Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: “The same dumb mistakes”

Here we go again. The death of a child "known to the system" is on the front page of the Los Angeles Times again today.

This time, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had not yet decided if the child was at risk even though a case had been opened 57 days ago. Such determinations are supposed to be made within 30 days. But DCFS can't catch up because of a huge backlog of reports.

The agency director, Trish Ploehn, says she needs to hire lots more investigators. County Supervisor Gloria Molina doesn't agree, telling the Times: ""If you tell me we need more people to make the same dumb mistakes without proper supervision, I disagree."

Molina happens to be right about the fact that hiring more investigators won't help, something I'll get to below.

But the irony of any member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors complaining about anyone else making "the same dumb mistakes" in child welfare is, I trust, obvious.

And yet, Molina doesn't win the irony derby.

That honor goes to the Times itself, since when it comes to making "the same dumb mistakes" it's hard to top how the Times has been covering child welfare since Garrett Therolf took over the beat.

The kind of tragedy in today's story will happen over and over until the Times owns up to its own role – and changes its approach.

The lack of context in Times coverage of fatalities set off a foster-care panic – a sudden spike in children taken from their parents. In addition to causing enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, it also further overloaded the system – making the backlog even worse.

So even as more children are separated from everyone they know and love, more children in real danger are missed because workers are too busy to get to them in time.

None of this is hindsight. What was revealed in today's story is what we predicted would happen. When the Times refused to check into the panic we filed our own California Public Records Act request to obtain the data: Full details on the foster care panic, and the rest of what the Times declines to report are available on our website here. And this Orange County Register story, based in part on NCCPR's California Rate-of-Removal Index, discusses how Orange County has a far better grip on the problem.

As for hiring: DCFS should indeed be hiring. But if all they do is hire more workers, even as the Times fans the flames of foster-care panic, those new workers will just spin their wheels investigating more false reports and trivial cases and taking away more children needlessly. All you'll get is the same lousy system only bigger – as is clear from what's happened in the past few years in Texas and, most recently, Indiana. In contrast, New Jersey hired more workers, but did it as part of a comprehensive reform plan that emphasized doing more to keep families together. The results are documented in the previous post to this Blog.

So instead of investigators, DCFS should be hiring family preservation workers to bring the right kinds of help into the homes of troubled families. That really will cut caseloads and give investigators more time to find children in real danger.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Less foster care, safer kids: NJ child safety improves as removals drop

In case any more evidence is needed that family preservation improves child safety, it can be found in the latest report from the independent monitor overseeing a consent decree governing child welfare in New Jersey.

The most important single statistic can be found on Page 103: The key measure of child safety, reabuse of children left in their own homes, has dropped significantly from 2006 through 2008. In fact it was cut by more than half.

During that same time period, the number of children taken from their homes over the course of a year in New Jersey dropped by more than 25 percent, according to data the state submitted to the federal government.

Once again, the evidence is in: Finding smart ways to reduce needless removal of children improves child safety.

But the news isn't all good. Although New Jersey is getting better at keeping children out of foster care in the first place, it's actually getting worse at efforts to reunify families once those children are taken.

Nothing is more important to successful reunification than regular visits between parents and their children in foster care. By now New Jersey was supposed to be able to ensure that 40 percent of foster children had weekly visits with their parents and 50 percent saw them every other week. The previous monitor's report found that only 17 percent of foster children had weekly visits with their parents. The most recent report found that things actually got worse – with only two percent having weekly visits. The monitor calls that cause for "extreme concern."

This may have something to do with the goal line being in sight for getting out of court oversight.

The consent decree results from a lawsuit brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights. Because the decree was crafted with a lot of help from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, it's a better decree than anything CR has negotiated on its own. It's also a wide-ranging document, requiring DCF to do a great many things. And CR's track record suggests that some of those things, like boosting adoptions, are a lot more important to CR than anything involving keeping families together.

With the goal line for exiting from the decree in sight, DCF may be concentrating on the parts of the settlement that CR really cares about – like adoption – and paying less attention to reunification.

There's one more reason for concern. This most recent report covers the period ending December 31, 2009 – when Jon Corzine still was governor. One day after the previous monitor's report showed impressive progress, the new governor, Chris Christie, fired Corzine's commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. It's not clear if Christie is committed to continuing the progress DCF has made in recent years.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foster care in New York City: Another retreat from reform – on two fronts at once

Many good things have happened in child welfare around the country in recent years – but by and large, they haven't been happening in New York City.

