Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Foster care in California: Group home greed trumps children’s need

Just when you think there must be some sense of shame left in the foster care-industrial complex, when you think there must be some limit to their seemingly insatiable greed – they find a way to dash any such hope.

Everyone knows about the horrendous budget crisis in California. Practically any service you can imagine to help the vulnerable faces devastating budget cuts.

It's not just prevention and family preservation that are at risk. Those programs often are the first to go because, though their actual beneficiaries are children, they appear to be serving "bad parents" so they're politically unpopular. No, things are so bad in California that they're even cutting things like a transitional housing program that helps young people after they're kicked out of the foster care system at age 18.

So what are the group homes and institutions of California doing about all this? Everything they can to make it worse.

In a triumph of group home greed over children's need, California's group home industry managed to grab an additional $242 million to fund programs that are largely worthless and sometimes harmful to children.

A federal judge has ordered the state to give California group homes and institutions for foster children a whopping 32 percent rate increase, even as the rest of California's social safety net is being torn apart by budget cuts.

The decision is expected to cost the state $77 million and counties $115 million – with $50 million more from the federal government.

And the actual cost, to children and taxpayers, is likely to be even higher. As the rest of the social safety net is further ripped to shreds to satiate the greed of the group homes, more and more families are likely to fall deeper into poverty; that poverty is more likely to be confused with "neglect" and more children are likely to be taken from everyone they know and love and thrown needlessly into foster care.

BETTER WAYS TO SPEND THE MONEY

All that money could be far better spent on safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families in the first place. In those cases where children really must be taken from their parents, there is nothing that a group home or institution does that can't be done better and at lower cost in therapeutic foster homes and with intensive services like Wraparound. Details on the research, and those better alternatives, are available on our website here.

The group home industry trade association that sued for the increase, the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, issued an unctuous statement claiming to favor alternatives and insisting they only want their institutions used when absolutely necessary, blah, blah, blah. That's what they always say – and it's so predictable that we have a checklist of their excuses, and why they don't wash, on our website.

But my favorite part is where the alliance says their members "have pioneered alternatives to group home care, such as Wraparound and intensive treatment foster care…" As a matter of fact, one of their members, EMQ Families First, really did pioneer such alternatives. And the group home industry fought them every step of the way. In fact, the very term "group home industry" doesn't originate with NCCPR. We got it from former EMQ CEO Jerry Doyle, who described the fight in the trade journal Youth Today.

And that's typical. While the group home industry plays lip service to alternatives, they scarf up all the money that would make them possible. Even California's worst fiscal crisis in memory is not enough to give them pause. While people with nothing left to give must tighten their belts, the group home industry is pigging out, paid for every month they needlessly hold children in their institutions – creating a perverse incentive to prolong foster care. And now, its greedy grab of $242 million more will only further ensure a steady stream of children to fill their beds.

I don't know if the state can appeal this decision, I certainly hope so. Because it's going to take the force of law to stop this transfer of $242 million to the group home industry at the expense of vulnerable children and families.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fostering foster care panic in Oregon

The column in the Portland Oregonian last Jan. 5 certainly wasn't the worst of its kind I've ever seen – not by a long shot. But the column, just about the easiest in the world to write, was more disappointing than some of the others because the columnist, Steve Duin, usually does better work. It was the usual "boy-if-there's-one-thing-in-the world-that-I-hate-more-than-anything-it's-child abuse-and-all-the-people-who-let-this-child-die-must-be-lazy-or-idiots column. Such general venting of rage requires no actual reporting. Duin didn't even call the Juvenile Rights Project, the group that knows these issues better than any other in Oregon, and a group he's praised in a column a few years ago. Worst of all, this general venting of rage can only encourage a foster care panic and make an already bad system even worse.

Duin was responding to an Oregonian story about the death of 15-year-old Jeanette Maples. Allegedly starved and tortured over a period of years, here's what the girl's step grandmother told the newspaper she found after her death:

She found food padlocked in kitchen cupboards and a blood-spattered bedroom. … Investigators urged her not to view her step granddaughter's body. "They all told me that I did not want to see this body because it was the most horrific thing they'd ever seen."

There were plenty of warnings that Jeanette was in danger – it was one of those cases with more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade.

On Jan. 5, Duin weighed in. There was no new information, no new reporting. Just: Boy am I furious and here's who I'm mad at.

GOOD REASON FOR RAGE, BUT IT'S STILL NOT HELPING

There is plenty of good reason for that fury. But that makes it no less self-indulgent, and no more likely to fix the Oregon child welfare system.

Part of his fury was directed at the secrecy that shields the Oregon Department of Human Services from scrutiny and accountability in such cases – much as it does with most child welfare agencies. He's right about that. It's why NCCPR has, for years, called for total transparency; not only open court hearings (which they already have in Oregon) but a strong rebuttable presumption that almost all records are open in every case, not just deaths or near deaths. (See our Due Process Agenda for details.) And that includes the names of workers involved in the case at every level.

But the rest of Duin's fury was directed at everyone in DHS who ever went near the case. "No one cared enough to connect the dots…" he declared. They're "automatons" who "can't be trusted to give a damn." He complained that no one will be fired, and quoted with approval a lawyer who has sued DHS who said. "…there needs to be accountability in the rank and file, where people get fired or turned out."

And that pretty much was the theme of the column: Off with their heads!

Duin could be right about the workers in this particular case. Maybe they don't give a damn. Maybe they don't care. Maybe they really are automatons who all deserve to be fired. Or maybe they care but they're incompetent – which is no better. Or maybe they care desperately. Maybe they are passionate about protecting children but were so overwhelmed that they missed even warning signs that, it would seem, were blatantly obvious.

I don't know. And neither does Steve Duin. In effect he's saying: I demand full public accountability – but why wait? I'll jump to my own conclusions now.

And that is enormously dangerous for children – especially in Oregon.

FIRING BLIND

For starters, when you're firing blind, it's easy to hit the wrong target. A couple of years ago, Sam Cook, a columnist for the Fort Myers News Press, was relentless in attacking a caseworker who'd been connected with a case where a child died. He didn't actually know much about the caseworker's role in the case but, hey, the child died, there were warnings, so the caseworker must have been, to use Cook's favorite word, "incompetent."

Later, a very good reporter for the same newspaper found out that this caseworker had an exemplary record, and was someone no CPS agency could afford to lose. But by then it was too late. The caseworker had quit. "The things that have been written about me have not only affected me, but have also affected my family, friends, and co-workers," she said. "I love my job, really I do, but the stress of this was just too much."

There are some differences: Even from what little is known, the case in Florida was not as clear-cut as the one in Oregon. And Steve Duin is more careful and more measured than Sam Cook.

But there are worse consequences.

Oregon already takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, a rate 70 percent above the national average – and Oregon has been taking children at obscenely high rates for decades. Now, every caseworker has been reminded once again that they can take hundreds of children needlessly and, while the children will suffer terribly, the caseworker is safe – even if, at some point down the line, a child dies in foster care. But leave one child in her or his own home and have something go wrong and you'll be pilloried as not giving a damn, an automaton and so on.

ONLY DAMNED IF YOU DON'T

And that's just the beginning. Though Duin complains that no one ever gets fired, to the extent that workers are disciplined at all, it's only for leaving children in dangerous homes, never for taking children from safe ones. (Contrary to what caseworkers often claim, when it comes to taking away children they are not damned if they do or damned if they don't – they're only damned if they don't.) In other words, the column is sure to accelerate any foster-care panic already underway in Oregon.

That means even more false allegations, more trivial cases, more children needlessly removed – and even less time to find the children in real danger. So the odds are, there will be even more tragedies like the death of Jeanette Maples. (For more on this, see our Issue Paper on foster care panics.)

