the number of children in foster care has been declining, in fact, we don't know if it's true.

    Even as a very, very rich foundation called Casey Family Programs sets a noble goal of cutting the number of children in foster care in half by 2020, it's not clear that there will be any way to know if that goal is achieved.

    All this emerges from a careful reading of a new report on kinship care from a group called Child Trends, available here: http://www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends-2009_02_24_FR_KinshipCare.pdf

We've tended to think of two kinds of kinship care: Entirely private arrangements, in which, say, a parent asks her own parents to take care of the kids for awhile, and the CPS agency never so much as hears about it, or formal kinship care in which the CPS agency takes the child away, assumes custody and places the child with, say, a grandparent.

This report suggests that there is a growing category in-between. It's best described in a flow chart on page 14. And even within this category, there are wide variations from state to state and perhaps even placement to placement.  No one knows how large this category is.  But while the number of children in "official" kinship care is 125,000, the report cites one study, on page 5, which suggests that another 280,000 to 417,000 may be in the foster care Twilight Zone.

This category is described repeatedly in the report as being used to "divert" children from foster care. The authors used this term in a questionnaire sent to child welfare administrators. But it sure looks like foster care to me. In these additional 280,000 to 417,000 cases, the child welfare agency, and sometimes a court, "determine" that the child should not live with the birth parents and the agency approves where the child will live. What happens afterwards varies.

But that alone should be enough for it to "count" as a foster care placement.

Indeed, the federal AFCARS database does not require that a child be in state "custody" for the removal to be deemed an entry into care. Rather, a removal counts as an entry into care if the child is under the "placement care or supervision responsibility" of the state or local child welfare agency.

I suspect the regulations were written this way to avoid states simply not counting all situations in which children are returned home before the first court hearing. (As has been noted often on this blog before, including the previous post, Kansas does this anyway, exploiting a loophole in the regs or simply ignoring them, depending on your point of view.)

In any event, I would think that, at a minimum, any case in category 5a on the flow chart should count as an entry into foster care. And, in fact, all such cases should count: If the state forces you to put your child someplace other than your own home, it's foster care.

Indeed, this all looks uncomfortably like a return to a practice that was common at least through the 1980s – coerced "voluntary" placements into foster care.

I'm not suggesting that having a category of placements like these – in which a child is forced into kinship foster care, but there sometimes is less ongoing butting into the family's business -- is wrong. On the contrary, these kinds of placements are likely to be better for most children most of the time than the kind in which CPS exerts even more power over the family.

But we need to be honest about the fact that many, if not all of these placements fit a common-sense definition of "foster care." At a minimum, we need solid, specific, loophole-free definitions of what constitutes "foster care" and what constitutes an entry into care.

    Unfortunately, the last person likely to act on this is President Obama's choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius – since, as is discussed in the previous post, she had no problem with her state's version of HHS fudging figures on entries into care to an extent that is probably worse than any other state.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The wrong choice for HHS

    There already are indications that child welfare simply isn't on President Obama's radar. The first is the fact that, essentially by accident, he included a provision in the stimulus bill that actually worsens the financial incentives in child welfare – increasing the incentive for using foster care instead of safe, proven alternatives. (See: Stimulating more foster care? Feb. 3).

    And now, the President has nominated to run the Department of Health and Human Services someone who now runs the state that may well be the child removal capital of America – and someone with a breathtaking tolerance for intellectual dishonesty – Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

    Depending on your point of view, Kansas either has exploited a loophole in federal regulations or is simply violating those regulations in a way which allows the state to avoid reporting to the federal government a huge number of cases in which children are thrown into foster care. Were these "off-the-books" placements counted, Kansas might well have the highest rate of child removal in the country. Details are in NCCPR's report on Kansas child welfare and in these previous posts to the Blog: Turning foster children into unpersons , What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot,  It's not Oz, it's Kansas. 
   This is even more alarming in light of a new report which suggests that, across the country, there are hundreds of thousands of children in placements that are, by any common-sense definition foster care, but who are not counted as foster children by states or the federal government. (There will be details on this in a future post to this Blog.) The report reveals an urgent need to standardize, and rigorously enforce, definitions of placement and entries into care – in other words, exactly what Kathleen Sebelius refused to do in Kansas. 
   But fudging the figures was only the beginning.
    Then came the scandal over comments by Sebelius' appointee to run Kansas' own equivalent of HHS, the state Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services. SRS Secretary Don Jordan told family advocates that his caseworkers in Wichita were being bullied by the local D.A.'s office into hyping the reports they wrote about families, in order to make it easier to justify taking children from their homes. When word got out, Jordan said he didn't mean a word of it. He was just – and this is his word – "pandering" to the advocates. Details, again, are in NCCPR's Kansas Report and in these Blog posts: "They lie, they lie, they AWFULLY lie"
and Don Jordan tries to un-ring the bell.

    So we know that Jordan made a blatantly false statement – we just don't know which one. And what did the Governor do about it? Absolutely nothing.

    And it could get worse. Youth Today reports that one of the candidates on the short list to run the part of HHS responsible most directly for child welfare, the Administration for Children and Families is Anne Holton, a former juvenile court judge and wife of Virginia Governor and Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine.

    Holton's record is not all bad. She persuaded the legislature to change financial incentives for counties – which run child welfare here in Virginia – to discourage use of group homes and institutions. But Holton's idea of child welfare reform is to conduct a "listening tour" across the state, systematically reaching out to every constituency – except birth parents, to whom she simply would not deign to listen. She persuaded the state to throw away tens of millions of dollars that could have been used to keep families together on a giant, needless pay raise for foster parents. She appears to view "permanence" solely in terms of adoption and her apparent interest in due process for families is nil. For details, see NCCPR's Report on Virginia child welfare.

Of course, like so many of my fellow liberals, in the larger sphere of "children's issues" both Sebelius and Holton probably would do fine. Sebelius will, of course, be pushing health care reform and other initiatives to curb poverty and anything that curbs poverty curbs the needless destruction of families. So even a Sebelius-Holton regime probably would be better than its predecessors.

But as is so often the case, they share that great liberal blindspot – supporting a legal and policy scheme of infringements on the rights of children to live in their own homes that would make John Ashcroft blush. In short, both Sebelius and Holton make the traditional liberal exception to "living our values" – they cast those values aside as soon as anyone whispers the words "child abuse" in their ears.

    So when it comes to the specifics of child welfare policy, a Sebelius – Holton team would be a dream team for special interests like the Child Welfare League of America – but not for children at risk of being torn from everyone they know and love.