On the contrary, ever since the death of Nixzmary Brown in January 2006, the Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, once thought to be a reformer, has been leading a full-scale retreat from reform. I won't repeat the list of failures here, they're in this previous post to the blog (though nearly a year, and several more acts of retreat later, I'd have to say I gave Mattingly too much benefit of the doubt in that post).

Just in the past year, Mattingly opposed legislation that finally would allow New York to join 39 other states in offering the option of "subsidized guardianship" to relatives to want to adopt foster children they're caring for, but don't want to put their own children through termination of parental rights in order to adopt their grandchildren. Mattingly even opposed an extremely modest bill, now law, that encourages caseworkers to consider using the legal exceptions to automatically seeking termination that are in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act when a parent is in jail or in drug treatment.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, in January, Mattingly promised to move forward on two reforms at once: curbing the harm done to families by allegations of "educational neglect" and experimenting with "differential response," a way to deal with certain child welfare cases that has had significant success across the country. But, it seems, that promise is now null and void.

Differential response (also sometimes called "alternative response") is a highly-successful approach that is gaining ground all over the country. It's now in use in all or part of 18 states – including New York, where six counties are experimenting with it.

The way it works varies across the country, but it amounts to this: In cases where the initial report suggests risk is low, workers still are sent to the home, but not to do a full-scale investigation. Instead, they go out and offer help. In some parts of the country the workers are from the child protective services agencies, in others, differential response cases are handed off to a private agency.

Yes, I can hear the fear-mongers now: But how do you know it's low risk? If you don't come in fingers wagging with all the coercive power of the state, how do you know you won't miss something?

We know because, as the Vera Institute of Justice points out in its report on "educational neglect" every single study of differential response, all across the country, and there have been 13 of them, has found no compromise of child safety. Many have found that safety improved. That shouldn't come as a surprise. If you go into a home where the allegation is, say, educational neglect, extending an open hand instead of a wagging finger, you are likely to get more cooperation from the family.

DIFFERENTIAL RESPONSE MAKES SENSE FOR NEW YORK

Differential response has particularly strong potential in New York. That's because in New York, the hotline that accepts calls alleging child abuse and decides which ones are passed on for investigation is run by the state. But the child welfare systems which are ordered to investigate are run by counties and New York City. That creates a huge incentive for hotline operators to pass on calls that should be screened out – rather than risk being blamed if they screen out a call and then something goes wrong. Obviously, it makes sense to give localities an option other than a full-scale investigation in such cases.

A perfect example of the kind of case for which differential response is likely to work best is an educational neglect allegation. As noted in the previous post to this Blog, the Vera Institute report suggested that educational neglect cases often should not be handled by child protective services agencies at all, and in many states, they're not. By and large, the report found, the traditional CPS response does nothing to keep children safe – or improve their school attendance – it just scares families away from getting help. If such cases are going to be handled by child welfare agencies at all, the report said, it should be done through differential response.

But differential response has been slow to catch on in New York, in part because of the longstanding opposition of John Mattingly. That opposition predates his arrival at ACS. I first heard him speak in opposition to this approach at a public hearing in Maine in 2001.

So it was good news when Mattingly said in January that ACS would pilot using differential response in some educational neglect cases.

Too bad it didn't last.

As revealed by some enterprising students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the pilot program is now "on hold." Even the plan for the pilot is still "under development" and no one at ACS knows when it will be fully developed. In other words, like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, differential response is not dead – it's just resting.

Instead, ACS will be represented on a brand new "interagency task force" on truancy and chronic absenteeism in the New York City schools.

The excuse for this is budget cuts. But it's hard to believe no one at ACS saw the budget cuts coming in January.

No, the reason New York City is in retreat both on differential response and finding a better way to deal with "educational neglect" is because John Mattingly never really had much enthusiasm for moving forward on either.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Child welfare’s back alley: “Educational Neglect”

Late last year, the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice, based in New York, issued a report on one of the seedier back alleys of child welfare: "Educational Neglect." The majority of states, wisely, don't even include such cases in the mandate of their child welfare agencies. Unfortunately, New York, is not one of them. There, educational neglect reports serve one primary function: They're a lever schools can use to force parents to do what they want – like, for instance, not demand too much in the way of special education for their kids, or not complain about school safety.

Here are some highlights from the Vera Institute study, which focused on New York State but applies to any state that still lets CPS investigate "educational neglect":

Overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. (While that may be obvious, they've got an actual case reading, from Orange County, to prove it.) In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism.

The notion that educational neglect is the "tip of the iceberg," a sign of some other, deeper problem, (the primary excuse for CPS investigating such cases), is nonsense. Generally, "educational neglect" is the tip of nothing except some kind of school problem, often one that is not the parent's fault.