Duin could argue that it's not fair for me to complain that he's firing blind when it's DHS that blindfolded him – and everyone else. But Duin didn't limit his shots just to the people who blindfolded him - who may, or may not, be the same people who played a role in the death of Jeanette Maples. He aimed a lot of his fire at the people at the bottom of the heap – frontline caseworkers who often want to defend themselves but are, themselves, gagged by their bosses.

It gets even worse if there happens to be a demagogic politician nearby. No doubt Duin would have loved the way Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty responded to the tragic deaths of the children of Banita Jacks. Within days, he'd fired everyone who had come anywhere near the case. (An arbitrator reversed the firings of those who had a right to appeal them.) The Washington Post loved it. They loved it less after the actions collapsed the entire D.C. system and sent removals of children soaring by 41 percent in a year. (Details are on our website here and in these previous posts to this Blog.) An independent court-appointed monitor overseeing a class-action lawsuit settlement found that years of work slowly rebuilding the system has collapsed like a house of cards.

Here, again, there are differences – the facts in the Jacks case are far more ambiguous than in the case of Jeanette Maples (though The Washington Post didn't think so at the time). Nevertheless, foster-care panics are why columns like Duin's – and stories like the story that preceded it, never make child welfare systems better, and sometimes make them worse. And you'd think the Oregonian would have noticed. This cycle has been playing out at that paper since 2004, when the Oregonian first discovered that there is such a thing as a child welfare system in that state. Over and over Oregonian reporters write the same story, only the name of the child is different. Over and over, Oregonian opinion writers vent their anger about it. And, except for an occasional glance, everyone averts their eyes from the elephant in the room – the state's obscenely-high rate of tearing apart families.

FLOGGING THE MULE

Perhaps in another year or so Duin will ask the same question ultimately posed by Sam Cook in Florida, who wrote: "I've flogged the Department of Children and Families like a rented mule. Where has it gotten us?"

Duin also writes that the failings by DHS in this case reminded him of the failure of our national security apparatus in the case of the attempt to bomb a plane on Christmas Day. I thought much the same, in reverse. As all the stories about red flags and miscommunication in connection with the attempted bombing came out, I thought of how much it sounded like what happens in CPS agencies. But the whole thing also reminded me of another big, powerful institution where big failures have been known to fall between the cracks.

That story in a future post to this Blog

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Foster care and family preservation in Kentucky: The ugly side of a fully-“accredited” agency

A previous post to this Blog dealt with the sham of "accreditation," a phony seal of approval that child welfare agencies essentially give each other. I noted an example of just how bad a private agency can get and still be "accredited." The post also noted how the reaction of the Child Welfare League of America, which created the so-called "Council on Accreditation," was to try to ignore the problems.

But what about a big public agency. Would they have to do any better? Apparently not.
The State of Kentucky long has bragged about being "accredited." The "seal of approval" from COA is right on the home page of the website of their child welfare agency, known as the

Department for Community Based Services (DCBS).

But judging by a 2007 report from the inspector general for the state's human services agency, that's nothing to brag about. Unfortunately, the full report no longer appears to be available from the Inspector General's website – so NCCPR has posted it on our website here. Below, some highlights – all are direct quotes:

The decision to remove a child from their parents' home is often completed under subjective standards, especially when the allegations involve neglect or dependency issues. …Cultural and socio-economic status issues are often interpreted as creating an inadequate environment for children. For example, a home that is cluttered, or not as clean as the worker would like, may be described as "filthy" to the court. Children are removed because the home is dirty versus unsafe. … In one situation, the Judge was infuriated at the [child welfare agency], and while denying the petition, instructed the family they no longer needed to cooperate with the [agency] because they had already been through enough.

Some Lincoln Trail Region DCBS employees displayed a prevalent attitude of omnipotence in interactions with clients and community partners. … Statements reflecting personal bias against clients were used in documenting incidents and situations in the files. Calls routinely were not returned to community partners or clients. DCBS staff complained that other staff made comments reflecting racial stereotypes. …

Hardin County staff has reported that other social service workers have boasted about making it difficult for clients to work with DCBS staff. Social service workers have laughed at parents as they advised them they were removing their children and during the removal process. Social service workers have called clients indecent names in the hallway and offices of the Hardin County DCBS office. One social service worker struck and cursed a biological parent during a visit with his child … [emphasis added].

… Two DCBS workers were nicknamed "The Queen of Removal" and two Permanency Team workers were nicknamed "The Terminator." Additionally, a regional supervisor referred to the Permanency Team as "The TPR Team".

Workers respond aggressively to any perceived challenge to their actions. For example, biological and foster parents complained children were removed from their home because they "talked back" to the workers. …

Domestic violence victims have been advised by social service workers to leave their abusive spouses and go to a domestic violence shelter. Once they are living at a shelter, some victims have been told the shelter is not appropriate for children and their children will be removed if the parent does not find an alternative residence.

Case plans are intended to outline the goals biological parents must achieve to have their children returned to their home. Requirements were routinely included on case plans that were expensive, relative to the client's financial situation; required unnecessary travel; and were not relative to the family's issues, as identified by the worker. … While a case plan should not be easy, some case plans were intentionally written to be too difficult to complete. Items were included on the case plan that appeared overly burdensome and unnecessary, such as requiring the client to attain a General Educational Diploma (GED). …

The regional supervisors established an unwritten regional policy that required every family to obtain a professional assessment for domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse, even if there were no domestic violence, mental health, or substance abuse issues present in the family. This unnecessarily increased the amount of time children were out of their parents' homes, added to the stress and requirements of the parents, and caused additional expense for families that were already struggling financially.

There is no mechanism to assure or verify services necessary to assist families in reunification were provided to them. Parents have been required to pay for assessments that were court-ordered to be paid by DCBS. There is no objective method to determine when a case plan is completed. This results in confusion between parents and DCBS staff. Various DCBS staff mandated differing results to fulfill the same case plan requirements, even to the extent that workers contradicted court findings. In turn, the parents' chances at successful family reunification may be primarily dependent on the caseworker assigned to their case. Parents have been required to complete the same items more than once, because one worker states they have fulfilled the requirement and the next worker states they have not. In one case where this situation occurred, after two years, it was determined the parents' original effort had fulfilled the case plan requirements. The child was out of the home the entire two years, and remains out of the home, although the parents appear to have fulfilled all case plan requirements.

Parents are not provided legal representation at the 72-hour hearing. This hearing is pivotal in determining if there is enough evidence to maintain children in out-of-home care or return them home. One court officer stated children are sometimes left in foster/adoptive homes instead of being returned to their parents, not because their parents are unable to keep them, but because the foster/adoptive homes are better.

Prior to a complaint from the Hardin County Attorney's Office, in November 2005, workers were routinely using a "Verbal Order" of the court to remove children, during normal business hours, instead of contacting the County Attorney's office for a removal petition. The County Attorney complained after workers failed to follow-up with the submission of the required petition, or the facts in the petition filed later did not match the information relayed to the judge verbally, and would not have resulted in the issuance of an Emergency Custody Order …[emphasis added].

The regional emphasis was placed on adoption, instead of family reunification. … Lincoln Trail Region P&P staff was evaluated according to whether the adoption goal was reached, but not evaluated on the number of families reunified. …

… The use of concurrent placements/resource homes creates a conflict for some foster parents, who wish to adopt, and discourages them from assisting the biological parents in having the family reunited. While many foster/adoptive parents maintain perspective, some ride a reverse roller coaster from the biological parents as they are placed in a conflicting role of supporting reunification or obtaining children of their own. Often, foster/adoptive parents receive adoption subsidies after the adoption is completed, so they have nothing to lose if the child is adopted and everything to lose if the child is returned home. …

While it is obvious, the amount of time a child spends with an adult will enhance the relationship and bonding, some biological parents whose case goal is reunification report visits with their children have been reduced. The parents have been told this was due to the lack of available DCBS staff to supervise the visit. Some parents suggested alternatives to DCBS staff supervising the visits, and one parent was advised by the court that she could have visits supervised by a clergy member. When her clergy attended the case-planning meeting, he was told this was not possible and a DCBS staff member was required to supervise all visits.

