Monday, August 30, 2010

UPDATED, SEPT. 5: Cleveland Plain Dealer does what LA Times won’t: covers the foster care panic in its community


After arguing on this Blog that the way the Cleveland Plain Dealer has been covering child welfare has set off a classic foster-care panic, I began to hear rumors that the reporter responsible for most of the stories, Harlan Spector, was going to do a story about the panic. I assumed it really would be a story minimizing the panic and/or spinning it to suggest that it was a good thing that was somehow making children safer.

    I'm pleased to report I was wrong.

    The story ran Sunday, on the front page. It was a fair, straightforward account of the surge in entries into care and the disagreements over why it was happening and the consequences. No loaded language, no nonsense of any kind. There even were allusions, for the first time, to Child Welfare Gone Haywire, the Plain Dealer's landmark examination of the last foster care panic in Cuyahoga County.

    There certainly are flaws in the story, and, of course, the usual run of excuses from the child welfare agency for the panic. Anyone interested in a detailed analysis can scroll to comment #5 (if viewing oldest comment first) under the story on the Plain Dealer website.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that editorial writer Sharon Broussard will follow in Spector's footsteps. I expect Broussard's next editorial will minimize the notion of panic and stack the deck with the false claim that NCCPR opposes the paper reporting on child abuse deaths – as opposed to our taking issue with how that reporting was done – a distinction made clear in the earlier posts. (UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 1: I am pleased to report that, in an editorial today, Broussard does not, in fact, misrepresent NCCPR’s position.  She does, however, repeat all of her earlier mistakes, including the demonstrably false claim that DCFS recently had placed “family preservation above all else” and the Big Lie of American child welfare: that child removal equals child safety. UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 5: it turns out that while Broussard didn't make the comments I'd expected herself, she "outsourced" the job to the paper's "reader representative."  His column, and my response on the Plain Dealer website, are available here.) 

    The big question now is whether Plain Dealer coverage will pass the Ben Bagdikian test.

In 1983, The former Washington Post editor wrote The Media Monopoly, among the finest works of media criticism in American history and certainly among the most prescient. When I taught journalism I used it as a textbook.

    One of Bagdikian's important observations is how newspaper editors who have strong feelings about a story deal with the side of that story they don't like:

They cover it. Prominently. Once.

That's just enough for the editors to say to critics "Oh, we covered that. We even put it on the front page" – when they know full well that anything covered only once has almost no impact. It's what's repeated over and over again that leaves an impression.

    So the question now is: Will there be follow-up? Will there be stories about children victimized by needless removal from their homes? Will references to the panic become part of the "boilerplate" in Plain Dealer stories, in the same way the stories recap the cases that started the panic?

    That's step two. A lot of papers, notably this year the Los Angeles Times, never get to step one.

    OK, Garrett Therolf. Now it's your turn.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Foster care and family preservation: Breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them”


I've often noted how much more attention media pay to false allegations of child maltreatment and wrongful removal of children in the relatively rare cases where the family is, like most journalists, white and middle class. The much more common affronts to poor, minority families get far less attention. This previous post cites a case in point, though I'm pleased to report that the news organization on which I focused, NPR, has gotten a bit better in the succeeding years.

Even more frustrating than the refusal to tell poor people's stories is the common refusal, on the part of both journalists and their audience, even to make the connection between what occasionally happens to "us" and so often happens to "them."

I first learned this decades ago when, one after another, the cases of alleged "mass molestation" at day care centers – sometimes complete with insane allegations of abuse by Satanic cults – started falling apart, and it became clear that that much of the American child welfare establishment had fueled a latter-day witch-hunt. Then, when it reached the point that the next dangerous fad, "recovered memory" was being satirized in Doonesbury, I was sure people would make the connection. I was sure people would realize that the same authorities who so easily believed there were Satanic Cults in the basements of day care centers and secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool – cases which touched the middle-class – must be wreaking far more havoc in the lives of poor people, and shouldn't have so much power over their lives.

But few people made the connection.

Even now, I sometimes get calls or e-mails from people who've been ill-treated by child protective services who rush to reassure me about how different they are. "We're an educated, middle-class family" they'll say – meaning, unlike those poor people who deserved whatever CPS did to them.

Perhaps it takes someone who has had some kind of personal experience with both kinds of affront can break down those barriers.

Someone like Chris Gottlieb. She co-directs (with NCCPR's President, Martin Guggenheim) the Family Defense Clinic at the New York University School of Law. She wrote a guest essay published yesterday on the New York Times Motherlode Blog. Here's an excerpt:

A woman approached on the subway to tell me that looking at newsprint up close could cause eyestrain. I quickly learned she was not worried about me; she was concerned about my baby's eyes because I was carrying him face out, where he was about six inches from the newspaper I was reading. An elderly man chastised me because my baby's legs were not covered. A saleswoman was more worried about his arms, but didn't stop at commenting — she reached out to pull down his sleeves. …

[O]ver and over, I have seen caseworkers who investigate parents and judges who oversee intervention in family life hold parenting up for assessment and inevitably find that the parents fall short. Why? Because the standards imposed are as idiosyncratic and impossibly high as the standards of the people I hear from on the subway. The caseworkers and the judges, however, have the guns to back up their glares. …

I have heard caseworkers criticize mothers for everything from giving their children Chinese takeout food or Kool-Aid (the mother told me orange juice was too expensive for her) to having beer in the house to letting a child get wet under a sprinkler. A judge ordered one of my clients to take her child to the park every day. Every day! How can that level of micromanagement of parenting by the government make sense?

One indication of how successful Gottlieb was at breaking down the barriers between "us" and "them": The response in the comments section was far more favorable than the Blog owner, Lisa Belkin, seemed to expect. In fact, this may be the first time I've finished skimming more than 30 comments on a newspaper website and actually felt better about human nature than when I started.

So, please stop reading this Blog (for now) and check out Chris Gottlieb's essay on Motherlode.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Foster care task force in Cleveland: Horrors! They’re not relying on horror stories!

    That must have been an amazing scene outside the Jane Edna Hunter building in Cleveland week before last. The members of the Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission studying the county's Department of Children and Family Services came marching out and gathered in front of the building. The chairman unrolled a scroll and read aloud: HEAR YE! HEAR YE! THE OBLIGATORY BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION INVESTIGATING THE CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES DOES HEREBY PROCLAIM THAT ALL IS WELL! DCFS IS FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND!
    And what fools they looked like when, just two days later, it was revealed that they'd never gotten the very information they'd have to have to reach such a conclusion!

    None of that is true, of course. It is, however, the impression left by the King of Loaded Language, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Harlan Spector, in a story he wrote about the group's work published on August 13. In that story, Spector never actually lies, he just leaves an impression that is light years from the truth. It is a textbook example of the journalism of child welfare at its worst.


    One can see the technique simply by comparing how Spector wrote the story first, before he found a way to spin it, and then a few days later. The first version, on August 10, at least began as a straightforward news account:

    …[T]he head of a task force examining the agency's reunification practices said the department is fundamentally sound.
   Even in the worst cases in which children known to the county were harmed, "there's nothing in these cases that suggests we need to upend . . . the system," said task force chairman David Crampton of Case Western Reserve University. He said the panel still expects to recommend systemic changes.
   "I don't think radical change is needed," he said. 

Spector then used the rest of the story to try to undermine that conclusion – recapitulating, and in one case, distorting the known facts, in the same litany of horror stories dredged up over and over in the Plain Dealer's attempt to stampede the county into tearing apart more families. The distortion concerns the "cat feces case" discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog.

    Then came a paragraph alleging that "Critics say the county has been too quick to return children to troubled households, too slow to remove them from risky environments and too conservative in launching investigations" followed by five paragraphs of a foster parent claiming DCFS was doing too much to keep families together , with no rebuttal from anyone, let alone those who might think the agency takes too many children needlessly – especially now that the Spector and his colleagues have set off a foster-care panic sending removals soaring by 60 percent.