The extent to which CPS workers' time is wasted, and families are needlessly disrupted, is particularly striking in New York City. Statewide, about ten percent of all children with maltreatment allegations were the subject of at least one allegation of educational neglect; in New York City it was 19 percent – nearly double the state average.

There's no mystery to this. Schools took a lot of the blame after Nixzmary Brown was killed in 2006, despite repeated warnings to the city's Administration for Children's Services. Ever since, schools have been hyper-defensive about reporting, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ACS Commissioner John Mattingly have done nothing to calm them down and curb what are often, in fact, CYA referrals.

This can be seen in a striking statistic in an Appendix. In 2005, there were 12,767 children subjected to at least one allegation of educational neglect. Nixzmary Brown died in January, 2006. That year, the number soared to 19,967, and in 2008 it still was 17,299.

In Yonkers, school officials will call in a report of educational neglect if they simply can't reach a parent by phone, or the family's address has changed and they don't know where to find them.

While few educational neglect cases wind up with children placed in foster care, many families get dragged into court – and the investigations can devastate families and scare them away from help – not to mention contributing to the overload in Family Court – the same overload Mattingly has used as an excuse for children languishing in his foster care system.

The report suggests that New York consider not accepting such reports for children over age 13 at all.

For reports involving all ages, the study suggests much more rigorous screening of educational neglect allegations by New York's child abuse hotline – and it's not just a vague suggestion; the study offers detailed protocols for such screening.

The study also suggests that where such reports are screened in, they should be handled through "differential response" in which workers are sent out to offer voluntary help instead of a coercive investigation. (More on this in a future post).

The report profiles some excellent alternatives to using CPS in these kinds of cases, including striking examples from P.S. 55 in the Bronx and Good Shepherd Services in Brooklyn.

None of this information came my way via the city's major newspapers. Instead, I first learned about the Vera Institute study from Rise, the excellent magazine written by parents who have lost children to child welfare systems. Last Fall's issue discusses the report, and does a superb job of putting a human face on the findings.

And, as I noted in a previous post to this Blog, the follow-up came not from The New York Times, the Daily News, or the Post, but from students in Prof. LynNell Hancock's education reporting class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. They did an excellent story on the overall issue, and a sidebar about how ACS briefly promised reforms, and then reneged – a promise I suspect was half-hearted to begin with. Fortunately, the stories were picked up by The Huffington Post.

IN A FUTURE POST: ACS RETREATS FROM REFORM AGAIN – THIS TIME ON TWO FRONTS AT ONCE

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Home from foster care: At last, a day to celebrate reunification

A GOOD IDEA FROM PITTSBURGH SPREADS ACROSS THE COUNTRY

Many years ago, I sent an e-mail to Marc Cherna, the reform-minded Director of the Allegheny County, Pa. Department of Human Services. I noted that, like so many other child welfare systems, the one in Pittsburgh had a day to celebrate adoptions. So how about one to celebrate birth families that have been reunified?

Cherna was way ahead of me. He'd already created such an event in Pittsburgh, an annual picnic for reunified families.

After that, whenever a reformer was named to run a child welfare system, I would tell them about Pittsburgh's celebration and suggest they do something similar. That led to three big systems across the country following Pittsburgh's lead.

And on Saturday, for the first time, there will be celebrations of reunified families across the country. The National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, a part of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, is coordinating the effort. Not everyone is celebrating on June 19. Florida held a week of celebrations around Mother's Day, and Los Angeles County held its celebrations earlier - though you'd never know it if you relied for information on the Los Angeles Times.

I suspect one of the best celebrations will be the one in Chicago, sponsored not by a child welfare agency, but by the Family Defense Center. The keynote speaker is Karl Dennis, pioneer of Wraparound services.

If the child welfare agency in your community isn't sponsoring one of these events, and didn't do one earlier this year, this might be a good time to ask them a question:

You say your first priority is reunification. So why is it that all you ever celebrate is adoption and foster care?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Foster care in California: The capital is the child removal capital, too


UPDATE, JANUARY 2012: NOW THE NEWS IS BETTER.  IN 2011, SACRAMENTO COUNTY IMPROVED SIGNIFICANTLY, IT IS NO LONGER CALIFORNIA'S CHILD REMOVAL CAPITAL - AS CAN BE SEEN VIA THE UPDATED LINK BELOW.


WE'VE UPDATED OUR CALIFORNIA RATE-OF-REMOVAL INDEX. THERE'S A LOT OF GOOD NEWS – AND THEN THERE'S SACRAMENTO COUNTY
Sacramento is now California's capital in more ways than one.

