Wednesday, March 30, 2011


New data show how the Los Angeles Times 
blew the story on child abuse fatalities

Add the new data released today to all the other revelations about the newspaper’s shoddy reporting and the Times case against child welfare reform in Los Angeles collapses like a house of cards.

UPDATE, APRIL 2: See also the very good story in the Los Angeles Daily News.
UPDATE MARCH 31: See also the very good analysis of the new data at WitnessLA.

Pursuant to a resolution of the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County has released data on deaths of children “known to the system” all the way back to 2000.

However, the figures before 2005 and after can’t be compared because of a radical change in which types of deaths were reported by the County Coroner.  (See Page 10 of Attachment A in the report released late today for details).

But that still gives us enough data to compare DCFS before and after the waiver from federal financing restrictions which the Los Angeles Times falsely suggested compromised child safety and led to more child abuse deaths.

The waiver began in 2008.  The decline in entries into care it should have produced was thwarted by the foster-care panic set off by the Times stories.  (Full details are in our report on the panic.)  The waiver probably did prevent the panic from being even worse.

The one thing that is abundantly clear from the data is that there is no correlation between the number of children taken away by DCFS over the course of a year, and the number of children “known to the system” who died.  The only pattern is no pattern.  And as NCCPR has noted before, there is no evidence of any kind that the waiver compromised safety.  The key data are at the end of this post, and the full report is available here.

This is not particularly surprising.  There are 2.75 million children in Los Angeles. In 2010 there were 55,443 children who have open cases with DCFS.  Add in the number who ever have been investigated by DCFS at any time in their childhoods, or whose siblings ever were subject to such an investigation, and, of course, the number gets vastly higher.  The only acceptable goal for child abuse deaths is zero.  But while each death of a child “known to the system” is the worst form of tragedy, they are needles in a huge haystack.

It makes no sense to believe you can find all the needles by attempting to vacuum up the entire haystack.  But that, in effect, is what the Times was suggesting.

The failure of this approach is borne out by this study from a Texas think tank which actually tends to be sympathetic to a take-the-child-and-run approach.  Nevertheless, they were forced to conclude that :

 The rate at which people report child abuse does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.

 The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation does not contribute to more deaths.

 The rate at which a state takes children from their parents does not contribute to more deaths.

In short, none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contributes anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.

So, what does reduce child abuse deaths? According to the report:

●Reducing poverty

●Reducing teen pregnancy

●More investment in prevention programs (which is, of course, exactly what DCFS was trying to do with the waiver).

Two other points stand out:

●Between 2000 and 2010, 37 percent of the deaths actually occurred while the children were in out-of-home care; in 2010 it still was 25 percent.  That does not mean that substitute caregivers were responsible for all of those deaths.  It’s possible that the children died of abuse inflicted before they were taken away, or during a visit with birth parents. And it also includes deaths not due to abuse or neglect at all. But this certainly deserves further investigation.

● Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich deserve credit for forgoing past practice of the supervisors – which was to rush to come up with a suitably- outraged sound bite – and seek hard facts instead, by sponsoring the resolution requesting these data. 

The silver lining to the recent controversy over child welfare in Los Angeles has been the mature response by the Board.  That should make the job of running DCFS permanently a little more attractive to good candidates.

As Ridley-Thomas said in a press release:

It is particularly important to resist the temptation to exploit child deaths to push ideological agendas.  The CEO’s report shows we cannot honestly link child deaths to specific policies or the performance of particular government departments or individuals. …  It would be negligent to be satisfied with any total more than zero; but it is also reckless to suggest there are quick fixes.  We must shun policy gimmicks that produce sound bites for news conferences but yield no true solutions.

Add these latest findings to what we already known about how the Times distorted the evaluation of the waiver, and the well-documented  allegations that reporter Garrett Therolf quoted people as saying things they never actually said, and the entire Times case against reform in Los Angeles County collapses like a house of cards.

Of course, that’s not how the Times will write it.  Given how they handled findings challenging their system for evaluating teachers, no doubt the Times headline will be something like: “County data confirm Times findings on child abuse deaths.”

But I suspect most people in Los Angeles know better than to believe that anymore.