    But apparently this wasn't sleazy enough for Spector and/or his editors. So on August 13, he essentially rewrote the story with a far more sensational lead:

    A review panel that proclaimed Tuesday the beleaguered county Department of Children and Family Services is fundamentally sound has not received critical information to do its job, including case files about children who were killed or harmed.
    The agency has refused to allow the task force to review agency files of high-profile cases that spurred department Director Deborah Forkas to appoint the panel last spring. 

    While none of that is literally false, (although the part about "critical information" is very much in dispute) all of it is grossly misleading. For starters, notice how what was "said" on Tuesday was "proclaimed" by Friday, making the statement sound like more of a whitewash, and making the Special Task Force, as it's officially called, look that much dumber when they discovered they wouldn't get those supposedly crucial files.

    As for "beleaguered," it is, of course, Spector himself, and editorial writer Sharon Broussard who are "beleaguering" the agency. (Editorials are unsigned, but Broussard wrote the early editorials on these issues and, as far as I know, still has responsibility for them.)

    In fact, there is no evidence that children are any less safe now than they were in past years. Indeed, DCFS maintains that the most reliable available safety indicator – reabuse of children known to the system – has remained unchanged; something the Plain Dealer has chosen not to report – just as the Plain Dealer has chosen not to report the 60 percent increase in children torn from their homes.

    As for the files on the horror story cases, when it comes to judging the overall performance of DCFS, they aren't crucial and the revelation is anything but new. Indeed, the entirely-unattributed claim that this is
"critical information to do its job," is simply Harlan Spector's personal opinion.


    While Spector attributes the revelation that the task force won't get this information to meeting minutes, he doesn't mention that this actually appears in the minutes of the task force's very first meeting, on May 20. Perhaps Spector simply didn't bother to read the minutes at the time.

    The next time this issue arises is in the minutes of a task force meeting on July 15. According to Spector:

   Minutes of the task force's meetings show that the panel has not been given information it requested about the cases. The minutes don't specify which cases were requested, referring to them as "high profile and reunification cases."
   "The data will help the panel determine where in the process is the break down," said minutes from a July 15 meeting.

    But Spector took the meeting minutes, available in full here, out of context. The minutes actually say that a subcommittee dealing with a practice known as Team Decisionmaking (TDM) discussed items including:

   The difficulty in getting adequate data on the TDM practice concerns in the high profile and recent reunification cases; the data will help the panel determine where in the process is the break down. [Emphasis added].

So, in fact, the quote in question pertained to:
--One subcommittee of the panel.
--Data from the files, not the files themselves.
--A "breakdown" not in the entire Cuyahoga County child welfare system, but in one facet of that system, Team Decisionmaking, in these particular cases.   

   And for the "reunification cases," which are 122 of the approximately 126 at issue, Forkas has said she will provide the data.

    As I've said often on this Blog, most recently just last week, I believe not only Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions but every member of the press and the public should be able to see nearly everything in every case file. But that's a separate issue from whether Harlan Spector grossly distorted what the task force actually said.


    Spector's distortions in these stories are part of a larger theme in Plain Dealer "reporting." From the moment the task force was announced, the Plain Dealer has whined about the fact that the members were "handpicked" by Forkas who told them what to look into.

    So after briefly noting DCFS' claims that they couldn't provide the actual files in the horror story cases because prosecutors asked them not to share those files, and after briefly paraphrasing the task force's reasoning for not needing horror stories to evaluate the overall performance of the agency (more on that below), Spector writes:

    The denial of case records nonetheless indicates the extent to which the county has shaped the outside review of the department. Forkas appointed the 32-member panel and assigned the group areas of study. [Emphasis added.]

   You do have to admire the work of a true master in almost any field – and once again, with that paragraph, Spector shows his mastery of loaded language. Because, again, it's literally true, but grossly misleading.

   Who, exactly would the Plain Dealer like to see name a task force like this? If, say, the County Commissioners had named the task force, that would make them no more independent, since the commissioners have ultimate responsibility for DCFS.

   In fact, the membership of the Task Force looks just about like the membership of almost every other Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission named when newspapers rediscover that their communities have child welfare agencies and that sometimes children known to those agencies die.

   As for the claim that Forkas "assigned the group areas of study" in fact, Forkas gave the task force a very broad charge. According to the minutes from the first meeting:

The charge issued to the panel was as follows: to develop specific recommendations focusing on decision points related to the reunification process and the decisions that the agency makes; a review and recommendation on permanency, as well as recommendations to expand the agency's service delivery model related to evidence based practice.

    That covers pretty much anything the task force wants to cover – and neither Spector nor Broussard, has said what other issues they'd like to see the task force look at.

     But this kind of spin is perfect for the Plain Dealer's purposes. If the task force doesn't say what Spector and Broussard want it to say, then the spin is: "Well, what did you expect? Forkas named the task force." Had it issued harshly critical findings, then the Plain Dealer would have said "Even Forkas handpicked panel concluded…" Heads we win, tails you lose.


    The real failing of the task force membership is that, like almost every other such panel ever created, it lacks either a birth parent who feels her or his children were wrongfully removed or at least a lawyer who regularly represents such parents. According to the minutes, once again, birth parents were to get a "focus group."

    Virtually every other constituency – doctors who specialize in child abuse, law enforcement, judges, lawyers who represent children in these cases, private agencies, and leading academicians are represented. It's the usual rounding up of the usual suspects. But that means that, as usual, the debate is limited to whether the child welfare agency is doing too much family preservation or just enough. The possibility that the county is doing too little to keep families together was off the table from day one.

    So when the task force says, (not proclaims, says), that DCFS is fundamentally sound, either:

      ● there is a massive conspiracy on the part of virtually every constituency involved in the study or practice of child welfare in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to cover up the failings of DCFS or,

      ● the system really isn't endangering children's lives by failing to take enough of them away.

   Take your pick.


    The next day, Broussard weighed in. She had a different explanation for why the task force somehow came to conclusions different from her own. They'd been duped!

   After regurgitating the same horror stories that supposedly prove DCFS is failing systemically, Broussard added that "On Friday came news that the task force has not been allowed to see the files on the very cases that triggered its formation." Apparently, Broussard also didn't read the actual minutes of the Task Force meetings. (It's not that much of a chore, they're only five or six pages each).

   But at least Broussard allowed the task force chairman, Prof. David Crampton to defend the task force's work:

    Task force chairman David Crampton, a respected child-welfare scholar and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, understandably bristles at the notion that he or other panelists are being manipulated into a bias in favor of Forkas or her department.
   "My job is not to protect the job of a Deb Forkas; it is to have the best child-welfare system in the country," Crampton says. "I'm not doing this for any other reason than that."
   He adds that any best-practices review of child welfare won't dwell on a handful of tragedies but instead will take the widest-angled view possible of systemwide practices. [Emphasis added.]


    And that last sentence illustrates why the task force has been vastly smarter about all of this than either Spector or Broussard.

    As I've noted often on this Blog, the way to figure out how a child welfare system typically functions is to look at the typical cases.

    Suppose the Plain Dealer were judged solely by its greatest screw-ups, the stories that required the most embarrassing corrections? They'd be the first to say that this is an absurd way to evaluate anyone. "Why dwell on a handful of our worst blunders?" the newspaper would say. "You should be taking the widest angle view of our total performance."

   There is one crucial difference, of course: When DCFS screws up, children die. But that makes it all the more important not to use horror stories to fashion solutions that only make things worse.

   Unfortunately, the Plain Dealer's own crusade already has had just that effect. As is discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog, the work of the Plain Dealer, mostly Spector and Broussard, has set off a classic foster-care panic – with entries into care up 60 percent and exits down by one-third.