Our newest California Rate-of-Removal Index shows that Sacramento County is the child removal capital of California. Fortunately, that county is an exception.

Much of the news in the Rate-of-Removal Index is good. Over the past two years, there have been big improvements in several counties that used to form a "removal belt" in the Bay Area, including Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Alameda Counties, though there's been little improvement in San Francisco. And there's been a striking change for the better in Riverside County, which used to be worst in the state.

And yes, once again, the counties taking proportionately fewer children often did better on key measures of child safety than counties still using a take-the-child-and-run approach.

Orange County, for example, takes children at a rate far lower than neighboring Los Angeles County, yet Orange County had the best safety outcomes among the ranked counties – a record significantly better than Los Angeles. But Los Angeles performed better than counties which took, proportionately, even more children, such as San Francisco and Santa Barbara.

Not surprisingly, the performance of Los Angeles County has worsened compared to other counties; showing only a small decline in entries. And the time period covered by these data don't include most of the months since the Los Angeles Times-fueled foster-care panic – a sudden surge in removals of children in the wake of high-profile child abuse deaths.

And the good news comes to a screeching halt in Sacramento.

Among the state's larger counties, Sacramento County now takes away proportionately more children than any other, when the number of children taken away is compared to the number of impoverished children in each county. Sacramento takes children at a rate nearly double the average for these counties.

And it's not hard to figure out why: Fourteen years which saw, with one relatively brief interruption, a lot of bad journalism, courtesy of The
Sacramento Bee.

Imagine if what the Los Angeles Times has been doing lately was done for the better part of fourteen years, and with a much more explicit effort to scapegoat efforts to keep families together, and you get the idea.

A HISTORY OF JOURNALISTIC FAILURE

As far back as 1996, the Bee wrongly blamed family preservation for child abuse deaths. The resulting foster-care panic sent entries into care soaring – while doing nothing to curb fatalities.

In the early part of the last decade, a very good reporter, Mareva Brown, took over the child welfare beat, and coverage greatly improved. But when Brown left, so did the nuance and sophistication in Bee reporting.

By June 2008, the Bee was back to scapegoating family preservation. So, the Bee reported that:

As its top recommendation, [an] oversight committee advised CPS to make clear to social workers and families that "it must err on the side of child protection as opposed to family reunification."

Acting independently, the Child Death Review Team came to a similar conclusion: CPS must place child safety over keeping families together "in both written policy and active practice."

The problem is not that the Bee reported the findings. That is their obligation. The problem is that no other Grand Unifying Theory was offered for CPS failures – and no one outside CPS (which, for good reason, no one believes), is allowed to refute this one.

A sidebar makes clear that the committees are, in effect, speaking for the reporter. In writing about a particular case, she declares that it

comes to light only because she sued Sacramento Child Protective Services and two social workers for what happened to her in August 2001 - five years after the death of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, and the county's promise to place child safety over "family preservation."

Over the course of the year that followed, with caseworkers terrified of winding up on the front page, entries into foster care soared by 25 percent.

By the end of 2009, entries were declining again, but now the Bee is scapegoating family preservation once more.

THE BIG LIE OF AMERICAN CHILD WELFARE

The claim that child safety and family preservation are at odds is the Big Lie of American child welfare. County after county and state after state have learned that you can't have child safety without family preservation.

The real cause of the tragedies in Sacramento County is not too much emphasis on family preservation, but too little.

A good indication of the Bee's impact can be seen in a startling statistic in a report released Thursday by the Sacramento County Grand Jury. (The term "grand jury" doesn't mean in California what it means in most states. In California, grand juries are panels of citizens empowered to investigate the operations of county governments.)

According to the report, of all the children torn from their families by Child Protective Services, about a third are sent home again within 30 days. That's plenty of time to do great harm to a child's psyche. But if a child can be sent back home in a month, odds are that child never needed to be taken away in the first place.

The panic probably played a role in at least one high-profile tragedy. Amariana Crenshaw died under mysterious circumstances in a foster home with a long history of serious problems. The Bee did good work investigating the case, raising all sorts of good questions about how Amariana died – questions CPS barely bothered to ask. And the Bee uncovered one red flag after another about the foster home.

But the Bee left out one crucial fact: Its own role in creating conditions that made such a tragedy more likely. The more a foster care system is overwhelmed with children who don't need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. And even after all it learned about Amariana, the Bee still is taking cheap shots at family preservation and accepting as fact the false claim that it is at odds with child safety.

