Thursday, August 27, 2009

New York City’s retreat from reform

In all of American child welfare, no one has a tougher job than John Mattingly, commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services. And there is no one in America who could have done a better job than Mattingly when the system was engulfed in crisis in 2006.

Mattingly came to ACS from the Annie E. Casey Foundation where he worked on foster care reform efforts nationwide, and served on a panel of national experts that steered former ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta away from a take-the-child-and-run approach and toward reforms that almost made New York City a national leader in child welfare. (While at Casey, Mattingly also recommended that the Foundation fund NCCPR, perhaps not one of his favorite recommendations at the moment.)

So reforms he helped initiate were well underway when Mattingly took over from William Bell who had succeeded Scoppetta. Mattingly built on those reforms and, at their height, New York City had safely reduced the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year from 12,000 to under 4,900. At the same time, he bolstered kinship care, an area where New York long has lagged behind other cities, reduced the use of group homes and institutions and even took the first tentative steps toward requiring real accountability from the huge, powerful private agencies that have dominated New York child welfare for 150 years.

And the challenges faced by Mattingly are unique among reform-minded child welfare administrators. There are very few such people in child welfare; but among those few the others either haven't faced a backlash yet or left before the backlash hit. Mattingly is the first to face head-on the powerful forces that always try to exploit tragedy to thwart reform.

Mattingly was running ACS when the neocon ideologue who then had the child welfare beat at The New York Times turned child abuse deaths into a "series" that didn't exist and then blamed them on ACS' reforms. The deaths were tragically real, but there had been no increase in their number. ("It was a series," the reporter would famously explain later, "but not statistically.")

That set the stage for the response to the hideous murder of Nixzmary Brown in January, 2006 – a huge spike in removals of children from their homes. The New York Post called for Mattingly's resignation and the Daily News came close. (To his credit, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored those demands. Indeed, while Bloomberg could have done better, he was a beacon of statesmanship when compared with the likes of Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. or the Board of Supervisors in Los Angeles County.)

Had almost anyone else been running ACS at the time, the spike in removals almost certainly would have been worse and reform efforts in New York City now would lie in ruins. As I said, no one in America who could have done a better job than John Mattingly.

But John Mattingly could have done a better job than he did.

A series of missteps has become a retreat from reform that never needed to happen. In the year ending May 31, 2009, ACS took away more than 7,500 children. That's still a much better record than the 12,000 taken when the system was at its worst more than a decade ago, but it's a 50 percent increase from the year before Nixzmary Brown died. It happened because:

Instead of defending reforms that had, by all objective measures, improved child safety, Mattingly pandered to the neocons. He fed red meat to the Daily News editorial board with inflammatory comments about how his own caseworkers were doing too much to keep families together.

ACS made disingenuous claims about the surge in removals, arguing that more children were being taken because there were more reports of maltreatment. In fact, the rate at which families were torn apart far exceeded the rate of increase in reports.

Mattingly invited the New York Times reporter who invented the notion that deaths were a "series" to watch him in full "get tough" mode at a meeting of caseworkers.

When the city's Department of Investigation drew absurd conclusions about ACS based on a study of only the worst cases, ACS embraced the report instead of fighting back on behalf of the agency and its frontline workers.

Mattingly issued a confiscation-at-birth policy, requiring his workers to automatically take into custody any child born to a parent who already had a child in foster care. Exceptions are possible, but very difficult.

ACS partnered with the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" in a project that gives every other constituency in child welfare a full place at the table while relegating birth parents to a focus group.

Mattingly threw cold water on plans to expand an excellent form of permanence for children, subsidized guardianship.

ACS even is reportedly slowing down what may be Mattingly's signature accomplishment, moving children out of the worst form of care, group homes and institutions, and into families. Of course, everything is harder when you're taking away 7,500 children per year than it was when you were taking fewer than 4,900.

The message to the frontlines is clear and it is overwhelming: Take away children needlessly and the children may suffer terribly, but your career is safe. Have the next tragedy on your caseload and your career may be over.

Part of the fault rests with advocates like me. Precisely because we hold Mattingly in such high regard, and understood how much pressure he was under from the take-the-child-and-run crowd, we waited too long to direct our criticism specifically at ACS and Mattingly. So he was getting pressure only from those who wanted him to retreat even further from his own reforms.

All of which brings me to a publication on NCCPR's website called Twelve Ways to do Child Welfare Right. When we first published it, we could find only seven such ways. But, as more best practices emerged and more systems transformed, we added more programs and places to the list, until we reached 12.

Actually, for quite a while it was more like "twelve-and-a-half." That's because our listing for New York City had two parts. Our full-fledged "way to do child welfare right" was, and is, an outstanding model initiative called the Bridge Builders in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. (A few years ago, NCCPR received a grant from the Child Welfare Fund to help publicize this initiative.) But we also included praise for the general progress that had been made by ACS.

That part is no longer there. For the first time, we've had to take something off our list of "ways to do child welfare right." Because in New York City, there simply has been too much retreat from reform, for too long.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Next time, ACS, just say you’re sorry and go away

The tabloids quickly dubbed her "the miracle girl." Her name is Destiny Antonio. According to a story in yesterday's New York Times, here's what happened.

Destiny lives in a seventh floor apartment in a public housing project in the Bronx. There have been problems with the windows at least since July, according to her mother. She'd complained to the New York City Housing Authority, but the windows still hadn't been fixed by 1:00 a.m. last Friday morning. Then, according to the Times:

Ms. Antonio said she was asleep early Friday when Destiny was awakened by noise in the courtyard.

"Somebody was out there arguing," Ms. Antonio said, relaying her daughter's account.

Destiny apparently climbed down from her top bunk, and stepped up on a windowsill to investigate. The window had protective metal guards on the bottom, but Destiny pulled down the top half of the window and stuck her head through. Ms. Antonio said the window was supposed to lower only four inches, but Destiny managed to pull it down seven inches.

Somehow, she fell out, barely missing three air-conditioners and a grate made of metal and concrete below. She landed on a patch of overgrown grass, dazed but conscious.