   Not only does this do terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, it also overloads workers so they have even less time to find children in real danger. That's why all over the country, in systems that, unlike Cuyahoga County are so large that it's possible to detect a pattern, over and over foster-care panics have been followed by more deaths of children "known to the system."

   In other words, when caseworkers, terrified of landing on the front page react to hyped, distorted, news stories like the ones in the Plain Dealer exactly the way Cuyahoga County caseworkers are responding now, the typical result is that more children wind up dead.

   To the extent that the minutes of the task force meetings reveal any failings, they suggest that Forkas is too sanguine about the panic, and the task force itself has not yet addressed it.

   But, as I've noted in every post about Cleveland, two former Plain Dealer reporters did – in their outstanding dissection of the last foster care panic in Cuyahoga County, Child Welfare Gone Haywire. That 2004 story warned of exactly the type of journalistic failure that now typifies Spector and Broussard's approach.

   Come to think of it, maybe the worst screw ups of DCFS and the worst screw-ups of the Cleveland Plain Dealer aren't so different after all.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Foster care panic in Cleveland: Child welfare goes haywire - again


    This may be the best indication of just how bad things are in Cleveland right now: The most reasonable, most rational, most sensible comments about child welfare are coming from politicians.

    Two of the three Cuyahoga County Commissioners have defended the county Department of Children and Family Services against claims by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that not only are misleading and out-of-context but also, sometimes, just plain wrong on the facts.

    Whereas the Los Angeles Times has committed largely sins of omission – and has backed off both from claims that recent child abuse tragedies are a "series" or a "spate" and from overt attempts to link such tragedies to family preservation, the Plain Dealer's coverage since March has been as sleazy as any I've seen, ranking right up there with what the Philadelphia Inquirer did in 2006 and 2007 – coverage that was superbly-critiqued by the alternative weekly CityPaper. Indeed, even the Inquirer did not have as much of a problem with basic accuracy.

    And it's having exactly the effect one would expect – the one we predicted in these previous posts about Cleveland.

The Los Angeles Times was only able to start a foster-care panic good for a 16 percent increase in removals (in part because of some unusual financial incentives in Los Angeles which counteracted some of the coverage). But from March, when the Plain Dealer launched its crusade, through June, the most recent month for which data are available, the number of children torn from their homes in Cuyahoga County has soared by 60 percent compared with the same period in 2009. During those same four months, the number of children freed from foster care plummeted by one-third.

That means it's only a matter of time before all the other problems associated with foster-care panic become apparent: DCFS becomes desperate for beds, foster homes become overcrowded, standards for foster parents are lowered, more children moved from home to home and more children are placed in group homes and institutions run by powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold those children in care. Indeed, it appears to be people at private foster care agencies who are fueling some of the Plain Dealer's coverage.

But a foster-care panic seems to be just what the Plain Dealer wants. A Plain Dealer editorial declared that DCFS' job "is to whisk youngsters out of dangerous homes…" In fact, DCFS' job is to ensure that children are safe – preferably by removing the danger and only when that isn't possible by removing the child.

And de facto editorial writer Harlan Spector (officially what he writes are referred to as "news stories") summed up the Plain Dealer party line in a story last week. According to the story:

Critics say the county has been too quick to return children to troubled households, too slow to remove them from risky environments and too conservative in launching investigations.

A foster parent then got five paragraphs to attack DCFS for doing too much to keep families together – with no rebuttal.

Of course there also were the usual features of these sorts of crusades: the ritual editorial page demand for the firing of the agency chief, in this case DCFS Director Deborah Forkas. Forkas herself followed the ritual – she named an OBRC (Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission) to study her agency.

The whole thing is all-the-more reprehensible because the Plain Dealer is the one place with less excuse than any other newspaper to make these mistakes. Because the Plain Dealer is the one newspaper to own up to these kinds of mistakes, and expose the price of panic, when very similar errors were made more than a decade ago.

Every time reporter Spector and the editorial writer who handles these issues (probably Sharon Broussard, who wrote the editorials cited in earlier posts to this Blog) repeats these blunders they also, in effect, spit in the faces of the far better former Plain Dealer journalists who wrote Child Welfare Gone Haywire in 2004.


    In calling for Forkas' resignation, a Plain Dealer editorial declared that "under Forkas' management, children's services staff have returned children to mothers who later killed them and they have dragged their feet on removing toddlers found in a home full of cat feces."

    Leaving aside the fact that the latter claim isn't quite accurate (more on that later), if that's the criterion for firing child welfare agency chiefs, almost every such job in every medium and large sized jurisdiction in America will be vacant – forever.

    Neither the editorial writer, presumably Broussard, nor anyone on the news side has produced any evidence that child abuse fatalities among children known to the system, or other tragedies, have increased under Forkas' watch. And given the size of Cuyahoga County a one-year change, for better or worse, in the most extreme cases wouldn't tell us anything. (More on that on Monday). Nevertheless, now that the Plain Dealer is paying attention to them, the tragedies have been declared a "series" a "string" and a "spate."

    But you have to wonder how desperate they are for horror stories when you get to the cat feces case.

    The "hook" there was that animal control officers removed the cats, but DCFS didn't remove the children. That, of course, implies they arrived simultaneously, the DCFS workers saw the filth and didn't care. Or, as a Plain Dealer news story by reporter Laura Johnston put it: "Two toddlers were removed from their cat-feces covered home five months after the Animal Protective League called Children and Family Services."

    Except that's not true.

    Although an animal control officer says he reported the case to DCFS as soon as he saw it, DCFS says they did not receive a call until more than a month later – and Forkas says she has a tape to prove it. By then, Forkas says – and no one disputes - the family had moved in with relatives and everything was neat and clean. DCFS helped the family move to a new home, monitored them for two months, then closed the case. A month later things had deteriorated. The new home allegedly was as bad as the old. On that occasion, there apparently is no dispute that animal control notified DCFS right away. DCFS responded right away – and immediately removed the children.

    Yet Johnston's news story implied the children were in the same filthy house for five months, and accepted the animal control officer's claim as true. Broussard wrote in an editorial that even if DCFS' account is correct, and they really did find the family living with relatives in a neat, clean home, that doesn't excuse their "failure" in this case. Apparently, Broussard expects DCFS workers to be psychic. It's a demand she has made of those workers in connection with at least one previous case as well.


    Initially the problem at the Plain Dealer was primarily with the editorial page. Their failures, including the accuracy problem, are described in these earlier posts to this Blog. At that time, the news coverage played it straight, and one reporter, Diane Suchetka, who once had been the regular reporter on the social services beat, tried hard to add context and perspective. But, for whatever reason, she's not covering these stories anymore. The work of her replacement, Harlan Spector, is a classic example of the sneer and swagger that is typical of the worst child welfare reporting.

    Spector's specialties are loaded language and declaring his own opinions to be fact. In his story about the cat feces case, Spector decreed that "Had the system worked like [sic] it's supposed to, the kids would have been taken into custody in November." One could as easily opine that had the system worked as it's supposed to, the family would have gotten intensive, ongoing help so their new home would not deteriorate. Neither opinion belongs, unattributed, in a news story.

    A month later, Spector was back, offering up the shocking revelation that Cuyahoga County's child abuse hotline screens out some calls – just like just about every other child abuse hotline in America. The story implies that this didn't happen at all before Forkas instituted a new policy – though it's clear from what amounts to the story's fine print that it did. The story claimed that half of all calls now are screened out. The story also claimed that "the policy has child welfare advocates in an uproar."

    In fact, Cuyahoga County always screened calls. What's new is that the county now is following state guidelines for screening – something buried in a brief mention far down in the story.