WHACK-A-MOLE JOURNALISM

So, first the Bee did reporting that encouraged the overloading of the system. Then it reported on the death of a child in a substandard foster home, as though these were unrelated problems – and as though reporting on the problem in each new form is enough. Sadly, when it comes to child welfare, there is nothing unusual in this kind of "whack-a-mole" journalism.

Fortunately, the Bee no longer has quite the monopoly it used to. The Sacramento Press is a news website with a small paid staff and lots of citizen contributors. We are on the site starting today, telling the part of the child welfare story that the Bee leaves out.

The Bee is not the only one encouraging panic.

Sacramento's system is so primitive that in many cases, when CPS takes away a child, even a child as young as age one, they compound the trauma by placing that child not in a home but in an orphanage – the "Children's Receiving Home." When children really must be taken, these parking place shelters usually are the worst possible option. Without a steady supply of foster children, places like the "Children's Receiving Home" will go out of business. But the Children's Receiving Home hasn't been getting as many referrals lately, so they've joined in the fear-mongering.

Of course, progress all across California is threatened by budget cuts, and by the greed of the state's group homes and institutions, who used the courts to force the state to give them a giant rate increase. But in Sacramento, the progress hasn't even begun – because every time anybody tries, the local newspaper gets in the way.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Noah Kirkman freed from Oregon foster care

Noah Kirkman, the 12-year-old Canadian boy trapped in Oregon foster care for nearly two years, is back with his family in Canada – which is exactly where he wants to be.

OK, I don't actually know for a fact that the last part of the previous sentence, about where he wants to be, is true. Rather, I'm relying on the Kirkman family's lawyer, who said this when explaining to the Calgary Herald why Noah was allowed to go home two weeks earlier than expected. The lawyer said:

There was a sense during the trial that Noah was being pressured by the family with whom he was staying (in foster care). My belief is that when social services had the opportunity to find out Noah really wanted to be home, the extra time was unnecessary.

But my version, in which I simply treat an assertion by the side I favor as fact, is no different from the way the Portland Oregonian
led its story on the hearing where the judge first decided Noah could go home. The Oregonian wrote that:

An Oregon judge Friday ordered a 12-year-old boy sent back to Canada, his home country, even though the boy doesn't want to go.

Only farther down in the story is it mentioned that this simply was a claim from the judge and a psychologist.

In fact, neither I nor the Oregonian reporter actually knows what Noah Kirkman wanted then or wants now. That's why it's journalism 101 that any such claim in a news story is supposed to be attributed. And it's why Oregonian coverage of this case deserves an extra measure of skepticism.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

UPDATED 6:00PM: More foster care in NYC: Paying the price for ACS’ retreat from reform

SEE UPDATE AT THE CONCLUSION OF THIS POST

About 400 people rallied at City Hall in New York Tuesday to protest slash-and-burn budget cuts to services that help keep children out of foster care.

In response, the commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, blamed the city's "current budget situation," which, like the budget situation in most cities and states, is dire.

But that's not the whole story. Odds are these cuts would not be necessary if not for Mattingly's own retreat from reform.

In 2005, the year before Nixzmary Brown died and The New York Times invented a non-existent "series" of child abuse deaths, (the deaths were tragically real, but there was no series), ACS removed fewer than 5,000 children from their homes. Of course the Nixzmary Brown case terrified workers and they rushed to tear apart more families. Instead of curbing the surge in removals, Mattingly encouraged it. So now ACS takes away nearly 7,500 children every year.

Proportionately, that's still better than Los Angeles or Philadelphia, but it's a huge trend in the wrong direction. Instead of making children safer, key indicators of safety, reabuse of children and foster care recidivism, have worsened, and deaths of children "known to the system" have increased. (For details, see NCCPR's report on New York City child welfare.)

In addition to the increase in children taken from their parents, ACS is taking into court far more cases where they intend to leave children in their own homes – essentially so that if something goes wrong, they can blame a judge. (Indeed, it was particularly disingenuous for Mattingly, in a recent AP story, to blame the courts for delays that prolong children's time in foster care, when he is among those most responsible for those delays getting far worse. The only thing more disingenuous is condemnation of the budget cuts from the city's Public Grandstander – sorry, Public Advocate - Bill de Blasio. When he was practicing for his current role as a member of the City Council, he never missed a chance to pour gasoline on the fire of foster-care panic.)

In addition to all the other harm, foster care also happens to cost more than better alternatives. Dragging more cases into court also adds to costs. So the main reason ACS is cutting help to families now is the failure in leadership at the agency since the death of Nixzmary Brown.