So far, nothing in any news account contradicts this version of events.

As one would expect, Destiny suffered multiple serious injuries, and she'll have to be in the hospital for months. What one might not expect is that she would be forced to face interrogation in her hospital bed, at least twice, from New York City's Administration for Children's Services.

News accounts don't say how the agency was called in, but ACS is required to investigate any case forwarded by the state child abuse hotline in Albany. However, if the news accounts of this case are correct, as soon as a caseworker got to the home, examined the windows and conferred with police she should have had the decency to do three things:

1. Tell Ms. Antonio how sorry she was about what happened to her daughter.

2. Ask if there was anything the agency could do to help.

3. Go away.

But that's not what happened.

Although it was only a few months ago that there was a big fight over layoffs at the agency, ACS apparently was able to spare three caseworkers to traumatize the family with one interview after another. According to the Times, Ms. Antonio says they

swept through her home, taking pictures and pressing her children for information. During an interview, one investigator asked her 12-year-old son, Tamar, if he drinks alcohol, she said.

ACS actually was outnumbered by the cops – 12 police officers; so I guess the NYPD doesn't have much to do, either.
And that wasn't the end of it. An ACS worker was scheduled to interview Destiny, again, in her hospital room, Tuesday morning.

If the news accounts are wrong, and there was some good reason for ACS to behave as it did, then, thanks to an unusual law in New York, ACS has the legal right to explain itself. In this case, I think it also has the moral obligation to do so.

It is coincidence that on Monday, I began a series of posts to this Blog about ACS' retreat from reform. But this case is the perfect illustration.

On the one hand, the ACS response here still is better than what would have happened in many other communities. There are plenty of places where, in a case like this, the children would have been thrown into foster care on the spot – and that includes New York City when things were at their worst in 1997 and 1998.

But even when a child is not removed from the home, a child abuse investigation can be an enormously traumatic experience for that child and her or his siblings, even under the best of circumstances. After what this family has been through, the last thing the children need is the fear that they could be taken away at any moment, or anything else that undermines their chance to regain some sense of security.

There were a few years when ACS understood that. In fact, I'm sure the people at ACS understand that even now – but the fear engendered by the agency's post-Nixzmary Brown get-tough swagger means that the children in this family must keep fearing that they'll be taken away at any moment. And a little girl who survived a terrifying ordeal has to wonder when her next visitor in the hospital will be still another ACS caseworker.

ACS isn't helping its credibility with a silly claim in the Times story that, in the words of a spokeswoman, "This is a normal procedure any time a child is injured and adult caregivers are present when it happens."

In that case, I guess all parents had better think twice about teaching their children to ride a bicycle without training wheels – after all, you never know when the child might try to go too fast, fall off and break a bone. Even taking a young child to the playground now has its risks. And, as I said above, if it's normal procedure to send three ACS caseworkers to a single case, then workers must have a lot of time on their hands.

But of course this isn't really "normal procedure" in every case. It's only "normal procedure" in a case that already is in the news at an agency which might as well change its name from ACS to CYA – and where the family under scrutiny is poor and minority.

As it happens, I was 7-years-old and my brother was 2 when our family moved into a seventh-floor apartment in the Bronx. Unlike the Antonio apartment, It had no window guards on the bottom windows and no limits on how far you could open the top windows. They weren't required back then. But had anything like this happened to one of us, you may be sure our family would not have been harassed by the Bureau of Child Welfare (as ACS was known then). Because our seventh floor apartment was in a co-op (that's New York-speak for what amounts to a condo). And it was in Riverdale, a neighborhood some residents won't even acknowledge is in the Bronx.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Trading places

Seven years ago, when the Florida child welfare system was at its worst, we began a report on that system by comparing two leaders of large child welfare agencies. Both once had been prosecutors. Both started out believing that the answer to every child welfare problem could be boiled down to "take the child and run." But in New York City, Nicholas Scoppetta had been persuaded by a panel of national experts to reverse course. The agency he ran at the time, New York's Administration for Children's Services, had begun to rebuild by emphasizing family preservation. We urged his counterpart in Florida, Kathleen Kearney to do the same.

Kearney and Scoppetta are long gone. And today, the rate at which children are taken from their parents in Miami is far lower than the rate in New York City.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let them eat focus groups!

Perhaps it all started with the Pew Commission on Children in Foster care, which should properly have been called the Pew Commission on Promotion of the Pew Commission, in which the Pew Charitable Trusts seemed to view the plight of foster children as little more than an opportunity to advertise its brand. (This was the subject of several posts to this Blog, but before it moved to Blogspot). Fortunately, a few months ago, Pew decided to declare victory and get out, accomplishing little, but embodying Stephen Colbert's adage: "If at first you don't succeed, redefine what you did as success."

In any event, one early tipoff to the problems with that Commission was how it treated various key parties to the child welfare process. There was a foster parent on the commission. There was an adoptive parent on the commission. There was a former foster child on the commission. Birth parents were relegated to a focus group.

Now that kind of tokenism seems to be all the rage. The recent "needs assessment" in Michigan had exhaustive consultation with people who run the system and work in the system, and one focus group for birth parents. There were six of them, from just one county. And in a system permeated with racial bias, all of the birth parents were white.

The latest example comes from New York City, where the City Limits e-mail Weekly reports that the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) is in the final stages of preparing a new study of barriers to achieving permanence for children. The absurdities abound.

For starters, it's absurd to think that after 150 years we really don't know why children languish in foster care.

Contrast this bureaucratic approach with how they faced the identical problem in Georgia. As is recounted in the Annual Report of Casey Family Programs, Georgia's child welfare agency called in a few experts from CFP, they sat down around a big table hashing out each and every case for as long as it took – and they got the job done.

Speaking about Anthony, a child reunified with his family through this process, an assistant commissioner of Georgia's child welfare agency declared:

We didn't form a Blue Ribbon Committee or rely on a university study or wait for the Legislature to get involved. And thank goodness we didn't, because Anthony still would be in foster care right now if we had.