Calendar Year
Deaths from all causes
200 / 175*
Children removed from their homes

*For 2010, the county was able to re-analyze data in ways not available in previous years.  As a result, they came up with two different figures, one before the re-analysis, one after.  Full details are in the county power point presentation, starting on Page 10.

**This figure includes an estimate for December 2010, since the figure was not available at the time the county fulfilled our Public Records Act request.

Fatality Data: William T. Fujioka, Response to Reporting Aggregate Trend Data on Child Deaths Board Motion, County of Los Angeles, Chief Executive Office, March 31, 2011, available online at
Entries: DCFS responses to California Public Records Act requests submitted by NCCPR.  Full details are in our report on the Los Angeles County foster care panic.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

UPDATED, 7:15PM ET: Foster care in Texas: CR's latest McLawsuit won't help


While it may have come as a surprise to some in the state, readers of this Blog have known for nearly a year that the next target for a McLawsuit from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights would be Texas. 

The Texas child welfare system is every bit as bad as CR says it is in its Complaint.   Indeed, we cited many of the same problems in our own report on Texas child welfare in 2005.  And, as always, CR has good intentions. But, of course, the lawsuit won’t solve the problems, and might even make the Texas system worse.  

That’s because, as always, CR ignores the elephant in the room: the urgent need to reduce the number of children taken from their parents needlessly in the first place.  CR actually has thwarted efforts to reduce wrongful removal in other states, including Georgia Tennessee, and, most recently, Oklahoma.

And its recent settlements actually are worse than those it negotiated in previous years.  Most notorious is Michigan, where the settlement has made the child welfare system worse.  Among other things, the settlement has led to the expulsion of nearly 1,800 children from the homes of grandparents and other relatives.   It’s also led to a foster care worker / child abuse investigator hiring binge – funded by cutting prevention and family preservation.

Texas tried that back in 2005.  The result: The same lousy system, only bigger.  More hiring only works when it’s part of a comprehensive reform plan that emphasizes safe, proven programs to keep families together. 

As always with a CR suit, there is a deafening silence on the issue of keeping children safely out of foster care in the first place.

That is all the more astounding in light of what happened to some of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In the case of A.M., for example, (Complaint, p. 15) all the horrors she endured in foster care began when she was taken from her mother, not because the mother abused or neglected her, but because the witnessed domestic violence – a fight among her mother and the mother’s current and former boyfriends.

But while witnessing domestic violence can be harmful to children, tearing them away from their mothers is far, far worse.  That was documented in detail in a class-action lawsuit that banned the practice of taking away children in these cases in New York City.  The section of the judge’s decision summarizing the research, with a link to the full decision, is on our website here. (Of course this lawsuit was not brought by CR.  My organization’s volunteer vice president was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)

One expert called taking away a child under these circumstances “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  In Texas, it seems, as in much of the country, the policy in these cases boils down to “please pass the salt” – and this lawsuit does absolutely nothing about it.

Read the Complaint to see all of the horrors that befell A.M. after she was needlessly removed – including, by the way, repeatedly witnessing domestic violence in one of her foster homes.  Only unlike in the home or her own mother, in the foster home, A.M. was abused as well.

CR proposes to do nothing about this – even as the Houston Chronicle is reporting on how a judge blasted Texas CPS for an egregious case of wrongful removal and misleading the court, and the Dallas Morning News has a huge story (behind its paywall) about the harm done to families by the state’s central registry of alleged child abusers.

Fighting the lawsuit also is the wrong answer.  While someone quoted in the Dallas Morning News story about the lawsuit was wrong in claiming CR has never lost, (and the News reporter never checked) they rarely lose.  But they don’t really win either.  They settle.  And the hyperbureaucratic, hypertechnical settlements often drag on for years, sometimes decades with little improvement and, as noted above, sometimes the settlements make things worse.

The other problem with the people at CR is their love of bureaucracy.  More forms!  More paperwork!  More training manuals! Move more boxes around on tables of organization!  A columnist in Connecticut reported that CR’s settlement there (which hasn’t fixed that system in 20 years) included creation of training manuals including one specifying that classrooms where training takes place have wastebaskets.   The people at CR are like the clerk you least want to see when you finally make it to the front of the line at the DMV.