    The claim that the county is screening out half of all calls, "is simply not accurate" according to County Commissioner Timothy Hagan. In a Plain Dealer op ed column he wrote:

    In fact, less than one-third are screened out, primarily because: (1) They have already been reported and are under investigation (duplicates account for about 15 percent of screen outs); or (2) the call doesn't meet the state's criteria for abuse and neglect. For example, a caller might report poor hygiene, a dirty home, a spanking or a parent swearing at a child -- none of which alone meet state criteria. But even then, DCFS social workers consider both the child's age and the severity of the incident when determining whether to investigate. 

Finally, numbers don't tell the whole story. In December 2008, DCFS converted to a state-mandated data management system. Cuyahoga County resisted this switch because many other Ohio counties reported problems with the system. Under this system, every call is documented whether or not it involves a child at risk. A worker goes through 16 screens and multiple drop-down menus to document each call. If she makes a mistake -- perhaps misspelling a name or entering an incorrect birth date -- it counts as a "screen out," thus requiring a new record. This creates more records but not necessarily more cases that require investigation. 

    Of course I can't prove Hagan is right and Spector is wrong. But in the weeks since Hagan's op ed column ran, as far as I know, the Plain Dealer has neither corrected its reporting – nor challenged Hagan's rebuttal. That's often the way newspapers handle a blunder when they know they screwed up but don't want to admit it.

    As for those "child welfare advocates" supposedly "in an uproar," of the three quoted, two of them work for big private agencies that live on a steady supply of foster children. And lately, in Cuyahoga County, the living hasn't been so easy.


    That brings me to the story that just might explain everything: The one about budget cuts.

    Like just about everywhere else in the country, Cuyahoga County is facing budget problems, and all departments were ordered to cut their budgets. Those that exceeded their targets in the last fiscal year got some of the money back this year as a reward. DCFS was one of those agencies.

    Some budget cuts last year and in previous years took a serious toll. But DCFS did most of the cutting in exactly the right way: by taking fewer children and, especially, by relying more on family foster care and less on group homes and institutions which are both the worst form of care and the most expensive.

    So, first DCFS cuts the number of children warehoused in institutions and group homes run by private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care. Then, a few months later, lo and behold: Stories appear in the Plain Dealer about the horrors resulting when not enough children are taken from their homes. Perhaps it's a coincidence. But if not, it certainly wouldn't be the first time people with a vested interest fed stories like that to credulous reporters.

    And the Plain Dealer wrote the budget cut story in exactly the way the private agencies would want. Laura Johnston's story began this way:

Cuyahoga County's child welfare agency ended last year with a $7.5 million surplus -- more than any of the county's other offices -- in part by keeping more children with their parents rather than in foster homes. And the county has rewarded that thriftiness despite recent high-profile cases in which children died or suffered severe malnutrition after the agency reunited them with their mothers.

    The story even rehabilitated the politician singled out by the Plain Dealer's excellent reporting in 2004 as most responsible for making child welfare go "haywire" in the 1990s. Whereas the 2004 stories exposed how much harm then-County Commissioner Timothy McCormack had done, when he gave the Plain Dealer the quote it wanted, criticizing the budget cuts, McCormack became "a long-time champion of child welfare services." The story did note that McCormack is running for the newly-created post of Cuyahoga County Executive.

    None of this would matter so much if not for the fact that children's lives are at stake – literally. Because while Cuyahoga County is too small to detect any pattern, the one thing we know from places that are big enough is that over and over again, foster-care panics have had the same result: More children die.

    It looks like the Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission named by Forkas to study the system understands that. And that probably explains why the Plain Dealer now is going after the commission. That story Monday.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: DCFS seeks to silence dissent. I wonder where they got THAT idea?

    I don't know if anyone at the Los Angeles Times actually exclaimed "Thank you, Lord!" when the county Department of Children and Family Services launched an investigation into leaks of information about child abuse deaths – but I'll bet that's what plenty of journalists at the Times were thinking.

    That's because there's no better way to keep a story alive and give reporters an excuse to regurgitate everything they've already told us (while continuing to leave out everything they've left out all along).

    DCFS' whole approach to information is, first and foremost, morally reprehensible. Just as all court hearings should be open in child welfare cases, almost every scrap of paper in every case, not just the horror stories, should be available to press and public. (In those rare cases where disclosure of a given document really would seriously harm a child, the lawyer for the child or the parents should ask the court to withhold the minimum amount necessary to prevent that harm. For details see our Due Process Agenda.) But DCFS' approach also is remarkably stupid.

    First DCFS stopped releasing information about child abuse deaths – arguably in violation of state law. Of course, that only meant that people within the agency would leak the information. So instead of all the information on a given case coming out at once, it drips out, leading to multiple stories instead of one. Now, the leak investigation itself is news, so Times reporters can keep the story going, and push their take-the-child-and-run agenda all over again.

    So first came the news story yesterday. Today, Tim Rutten, a columnist who has emerged as the most overt proponent of that take-the-child-and-run agenda, repeated what was in the story and made outraged comments about it.

    Rutten writes:

The theory here is that if you cut off reporters' information, so that nobody knows exactly how the children died, it's as if they're not dead. No matter how agonizing a child's end, a vast bureaucratic silence will absorb his or her cries, and it will be as if they never lived — or died — at all. If any sound escapes, it will be that faint official splash that first echoed when Pilate washed his hands.

    In other words, Rutten is accusing DCFS of trying to behave like – the Los Angeles Times.

    It is the Times that has imposed a news blackout on cases in which DCFS wrongly removes children from their homes.

    It is the Times that systematically omitted deaths of children in foster care from a list of high-profile fatalities over the past 12 years.

    It is the Times that has refused to report the foster-care panic sweeping through the county – the spike in removals of children from their homes by caseworkers terrified of landing on the front page.

And it is the Times that has failed to report that, all over the country, such panics have so overwhelmed caseworkers that they've had even less time to find children in real danger – so child abuse deaths increased.

Or, as Tim Rutten might say, but wont: If you cut off the public's information, so that nobody knows how many children have been torn needlessly from everyone they know and love, it's as if it never happened. No matter how agonizing the experience of removal, and how great the risk of abuse in foster care and lifelong emotional scars, a vast journalistic silence will absorb their cries, and it will be as if they'd never suffered at all.

There is one difference of course. When government tries to censor information, it usually leaks to the journalists. When what is still the largest and most influential news organization in a region is the censor, it's far less likely that the public ever will find out.


All that said, however, when it comes to starting foster care panic, stifling dissent, loaded language and otherwise stacking the deck in child welfare coverage, the people at the Los Angeles Times are amateurs. To see a truly professional hatchet job, you've got to check out the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That story tomorrow.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mississippi stealing: What the feds found

    The previous post to this Blog is about a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican woman living in Mississippi when her newborn daughter, Ruby, was confiscated at birth by child protective services because Ms. Cruz was poor and did not speak English.

    The lawsuit alleges that caseworkers and the hospital's "patient advocate" – and yes, that's her title – "fabricated" false allegations against Ms. Cruz and conspired with the judge to ensure that the child was handed over to affluent white foster parents; attorneys who wanted to adopt Ruby and who frequently practiced before that judge. Details of what SPLC alleges was an attempt to "steal" Ms. Cruz's newborn are in the lawsuit complaint.

    Even after Ms. Cruz got her child back, the court maintained a gag order, so neither she nor her lawyers can talk about what happened in court.

"Mississippi officials and hospital workers conspired to steal Cirila Baltazar Cruz's baby by inventing false charges against her — allegations she couldn't refute because she doesn't speak the right language — and then told her she couldn't talk about it," SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer said in a news release. "This was an outrageous violation of her most fundamental rights, and we're deeply concerned that other mothers in Mississippi might be subjected to the same treatment."