That's the antithesis of the bureaucratic mindset at CR. But the waste of time may be the least of the problems with the New York project. Even worse:

It would be hard to find a more regressive force in child welfare in New York or nationwide than CR. Their last big report on New York City child welfare stacked the statistical deck by simply ignoring any years in which the data didn't fit their preconceived notions. And across the country, untold numbers of children have been denied permanence because of a take-the-child-and-run mentality that CR has encouraged. (See our various posts on Michigan and a section of our second report on Michigan child welfare, called The Children Wronged by Children's Rights for chapter and verse.)

Although it would be hard to find a more regressive force in New York, it's not impossible: A key partner with CR is the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which has the wonderfully- appropriate acronym COFCCA. This consortium of the city's enormously-powerful private foster care providers is what the late columnist Jack Newfield would call "the permanent government" of New York child welfare. Mayors and child welfare agency commissioners come go, but COFCCA is always there, its member agencies run by boards of directors that often are a who's who of the city's business, civic and religious elite. For decades they have been the key obstacle to real reform in New York City for one obvious reason: They're paid for every day they hold a child in foster care. Only recently has the city's Administration for Children's Services taken the first tentative steps toward changing those incentives.

Another full partner in this project is ACS itself. But it was just three months ago that ACS Commissioner John Mattingly disappointed a lot of us by throwing cold water on one of the most promising avenues for permanence, subsidized guardianship. The federal government now will help pay the cost of this kind of permanence, which is close to adoption but allows, for example, a grandmother to become guardian to her granddaughter without having to push to terminate her own daughter's parental rights. It looks like New York, which long has lagged behind on kinship care issues, is going to refuse to take part because it doesn't want to put up half the cost. But Mattingly went further, arguing in an e-mail to a New York City think tank that


Those of us who have been in the field long enough know that most times, relatives will adopt if reunification is not a live option, if the agency supports them in their decision, and if it will achieve permanence for the child. In sum, kinship guardianship can be the best option for a small percentage of children, but the State of New York needs to be careful to craft regulations for its use that will continue the emphasis on adoption for most children who cannot return home.

In other words: If we strong arm grandma (by say, saying if you don't do it, we'll transfer your grandchild into the home of strangers), she'll go to court and push to terminate mom's parental rights. While that may make the adoption numbers look good, it's not necessarily best for the grandchildren. Furthermore, the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) points out that in Illinois, a national leader in subsidized guardianship, formal adoptions actually increased after guardianship was added to the menu of options. For another example of a smarter perspective on this issue, see the response from Generations United in Youth Today.


The latest story from Rise, the outstanding magazine written by and for parents who have lost their children to child welfare systems, provides a good reminder that day-to-day casework at ACS has yet to reach the rarified levels suggested by Mattingly's comment.

And even Michigan (Michigan!) has proven more receptive to subsidized guardianship, with their child welfare agency noting the special concerns in the African American and Native American communities about terminating a relative's parental rights.

So if ACS continues to oppose subsidized guardianship as a partner in this new project, who'll speak up for the grandparents?

While City Limits seemed amazed that ACS and CR were working together, in fact, it's just one more indication of how far ACS has moved backwards from just four years ago, when it was in the forefront of reform. (And that retreat from reform has prompted me to take a small step I've never felt the need to take before concerning a once-progressive child welfare agency – something I expect to discuss in a future post to this Blog.)

The last full partner is the Juvenile Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society; they provide "law guardians" for children in child welfare cases.

So the group that encourages taking away more children, the agency that takes the children, the private agencies that hold the children and the lawyers who represent the children all get a place at the table. And what do the birth parents get? A focus group.

This in a city which probably has the best-developed infrastructure of advocacy for birth parents in the nation. Excellent grassroots advocacy organizations include CWOP, People United for Children and Concerned Citizens for Family Preservation. There are three institutional providers of defense counsel for birth parents (an initiative which, to its credit, ACS supports), the Center for Family Representation, The Bronx Defenders and South Brooklyn Legal Services. Yet none of these groups is a partner in this project.

As is so often the case, everyone else involved in a child's fate is a full partner, the parents are reduced to supplicants. So when Commissioner Mattingly says "We should be able, at the end of this, to stand up together and say: These are issues we are all concerned about ... here's how we are going to work together to make the numbers look different" the people left out when everyone else is standing together" have every reason to view that as more threat than promise.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Los Angeles briefing materials now available online

LOS ANGELES - Our press release and related material distributed at our news conference here today is now available online at www.nccpr.org/lafor2009vx.pdf

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Loch Ness Monster effect

LOS ANGELES – Here's what caseworkers for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services actually knew about the case of four-year-old Lars Sanchez, according to a story in today's Los Angeles Times:

Lars' mother, Yolanda Tijerina, showed up outside her son's preschool one day and began screaming “at no one in particular.”

"I think you killed my son!" shouted Tijerina. ... "I think you killed my son. I have panic attacks."

The principal called the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS learned that the boy's grandmother said the mother had “episodes” and his adult sister said she believed the boy was in danger. According to the Times, citing sources close to the case, DCFS also

called in evaluators from the county Department of Mental Health to do an assessment of the mother, and the findings persuaded them that she was not a threat. That exam failed to diagnose the gravity of Tijerina's illness ...

In addition, the grandmother was at the home often and may have been living there.

According to the Times, based on the principal's report, the mental health evaluation and, apparently, their own observations and investigation

In the end, the social workers found that Tijerina often spoke nonsensically. They found that her "emotional stability, developmental status or cognitive deficiency impairs her current ability to supervise, protect or care for the child."

But they said this risk could be addressed through three months of informal monitoring by a neighborhood resource center and observation by family members and neighbors, according to county documents.
... Also counting in favor of the mother was the fact that she had been cooperative during the child-abuse investigation.

There was more information that might have swayed the investigators, but I'm only including what the story indicates DCFS actually knew when the decision was made.