Parental visitations were changed or cancelled without proper notice to the parents or foster parents. One father was ten minutes late to his scheduled visit and was told he was not permitted to visit with his child. As the father was walking across the parking lot, to enter his car to leave, his child rode by him in another vehicle. The worker had cancelled the visit, because the father was tardy even though both the father and child were present in the DCBS building.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is bragging about just attaining accreditation. Here's a recent case from that state.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fixing foster care in LA: Paging Dr. Sanders

Trish Ploehn, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, is in danger of becoming the Martha Coakley of child welfare. Her bungling threatens to undermine reform not only in Los Angeles but all over the country.

That became clear when Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten weighed in today concerning Ploehn's outrageous decision to withhold information about child abuse fatalities. As has been typical of the opinion writing at the Times on these issues recently, Rutten's column was thoughtful, reasonable and restrained. (The cheap shots and other excesses actually have come from what are labeled news stories.)

Almost all of the column dealt with Ploehn's stonewalling, so I found myself in complete agreement with seven of its eight paragraphs. But in the penultimate paragraph, Rutten veered off course, albeit understandably, given the stonewalling. He wrote:

This factual vacuum is preventing a review of whether the county acted wisely over the last few years when it allowed the child welfare department to reduce the number of youngsters removed from their families and placed in foster care by about 60% to around 19,900. At least some of the supervisors and their aides are concerned that social workers are being discouraged from moving imperiled children to the safety of foster care because spending fewer federal and state block grant dollars on that service frees the money for use in programs more highly favored by the Department of Children and Family Services' hierarchy.

On those points, Rutten is mistaken. In fact:

The start of the reduction in foster care predated the changes in how foster care is funded in Los Angeles by at least seven years.

While the number of children in foster care on any given day has been declining (until the recent foster-care panic set off by the Times news stories may have ended the decline) the number of children taken away over the course of a year increased every year from 2004 through 2007 – and, as has been discussed often before on this blog, the entry number is the one to watch to know if a community is serious about keeping families together.

Los Angeles still takes away children at a higher rate than most other metropolitan areas.

In Los Angeles, caseworkers no longer decide whether to remove a child from the home - a computer does it. I'm not kidding. And the computer relies on a system called Structured Decision Making (SDM), which has been found to be permeated with racial bias, something discussed in this excellent study by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. As we note in our material on Los Angeles child welfare, SDM, as used in Los Angeles, amounts to computerized racial profiling.

There is no guarantee of "the safety of foster care" – not even close. Not when study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of all foster homes.

When the records finally become public – and either by media pressure, legal action, or leak, they will, they will tell us nothing about the overall safety of Los Angeles County children who have come to the attention of DCFS. That is for a reason for which we all can be grateful: though each is the worst kind of tragedy, in a county with 3.2 million children, the number of fatalities easily can rise or fall due to random chance. But don't take my word for it, even the Queen of Child Fatality Review, LA-based Deanne Tilton Durfee, said as much, to the competing Los Angeles Daily News.

As for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, or the B.S., as this gang of five should properly be called, it is the worst governing body in American child welfare. If they are, in fact, concerned about anything besides getting their names in the paper, they haven't shown it.

SPECULATION FILLS THE INFORMATION GAP

But when a child welfare agency stonewalls, speculation will fill the information gap, and those who want to undermine reform are only too glad to whisper in the ears of journalists. If a columnist who does not specialize in child welfare is not hearing the rest of the story, that's Trish Ploehn's fault, not his.

In this case, the speculation is particularly dangerous. As regular readers of this blog know, Los Angeles is operating under a waiver from federal funding rules. It's worked brilliantly in Florida, and, even in Los Angeles, it's had modest success. But if the master narrative around the country becomes "blame the waiver for fatalities" – and there are plenty in child welfare whom, I suspect, are gleeful at that prospect, then it kills any chance of this approach spreading, and may even endanger renewal of the existing waivers.

So, what can be done about it? Simply firing Trish Ploehn won't be enough. The odds of the B.S. finding someone any better to replace her are slim – in no small measure because few people are going to want to work for a Board of Supervisors with such a long, dismal track record of politicizing child welfare. But it might be possible to bring in someone for a fixed term, say a year, to let in some fresh air and begin turning things around.

My first choice would be Bob Butterworth, who did such a brilliant job leading the turnaround of child welfare in Florida. He has a great grasp of child welfare, he has the political skills, and his signature initiative in Florida was candor - he pulled the state child welfare agency out of its bunker. But I can't imagine why he'd want the job even were it offered.

But there's someone else who might have more reason to step in: David Sanders, Ph.D. Sanders was Ploehn's immediate predecessor. He is the only DCFS director in recent years to leave the job voluntarily, and the only one who could cope with the B.S. He initiated the waiver that's now under fire, so he has a strong interest in seeing that it works.

He also made some mistakes. Entries into care increased during his tenure, and he's the one who brought in Structured Decision Making. But the fact that he pushed for the waiver suggests he saw the problems and was moving to deal with them, when he left to become Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs, the multi-billion dollar foundation that loves fancy titles and spent more than 51 hours on this Blog and NCCPR's website last year.

A few years ago CFP essentially vacuumed up many of the best and the brightest in child welfare around the country (and when they ran out of good people who would accept their offers, they started scraping the middle of the barrel, too.) It's time that Casey gave something back, by "lending" Sanders to Los Angeles to help fix the mess that Trish Ploehn did so much to create.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Foster care and family preservation in Los Angeles: Judge Nash isn’t helping

One of the most legitimate criticisms of American media from the left is that positions that in most other Western democracies would be part of the mainstream debate are shut out in America. American media present the full spectrum of opinion from center to right.

The health care debate is a good example. The debate is confined to President Obama's centrist proposal at one end, to right-wing yahoos screaming about "death panels" at the other. Proponents of, say, single payer, an option that is the norm in many other countries, are shut out.

The Los Angeles Times is setting up a similarly-skewed debate over family preservation. The debate is limited to people like officials from the county Department of Children and Family Services, who say there is just enough of it, to Times reporters, who have made clear in story after story that they think there is too much of it. Those of us who think that a county that takes children at one of the highest rates among America's largest metropolitan areas actually should be doing more to keep families together are marginalized.

So for the Times reporters, an op ed column last week by Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, was just what they needed. Nash insisted that Los Angeles County – and every other county in California – is doing everything it possibly can to keep families together.

Nash wrote to refuse a now-notorious Times headline (which, notwithstanding the lead reporter's denials , accurately reflected the story). The headline said: "County to end emphasis on family over foster care." Commented Nash:

The headline did not at all reflect the state laws under which the county's welfare system operates, and it sent a very negative message to readers. It reinforced the widespread perception in many communities that our child welfare system does more to break up than preserve and build families, the cornerstone of our society. This misperception often limits cooperation with the system.

Later, he writes:

…the emphasis of child welfare in California is and will continue to be on family over foster care, regardless of what The Times writes in a headline. … We are not going to run scared from our obligation to prioritize family unity, even in the face of deep budget cuts. I urge The Times and others to continue following our system.