Evidence that other mothers, and their children, may indeed be subjected to the same treatment comes from an investigation launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That investigation puts to rest the most frequent dodge of latter-day child savers when they're caught taking poor people's children: The claim that such cases are aberrations.


    HHS found that, in the Cruz case, over and over again, Mississippi violated federal laws and regulations. In a letter from HHS to the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, HHS suggested that Mississippi DHS was so cavalier about these violations that "This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident."

    Among the HHS findings [emphasis added]:

    Reasonable efforts to prevent removal were not made. The agency social worker was unable to conduct a proper investigation due to the language barrier with the limited English-proficient mother and the agency failed to take reasonable steps to ensure effective communication with her. Spanish speaking interpreters were used despite the clear indication that the mother's primary language was not Spanish [it's Chatino, an indigenous language in Mexico]. [DHS'] concerns were related to mother's housing arrangements; however no efforts were made to assist her in acquiring more suitable/safe housing so that the child could remain with her. No services were offered to the mother at all.

    The mother did not receive a case plan until April 24, 2009 – 5 months after the child has been removed. The case plan … required that the mother complete a parenting class ([Although case plans are supposed to be individualized, tailored to the specific needs of each family] the Agency reported that this is standard on all case plans),show proof of employment, and demonstrate suitable housing by producing a signed lease agreement. No services were offered to the mother to assist with the employment or housing requirements. The mother was referred to a community-based organization to watch a two-hour parenting video that was presented in Spanish. The video did not address caring for a newborn…

    A review hearing was held timely on May 13, 2009. However, based on noted concerns raised regarding impermissible ex parte communication between the Judge and the Agency and the foster parents, as well as the stated bias against the mother by the guardian ad litem assigned to the case, it is questionable as to whether all of the requirements of the review outlined in [federal law and regulations] were met.

    Reasonable efforts were not made to identify or contact relatives of Ms. Cruz to assess them as placement resources. Ms. Cruz' cousin, who lives in Alabama, was present during all of the agency's contact with Ms, Cruz, but no efforts to assess him as a placement resource were made until January 28, 2009 [more than two months after the child was removed]. … The agency also failed to make efforts to contact family members who resided in Mexico and in other parts of the United States. There was also no attempt to contact the father of the child or any parental relatives …

    The MDHS [Mississippi Department of Human Services] staff interviewed did not see these issues as problematic. This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident.

    All this is all the more remarkable considering that HHS is not exactly known for aggressive investigation of child welfare agency failings. To get a letter like this, the problems have to be flagrant, and easy for anyone to see.


    That means they should have been easy for the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights to see when they sued Mississippi DHS in 2004. It should have been easy to see when they settled the lawsuit in January, 2008. And it should have been impossible to miss when the first news accounts about the case appeared in June, 2009.

    But, of course, CR has made clear over and over that it doesn't much care about keeping children out of foster care in the first place (indeed, they've undermined such efforts), or about the rights of children like Ruby and all the others like her, taken when family poverty is confused with neglect. But then, I don't imagine that was a top priority of corporate raider Carl Icahn, back when he chaired CR's board, either.

    It's been said so often that it's become a cliché, but it's still true that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

    So it's fortunate that the Southern Poverty Law Center stepped in, when the good people at the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights did nothing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Foster care in Mississippi: Is stealing poor people’s children business-as-usual?


 The Southern Poverty Law Center today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, the undocumented immigrant mother in Mississippi whose child was confiscated at birth because Ms. Cruz doesn't speak English. The lawsuit alleges that the state child welfare agency, a judge and affluent white foster parents (lawyers who frequently practice before the judge who approved the removal) conspired to "steal" – and that's SPLC's word – Ms. Cruz's newborn daughter, Ruby, so the foster parents could adopt her.

    News accounts about the suit are available from the Associated Press and the Jackson Ms. Clarion-Ledger.  SPLC's website has links to the lawsuit complaint and to what may be an even more revealing document: a two-and-a-half page letter from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to the Mississippi Department of Human Services summarizing the findings of their own investigation.

The letter is scathing. It found repeated violations of federal law and regulations – most notably the agency's failure to lift a finger to help ameliorate problems of poverty that supposedly contributed to the removal. But even more important, according to the letter, Mississippi child welfare authorities "did not see these issues as problematic. This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident."

    HHS asked Mississippi "to provide information regarding how the Agency will address these compliance issues and future issues of this nature by October 30, 2009." There is nothing in the documents made public today indicating how Mississippi responded.

    The injustices don't end there.

    I've often said child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA. If you doubt it, check out the public version of SPLC's complaint. They had to black out paragraph after paragraph, sometimes an entire page. Why? Because the juvenile court (called the Youth Court in Mississippi) issued a sweeping gag order, which Ms. Cruz is appealing, one that still applies, even though the child has been returned to her mother, and both are living in Mexico. I can't wait for the advocates of confidentiality to explain why that is necessary to protect the child. [UPDATE, JAN 6, 2011: THE GAG ORDER HAS BEEN LIFTED, YOU CAN NOW READ THE FULL, UNCENSORED DOCUMENT ON SPLC's WEBSITE HERE.]

    And then there's the group that gagged itself – that great big purveyor of child welfare McLawsuits that usually loves to talk, but somehow has stood silent throughout Ruby's ordeal – even though it has settled a class-action suit against the child welfare system in Mississippi. It's the same group that apparently never noticed the fact that the wrongful removal of Ruby may well represent a systemic failure in Mississippi, and has shown no evidence of lifting a finger to do anything about it.

    I am referring, of course, to the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" – while showing no evidence that it gives a damn about the rights of one little girl named Ruby.

More on Monday.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Foster care in Iowa: A dangerous exercise in self-delusion

    In writing about child welfare, there's a natural tendency to focus on places where something new is happening. It may be a foster-care panic, making things worse or a reform-minded administration making things better, but one way or another it's new. So child welfare systems that just keep on lousing up the lives of thousands of children year after year, without much changing, don't get the attention they deserve.

    One such place is Iowa. Year in and year out, that state's Department of Human Services tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation – most recently fifth highest, when poverty is factored in. The rate is more than double the national average.

And there may be no place else in the country where the odds of a child being torn from everyone she or he knows and loves depend so much on which side of a state line they happen to live on. The rate of removal in Iowa is more than four times the rate in neighboring Illinois – but it's Illinois where independent court-appointed monitors have found that reforms have improved child safety.

    Now Iowa is proving something else: There is no idea in child welfare so good, no innovation so successful that a lousy child welfare system, suffused with arrogance from top to bottom, can't screw it up.

    The innovation in question goes by a variety of names, such as Team Decisionmaking, Family Group Decision Making and Family Group Conferencing. There are differences among them, but they're all variations on a theme: Within 72 hours of removing a child from the home, bring everyone who knows and cares about that child and that family – extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, etc. - into one room to try to work out a plan to reduce to an absolute minimum the time that child spends in foster care with strangers. The plan may involve bolstering supports for the birth parents so the child can come home right away – or at least sooner – or it may involve placing the child with a relative or a trusted friend instead of a stranger.

    It doesn't always work. Some child welfare agencies abuse the process to bully families instead of helping them. But in most places, this approach has shown considerable success in safely getting children out of foster care more quickly.


    Some innovators in child welfare have taken it a step further: Why not see if we can bring everyone together just in the hours from the time a worker decides a child must be removed to the time the physical act of removal is supposed to take place, and try to find a way to prevent the child from being taken away at all? It's been particularly successful in neighborhoods where it's been tried in New York City. (Though the city's Administration for Children's Services has regressed in many other ways, it's stuck with this initiative).

    So, could there possibly be a child welfare agency so arrogant about its own omnipotence, so callous about the inherent harm to children that comes from being taken from their families, and so just plain dumb that they would exert all the effort to set up these meetings and then refuse to use them to find alternatives to taking away the child?

    Welcome to Iowa.