I might well argue that these facts called for Intensive Family Preservation Services (described in full in NCCPR Issue Papers 10 and 11 at www.nccpr.org ) – in which someone would be present in the home long enough – sometimes several hours a day - to get a better sense of the danger to the child.

But there is nothing outlandish in deciding not to “take the child and run” in this fact scenario
--not without hindsight and the additional information that DCFS didn't have when the decision was made.

Had nothing gone wrong, I wouldn't have been reading this story on the front page of the Times on my way in from LAX this afternoon.

In fact, nine months later, Lars' mother killed the boy, in a particularly gruesome way. (And, once again, a member of the county Board of Supervisors was ready to throw a little gasoline on the fire.)

As a result, out of the tens of thousands of cases L.A. DCFS handles every year, this is one of the very few in which reporters can see the case file.

Since, once again, the agency is reflected through a funhouse mirror, it's no wonder the story includes this claim:

The documents, released by the county Department of Children and Family Services under a 2008 disclosure law, show in chilling detail how even dramatic evidence of a mother's illness was not considered sufficient grounds for removing a child from her care.

The problem with that statement is it's missing three words: in this case.

Because if one saw the system – regularly – in full; if there were equal access to all cases, one would see that over and over again, children tare taken for far, far less.

Just look at the case described in this previous post to the Blog, the post called "The everyday horrors of American child welfare").

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a very similar set of circumstances to those described in the Times today leading to wrongful removal – and, indeed, across the country it has:

Once again, the scene is a school and a mother is screaming. This time she's perfectly sane – but she's furious over the failure of the school to provide the right kind of special education for her son.
The principal isn't about to be spoken to that way, so she calls CPS.

Unfortunately, unlike Yolanda Tijerina, who apparently knew how to play the game – as the Times story says: “Also counting in favor of the mother was the fact that she had been cooperative during the child-abuse investigation” our hypothetical mother is still fuming when CPS arrives and tells off the caseworker, too.

In such a situation, you can be sure that child would have been taken away on the spot.
It was a Los Angeles attorney who first called this “flunking the attitude test.”

Indeed, consider another real case from Los Angeles, also discussed in a previous post to this Blog. (and available, if the direct link in that previous post doesn't work, by going here and then clicking on the link at the bottom of the middle column.)

Though it's not mentioned in this particular story, a cover story about this case in the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles makes clear that a key factor in the removal of the child was the fact that the mother didn't know how to grovel before a DCFS worker.

But as far as I know, this case, which ultimately led to the child dying in foster care, never made the front page of the Times or the Los Angeles Daily News. The other case, involving the father who lost his children solely for lack of housing, never made it into either paper at all.

So you get a system reflected in the equivalent of a funhouse mirror. Or, to put it another way, you get The Loch Ness Monster effect.

We've all seen those blurry photos of something that looks like a long neck sticking out of the water that purport to show the Loch Ness Monster. Everything else is hidden under the Loch, so it's easy to confuse what we think we see with the entire beast.

Similarly, if the only time the curtain of confidentiality parts in child welfare is when a child “known to the system” dies, it's no wonder people assume the only mistake the system makes is to leave children in dangerous homes.

Child welfare systems can't be fixed until people know how they really work and how they really fail. But that can't happen if the overwhelming majority of what they do, right and wrong, remains hidden. That's why it's so urgent to open all court hearings and create a rebuttable presumption of open records in all cases. That's why it's so urgent to drain the Loch – so everyone can see exactly what the creature looks like.

P.S.: Almost forgot: God only knows what kind of knee-jerk response the Board of Supervisors will come up with to this story, but is it too much to ask that at least they don't scare thousands of people away from voluntarily seeking help for mental health problems? Yes, probably it is.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Curbing The B.S. in L.A.

Which is the worst governing body in all of America when it comes to child welfare? Of all the governors, mayors, legislatures, and councils responsible for overseeing state or local child welfare systems, which has the worst track record for putting politics ahead of what's best for vulnerable children? There are lots of candidates.

No list would be complete without Washington D.C., of course, where Mayor Adrian Fenty's Queen of Hearts school of management blew down the house of cards that was D.C.'s slowly improving child welfare system and sent it right back into chaos. (For details just search this Blog for "Fenty" – he'd probably like that.)

But there's actually worse out there. Imagine Fenty times three. Imagine the child welfare agency derailed every time it gets on track because of endless demands to respond to whatever was on the front page that day. Imagine never-ending posturing, preening, pontificating pandering and micromanaging every time a high-profile case is in the news. And imagine it's been going on for more than 15 years.

No need to imagine, actually. Meet the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors: or, as they should properly be called, "The B.S."

The B.S. is one of the main reasons there is almost certainly a foster-care panic underway in Los Angeles right now. Later this week I'll be in Los Angeles for meetings with journalists and a news conference with local advocates and families, in the hope of helping to curb that panic.

But that won't be easy, given the behavior of three of the Board members.

There are five Board members in all. But Mark Ridley-Thomas was only elected for the first time last year, so he can't be held responsible for the behavior of his colleagues. The chairman, Don Knabe, is more of an enabler – he doesn't join in the ritual denunciations of the county Department of Children and Family Services, but he does nothing to stop them.

That leaves Michael Antonovich, Gloria Molina, and Don Yaroslavsky. And, to paraphrase a line originally used about at least two U.S. Senators, the most dangerous place in Los Angeles is between any of those three and a television camera.

Now, they're at it again. They are busy blasting, denouncing, and professing their shock and outrage. There are the usual calls for a full investigation. But why wait for an investigation to draw conclusions?

"I can't believe we have social workers overseeing these cases and then allowing these children to be murdered," said Antonovich – as though he'd just discovered the problem of deaths of children "known to the system" even though he's been on The B.S. since 1980.

Yaroslavaky, apparently having confused two sets of numbers, is blaming the latest tragedies in Los Angeles on efforts to keep children out of foster care. But in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year in L.A. was up 23 percent from 2003.