So the parameters of the debate are Judge Nash, who says, in effect, "we're already doing everything possible to preserve families, just try and stop us!" vs. the Times reporters, whose stories make clear they harbor the misimpression that this is being done at the expense of child safety.

Left out entirely are those who us who note that:


Entries into care have been going up in Los Angeles County in most years after 2003 – which means DCFS and the courts have, indeed, been "run[ing] scared from our obligation to prioritize family unity…" even before any budget cuts.

Los Angeles County takes children at a higher rate than, among other places, New York City, metropolitan Chicago, and Miami. And there is solid evidence that lower rates of removal improved child safety in those places.

"THE LAW MADE US DO IT"

Judge Nash spends half the op ed quoting sections of California law which supposedly prove the state's commitment to family preservation. But mostly these are just broad statements of principle, like "It is the intent of the Legislature that nothing in this section disrupt the family unnecessarily or intrude inappropriately into family life." [Emphasis added.] And who, exactly would say they favor unnecessary disruption or inappropriate intrusion?

Then there's this one: "Before taking a minor into custody, a social worker shall consider whether the child can remain safely at home." Among the things the law says should be considered: whether there are any reasonable services that might allow the child to stay in the home safety. And who, exactly, would say that workers should not even consider this?

The extent to which these clauses are empty rhetoric can be seen not only in how Los Angeles compares to other big cities, but also by comparing counties within California. There is enormous variation in rates of removal, even though Judge Nash is quoting state law, which, last I heard, is supposed to apply to every county.

All of which means that, like most counties and states, child welfare systems in California do indeed do "more to break up than preserve and build families."

The only purpose these provisions really serve is to give bad child welfare agencies something to hide behind when they screw up. Oh, they say, we didn't leave this child in a dangerous home because our workers are too overwhelmed to investigate any case properly, or because we cut the training budget, or this particular worker was incompetent. No, they say, "the law made us do it."

That prompts more news stories, outraged editorials and press releases from state legislators eager to gain 15 minutes of fame by proposing changes in the law, supposedly to "emphasize child safety over family preservation." Actually, that emphasis already is in California law – it's in one of the sections Judge Nash cites in his op ed column, but that never stopped a grandstanding legislator.

Then the law passes, and a foster care panic that might have been confined to one county goes statewide. The only winners are the grandstanding lawmakers – and the reporters at the Times who can list the change in the law on journalism awards entry forms under "what did the stories accomplish?"

It's all self-serving nonsense, and now Judge Nash has served up a heaping helping of it.

And it's not hard to see what's really worrying the judge. It's his fear that, when people see the system as it really is, it "often limits cooperation with the system." In other words, families might fight for their rights, instead of accepting the way DCFS and the courts put them through the wringer with no-service service plans and meaningless hoops to jump through.

IF THE JUDGE IS SERIOUS

Judge Nash does make some good points toward the end of his column. He writes:

In fact, the policy of supporting families is consistent with child safety. … The history of child welfare in Los Angeles -- of which I have been a part for 20 years -- shows that wholesale removal of children from their homes fails children and their families, jeopardizes child safety and is, over the long term, detrimental to us all. … A few tragic cases are no reason to turn the clock back to the days of wholesale removal of children.

But if he really means that, there are some things he can do right now:

Demand that California join more than 15 states that have opened court hearings in child maltreatment cases to press and public, so we can see the typical cases, not just the horror stories. In past years, moves to change state law have been blocked by the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

In some states, judges have the power to do this in their own courtrooms without waiting for legislators to act. If Judge Nash has that power, he should exercise it immediately – not just in carefully-selected cases where everyone knows in advance and can make themselves look good, but in every case – so no one, including the judge, knows when a reporter might stop by and see what's really going on. That way "The Times and others" really will
be able to follow what goes on in the system.

As is noted in the previous post to this blog, and outlined in detail in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda, of all the states that have opened their courts this way, not one has closed them again, because the Chicken Littles were wrong and the fears of opponents never came to pass. The former chief judge of New York's highest court said it best when she opened these courts in her state. Said Judge Judith Kaye: "Sunshine is good for children."

Demand that DCFS director Trish Ploehn climb out of her bunker and comply fully with the letter and spirit of California law, which requires her to make public records in cases of child abuse deaths or near deaths.

Demand that the law be changed to require such disclosure of records in all cases, not just deaths or near deaths, to avoid creating the misimpression that the errors in child welfare go only one way.

Demand that California pass a law specifically allowing Ploehn, and her counterparts in every other county, to comment on specific cases. That helps override the "veto of silence" in which a family complains of wrongful removal, the agency chief says "oh, there is so much more to it than that, and I wish I could tell you, really I do, but I just can't; confidentiality, you know" and the reporter, who didn't really want to do the story in the first place, meekly slinks away from it. New York, Maine, Iowa, Alaska and Arizona already have such laws. While they don't force an agency chief to comment at least in those states, reporters who know about the law also know that the agency chief does have a choice, and simply is stonewalling.

And most important:

Demand that parents get adequate defense counsel. That means lawyers with low caseloads and their own support staff, so they can do their own investigations and challenge those cookie-cutter no service service plans. In Washington State, which pioneered this approach, even the lawyers who represent the child welfare agency in these cases support it. Details, again are in our Due Process Agenda.

Friday, February 12, 2010

UPDATED, FEB. 14: LA foster care: Trish Ploehn dives into the bunker

THIS TIME, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES IS RIGHT

See brief update at the and of this post

Both Trish Ploehn, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Families, and I have problems with the way the Los Angeles Times has been covering child welfare. We both think that, by focusing almost exclusively on deaths of children "known to the system," drawing vast conclusions from horror stories, larding those stories with loaded language, and leaving out crucial context, the Times has left a grossly-distorted impression of how DCFS fails and why.

We both agree that part of the problem is a California law that opened up files in death and near death cases, while keeping everything else secret. That creates a reflection of the agency that is like seeing something in a funhouse mirror.

But, if a story posted on the Times website tonight is accurate (and, unfortunately, I think the Times' recent track record now requires that caveat), then Ms. Ploehn and I differ on solutions.

I think the solution is total transparency. That means reporters should have the same access to files on every case as they now have (or are supposed to have) when a child dies or nearly dies – so that when a parent claims their children were wrongly taken, reporters are at least a little more likely to look into the case. Total transparency also means opening all court hearings in child maltreatment cases to press and public – as already happens in at least 15 states – so reporters, and the rest of us, can see what the typical cases are like and how they are typically handled.

As is outlined in detail in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda, of all the states that have opened their courts this way, not one has closed them again, because the Chicken Littles were wrong and the fears of opponents never came to pass. The former chief judge of New York's highest court said it best when she opened these courts in her state: "Sunshine is good for children."

I brought this up when I had the opportunity to meet with Ploehn two years ago, to no avail.

I also think that, with or without such transparency, the Times has an obligation to report on these issues, to counter the inherent distortion in its coverage so far. Although it is very difficult to cover fatality cases, compared to everything else that's out there, such cases are the "low hanging fruit" of the beat, precisely because it's the one kind of case where files often are open. But it's not impossible. In just the past three weeks, I sent the NCCPR Child Welfare News Exchange, my e-mail list of more than 300 reporters around the country, examples of superb reporting on the kinds of cases the Times has ignored from The (Nashville) Tennessean, the Omaha World-Herald and Northern Express, the alternative weekly in Traverse City, Michigan, which ran an excellent story as well as sidebars with additional context. The lead reporter on the Times stories, Garrett Therolf, is on this list.

POSSIBLY ILLEGAL, DEFINITELY STUPID

But it seems that, if the Times story is right, Ms. Ploehn has a different approach: Dive into a bunker and slam the door. Ploehn is simply refusing to let the Times see the files on the most recent cases. That is reprehensible. No look at all into an agency that may hold the power of life and death over children is even worse than the distortion of a funhouse mirror. It also may be illegal, for reasons described in the Times story.

