Sunday, January 30, 2011

Foster care in Rhode Island: The seduction of Kevin Aucoin

Here’s the thing about children’s “shelters” – those exercises in adult self-indulgence and adult self-delusion that turn real flesh-and-blood children into human teddy bears; those places where some communities dump children as soon as they are taken from their homes, supposedly to be examined and “assessed” by “trained staff” in order to prepare them for exactly what they would have gotten without the shelters – usually a succession of foster homes:

They can be oh, so seductive.

Sure, as discussed in a previous post to this blog, the research is overwhelming that children suffer enormously when they are cared for by rotating shift staff.  Sure, a comprehensive study specific to shelters showed that the outcomes for children who went through them were worse even than those for children shipped straight into foster care.

But, well, they usually look so nice, with pretty pictures on the walls, lots of toys and a staff that really does care about the kids.  And the behavior of the children themselves can disguise a shelter’s failure as success. Call it the “Mr. Lou” effect, after someone who used to run what was, a few years ago, one of the very worst such places, Child Haven in Las Vegas.

He told a local television station that he loved coming to work at Child Haven because babies and toddlers "grab my leg. They call me Mr. Lou. They tell me they love me."

But when a young child grabs the legs of anyone who will pay him a little attention and tells him "I love you" he's not getting better – he's getting worse. He is losing his ability to truly love at all, because every time he tries to love someone, that person goes away. It's even worse than the well-known problem of children bouncing from foster home to foster home. We are setting some of these children up to become adults unable to love or trust anyone.


It’s bad enough when this goes on for a few days or a week.  It’s even worse when the children have to change caretakers every eight hours during the week and with still other caretakers on weekends for 30 days or more.

Yet that is the norm at the Washington Park Children’s Shelter, one of three such places in Rhode Island.

One of the last moves of the outgoing leadership at the state Department of Children Youth and Families was one of the few things they did right: they announced they would close the shelters in early January. But shelter owners always have the ear of politicians and the press.  They spread the usual horror stories of what would happen without them, citing a “shortage” of foster homes.  But that shortage exists only because Rhode Island tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the country.

Shelter operators also are good at using their good intentions (I don’t doubt they’ve convinced themselves that their life’s work helps kids, research notwithstanding) to deflect attention from all the harm shelters do.   So while it was disappointing, it wasn’t surprising when new governor, Lincoln Chafee, promptly gave in and ordered the shelter contracts extended through February 28.

According to the Providence Journal, Chafee’s interim DCYF director, Kevin Aucoin was scheduled to visit the Washington Park shelter on January 18. I don’t know whether he got there, or whether during any such visit, he had any “Mr. Lou” moments.
What I do know is the Journal story gave a new indication of just how low shelter operators will sink to keep their human teddy bears. 

The story quotes Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center which has sued states over the misuse and overuse of shelters:

No matter how well run a shelter is, Shauffer said, studies show that residential care facilities with multiple caregivers working in shifts cannot provide for the emotional needs of children, especially those under age of 6. Those children, she said, need one or two people whom they can attach to who will care for them regularly. That’s not possible, she said, when their caregivers change every eight hours.

“They [caregivers] can be good people. They can be doing the best job they possibly can,” Shauffer said. “But they’re dealing with a model that doesn’t work because that’s not how babies were born to be raised.”

And what did the co-founder of the Washington Park shelter, Frances Murphy, do to rebut the research?  She slimed all working parents who send their kids to day care.

The DCYF pays its foster care providers $15 a day, Murphy said, so those foster parents usually have jobs outside their homes and the children are placed in daycare. “Where’s the bonding taking place there?” she said.

Oh, right.  So being taken to day care by foster parents (or, presumably parents, period) and coming home to the same foster parents every night, and spending all weekend with those same foster parents, is just like being cared for by rotating shift staff 24/7.

And that assumes the only alternative to shelters is foster parents.  Particularly in a state with the kind of sky-high rate of removal seen in Rhode Island, the alternative often could be never taking away the children at all.


Boys Town also runs a shelter in Rhode Island.  Their executive director, William Reardon, wrote an op ed column responding to one I’d written supporting shutting the shelters down.  He said all those things shelter operators always say about “assessing” and “planning” etc.  (He also said his shelter uses so-called “house parents” instead of shift staff, but that still means the child needs to endure another placement and adjust to a whole new setting again, when the time in the shelter ends.)

And at a time when the buzzword in child welfare is “evidence-based” Reardon offers not a shred of evidence to show that his model actually helps children.  That’s because he can’t.  Exactly the same rationale – the same blather about assessing the children, making a plan, etc. - was offered for setting up a comprehensive network of shelters in Connecticut.  

But unlike Rhode Island, Connecticut actually funded an evaluation, by Yale University.  The evaluation found that the children placed in the shelters fared worse than those sent directly to foster care.  (Unfortunately, shelter operators have the same kind of political clout in Connecticut as in Rhode Island so not only are the shelters still open, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families took the study off its website – so I’ve posted it on ours.)

And excuse me if I’m not inclined to take the word of Boys Town for anything, in light of the problems at their flagship campus in Nebraska, as reported in the trade journal Youth Today.

So of course instead of providing actual evidence Reardon does what shelter operators always do -  invite people for a carefully-guided tour so they can see those pretty grounds and well-meaning staff.    


But here’s the biggest giveaway that shelters exist to benefit the people who run them, staff them and volunteer at them, rather than for the children: Everyone in child welfare knows that the children for whom it is hardest to find a home are teenagers.  But Reardon’s shelter won’t take teenagers.  Neither will the others in Rhode Island.  They all take only children under age 12. 

That’s common across the country.  And it’s not hard to figure out why. As I noted in that previous post about sheltersa teenager who's been through removal from his or her parents is as likely to spit in your face as to throw his arms around you.  They don’t make good human teddy bears.  So the shelters only take the very children for whom it’s easiest to find a better alternative – the ones who are still cute.     

Adding to the obscenity of all this is the cost.  The Washington Park shelter costs $185 per child per day.  That’s an average of $5,550 to $8,325 per child.  For that kind of money, an Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention can keep all the children in a family from ever having to enter foster care in the first place.  That kind of money also could buy a year of rent subsidies so children aren’t taken because their parents can’t afford decent housing - or a year of subsidies for yes, day care, so families aren’t separated on lack of supervision charges.

Or Rhode Island can keep using the money to damage kids in order to make the people who run shelters feel like they are doing something useful.  At the moment it all depends on whether Kevin Aucoin does what research says is best for kids, or is seduced by those “Mr. Lou” moments at the shelter.