Molina promised that investigations are underway and added: "There are heads that will roll." (Clearly, Supervisor Molina is a believer in the "give 'em a fair trial, then hang 'em" approach to governance.) Molina also declared that "Anytime a child dies on our watch, we pay attention." The unspoken corollary is: But fail a child any other way and we'll ignore it, so you're free to practice take-the-child-and-run social work all you want.

Nor is there much evidence that paying attention, L.A. Supervisor style, has done children any good. Among them, Antonovich, Molina and Yaroslavsky have 62 years of time spent on the Board. So, if L.A. County child welfare is still a mess, they are far more responsible than the latest frontline caseworker to be caught in the crossfire or even the latest in a long line of DCFS directors.

There was one, brief period, where the Board behaved itself. Somehow, when he was Director of the Department of Children and Family Services, David Sanders managed to rein in the Board's worst instincts. (A lot of people all over the country would love to know how he did it.) But his successor, Trish Ploehn has been easily buffeted about by the non-stop grandstanding of The B.S.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that people in Los Angeles probably think this kind of behavior is normal – after all, they're politicians, right? Certainly some degree of grandstanding is commonplace in these situations. But Los Angeles County is simply in a class by itself.

In New York City, for example, after Nixzmary Brown died, Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed commendable restraint, and only one of 51 members of the City Council behaved like an L.A. Supervisor.

None of this is any secret in child welfare circles. Mention the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at gatherings of child welfare professionals and they're likely to just roll their eyes, and thank their lucky stars they don't work in Los Angeles County.

But there are signs that, at long last, patience may be wearing thin. After the Los Angeles Times reported that about the same number of children "known to the system" died in 2008 as in each of the two previous years, the obligatory follow-up story was a little different from usual. This was the lead:

One county supervisor expressed shock, another fired off a press release demanding an investigation. But Monday's revelations that 14 children died last year as the result of abuse or neglect despite being under the watch of child welfare authorities should have come as no surprise to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. … Indeed, the supervisors were notified every time a child who had at least one prior contact with Family Services died. Case after case landed on their desks. …"

Yaroslavsky even is quoted at a meeting of The B.S. acknowledging as much. But soon it was back to business as usual.

And what is business as usual? In 1954, Sen. Ralph Flanders of Vermont denounced his notorious colleague Joe McCarthy in words that need be changed only slightly to explain the modus operandi of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in child welfare cases. To paraphrase Flanders:

They don their war paint; they go into their war dance; they emit their war whoops; they go forth to battle -- and proudly return with the scalp of a social worker.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The everyday horrors of American child welfare

People in Los Angeles have been reading about a lot of child welfare horror stories. But this one never made it into the big daily papers. I first read about it a year and a half ago in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal publication. The information below comes not from a news account, but straight from a scathing ruling from an appellate court:

Gerardo R., as he is known to the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Eight, was a loving, caring father to his two sons. He saw them nearly every day. And when their mother lost her parental rights, Gerardo immediately sought custody.

Gerardo never beat the children, he did not torture them, he did not starve them. Indeed, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services did not accuse Gerardo of doing them the slightest harm. Yet not only did DCFS refuse to let the children live with Gerardo, they moved to terminate his parental rights, cutting him out of their lives completely.

Why? Because the single working father couldn't afford housing that DCFS deemed suitable.

That's not just my conclusion. That's the conclusion of the Court of Appeal, which, in February, 2008, unanimously reversed the juvenile court decision terminating Gerardo's parental rights.

According to the decision, Gerardo

" … has been involved with his sons throughout their lives, before and during this dependency proceeding. He always provided financial support, visited regularly, participated in the boys' schooling by helping with homework, and attending an [Individualized Education Plan] meeting and awards ceremony, and maintained contact with DCFS even when he lacked a place to live. The record strongly suggests the only reason Gerardo did not obtain custody of the boys was his inability to obtain suitable housing for financial reasons. But poverty alone, even abject poverty resulting in homelessness, is not a valid basis for assertion of juvenile court jurisdiction." [Emphasis on the word "only" is from the original, boldface is added.]

Quoting from an earlier decision, the court declared that:

"'Judges and social workers … have an obligation to guard against the influence of class and lifestyle biases.' DCFS abandoned its guard here."

And DCFS used some pretty sleazy tactics to hide the fact that it had abandoned its guard. It charged that Gerardo didn't really care about his sons because he didn't attend some early hearings. "What [DCFS] neglects to mention," the judges replied, "is that DCFS had failed to locate or give Gerardo notice of that action."

The appellate court also noted the perverse financial incentives that permeate child welfare, condemning the "absurdity" of terminating Gerardo's parental right because he couldn't afford housing

"[even as] the dependency system pays foster families to help defray the cost of children placed in their care, and subsidizes adoptive assistance payments until children reach majority. … It makes no sense for the government to subsidize the care of a child by relatives or strangers but not his presumed father, even though the sole impediment to placing the child in that parent's custody is the parent's dire financial condition." [Emphasis in original.]

After the ruling came down, there were no calls by members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for an investigation into how Gerardo's children could have been deprived of their father this way. There was no race to the television cameras to denounce DCFS for its nearly-successful destruction of this family. And no heads rolled.

Frontline workers know such consequences are reserved solely for cases in which they are accused of doing too much for families, not the many cases in which they do too little.

Which means that, contrary to what you so often hear, when it comes to taking away children caseworkers are not "damned if they do and damned if they don't." They're only damned if they don't.

The caseworkers know it. And they act accordingly.

Monday: Curbing the B.S. in L.A.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Los Angeles: The view in the funhouse mirror

Of all the huge metropolitan area child welfare systems in America, one of those that can afford a foster care panic the least is the one in Los Angeles County. Among systems in America's largest cities, only Philadelphia takes away children at a higher rate – and the rate of removal in Philadelphia long has been, quite simply, insane. (For an excellent critique of that system, and how the Philadelphia Inquirer made it worse, see this critique in the alternative weekly Citypaper.)

But a foster care panic almost certainly is what Los Angeles has got right now. That's partly because of miserable political leadership in that county and partly because, as in so much of the country, instead of making child welfare systems truly transparent, laws and policies have created the equivalent of viewing them through a funhouse mirror.