And, by the way, it's really, really stupid.

The only thing Ploehn has done is guarantee even more attention to her agency's failings in these cases (and less time to examine all those other failings involving wrongful removal). Here's what probably happens now:

  • The follow-up story, in which other counties are canvassed about their policies and reveal that none of the big ones is as restrictive as Los Angeles.
  • Other news organizations rally 'round (both because it's right and because of self-interest), so the Times findings to this point get even more publicity, and DCFS is condemned on editorial pages across the state.
  • The files start to leak, courtesy of DCFS caseworkers who don't like how a case was handled. All of part of one case file suddenly turns up in the mail. Or caseworkers phone in tips about how a case was handled. So instead of one big story about each case there are several – and they may be less accurate than one that is backed up by a complete case file. Then the process repeats with another case file, and another.
  • Everything DCFS does, good or bad, is even more suspect than it is now, because the agency has adopted what amounts to a blanket policy of "take our word for it."

MORE LESSONS FROM FLORIDA

Once again, Los Angeles should be learning from Florida. Although that state has open courts, the state's Department of Children and Families long had a bunker mentality. The comment was always no comment, and DCF would fight tooth and nail to keep records a secret.

That all changed when Republican Gov. Charlie Crist named one of the state's most popular Democrats, Bob Butterworth, to run DCF. Butterworth threw open the doors.

In Florida, records in death cases can only be released by the courts. Before Butterworth, news organizations would petition to release the records, and DCF would fight them every step of the way. Under Butterworth, and his successor, George Sheldon, DCF typically joins the news organizations in asking that records be open.

While laws on confidentiality have not been changed, the policy is to interpret those laws in ways that always give the benefit of the doubt to openness.

And when the tragic death of a foster child raised questions about the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications, DCF created a special section of its website devoted to the case, posted the results of its own and other investigations, and even included links to news stories critical of DCF.

The message was simple: We know this agency has been a mess. We're going to clean it up and we're going to show you what we're doing every step of the way.

Of course, openness about failures is not enough. You also have to fix the failures. But the openness created something DCF never had before - a reservoir of goodwill with the state's media. That bought Butterworth and now Sheldon some time to begin the long, slow process of turning around what was once one of the most prominent examples of child welfare failure.

It hasn't stopped all the cheap shot stories; I cited some on this blog last year. But when DCF started showing substantive improvement, the agency got at least some of the credit it deserved, (here's a good example, from Jacksonville). When Butterworth resigned he was the first DCF director in nearly a decade to leave voluntarily, and editorial writers around the state wrote about how sorry they were to see him go.

UPDATE, FEB. 14: And, as the Miami Herald reported today, Sheldon is getting credit for continuing the improvements:

Even the agency's longtime critics are now calling the DCF one of the better agencies in state government.
Sheldon inherited problems, said the Florida Children's Campaign director Roy Miller. "When you inherit problems and you don't do anything about them, when you cover them up, when you misrepresent — that's when we, as a watchdog group, bark."
"That's not the case with George Sheldon," Miller added.


You can't get results like that from a bunker.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Accountability in foster care: The sham of “accreditation”

A previous post to this Blog discusses a panel at the recent conference of the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, concerning the problem of accountability in child welfare. Only the problem, according to CWLA and the presenters, is not that this system that wields vast power and operates in near total secrecy has too little accountability. Rather, say the presenters at the panel, there is too much accountability. They portray the people who toil in child welfare agencies, from caseworkers to agency chiefs, as child welfare's Gullivers, tied down by innumerable Lilliputian "watchers" to use their obnoxious term.

What they really want is summed up in the title of that earlier post: Give us more money and go away! The presenters also are authors of a "scholarly" article to the same effect. Only the abstract is available online.

And what gives away their no-accountability agenda is the one and only form of accountability they love: It's called "accreditation." And it's a sham.

Accreditation is a way for agencies to get an unearned seal of approval by keeping their paperwork in order - and then throw it in the face of critics, in order to prevent real change. That's why child welfare agencies – and people like the presenters at the CWLA panel - rush to embrace the idea whenever the alternative is real reform.

Indeed, it is quite possible, depending on the circumstances, for an agency to become fully "accredited" without the "accreditors" so much as laying eyes on one real live foster child.

And that should come as no surprise considering who invented the so-called Council on Accreditation: The Child Welfare League of America. Accreditation is simply the agencies running around giving each other pats on the back. It's self-policing and the self-policeman always is the laziest cop on the beat.

ACCREDITING FILE CABINETS

A few basics about accreditation:

· The accreditors don't inspect foster homes.

· The accreditors don't do surprise inspections of anything. Group homes and institutions get "no more than" a month's advance notice. (There were no inspections at all until a newspaper exposed this fact, something discussed in more detail below).

· They inspect group homes only if the agency seeking accreditation is running them directly. (So, if, for example, a state or private child welfare agency subcontracts all its foster care work to other agencies, it can be accredited without the accreditors ever meeting a foster child.)

· The accreditation process does nothing to examine whether a decision to remove a child in the first place is appropriate.

In short, the "Council on Accreditation" doesn't really accredit agencies at all. It accredits file cabinets.

Recently the State of Missouri won accreditation. The child welfare agency made a point of noting that the accreditors really did talk to foster families. What they did not say, until the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader asked, is that the foster children were handpicked by the agency itself. This is a bit like when the Red Cross interviews POWs while the prison guards watch. And it's not clear if the accreditors bothered to speak to birth parents at all.

As for the standards one has to meet to be accredited, mostly you meet them by hiring more social workers. No wonder the social workers who wrote the paper and conducted the anti-accountability presentation love it so. And the Council on Accreditation loves them right back – citing the authors in the very first in a list of "testimonials" on its website.

This mutual admiration society is all the more remarkable because the authors of the no-accountability article and presentation have a particular standard by which they claim to judge accountability mechanisms: Can those mechanisms prove they improve outcomes for children? Clearly, accreditation flunks this test.

For starters, a look around the country at the few systems that are generally considered "models" shows that one is, indeed, accredited. The rest are not.

But the reality behind accreditation is even worse:

I first learned about accreditation 11 years ago, from two superb former reporters, Debra Jasper then with the Cox-owned Dayton Daily News and Elliot Jaspin, then with Cox's Washington Bureau. They did a series of stories about a big private agency. Among the findings:

· Foster homes that were wretched.

· Group homes that were worse.

· The head of the agency had a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor - a foster child who had been in his care.

Oh, and one more thing: The agency was "accredited."

(I'm not naming the agency because this happened more than a decade ago, the director in question was fired, and there is no evidence that the agency failed to clean up its act.)

Even more revealing was what happened when Jasper and Jaspin took their findings directly to CWLA:

When they e-mailed their findings to CWLA's acting director, (who is not the current director) she should have said that such conditions would not be tolerated in a CWLA member agency. But she didn't. The Daily News describes what happened instead:

"After reading the series, Shirley Marcus Allen, the league's director, sent an e-mail to Joyce Johnson, the group's director of public relations, saying 'These are all horrible stories. I have no desire to talk to the reporters on this if I don't have to. Find something more positive for me to report on.' Although intended as an internal document, Allen sent the e-mail to the newspaper by mistake."

But what about a public agency? Would it have to meet high standards to gain accreditation? Apparently not.

On Monday, we'll go inside a fully-accredited state child welfare agency. It's ugly in there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Using lawsuits to prevent foster care: CR’s big epiphany - all these years, they’ve gotten the law all wrong!