    According to a well-reported story in the Des Moines Register, the Iowa Department of Human Services wants to implement statewide a program in one county called "pre-removal conferences." As the name implies, the conferences are solely for the purposes of issuing what amounts to an ultimatum to the family: We're taking your kids, you can scream and yell about it, or you can cooperate, but we're taking your kids. This way, according to Wendy Rickman, administrator of DHS' Division of Child and Family Services, parents are less likely to make a scene, a child can take his favorite toy with him, etc.

    "Our mantra is be very hard on the problem, but be very easy on the people," Rickman told the Register. "We say, 'You cannot abuse or neglect your kids,' but in the process, the system should not further traumatize.'
    So taking a child from his entire family and landing him in the home of strangers, away from mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, teachers, friends, and classmates is "very easy" for the child – just so long as he gets to take a teddy bear with him. Right. And it certainly won't "further traumatize" the child if there's a meeting in advance.

    I don't know which is worse – if they know better and are just putting out a line for public consumption or if they're actually engaged in mass self-delusion and seriously believe this.


In case they really don't know, let's put it on the record: The main reason foster care is so traumatic is the fact of removal, regardless of how it's done. And the more DHS workers convince themselves they've made removal harmless by avoiding "a scene," the less likely they are to take the steps needed to actually prevent wrongful removal – steps that other states have used to create systems that take far fewer children than Iowa while keeping children safer.

The ignorance and/or self-delusion is accompanied by a dangerous arrogance, as can be seen in this comment from DHS social work administrator Mike McInroy: "We didn't want it to be a negotiation," McInroy said. "You could be there a couple hours, going back and forth."

Of course not. After all, we certainly wouldn't want to take a couple of hours of Mr. McInroy's precious time in order to save a child weeks, months or maybe a lifetime of foster care.

Even Howard Davidson, executive Director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law seemed unable to quite believe what Iowa was doing. He told the Register Iowa's approach is:

"kind of a strange process." "Undoubtedly the agency has very good intentions," Davidson said, "but this needs to be thought through more carefully." Davidson said parents are at a disadvantage because they haven't had time to consult with an attorney, and the court hasn't assigned the child a lawyer yet. "Most parents are very compliant and docile because it's the power of the state and all that," Davidson said.  


To the extent that there is any good news in all this, it is in these two revelations in the Register story:

First, at least for the moment, DHS is abandoning the fiction one always hears from lousy child welfare agencies that take huge numbers of kids - the one where they piously proclaim that they don't remove kids, they don't make that decision, they don't have the power, blah, blah, blah, it's all up to a judge. For the moment, at least, Iowa DHS has dropped this silly pretense and made clear that they do, indeed, decide when children are going to be taken from their homes.  The only job of the judge is to rubber stamp what DHS already has decided. According to the Register:

At Iowa's pre-removal conferences, DHS workers make clear that removal is inevitable. They ask parents to sign a consent for the emergency removal, and tell them DHS will seek a court order if they decline.

Second, it turns out that Iowa apparently has the nation's most considerate child abusers.

DHS labels every case in which it marches in to remove a child an "emergency" placing children at "imminent" risk of maltreatment. But the Register found that the majority of Iowa child abusers apparently go out of their way to place children at imminent risk only on Mondays through Fridays, during normal business hours, since that's when most "emergency" removals take place.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Foster care finance reform: NAPCWA offers a plan that fears the future

While we don't know if Bryan Samuels, the Commissioner of the Administration for Children Youth and Families really will turn out to be a champion of genuine child welfare finance reform, we know who is chickening out, big-time: the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators, the trade association for the people who run state and local government child protective services agencies.

NAPCWA has made public its plan for child welfare finance "reform." And while the reasons may be different, my guess is a lot of people in Congress are going to react to the plan the same way I did: They can't be serious. Indeed, they may not be serious. The plan is so unrealistic and so likely to be Dead on Arrival on Capitol Hill that I have to wonder if a lot of people in NAPCWA simply want to show they tried before pushing for straight "delinking" – something I'll explain below - and nothing more.

The only good news in the document is that NAPCWA calls for restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue waivers like the one that has done so much to improve child welfare in Florida. Other than that, the plan is worthless.

But it's not the fact that this plan is bad policy, with the potential to actually make incentives worse, that is likely to kill it. It's the fact that it is not cost-neutral; not even close. And if I can figure that out, so can the Congressional Budget Office.

In reading this plan, I was struck by how distant it is from a vision President Obama articulated when he signed the health care law. At that time, he said: "We do not fear the future, we shape the future."
In contrast, the plan for child welfare finance reform released by NAPCWA is a plan that suggests NAPCWA is so fearful of the future that it won't even try to shape it. In the process it puts at risk the futures of thousands of vulnerable children.

As with so much in child welfare practice, this plan belies the rhetoric about keeping families together being the first goal of the system. What the plan really says is: We will continue to do business as usual, and, if we get lucky and save a little by reducing foster care, we'll put some of that spare change into keeping families together. And because we so fear the future, because we don't really believe our own rhetoric about the success and the value of prevention, we insist on maintaining our addiction to the open-ended entitlement of foster care.
Not only would this plan do little or nothing to change the incentives that promote foster care, if this change is accompanied by "delinking," it actually could make things worse.

And what is this grand plan? Essentially it all boils down to this:

  • Keep the open-ended entitlement under which states are reimbursed for a large share of the cost of holding children in foster care – with no comparable entitlement for better alternatives.
  • If a state nevertheless manages to reduce foster care, let the state, in effect, pretend it's still taking away just as many children as ever and use the savings for alternatives, including prevention, family preservation and adoption. It's even possible, though not clear from the plan, that some of the savings could be plowed right back into foster care.
  • But if foster care goes up, states would continue to receive reimbursement for every child taken away. And it would be every child, not just every "eligible child" because the other key component of the plan is --

  • "delinking," the Holy Grail of the foster care-industrial complex. Under delinking the proportion of children whose cases are eligible for federal aid would roughly double, and the gradual erosion of the proportion of cases eligible for aid – the one tiny financial incentive that runs against shoveling ever more children into foster care – would end. (This is not what makes the plan so costly – NAPCWA admits that to get delinking it would have to cut the amount reimbursed per child. It's the part about keeping the entitlement that risks big cost increases, as is discussed below).


    In every possible way, the incentives in child welfare favor foster care: The personal incentives for everyone from the frontline caseworker to the child welfare agency chief, favor it, the political incentives favor it and the financial incentives favor it. Even if one argues that this plan neutralizes the financial incentives – and I don't think it does - it doesn't change the other incentives. So there will be no serious push to reduce foster care. More important, when the going gets tough – when the local newspaper suddenly discovers that a state or county has a child welfare agency and sometimes children known to that agency die - there is no incentive to resist foster-care panic – because, under this plan, the state or county still gets a huge share of foster care costs reimbursed.

    Los Angeles County is a good example. As has been noted often on this Blog, the Los Angeles Times has been running lots of stories about deaths of children known-to-the-system and, initially, scapegoating efforts to keep families together. (There's been a change in direction on the spin lately, but it's too little, too late.) The Los Angeles County child welfare agency director claimed there was no foster-care panic. But when she reneged on a promise to provide the actual numbers, NCCPR filed a California Public Records Act to get them.

    The data show there is a foster-care panic in Los Angeles County. However, the panic is not nearly as bad as other places have endured under nearly-identical circumstances. That almost certainly is because Los Angeles County accepted a Florida-style waiver limiting its foster care funding from the federal government. So, to the extent that there is a foster-care panic in Los Angeles County, Los Angeles County actually has to pay for it.

    In contrast, under the NAPCWA plan, Los Angeles wouldn't have to pay more than under the status quo for the rest of the nation and, for reasons I'll get to below, might actually pay a little less.