In Los Angeles, it began when the state of California changed state law to allow more disclosure of records in child abuse cases. But not all cases of alleged child maltreatment – only in cases resulting in child deaths.

So the Los Angeles Times promptly did exactly what a good newspaper should do: They filed a public records request, got the files and reported the results last April. They did it with none of the sneer and swagger that accompanied the Inquirer's efforts.

But certain things are inevitable whenever a newspaper rediscovers the fact that children known-to-the-system sometimes die. First, politicians try to take advantage of the situation – and that has long been the bane of Los Angeles child welfare to a greater degree than anyplace else in the country (yes, even worse than Washington, D.C.), something I'll discuss in a future post to this blog.

Then, parents immediately come forward and flood the reporters with calls and e-mails talking about how their children were wrongfully taken, and how those stories should be told, too. But that tends not to happen for several reasons.

1. Having spent weeks or months reading every horrible detail about the snuffing out of young innocent lives, often by sadistic brutes, reporters often are in no mood to hear anyone say "yes, but…"

2. The stories are often complicated and come pouring out in very long e-mails unbroken by paragraphs. Some of the people sending those e-mails are guilty as sin. Some are crazy. Some have been driven crazy by what has been done to their children by child welfare agencies. Some share responsibility for what happened to their children, but the children still would have been far better off had they never been taken away. And some are exactly the innocent victims they say they are. Some have documentation to support their stories, some don't. There are, in fact, ways around these problems, such as finding the better lawyers who represent these parents and sitting down with them - but it all takes time to sort out, time reporters may not want to invest, particularly in light of factor #1 above.

3. Unlike the fatality cases, the records in cases of alleged wrongful removal remain secret. So if a reporter pursues the story and calls the child welfare agency for comment, it's easy for the agency spokesperson to heave a theatrical sigh and tell the reporter: "Oh, there's really so much more to it and we wish we could tell you, really we do, but we just can't – confidentiality, you know." (I have a theory that every time a reporter accepts this veto of silence and abandons the story, somewhere, an agency flack gets his wings.)

Meanwhile, the initial reporting has made everyone more sensitive to the issue of child abuse deaths. So the next death of a child "known to the system" after the big story based on the newly-released records, is going to get more attention than it would otherwise; attention that such cases, in fact, always deserve, but may only receive every few years. So will the one after that and the one after that – and once you get to three, it's officially a "series" a "spate" or a "pattern."

That, too, has happened in Los Angeles in recent weeks. It doesn't matter that the actual rate of such deaths in Los Angeles has remained about the same over the past three years – between 12 and 14, in a city with more than 3.2 million residents under age 18. (And, sadly, three such cases since April is pretty typical for Los Angeles as well.) What matters is: Now everyone is paying attention again.

So it's no wonder that right now most people in Los Angeles probably think that the biggest mistake the city's Department of Children and Family Services makes, if not the only mistake, is being too slow to remove children from their parents and/or too quick to return them. One member of the county Board of Supervisors already has suggested as much – notwithstanding the fact that the number of children torn from their families in Los Angeles County in 2008 was 23 percent higher than the number five years earlier and notwithstanding the fact that, as noted above, Los Angeles already takes away proportionately more children than other big metropolitan area. Another supervisor is promising that "there are heads that will roll."

So of course every frontline worker has gotten the message:

They can take away hundreds of children needlessly, stash them in foster care, bounce them from foster home to foster home, probably expose at least one-third of them to abuse in foster care itself, let them emerge years later unable to love or trust anyone, and leave four out of five of them unable to do well as adults – but the caseworker who made that initial removal will suffer no consequence.
(Even if one of those children dies in foster care, odds are that will be deemed some other worker's fault, not the fault of the one who made the initial removal.) But let one child die in his own home and, as the County Supervisor promised: Heads will roll.

And that means you can bet the Los Angeles County Foster Care Panic of 2009 already is underway.

The foster care panic will do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken. But the harm won't end there. Los Angeles is notorious for the high caseloads carried by frontline workers. The foster-care panic will only make those caseloads even higher. So that increases the chances of more bad decisions in all directions. Even as more children are needlessly taken more children in real danger will be overlooked. Very little can be learned about systems as a whole based on fatality cases, but this much we do know: Foster care panics almost always are followed by increases in child abuse deaths. (For details, see NCCPR Issue Paper #2).

And this time, it happened largely because California lawmakers opted for the equivalent of showing Californians their local child welfare agencies reflected in a funhouse mirror.

Instead of total transparency, in which all court hearings would be open and there would be a rebuttable presumption of open records in every case, the public still is denied the chance to see how often children are torn from their families when poverty is confused with "neglect." They can't see the damage to children taken from everyone they know and love only to be abused – but not to death – in foster care. They get only the distorted view that comes from being allowed to see only one small slice of system instead of seeing it whole. (For a rare and particularly well-written exception, see this example from the Times.)

And sadly, too often, when editorial writers and columnists crusade for openness, the funhouse mirror is all they even ask for. Across the country, there is surprisingly little demand to open court hearings in states like California where they remain closed. And journalists often demand opening of records only in fatality cases instead of every case, as though seeing everything would be too much to bear – or complicate what seemed to be a simple straightforward story with a simple moral: take away more kids.

In Los Angeles, it looks like the Board of Supervisors is going to make everything worse by demanding an investigation – but only of the recent fatality cases. That will only increase the distortion in the funhouse mirror. Of course, if you only look at cases in which children died in their own homes, the "solutions" will revolve around demanding that children be taken more easily and returned only with more difficulty. But in reality, that will further overload the system and only increase the chances of more deaths, even as it destroys the psyches of untold other children through needless foster care.

The solution, however, is not to investigate less. The solution is to investigate more.

Short term, any investigation of recent deaths should be expanded to include a sample of cases in which families allege their children were wrongfully removed.