Back in 2002, I wrote an op ed column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel criticizing a settlement of one of the McLawsuits brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights. The problem was the problem found in almost every settlement CR reaches on its own: The settlement did nothing to keep children out of foster care in the first place. The settlement ignored family preservation even though the target of the suit, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, had a far higher rate of removal than many cities. Needless to say it still does.

A week later, Eric Thompson, senior litigation counsel for CR, wrote a response. He offered what had become CR's party line: it's not that we don't care about keeping kids out of foster care, the law simply won't let us fight for those children. Wrote Thompson:

Unfortunately, there is no enforceable law on this issue. While the courts can be a useful tool for protecting children's rights, they cannot act in the absence of a recognizable legal claim.

There is no legal basis to assert claims for children not yet in foster care. It is unfair to fault plaintiffs' counsel for not imposing settlement terms on the state on behalf of children who have no legal claims in the case.

And that's how it's been year after year. CR's settlement in Michigan for example actually has led to cuts in prevention and family preservation – in order to fund a foster-care hiring binge designed to comply with the settlement.

Through it all, CR has never explained how settlements to lawsuits brought by other organizations, such as the settlements in Alabama and Illinois, have managed to include prevention and family preservation. Even CR's own first settlement in New Jersey, which was heavily influenced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, had powerful mandates for more prevention and family preservation. (CR apparently grew disenchanted however, effectively hollowing out that settlement a few years later.)

But now, suddenly, CR seems to have discovered some new law.

It seems that in Connecticut, which also is operating under a consent decree with CR, there is one prevention program CR really, really likes. It's not hard to see why. It has nothing to do with parents accused of abuse or neglect. Rather, it involves parents who otherwise would have to voluntarily surrender their children to foster care due to the children's behavior problems – because the parents' insurance doesn't cover the expensive mental health care they need.

WHEN CPS SEEPS INTO THE MIDDLE CLASS, CR NOTICES

This is an enormously important issue affecting thousands of children needlessly torn from their families across the country. It was at the core of the safe-haven debacle in Nebraska. Of course CR is right to try to save this program in Connecticut. But why so much interest in this kind of prevention and family preservation from a group that is indifferent or even hostile to almost every other kind? Maybe because these cases involve some of the very few times that the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class – in other words, families with whom Marcia Lowry who runs CR, and the other upper middle class lawyers on her staff actually can identify.

The identification is so strong, that apparently CR has just discovered that, for all these years, they got the law all wrong.

Because CR was shocked – shocked! – when the Connecticut Department of Children and Families went to court and made the same argument CR itself has been making all these years. Check out CR's own press release, which says:

The state [of Connecticut] has now taken the position that children at risk of entering foster care are not protected by the class action settlement that created the Voluntary Services Programs, because the kids receiving these services have not been reported as victims of child abuse or neglect.

Their position raises a fairly obvious question: What good are preventive services if the only children who can access them have already been harmed? [Emphasis in original.]

Here's an even more obvious question CR: Why didn't you think of this when you settled in Milwaukee and Michigan and all those other places?

Isn't it time someone asked CR why they're so much more willing to fight for this in Connecticut than in Milwaukee and Michigan – or Oklahoma and Rhode Island where their pending lawsuits aren't any better?

But wait, there's more. According to the press release:

"Families who are willing to proactively ask for assistance to get their kids the help they need should not be punished simply because they haven't been accused of abusing or neglecting their children," says Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights. "Programs that prevent abuse, neglect, or abandonment before they occur are exactly what state systems should be protecting."

Then aren't those the programs CR should be fighting to protect, even when they help almost exclusively poor people? Isn't it time someone asked CR why they're allowing the Michigan Department of Human Services to cut these very programs to help fund CR's settlement in Michigan?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Foster care and family preservation: The waiver that may yet save Los Angeles

A KEY CHANGE IN FINANCIAL INCENTIVES MAY CURB A FOSTER-CARE PANIC. BUT WE WON'T KNOW UNTIL THE THE LA TIMES AND THE COUNTY CHILD WELFARE AGENCY STOP PLAYING "DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL," WITH A KEY STATISTIC

There is a key number that determines how serious a state or locality is about keeping families together. It's the same number that lets us know if a community is experiencing a foster-care panic. – a spike in removals of children that usually follows poorly-reported news coverage of child abuse deaths.

It's not the most important number in child welfare – the most important are those numbers that attempt to measure child safety. But if you're trying to figure out if a child welfare system really is working to keep families together, then you need to know the number of "entries into care" - children taken from their parents over the course of given time period.

For measuring family preservation this number is far more important than the "snapshot number" which tells you only how many children are in foster care on any given day. That number can rise or fall for all sorts of reasons unrelated to efforts to keep children from being taken away in the first place.

Not only do you need the entries figure for the time when you suspect there may be a panic going on, you also need the figure for the same time period the year before, and, ideally, several years before, in order to do a fair comparison.

But when it comes to telling the people of Los Angeles this number, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services seem to be playing a game of "don't ask, don't tell."

Journalists at the Times don't want to focus on wrongful removal in the midst of what has become a campaign against family preservation, albeit a non-ideologically motivated one, so they don't ask. (The Times reporters will deny this, to which I say: Prove it. Report on any panic that may be out there, tell the stories you've been ignoring for all these months, and add the context that is missing from the horror stories your editors have been putting on the front page. Do that on a regular basis and I'll gladly revise my opinion and apologize.)

DCFS doesn't want to acknowledge any foster-care panic, so they don't tell.

Although DCFS Director Trish Ploehn said she would provide me with those data when she called NCCPR last week, I haven't received them yet. Ploehn claimed, however, that any panic was largely confined to the month of August, 2009, after which, she says, entries gradually settled back to their previous level.

That level still is too high – well above the rate in other large metropolitan areas. But that still would be a considerable achievement. It's not unusual for panics to last for a year or more. The foster- care panic in Florida lasted seven years. The one in Arizona started in 2003, and there's no end in sight.

A CHANGE IN INCENTIVES

What makes Los Angeles different? Simple. There is a huge change in incentives.

In most cases, when stories like those the Times have been running appear month after month, all of the incentives encourage panic.

There are personal incentives for the workers – they're more likely to keep their jobs, and stay off the front page, if they adopt a take-the-child-and-run approach. There are political incentives for the agency and elected officials, who look like they're "cracking down on child abuse" if they take more children. And there are financial incentives from the federal government, which will reimburse the states anywhere from 56 to 83 cents on the dollar for every eligible child they place in foster care – and roughly half of all foster care cases are eligible.

In Los Angeles, the personal and political incentives are still there. But the financial incentives are pushing against panic instead of in favor. If there is a foster-care panic in Los Angeles, the federal government won't help pay for it. And that's the first time that's ever happened anywhere in America.

That's because Los Angeles has a waiver, much like the one that has helped Florida transform what once was one of the nation's worst child welfare systems.

Under the waiver, Los Angeles agreed to accept its foster care money as a flat grant, in exchange for the flexibility to use the funds on safe, proven alternatives to foster care, instead of just foster care. That also means, however, that if DCFS caves into the Times crusade, takes even more children needlessly, and the foster care population soars, Los Angeles County will have to pick up the tab itself. (Details on how all this works are in NCCPR's Briefing Paper on child welfare finance.)

And that's one of the major reasons this form of funding is such an improvement over the open-ended entitlement for foster care.

By creating a system in which the various incentives come closer to cancelling each other out, rather than all pushing toward a take-the-child-and-run approach, the waiver makes it more likely that decisions will be made based on what is safest for each child, and not based on the fact that taking away the child lets everyone cover their asses and avoid being pilloried in the local newspaper, while the federal government helps pick up the tab.