The result of all this is a cycle of failure. ACS takes more children needlessly, using up funds that could have gone to services to help families. So the services to help families are cut. So more children are taken needlessly.

The failure of leadership was seen again in still another retreat from reform this year. Late in 2009, the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice issued a report on how child welfare agencies in New York State handle allegations of "educational neglect." Their conclusion: These cases do nothing but harm families and waste caseworkers' time. If they're going to be handled by CPS agencies at all, they report said, it should be done through an approach called "differential response."

In January, Mattingly, a longtime opponent of differential response, promised to give it a try in some educational neglect cases, on a pilot basis.

Now he's retreated from that reform as well – as reported not by any of New York's big news organizations, but by some enterprising students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, whose work now has been picked up by The Huffington Post.

UPDATE: This just in. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today that New York City is going to address the problem of chronic absenteeism and truancy with - wait for it: an Interagency Task Force! And this won't be just your everyday Interagency Task Force. No, this will be a Mayoral Interagency Task Force.

Of course ACS will be represented. ACS had two people at the news conference announcing the Interagency Task Force. But do you think the Mayor even knows that his ACS commissioner shot down one of the best possible ways to curb this problem: finding alternatives to burdening families with child abuse allegations in these cases?

The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School claims the Interagency Task Force is a response to a report they issued - in October, 2008. That report concluded that school personnel overreport absences as "educational neglect." According to the report:

Often, it would be preferable to collaborate with an outside organization to help engage families and organize community-based family support or other services. Teachers should also be more skilled at identifying other forms of neglect, so they know when and where to turn for help.

Why do I have this sensation of going around in circles?

There will be more on "educational neglect," and ACS' retreat from this reform, in future posts.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Curbing needless foster care: Does the Obama Administration even have a clue?

INDIFFERENCE AND/OR HOSTILITY THREATEN CHILD WELFARE WAIVERS

Ok, I get that with two wars, the worst environmental disaster in our history, health care, the economy, etc. President Obama may not be paying a lot of attention to child welfare. But is it too much to ask that his administration not make things even worse?

For starters, the Administration took the terrible financial incentives that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives and did, indeed, make them worse. I don't think they did it on purpose. Rather, my guess is they were intent on increasing state reimbursement for Medicaid and weren't paying attention to the fact that this also automatically increases reimbursement for foster care. (The House and Senate have split on whether to continue this increase, so here's a modest proposal for a compromise: Extend the increase for Medicaid, but not foster care.)

Now, according to The Columbus Dispatch, the Administration may refuse to extend a waiver that gives 18 counties in Ohio the same flexibility that has allowed Florida to vastly improve its system. (That success, already cited by The New York Times, also was a key focus of an Associated Press story Friday.)

The "ProtectOhio" waiver has been around for 12 years. It's due to expire at the end of July, and there's no word from the federal Department of Health and Human Services concerning whether they will grant another extension.

PROMISING EARLY RESULTS…

An early evaluation found that, on average, the counties did not perform as well as Florida. But that changed. And even early on there were improvements; and, in two counties, the improvements were particularly significant.

What made the difference in those counties? In a word: Leadership.

As we discuss in our report on Ohio child welfare, according to the evaluation:

The two most successful counties…share a pattern of strong leadership and careful planning of systemic reforms. Both demonstrated an early and ongoing commitment to expanding resources for child welfare activities other than foster care board and maintenance, well beyond the flexible funds generated by Waiver participation. They also sharply reduced placement utilization, instead serving children in-home or through referral to community agencies.

The evaluation found that, in Lorain County, the child welfare agency had been engaged in a comprehensive planning process, geared toward safely reducing entries into foster care, even before the waiver. So the county knew how to make the best use of flexible funds to enhance services to families. In addition to reducing needless removals of children, when a child really needed to be taken from his or her parents, the county also significantly increased placements with relatives instead of strangers.

"Overall," according to the evaluation, "the flexibility of the Title IV-E waiver seems to have reinforced the reform agenda of Lorain County Children Services."

…AND NOW, EVEN MORE SUCCESS

The other counties learned from those early experiences. According to a new report from Casey Family Programs, now:

Demonstration counties in ProtectOhio have consistently shown briefer lengths of stay in children's first placements, greater success in completing permanency plans for children in long-term foster care, higher rates of adoption, and a higher proportion of children exiting foster care to extended family caregivers without a decline in child safety measures. For the two-year period ending September 30, 2009, the ProtectOhio demonstration group generated internal savings of 329,441 placement days.

In other words, children spent a total of 329,441 fewer days in foster care than they would have had there been no waiver – with no compromise of safety. And that includes the children who had zero days in foster care because, thanks to the waiver, the services were available to keep them out of foster care in the first place.