Long term, there should be a mechanism for an annual investigation of a statistically-significant random sample of cases. The only way to find out DCFS' typical failings – and come up with real solutions – is to examine typical cases. That's why lawyers commission just this sort of "casereading" when they bring class-action suits against child welfare systems - it's the only evidence that can pass muster in a court of law.

But most important, there should be no "filter" no "expert panel" or anything else standing between us and what went wrong in any case. That's why California law should be changed to open court hearings and create a rebuttable presumption of open records in every case.

Tomorrow on this blog: An example of the kind of typical case one rarely hears about in L.A., or elsewhere. And on Monday: The urgent need to curb the B.S. in L.A.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Betrayal in Baltimore

This one really stinks.

Of all the child welfare class-action lawsuit settlements around the country, one of those that has dragged on the longest concerns Baltimore. It was already well underway when I cited it in my book, Wounded Innocents, which was published in 1990.

It wasn't one of the better settlements, in part because there was less experience with this kind of litigation back then. And, as so often happens, the child welfare agency in Maryland, the Department of Human Resources, stalled and stalled rather than meet its obligations.

Then, just a few weeks ago, on June 23, a breakthrough: The two sides negotiated a smarter, slimmed-down consent decree. Unlike the original, this one emphasized family preservation. And, back in June, there was some reason to believe that Maryland was serious about compliance. That's because a new leader of DHR, Brenda Donald, already had shown some of the right priorities. She began closing group homes and reducing entries into foster care – though in recent months they've started to go back up again.

It sounded like an enlightened child welfare leader genuinely committed to working with advocates. It wasn't. In fact, it was just a tactic – a bit of expedience to create a veneer of cooperation. That became clear when an opportunity opened up to weasel out of the deal – and DHR raced to double-cross the advocates.

Two days after the agreement was reached, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision concerning a class-action suit in Arizona. Though that lawsuit was unrelated to child welfare, the Maryland Attorney General's office thinks it may be able to use the decision to worm its way out of the agreement his state just signed. And that's just what they're trying to do – apparently with Donald's encouragement.

In most states, the Attorney General acts as the lawyer for state agencies. That means the agency is the client and can tell the Attorney General what actions it wants taken on its behalf. In other states, the Attorney General can act without the agency's blessing and even against its wishes. (That used to cause a lot of problems in Utah, for example, though in recent years the human services agency and the attorney general's office there seem to have reached a truce.)

But either way, Brenda Donald had one obligation so simple, so fundamental that it shouldn't be necessary to explain it here: When you make an agreement you keep your word. In letter and spirit. Period. End of story. So Donald's obligation here was either to order the Attorney General's office to knock it off or, if she lacks that power, speak out forcefully against the attempt to weasel out of the agreement. She did neither.

On the contrary, her comments to The Daily Record, a Baltimore legal publication suggest she's thrilled with this turn of events. Donald told the record:

"I do want the ability to drive this reform agenda and to allow my extremely capable director [in Baltimore] to run her own agency without court oversight and without paying millions of dollars in lawyers' fees and taking hundreds of hours to go over fine points.

In fact, a hallmark of this new agreement was that it was not bogged down in fine points, precisely because the lawyers who brought the suit thought they were dealing with someone they could trust. But that's actually beside the point. The issue is: Brenda Donald gave her word on behalf of the State of Maryland. Then, she encouraged the state try to break it as soon as a chance presented itself. Therefore, the burden of proof rests with Brenda Donald to explain why she should ever again be trusted.

And since being in foster care already means one betrayal after another, the worst possible message to send to young people in the system is that the adults who have a responsibility to care for them will , at the first opportunity, weasel out of that obligation.

What all this reveals is the Achilles heel of even some reform-minded child welfare administrators: A particular kind of arrogance that says, in effect: "Accountability may be needed for bad child welfare administrators, but I'm one of the good guys. I believe what you believe. I won't abuse my power. So why should anyone bother me with all that pesky court oversight?"

This kind of arrogance also comes through in the barely disguised contempt too many child welfare administrators have for unions. And it's why some child welfare leaders who are good about bolstering services for families are less keen on bolstering due process protections. Both unions and due process are seen only as impediments to allowing them to Do What's Right.

But I've never seen a case quite this extreme. I've never seen a child welfare leader actually say, in effect, "trust me, we'll do this on our own" right after, at a minimum, standing by and cheering while others in state government stabbed her erstwhile partners in the back.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The myth of the underpaid foster parent

The photo dominated the front page of The Arizona Republic Tuesday. Mom, Dad, their two kids sitting around the table saying a prayer before family dinner. The only nonwhite person at the table (seen from the back): One of the family's foster children.

The huge headline above the photo: "Slashed foster payments make it HARDER TO HELP"

All the usual clich├ęs followed – swipes at birth parents, the incredible nobility of the foster parents who rescued the children – and how it all might be in jeopardy because Arizona's budget deficit prompted legislators to impose a 20 percent cut in payments to foster parents.

Then, the story officially certifies this a "crisis," the reporter declaring that "Foster care advocates worry that the crisis has erased years of improvements to the foster care system."

They can stop worrying. First of all, with one tiny, recent exception, unrelated to foster parent pay, there haven't been any improvements to the foster care system in Arizona. On the contrary, it's one of the nation's most regressive. NCCPR issued a report on Arizona child welfare two years ago and, if anything, it's only gotten worse.

But also, no great harm is done by cutting payment rates that were, in fact, the second highest in the entire country – rates vastly above the national average. Even with the cuts, Arizona still is paying foster parents far more than most states.

According to the story, before the cuts, the average monthly payment to an Arizona foster parent was $910 per child. That's not including special allowances for clothing books education and other expenses. Now, with the cuts, it's a mere $728 per month per child. The extra allowances have been cut back, but they're still on top of that $728.

That was in the story. Not in the story: The money is tax free. And foster children's health insurance is covered by Medicaid.

The story did mention Arizona's second-highest-in-the-nation status, but the reporter got spun, big time, thanks to a study by guess who? Yep – the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights. (And yes, it is depressing that over and over this once progressive group reveals itself to have become one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare.)