    A ceiling on foster care expenditures is essential to stiffen the spines of many child welfare leaders and most elected officials, in the face of newspaper crusades and other pressure to "take the child and run."

                Even more frightening is the possibility that, were this plan enacted in it's entirely, the incentives in a time of foster-care panic could get worse.

    Again, consider the Los Angeles example:

    Because of the waiver, Los Angeles County has to pay the full cost of its current foster-care panic.
    If Los Angeles County were like most of America today, in contrast, it would be reimbursed for a sizable share of the cost of additional placements caused by foster care panic (or any other cause) – but only for "eligible" children.
    Under the NAPCWA plan, Los Angeles actually would be reimbursed for part of the cost of every child wrongfully placed in foster care because of a foster-care panic. (Although the proportion of federal aid per case would be lower, the fine print about something called "claiming rates" appears to mean that, in fact, Los Angeles, and everyplace else, actually would get more. And, of course the gradual reduction in the proportion of cases eligible for reimbursement would end).
    Thus, the NAPCWA plan actually encourages foster-care panic even more than the status quo.


    Although NAPCWA says this plan is cost neutral, it isn't. As noted above, I am not referring to delinking – I understand that the idea is to make delinking itself close to cost-neutral, by lowering the reimbursement per case. The increased costs come about in a different way:

    Under the status quo, the federal government pays more when foster care entries go up, but saves money when they come down.
    Under waivers like Florida's the federal government doesn't pay less when foster care entries go down, but it doesn't pay more either, aside from a small annual increase negotiated with the state to account for inflation. And, of course, it doesn't pay more when entries rise.

    The federal government, and all taxpayers, also reap huge savings in other areas, like running criminal justice systems (especially jails), paying unemployment compensation and public assistance, and maintaining adult psychiatric centers, since reducing needless foster care also reduces the terrible outcomes that plague so many former foster children.
    But under the NAPCWA plan, the federal government would continue to pay more when entries increase but achieve no direct savings when numbers go down.

    Consider two hypothetical states. Each state had 100,000 "foster care days" for eligible children last year (number of children in foster care at any point in the year multiplied by the number of days they were there), for a total of 200,000 days in all. Let's also assume that, in each of these hypothetical states, the federal government pays an average of $100 per foster care day. Total cost to the federal government: $10 million per state, $20 million in all.

    Now, let's suppose in the following year, one state cuts 10,000 foster care days while the other adds 10,000 foster care days. The total cost remains the same, because what the federal government loses in one state it saves in the other.

    But under the NAPCWA plan, the federal government has to pay for those 10,000 extra days in one state, but saves nothing from the reduction in the other state. It winds up paying for the equivalent of 210,000 days – an increase in cost to the federal government of $1million.

    Why would a federal government that is drowning in debt do something like that?

    NAPCWA's document is more of a wish than a plan. It suggests an organization that views prevention as a luxury that would be nice to have, rather than an organization that is "fired up, ready to go" and reform child welfare.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Could foster care finance reform have a friend in high places?

I've often noted that the left is as prone to march in lockstep with the "foster care-industrial complex" as the right is to march with the military-industrial complex. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across come comments made by Bryan Samuels. Samuels used to run the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. President Obama chose him to run the federal government's Administration on Children Youth and Families (which is a division of the Administration for Children and Families, which is a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services).

During his confirmation hearings last October, Samuels opened the door to considering comprehensive reform of child welfare financing – not the fake reform pushed by the Child Welfare League of America and its allies, but the real kind, like the kind that helped transform child welfare in Florida.

Samuels indicated he might be willing to support legislation to let every state take the approach now taken by Florida. That state received a "waiver" allowing it to trade the open-ended "entitlement" to more and more foster care funding for taking away more and more "eligible" children for a flat grant, indexed to inflation, that could be used for better alternatives and not just foster care.

This has helped Florida significantly and safety reduce foster care while keeping the savings that other states doing the same have to give back to the federal government. And because Florida was not allowed to use the federal funds to replace existing state money, the waiver has prevented Florida from slashing child welfare spending during the recession.

Given how extraordinary it is for any of my fellow liberals even to consider this, it's worth quoting in full what Samuels said, when asked a general question about child welfare by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). This is from the hearing transcript:

Mr. Samuels:
I think the biggest challenge is the need for more resources. That would be the easy answer, which is that I think, as a director of child welfare, I found myself often having to choose between two very unattractive options in terms of what I could afford to do for kids.
I think there are a number of State directors who would simply argue that they need access to additional resources. But given that that is unlikely to occur, I think that—again I would like to play with the details a little bit on this, but—I would like to look very closely at the block granting option.
I think that the States need some flexibility. I think States take different approaches to it. A good example is, the work that we did in Illinois resulted in us having about 16,000 kids in care, 17,000
when I left, but today there are about 16,000. If you look at the county of Los Angeles alone, they have almost 15,000 kids in care. So, you take one county versus an entire State, the reality is that
each of these systems looks very different. You also have the phenomenon of States that have county-based systems, so each county is making decisions about how to create and craft support services for children in the child welfare system.
I think block granting is worth exploring because it would give States the flexibility to attune what their kids need with the system that they currently have and support. I would like to take a
look at that, but it is a complex system, obviously, and there would have to be a whole lot of discussions about what we would do to really get the kind of results we want.
I agree with you that right now we are funding the wrong things in terms of the kinds of outcomes
we want to achieve. [Emphasis added].

A couple of things are worth noting here:

First, it shows how effective the fear and smear campaign against this kind of comprehensive reform has been, from groups like CWLA, the Children's Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy, that even in raising the possibility of opposing their position, Samuels used their scare phrase – "block grant." As is discussed in NCCPR's report on child welfare finance, this kind of flexibility option is nothing of the kind.

Second, Samuels made these comments ten months ago. I'm sure the hearing room was filled with lobbyists for the foster care-industrial complex, and they've had all this time to give him hell for even hinting at departing from their orthodoxy.

Indeed, Samuels isn't the first on the left at least to consider breaking ranks on this. Here's what then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said in an op ed column for USA Today in 2003, which she co-signed with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

We can find a bipartisan solution to reform the way we finance our child welfare system, but both the House and Senate must make reforms a priority. President Bush has offered one proposal that deserves careful consideration. He wants to give states an option to change the way foster care is financed so they can do more to prevent children from entering foster care, shorten the time spent in such care and provide more assistance to children and their families after they leave the system.

The plan Clinton and DeLay refer to essentially would have offered every state a Florida-style waiver.

I hear Clinton caught hell for those comments. I know she never brought it up publicly again.

On the other hand, unlike most state child welfare leaders, Samuels actually has seen how much can be accomplished by real reform of child welfare finance. Samuels continued an approach begun by his predecessor, Jess McDonald, who made dramatic improvements in Illinois child welfare by changing financial incentives.

Illinois used a waiver to pioneer subsidized guardianship, and the huge decline in the foster care population in that state, from more than 50,000 in the late 1990s to under 16,000 now, has a lot to do with Illinois changing its own financial incentives for private child welfare agencies. In Illinois, agencies can't simply sit there raking in per diem payments for holding children in foster care. And independent, court-appointed monitors have found that the changes have improved child safety.

So maybe, unlike Clinton, Samuels won't cave.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Wallowing in ignorance in L.A.

It's always been something of a mystery why those serial grandstanders on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors do an even worse job of handling child welfare than their counterparts in most of the rest of the country. Did I say most? Actually, I've never seen a political governing body do worse.

Today, I discovered one possible reason: Maybe it has something to do with poor choices when hiring staff.

Certainly it would be hard to do worse than to listen to Wendy Ramallo, a former senior legislative deputy to Supervisor Gloria Molina. She wrote an op ed column in the Los Angeles Times called "How to fix L.A. County's broken child welfare system." A better title would be "How to make sure L.A. County's broken child welfare system never, ever gets better."