It also probably helped that Ohio's largest county, Franklin, eased out the mediocre longtime leader of its child welfare agency. His replacement has done a better job taking advantage of the waiver. That's the whole point of reforming child welfare financing: It can't make up for mediocre leadership. But it allows good leaders to swim with the tide instead of against it.

Speaking of mediocre leadership: HHS apparently hasn't been paying attention. No surprise there. The federal leadership team on child welfare is incomplete and what there is of it is undistinguished.

HHS: THE MEDIOCRITY STARTS AT THE TOP

The problem goes all the way to the top. When the secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sibelius, was governor of Kansas, a state with one of the highest rates of removal in the nation, she turned a blind eye as her state fudged the figures it sent to HHS. She also didn't lift a finger when the head of her human services agency was caught in a bald-faced lie. (We don't know which of two flatly contradictory statements was the lie, we just know he lied. Details are in our report on Kansas child welfare.)

The one time I heard the HHS Assistant Secretary in charge of the Administration for Children and Families, Carmen Nazario, speak on the funding issue, her comments amounted to: I can't wait to give the Child Welfare League of America exactly what it wants! Since CWLA is the giant trade association for agencies, including many that live off a steady supply of foster children, that's always bad news for kids. For details, see our report on child welfare financing.

And now, whether through indifference or hostility, HHS is threatening one of the few areas where federal child welfare policy actually has helped children – waivers from federal funding rules that provide a huge, perverse incentive to place children in foster care and keep them there.

So, if the people who occasionally pay attention to child welfare in the Obama Administration (if any) really are too distracted to do comprehensive reform of child welfare – like making the Florida waiver the way child welfare is financed nationwide, or at least making such a waiver available to any state that wants one – could they at least let the states and counties that were smart enough to get these waivers in past years keep them?

It's simple. Just sign the relevant forms. Then you can go back to the wars, the oil spill, the economy and all the rest.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The overpaid foster parents of Washington, DC

WOULD YOU WANT A CHILD PLACED WITH SOMEONE WHO DEMANDED GOVERNMENT REIMBURSEMENT FOR BUYING HIM A TEDDY BEAR?

Like most states and cities, Washington, D.C. is facing big budget problems. It was no surprise that, in his proposed budget, Mayor Adrian Fenty targeted for more pain and suffering those who already suffer most, but are least able to fight back – poor people.

In child welfare, the mayor wanted to cut a program that provides housing assistance to poor people on the verge of losing their children to foster care, and a program to help grandparents keep their grandchildren out of foster care. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the D.C. Council restored those cuts, but cuts in a separate emergency rental assistance program and in homeless services remain.

While the homeless and those on the verge of homelessness are made to suffer, the Council made sure to spare one group: The overpaid foster parents of Washington. They were spared a ten percent cut in their pay. The Council should revisit this issue next year, if not sooner. Because that's one budget cut that makes sense – provided the savings are plowed into restoring cuts in programs that help keep children out of foster care.

Right now, D.C. foster parents are paid significantly more than they need to cover foster children's expenses - and not just the basics. The DC payment is more than is needed to pay for just about everything. D.C. pays foster parents more than anyplace else in the nation; the payments are 60 to 70 percent above the national average.

Who says so? None other than the group that has been suing D.C. child welfare seemingly forever, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR).

Raising foster parent pay has become an obsession for CR; they've taken to demanding it in one lawsuit after another, even though studies show that pay ranks low among the reasons foster parents stay or quit (respect is far more important).

In order to push its case, CR published a report, in which it created a formula that supposedly represented the "minimum" foster parents need to cover expenses. It's more like a maximum. Buried in a separate "technical report" is the fact that CR defines expenses very broadly. They're not just talking about food, clothing and shelter. CR's definition of what foster parents should not have to pay out of their own pockets includes any increase in electric bills caused by foster children leaving the lights on and opening the refrigerator door a lot. It also includes movie tickets, amusement park rides, toys and just about anything else you can think of.

The point is not that foster children don't deserve these things. But here's the question: Would you want a child placed with someone who demanded government reimbursement for buying him a teddy bear?

Naturally, almost every jurisdiction fell short of providing "enough" by this absurd standard. Almost.

Two places pay foster parents more than enough by this standard: Arizona, and the District of Columbia. In fact, with base rates ranging from $869 to $940 per month per child, depending on the child's age, DC pays foster parents from $148 to $240 per month more than CR says they need. (Also, though CR doesn't mention it, in every state the payments are tax free and foster children's health care is covered by Medicaid.)