Their "study" portrayed the exceptionally-high payments in Arizona and Washington DC as the bare minimum needed to care for a foster child – everybody else, the study said, was falling terribly short. Even a glance at the study methodology shows this is nonsense. But glancing at the methodology requires looking at a separate document called a Technical Report. Labeling something a "technical report" is like putting a great big sign on it that says HEY REPORTERS: DON'T BOTHER TO READ THIS!

And in this case, it seems to have worked like a charm. Because of all the stories written about this report, I've seen none that included the following information:

CR's calculation of "minimum" requirements includes far more than food, clothing and shelter.

It includes the full cost of day care for foster children – even those who were taken from their own parents on "lack of supervision" charges because those birth parents couldn't afford day care.

The so-called minimum also includes the increase in the foster family's electric bill caused by foster children leaving the lights on and opening and closing the refrigerator a lot – even when the children were taken from their birth parents because those birth parents couldn't afford a decent place to live.

The so-called minimum even includes every penny spent on movie tickets, amusement parks, games and toys.

But who in the world would want to place a child with foster parents who demanded government reimbursement every time they bought a foster child a teddy bear?

These are only some of the bizarre assumptions that make up CR's definition of "minimum." More are discussed in NCCPR's report on Virginia child welfare in which we argued, unsuccessfully, against a big raise for the state's foster parents.

I am among those who believe that the overwhelming majority of foster parents are not in it for the money. I'm sure the family in the Republic story, which is continuing to foster children in spite of the cut, deserves the praise it received. But you can't have it both ways: You can't say, as some others apparently do, "I'm not in it for the money, but I'll quit if I stop getting the second highest rates in the nation and have to use my own money the next time I take my foster child to the movies."

Similarly, you can't say, as many foster parents do, "we can't be in it for the money because there's not enough money" – and then keep demanding more money. Indeed, paying too much creates the risk that the wrong people will go into fostering.

And, in fact, precisely because most foster parents do care so much about the children they take in, when they are polled on reasons for quitting, pay actually ranks quite low. (Lack of respect from child welfare agencies – in other words, being treated the same way agencies treat birth parents – ranks much higher.) And that helps explain why, even with the second highest pay rates in the nation, Arizona still claims to have a so-called shortage of foster parents.

In fact, Arizona doesn't have a shortage of foster parents. Thanks to a take-the-child-and-run mentality that has left Arizona in a state of perennial foster care panic, Arizona has a surplus of foster children. Stop taking so many children needlessly, and the so-called shortage would disappear.

That's also why we shouldn't be fooled by claims that if Arizona pays foster parents at rates that are merely above average instead of second highest-in-the-nation that would force the state to throw even more children into group homes and institutions.

All these problems arise before we even reach the fundamental issue of taking so many children largely because they are poor and then giving vastly more financial help to the strangers who take those children in.

All that said, I'm not suggesting that the cuts in pay for Arizona foster parents are a good idea. They would be a good idea if the money was going to bolster prevention and family preservation programs. But those are being cut, too. The cuts are just making one of the stingier states in the nation when it comes to helping children even stingier.

This whole issue touches on something that doesn't get nearly as much discussion as it should: What is our "social contract" with foster parents? If foster parenting is an act of compassion, like volunteer work, done for the psychic satisfaction, is it unreasonable to ask that foster parents dip just a little into their own pockets – and shouldn't we be concerned about those who won't? I've raised that issue on this blog before, but there is a better discussion, by Maine foster and adoptive parent Mary Callahan, in this op ed column from the Los Angeles Times.

As for the one piece of good news from Arizona, that involves federal, not state money. As this story from Phoenix New Times explains, the state child welfare agency and local housing authorities in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, did an outstanding job in securing vouchers to help families in which children may be taken from their parents because of housing problems, or housing problems are preventing reunification. The vouchers also can be used for young people "aging out" of foster care. The federal program was restored, after an eight-year absence, thanks largely to the work of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (the executive director of which is a member of NCCPR's Board of Directors). You can find out how your state and locality did by checking the NCHCW website.

Michigan explained

From the alternative weekly in Detroit, Metro Times: an excellent story about one case that typifies the failures of child welfare in Michigan and nationwide.

This is the kind of case that workers see all the time; one of those "in-between cases," where there are real problems, but nothing that couldn't be fixed without resorting to foster care, let alone termination of parental rights.

And there is plenty of context about Michigan child welfare in general. I have to admit, I particularly like this part:

"Our position is that Mr. Wexler's reports [on Michigan child welfare] contain inaccurate, inflammatory information about Michigan's efforts to protect children while ignoring the strides taken to protect their safety," contends Colleen Steinman, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Human Services.

However, the department, when asked specifically about budget numbers reported by Wexler, didn't directly dispute any of his reporting.

What DHS did do, of course, as always, was to blame its budget cuts on the economy. But DHS never explains why it was slashing funding for family preservation long before the current budget crisis. DHS never explains why it turned down the waiver Florida got, a waiver that would have cushioned the blow of the recession on funding available for child welfare. Nor does DHS explain why, in spite of the economy and the budget deficit, the savings from these cuts are being plowed right into increases in rates for residential treatment centers and other institutions and a foster care worker hiring binge that is not, in fact, required by the state's class-action lawsuit settlement.

Meanwhile, the group that brought the lawsuit leading to that settlement, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" continues to sit on its hands, taking no action to prevent the cuts.

NCCPR's reports on Michigan child welfare are available here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

NCCPR: The Prius of Child Advocacy

As NCCPR celebrates its Tenth Anniversary in its current form (we've been around since 1991, but it took eight years to get enough grant money for a full-time staff of one) I think we've earned the right to a little shameless self-promotion. I believe that there are a lot of children living safely in their own homes today who would have been trapped in foster care if not for NCCPR, and now we've posted the evidence for that assertion on our website.

The fuel of any advocacy movement is money, and by that standard, NCCPR is the most fuel-efficient national child advocacy organization in America. We get outstanding "RPD"(reform per dollar). To read what others say about our work, and see our top five accomplishments, please click here to go to our website.