Los Angeles has not done as well as Florida. The county got a later start and was not as bold in moving the money. The county also was hampered by moves at the state level, a problem the state-run system in Florida doesn't have. Because of the late start, there is no independent evaluation of the Los Angeles waiver available yet, unlike Florida where two such evaluations have found that the waiver improved child safety. But such an evaluation is due in a few months, and there are some promising signs of success.

If the waiver can curb a foster care panic, that will be huge evidence of its value. It would mean that the waiver helped to:

  • reduce the number of children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love leaving them at severe risk of lifelong emotional scars.
  • reduce the number of children placed at risk of abuse in foster care itself.
  • reduce the number of cases of wrongful removal overwhelming caseworkers, so they have more time to spot children in real danger who really should be taken from their homes.

WAIVER? WHAT WAIVER?

If you live in Los Angeles and you never even knew this waiver existed, much less its potential benefits, you must be getting all your child welfare news from The Los Angeles Times. While the competing Los Angeles Daily News has been all over the waiver story, the Times barely mentioned the waiver until recently, and then only to attack it.

The waiver turns up in stories in December which portray family reunification as a terrible gamble with children's lives – complete with horror stories of children who died after reunification. Over and over reunification (made possible in part by the waiver) is described as "risky."

And the cheap shots are continuing. Recent stories describe the waiver as a "wager" – in keeping with a theme in Times coverage of child welfare: the false assumption that family preservation equals risky, while foster care supposedly equals safe.

But for the overwhelming majority of children, the ones whose stories somehow don't get into the Times, it's the other way around. Foster care almost always is the riskier choice, both in terms of emotional trauma, and even the risk of actual abuse.

It's child welfare systems in most of the rest of the country that wager with children's lives – and they keep betting against the children.

  • They bet against children when they put protecting themselves ahead of protecting children, by tearing apart families in order to avoid winding up on the front page of the local paper.
  • They bet against children when they take them from parents whose only crime is poverty.
  • They bet against children when they put children at a one in three – or greater – risk of abuse whenever they place a child in a foster home.
  • They bet against children when they throw children into a system that, according to one landmark study, churns out walking wounded four times out of five.

What Florida, and Los Angeles, have done with their waivers is try to shift the odds in favor of children.

In that regard the only wager Los Angeles has lost so far is when officials tried to beat a very different set of odds.

GAMBLING ON TRUTH OVER "TRUTHINESS"

In some ways, what the Times reporters have been doing is understandable. A new law gave them access to a huge amount of information about fatality cases and near-fatality cases, while DCFS still can hide all its other mistakes behind "confidentiality."

So Times reporters have spent months steeped in the details of the most horrible cases. No one who has spent week after week reading autopsy reports and other files about innocent children who died at the hands of their brutal, sadistic parents could turn around and approach this new effort to keep families together without a profound visceral distaste and an enormous sense of foreboding. The fact that these cases bear no resemblance to what caseworkers typically see is truth – you know it in your head. The immersion in horror that the Times reporters have undergone replaces truth with what Stephen Colbert calls Truthiness – you know that in your gut.

That helps explain the errors in Times stories, and the refusal to provide readers the information they need to make up their own minds, but it doesn't excuse those mistakes, not when the one thing we know about foster-care panics is that they usually are followed by increases in child abuse deaths.

Those who supported the Los Angeles waiver bet that truth would win out over truthiness. So far, they're losing that wager.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: An LA news blog sorts it all out

Losing track of who said what when in the LA foster care debate? Losing track of why it matters? Witnessla.com "the online source for daily coverage of social justice news" sorts it all out, and cuts to the chase. The full post is here. And here's the conclusion:

Unfortunately one point has become obscured by these several days of the Times and DCFS parsing who meant what: Abuse can take place at both ends of the spectrum. Every week parents come before the LA County Supervisors and plead for help in getting their children back from the foster care system. Most of the time nothing comes of it.

I hear from some of those parents on a regular basis. Right now, I don't have the staff to investigate their cases. (I intend to begin to change all that later on this year.)

But the LA Times, despite its staff cuts, does have the capacity to at least look into some of these troubling stories of kids yanked into the trauma that is foster care for reasons that are filmsy at best. [Times reporter Garrett] Therolf has demonstrated in the past, that he is more than talented enough to do it.

Let us hope he can persuade his editors to allow him to investigate some of the individual cases that show the other sad end of the DCFS continuum.

Such coverage would provide a much needed balance to the horror stories that are still threatening to drive the County into a child-snatching panic.

Foster care in L.A.: The LA Times takes the wrong page from the NY Times playbook

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what's the last refuge of the child welfare reporter who's gone beyond the facts? Declare the existence of a "series" of child abuse deaths, where no such series exists.

The deaths exist of course, and each is the worst possible tragedy. But the series exists only in the mind of the journalist. Such non-existent "series" are a function of the fact that journalistic interest in child abuse deaths is prone to rise and fall much more sharply, and much more capriciously, than the actual fatalities.

Reasons for inventing a series of deaths vary. In the case of The New York Times it was one of the very rare cases where ideology came into play – the reporter on the child welfare beat at the time strongly sympathized with the city's powerful neoconservatives. They dominated policy during the Giuliani administration – and they hated the city's successful efforts to keep families together. So, as noted previously on this Blog, toward the end of 2005 the reporter turned the tragically-typical run of child abuse deaths in New York City into an alleged "series" and blamed the deaths on efforts to keep families together.

"IT WAS A SERIES – BUT NOT STATISTICALLY"

It was a "series," the reporter would explain later "but not statistically." As a result, everyone was primed to scapegoat family preservation when Nixzmary Brown died in January, 2006. The city is still feeling the effects today, with entries into care up more than 50 percent since Nixzmary died (but even so, New York City still takes proportionately fewer children than Los Angeles.)

And that brings me to Friday's Los Angeles Times follow-up to Thursday's story discussed in several posts to this Blog. The stories claimed that the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Trish Ploehn, had "suspended a long-standing effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes."

In the follow up, reporter Garrett Therolf declares that while "the county had focused on family preservation" up to now,

a series of child deaths last year among children left in – or returned to – unsafe homes jolted Ploehn's department. "These cases had a very deep effect," Ploehn said last week. [Emphasis added.]

But once again, there is no series – unless of course, the Times means "a series – but not statistically."

Yes, deaths of children known-to-the-system in Los Angeles County went up to 17 in 2009, from 14 the previous year – but, as Ploehn, the competing Los Angeles Daily News, and even the Times' own media critic (and former child welfare reporter) James Rainey all have pointed out, the number was even higher back when the county was taking away even more children and had vastly more children in foster care. And given how subjective the declaration that a death is due to maltreatment can be (for example, was a drowning an accident or neglect?) the 2009 figure may be too high, or the 2008 figure may be too low.

But don't take my word for it, even Deanne Tilton Durfee, the Queen of Child Abuse Fatality Review, the L.A.-based national expert who probably is quoted more than any other national expert, "agreed the increase in deaths is not a 'significant increase in the larger spectrum of things,'" according to the Daily News.

And, let's not forget that new study from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which found that taking away more children does nothing to reduce child abuse deaths.

Yet there's the LA Times, just like The New York Times, claiming a series where none exists and implying that it was caused by family preservation. This time it's not a matter of ideology. And, as is discussed at the end of this post, Garrett Therolf is a much better reporter than the one who invented the non-statistical series in New York. He's done some outstanding reporting on this issue. And when it comes to the kind of stories that set off "foster-care panics," huge spikes in removals of children, there's a lot worse out there than what the Times has done.