The report notes that no data were available to adjust the "target" figure for DC for inflation, so they used their national average target figure. But D.C.'s rates are so high that they meet CR's absurdly high targets in every state except three with extremely high costs of living, and even then they come very close.

So here's what Fenty and the council wound up doing: They made it more likely that families will become homeless. Then, the child welfare agency will take away those children because the family us homeless. And then that same child welfare agency will lavish more money than they need on the total strangers who take in those children.

D.C.'s ridiculously high pay rates also may cause problems for Virginia and Maryland. It's been argued that some foster parents in those jurisdictions take D.C. children because the District pays so much more - at least that was part of the rationale in 2008 for spending an extra $20 million per year on foster parent pay in Virginia – money that could have been used to keep kids out of the system in that state.

And D.C.'s rates create the wrong incentive for foster parenting. I agree with those who say very few foster parents are "in it for the money." The vast majority do it for the right reasons. But foster parents are fond of saying that the proof they're not "in it for the money" is that there isn't enough money. That doesn't apply in D.C.

There's also a larger philosophical issue, discussed in previous posts to this Blog and in this excellent op ed column by Maine foster parent Mary Callahan: What is our "social contract" with foster parents? If foster care is an act of charity, then why shouldn't it involve dipping into one's own pocket to a modest degree? The volunteer who helps tutor children after school does not demand reimbursement for mileage or any supplies he may bring to help that child. He does it because the psychic satisfaction outweighs the small financial contribution. Don't we want foster parents who feel the same way?

At a minimum, don't we want foster parents who see a problem in raking in nearly 1,000 a month to care for a child who could have stayed in his own home if his own parents had gotten far less in emergency rental assistance?

A Washington Post story left open the possibility that, had the cuts gone through, CR might have opposed them in court. It certainly would have been interesting to see how they'd justify such a stance, when their own report says DC foster parents are getting more than they need. But given the relative power of foster parents and poor people who lose their children to foster care, we're not likely to see the issue go to court anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting children out of orphanages: A bright idea from Lumos

The British charity Lumos has come up with an idea that's every bit as brilliant as one would expect from an organization founded by J.K. Rowling.

Today, International Children's Day, Lumos is urging people to light a birthday candle for the thousands of children who don't get to celebrate their own birthdays - sometimes don't even know their own birthdays - because they're warehoused in orphanages and other institutions. Across Britain "birthday parties" are being held to raise funds for Lumos to continue its excellent work.

Lumos works primarily in Eastern Europe, helping governments reform the system that existed before the fall of Communism.

But there are plenty of children in the United States who could use the same kind of attention. The same is true in Britain itself, which, at the moment, is enduring a nationwide foster-care panic that any American child welfare administrator would recognize.

They're the children – sometimes even infants - dumped into parking place shelters, or the young people doped up on powerful psychiatric medications to keep them docile for overwhelmed staff at "residential treatment centers." The birthday candle is a wonderful symbol of the fact that even when the institutions have lovely grounds and are well run, they are not families – where birthdays are celebrated because the family wants to do it, not because the staff has to do it, or not at all.

FROM RUSSIA, WITHOUT LOVE

And while Eastern European orphanages apparently have not yet learned the trick of rebranding themselves "residential treatment centers," in other respects the politics of child welfare "over there" can be remarkably similar to what happens over here. In Russia, for example, the main reason so many children are trapped in orphanages is not financial, it's political. As this New York Times story makes clear, Russia has a "foster care-industrial complex" very much like ours.

According to the Times:

The Russian government spends roughly $3 billion annually on orphanages and similar facilities, creating a system that is an important source of jobs and money on the regional level — and a target for corruption. As a result, it is in the interests of regional officials to maintain the flow of children to orphanages and then not to let them leave, child welfare experts said. When adoptions are permitted, families, especially foreign families, have to pay large fees and navigate a complex bureaucracy.

"The system has one goal, which is to preserve itself," said Boris L. Altshuler, chairman of Right of the Child, an advocacy group in Moscow, and a member of a Kremlin advisory group. … "The system wants these children to remain orphans."

Sound familiar?

And the defense of orphanages, by someone who runs one in Moscow, sounds as though it was written by the Child Welfare League of America:

"It would be a lot better if there were no orphanages, and every child were happy in the family that he or she has," said the director of Orphanage No. 11, Lidiya Y. Slusareva. "But if there are bad families, then it is better that the children are here."

So while it's too late for this year, I hope that by next year's International Children's Day, this bright idea from Lumos will have caught on here, and Americans will be lighting birthday candles for our own needlessly-institutionalized children.