The column is a collection of all the usual family-bashing demagoguery that has characterized the politics of Los Angeles County child welfare for decades. Keeping families together is scapegoated for every recent high-profile tragedy (except, of course, the recent death in foster care, which Ramallo simply leaves off her list). And Ramallo says that Los Angeles County, already in the midst of a foster-care panic and taking children at a higher rate than most big metropolitan areas, should be consigning even more children to the chaos of foster care.

So it's no surprise that almost every one of the "solutions" Ramallo has tried has been tried elsewhere – and failed.

But the giveaway that Ramallo doesn't know what she's talking about is the places she points to as models. She writes that "Colorado, Massachusetts and New York have instituted excellent reforms in child protection, placement, adoption and coordination with juvenile justice systems." Notice, she doesn't say that the reforms actually have made children safer, just that they're "excellent."

And no wonder.

Colorado's system, which, like California's, is county run, is in chaos. The state is on its second "blue ribbon commission" in three years – and week after week the headlines there are exactly like the headlines in Los Angeles County. Things are so bad that there have been serious, widespread calls for the state to simply take over the entire system. This is your idea of reform, Ms. Ramallo?

As for Massachusetts, that state just got sued by the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" – and while CR's solutions tend to be as bad as Ramallo's, they're usually pretty good at picking for their targets systems that really stink.

New York City – I assume she means New York City, since again, counties and the city run their own systems in New York State - really did improve for awhile – but they did it by reducing, not increasing, the number of children torn from their families. When they caved in to media pressure for foster care panic, just like L.A., they lost ground. The data are all in our report on New York City child welfare. Even now, though, New York City tears apart families at a rate 30 percent below the rate in Los Angeles County.

As for Ms. Ramallo's specific solutions (aside from her all-purpose answer: take the child and run), here's what she suggests, and why the ideas won't work.

Let the county sheriff do the investigations. A few places around the country have tried it, most notably in a few counties in Florida, back when the take-the-child-and-run crowd ran child welfare there. The premise was that hard-nosed cops would tear apart families more willingly than those bleeding heart caseworkers. In fact, the caseworkers already were tearing apart families so readily that the change made no real difference. One high-level law enforcement official told me he was sick and tired of harassing families because he had to investigate every report passed on from the state hotline, no matter how obviously ridiculous. In contrast, he said, in criminal cases his department actually had more discretion.

Yes, there are some places, like Clark County, Nevada, where turning over investigations to law enforcement would do enormous harm to children, but mostly, it's not likely to make things any better, or any worse. So, when it comes to transferring investigations to the sheriff, in the words of that icon of law enforcement, Dirty Harry: "Go ahead, make my day."

Independent investigations of serious child abuse injuries and deaths. This is the kind of phony accountability states and localities opt for to avoid the real thing. There is no evidence that states and localities that have such mechanisms, be they review teams, "ombudsmen" or whatever have safer children than communities that don't. Why is Ramallo afraid of real accountability: opening all court hearings and almost every record to press and public in every case? Could it be because then it would be harder for pols like her former boss to spin the findings?

Recruit more foster parents. It must have taken a lot of creativity and brainstorming to think of that one. But you can't recruit your way out of a foster-care panic. As long as every caseworker is terrified of winding up on the front page of the Times – or in the line of fire of a politician – entries into care will continue to soar, just as they are now in Los Angeles County. And, of course, Ramallo thinks the panic hasn't gone far enough. The supply of foster parents will never match that kind of artificial demand.

Better coordination between DCFS and the juvenile probation department. No problem there. But have you heard of anyone advocating worse coordination?

Ramallo concludes by saying: "Let's stop proclaiming our outrage when a child dies in the county's care. It's time to turn outrage into real reform." Good point. But it can't happen until people like Ramallo and her former boss get out of the way and let real reformers go to work.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paying for foster care and family preservation: How CWLA works to kill real reform

The most recent online newsletter from the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for public and private agencies, makes clear how CWLA will try to oppose any real reform of how federal child welfare dollars are spent.

The newsletter included a rather odd account of a recent House subcommittee hearing, the one discussed in this previous post, concerning "waivers" which allow federal dollars normally reserved for foster care to be spent on better alternatives as well. While CWLA doesn't mind spending on better alternatives if that spending is in addition to the great gobs of money its private agency members scarf up in per diem payments for holding children in foster care, they are not about to sit idly by and risk having some of their members put out of business by reform which allows states and localities to use the money on alternatives instead of foster care.

But it's gotten harder to oppose reform as overtly, now that one great big state has switched sides. Florida has had enormous success with the only comprehensive statewide waiver allowing foster care funds to be used for better alternatives. Even the state's big private agencies have largely been won over – in part because the waiver actually prevented state budget cuts in child welfare. A lot of those agencies, and the Florida Department of Children and Families, are dues-paying members of CWLA.

So is Casey Family Programs, the multi-billion dollar foundation that also is a provider of direct services (but should not be confused with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also provides both. Though both groups were endowed by the same family, and sometimes collaborate, they are run separately).

Just a few years ago, Casey Family Programs' CEO, William Bell would become angry at the very thought of funding child welfare the way Florida does it under its waiver. At last week's hearing, with his testimony strongly supporting waivers, he proved a primary tenet of the family preservation movement: people can change. While I would like to think the 51 hours CFP spent at this Blog and on last year alone had something to do with it, more likely it was the influence of two of the top executives Bell recruited to CFP, David Sanders, who obtained a Florida-style waiver while running the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, and David Berns, who used flexibility in state funding to reform the county-run system in El Paso County, Colorado.

CFP also is a CWLA member, and a prestigious one at that.

What's a trade association to do? What they always do in child welfare. Never say no, just "Yes, but…" it to death.

So the most recent online newsletter from CWLA characterized the hearing this way:

While some testimony strenuously maintained emphasis on the need for immediate flexibility in state use of IV-E funds through waivers, others pointed to the potential for action on waivers to delay comprehensive reform, particularly in light of the limited capacity of waivers to improve outcomes for children nationwide and to cultivate innovation across the continuum of needed child welfare services.

OK, let's stop there. First, none of the witnesses actually said waivers could "delay comprehensive reform." That may appear in written statements that groups like, say, CWLA, can submit, but none of the witnesses said it.

As for whether waivers can improve outcomes nationwide, that depends on how many are offered and how many states have the guts to accept them. The Bush administration proposed offering a Florida-style deal to every state without a cumbersome waiver progress – and CWLA, and the entire foster care-industrial complex through a fit over it. So first CWLA opposed making flexibility easily available nationwide, and now they claim waivers aren't enough – because they don't apply nationwide.

As for "cultivat[ing] innovation across the continuum of needed child welfare services" – whatever that gobbledygook means, since waivers allow money to be spent on just about every possible alternative to foster care, from primary prevention, to family preservation, to adoption, it's hard to see what is left out of the "continuum" – except, of course, even more foster care.

The whole argument is disingenuous, because the last thing CWLA wants is "comprehensive reform." What CWLA wants is "delinking" – the removal of the one small, clumsy brake that still exists on unlimited "entitlement" spending on foster care. (For details, see our report on child welfare financing.)

CWLA goes on to claim that the Subcommittee chair, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) and Ranking Member John Linder (R-Georgia) "both agreed on the necessity to further evaluate and address the structural deficiencies of child welfare financing."

Well, yes. But they had somewhat different visions. While McDermott promised to introduce legislation to allow more waivers and then spent the rest of the hearing fretting about his own bill, Linder suggested that, if so many states wanted waivers from rules limiting funding to foster care, maybe the rules should just be abolished.

And maybe it's time for the relatively few reform-minded child welfare agencies, public and private, to quit CWLA and form their own association. Because it's hard to see what they're getting for their dues money now.