A CHANGE IN LAW CHANGES THE NEWS COVERAGE

The reason child abuse deaths suddenly got so much attention in 2009, is that California changed state law to make case records available in these cases – while all other cases, including all allegations of wrongful removal, remain secret. The simple fact that one could learn more about child abuse fatalities in 2009 created the impression of a "series" of such deaths in 2009. The Times had reason to reinforce that impression after Ploehn made some very fuzzy statements. Then the Times went beyond what Ploehn actually said.

My best guess is that Ploehn did, indeed, say that her agency was going to curb the reunification of families. In its first story on Ploehn's comments, the Times took that to mean that

Los Angeles County has suspended a long-standing effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes because keeping more of the children with their birth families could be unsafe, the county's top child-welfare official said.

Although Therolf insists these two concepts mean the same thing, there is a vast difference between slowing down reunifications and concluding that "keeping more of the children with their birth families could be unsafe." The latter sounds like an indefinite end to all efforts to keep families together, not a slowdown of one such effort. And that is how the copy desk editor who wrote the headlines for both the print story ("County to end emphasis on family over foster care" and the version on the Times website ("L.A. County will no longer strive to reunite families,") took it.

Therolf argues that the editors to whom he reports directly knew what he meant – and were surprised at the headlines. But typically such editors don't just read the final version of a story cold, just before it's time to add the headline. Some of them, at least, have been discussing the story with the reporter throughout the day. At least one would have "pitched" the story at a meeting where editors decide what goes on the front page. So the editors simply know more than what is actually in the story.

Human nature also plays a role here. All of us tend to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear and filter out what contradicts our expectations. (That's why NCCPR supports requiring every interview in a child abuse investigation to be tape recorded.) The Times has been carrying on a crusade about child abuse deaths for months now. When reporters do that, they want results. So even for reasons unrelated to ideology, the reporters at the Times probably were thrilled with Ploehn's announcement. And, indeed, Thursday's story calls it "the most significant of several reforms…"

Suspending efforts to keep families together is worthy of such a claim (except for the use of the word "reform") slowing down reunifications is not. And suspending efforts to keep families together is a front-page story; slowing down reunifications is worth, at best, the front of the Metro section.

LOADED LANGUAGE IN THE FOLLOW-UP

The same problem of going beyond the facts can be seen, unfortunately, in the follow-up story Friday, which was larded with loaded language. Here's how Therolf describes what the county has been doing in recent years:

For years, the county has focused on family reunification and preservation, seeking above all to rehabilitate once-abusive parents through drug treatment, anger management and other services. The number of children in foster care dropped from a high of 52,000 in 1997 to a low of 19,900 last year.

Almost every part of the first sentence is, at a minimum, disputable:

  • DCFS has not focused on family preservation. While the number of children in foster care on any given day (the number with which both Ploehn and the Times seem obsessed) has gone steadily down, the number of children taken away from their parents has risen alarmingly in most years since 2004. And a county that has focused on family preservation would not be taking children at a rate above the rate in most big metropolitan areas. (Details are on our website in our material about Los Angeles County child welfare.)
  • The claim that the county is seeking above all to keep families together is the caricature of family preservation used in attempts to discredit it all over the country. The Times is parroting The Big Lie of American child welfare. What DCFS is seeking to do, above all, is to keep children safe. To the extent that this may involve family preservation, it's because, for most children most of the time, that is safer than foster care.
  • The characterization of all parents in the system as "once-abusive" also is wrong. In our material on Los Angeles County child welfare, we tell the story of Gerardo R, originally told by the Metropolitan News Enterprise, a daily legal publication. Gerardo was a never-abusive parent whose children were taken from him solely because he did not have housing DCFS deemed adequate. The Times has simply declined to tell this story.

    Even as a legal matter, children can be in foster care for months, and then be returned home, before a court ever decides if, in fact, DCFS' allegations were true.

PLOEHN ISN'T HELPING

Ploehn hasn't helped things by making one fuzzy, contradictory statement after another. First, in Thursday's story Ploehn tells the Times that efforts to reduce foster care numbers would continue "only when I can assure everyone that the work we do results in safety for the child who is going home" to his or her family. She speculates that the snapshot number, the number of children in foster care on any given day, may well have gone as low as it can.

Then on Friday, she puts out a press release stating that "The department continues to remain steadfast in its commitment to reducing the number of children in foster care and to increasing the number of family reunifications."

But Friday's Times story reports that:

Asked whether she still believed that the foster care numbers might have gone down as far as possible, Ploehn said, "I don't think anyone can answer that question."

So, asked the simple question, can the number of children in Los Angeles County foster care on any given day go down any further? Ploehn has managed to answer "yes" "maybe not" and "I don't know" all in one week.

Actually, of those three answers, the most likely is yes, the number of children in foster care on any given day can be further reduced. Once again, the evidence is from other cities. If you take the number of children in Los Angeles County foster care on January 31 and divide it by the estimated number of impoverished children in the county, there are 37 Los Angeles children in foster care for every 1,000 impoverished children. In New York City it's 31. In Cook County, Illinois (metropolitan Chicago) it's 11. And in Illinois, where the system is state run, independent court-appointed monitors attest to the improvements in child safety.

As for why Ploehn rushed out a statement backing off from whatever it was she said, the Times says the statement came "after a flurry of criticism flooded her e-mail and voice mail."

I'll bet at least one of those e-mails came from her predecessor, David Sanders. Sanders went from DCFS to Casey Family Programs, a multi-billion dollar foundation active both in commendable efforts to promote child welfare reform and some not-so-commendable efforts to thwart child welfare accountability. Sanders is doing the good stuff, including putting Casey money and expertise behind efforts to help keep families safely together in Los Angeles. There have been some promising results.

As I've noted before, people at Casey spend a lot of time on this Blog and on www.nccpr.org; so much, in fact, that I've been tempted to send them an invoice for "technical assistance."

Friday, in two hours after our first post about Ploehn's comments appeared, this Blog received 15 hits from people at Casey Family Programs.

I don't know which they saw first, the Times story or this Blog, but either way, they couldn't have been pleased to read comments from Ploehn pulling the rug out from under them.

Fortunately, it's now harder to pull the rug out from under family preservation in L.A. than in most places, something I'll discuss on this Blog tomorrow.

WAITING FOR "TUESDAY"

I noted earlier that Garrett Therolf is a much better reporter than the one who invented the non-statistical series in New York. Therolf has done some excellent work, and not just on long-form projects. For years, I've cited a story he wrote in 2002, in which he turned what could have been a routine "night meeting" story into a work of art. I even sent it to the author of the superb textbook I used when I taught journalism and suggested he include it in a subsequent edition.

The story was about Debra Reid, whose son Jonathan was wrongfully taken away in 1997 only to die in foster care. The Board of Supervisors approved a settlement and, perhaps almost as important they apologized. And when Reid spoke, they actually paid attention. Here's how Therolf described it:

Virtually every week, a parade of parents come before the supervisors, pleading for help in getting their children out of that system. … The pleas often meet with indifference from county officials, who typically talk among themselves as parents address the supervisors. Tuesday was different.

For months, parents in the same circumstances have tried, desperately, to get the attention of Garrett Therolf and his colleagues at the Los Angeles Times. And, until last Thursday, when it was too late, their pleas were met with indifference from the journalists at the Times. Indeed, when people read in Thursday's story that "A group called DCFS Give Us Back Our Children often demonstrates outside Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, saying that too many children are removed from families unnecessarily" did they wonder why, since it's been going on for months, they'd never heard about it in the Times before?

And now, those parents, and their children, are likely to disappear from the news columns of The Los Angeles Times again. They're still waiting for "Tuesday."

TOMORROW: THE SILVER LINING, AND THE REASON L.A.'s FOSTER CARE PANIC MAY NOT BE AS BAD AS THE ONES IN OTHER CITIES