So the only hope for Texas children is if the state is smart enough to hold out for a better settlement than usually is negotiated with CR – one that emphasizes safe, proven alternatives to taking away children.

Such settlements turned Illinois and Alabama into, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe.  (Another volunteer NCCPR Board member was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the Alabama suit).  There are many posts about CR and its failures on NCCPR’s Child Welfare Blog.  They’re grouped here  And there’s an overview of CR’s failed approach on our second report on Michigan child welfare.  See the section called “The children wronged by Children’s Rights” starting on page 30.


A few other notes from the lawsuit Complaint:

● Buried at the very end is something that should scare every grandparent in Texas who is serving as a kinship foster parent: CR wants the court to force all such grandparents, and other relatives, to become licensed.  That, of course, is exactly what caused the disaster in Michigan.

● In spite of the facts concerning one of their own named plaintiffs, A.M., CR refuses to acknowledge that any foster child anywhere in Texas was wrongfully removed.  The Complaint falsely claims that all Texas foster children were abused or neglected.  According to the Complaint, the children “have been doubly traumatized: first by the abuse and neglect that brought them into foster care, and second by their treatment at the hands of their state custodians.”  Abuse in foster care is referred to as “further maltreatment” and “further trauma.”

That is a betrayal of A.M. and all the other Texas children who were abused and neglected only by “their state custodians.”

● CR also makes clear its priorities for what should happen to children after they are removed.  The word “reunification” appears seven times in the Complaint.  The word “adoption” appears 47 times, and gets its own subsection.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Foster care in New York: Two views from the frontlines

On Friday, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School in New York City, which publishes Child Welfare Watch, sent out excerpts from an interview with a caseworker for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

It was pretty much what you’d expect, and pretty much like dozens of other such stories that have appeared all over the country.  The caseworker talked about the enormous stress of the job and the constant fear of having something go terribly wrong with one of the cases on her caseload.

It begins this way:

I always wanted to work here and now that I'm here I'm like, "You've gotta be kidding." When the school year picks up, we just get case after case, and once a case is generated the clock is ticking. It's like a ticking time bomb. It's a juggling act. It's like that guy in the circus spinning those plates, and that's how I feel, I'm spinning those plates, and I can't drop one because that means a kid could be dead or a kid could be hurt.

As I read it, I was reminded of another perspective from an ACS worker.  The worker herself wrote it, more than ten years ago, for City Limits magazine.  This was not the typical “life of a caseworker” story.  Rather, it was what really went on at the time.  Some excerpts:

To the manager … who makes the fateful decision to remove a child and the judge who approves it, a child exists only on a piece of paper, alongside a list of disturbing circumstances.  They don’t see a child having a panic attack at 3 a.m. because he is suddenly alone in the world.  Or slamming his head against the wall out of protest or desperation.  The good intentions that go into the decision to remove a child often have little to do with the sometimes brutal outcomes of that choice. … Unlike fatalities, the trauma a child endures from being wrongly removed, followed by years of difficulty growing up in foster care, are not measurable.

A manager or supervisor has no one to answer to if a child who shouldn’t be in foster care is removed from home anyway.  There is no penalty for the wrongful taking of a child.

At moments of uncertainty, the mantra was ‘Cover your ass’ – a phrase heard often around the office. … The obsessive concern with liability at the field offices quickly overshadows the reasonable criteria [workers] have been taught for identifying abuse and neglect. Most quickly learn to abandon their training and to do what it takes to survive.

One week after the investigation begins, caseworkers have to file an electronic report.  The computer offers two options: ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’  But my manager accepted only one.  Any time I determined a child to be ‘safe’ my manager rejected it and returned it to me.  The first step to protect yourself, I quickly discovered, is to determine that a child is ‘unsafe’ from the outset of an investigation.

Any caseworker can tell you that they have done removals that they did not personally agree with. But they rarely complain to management, since they will never get in trouble for removing a child under supervisors' orders. Caseworkers are also quiet about unnecessary removals because doing a removal and then transferring a case to foster care takes them a lot less time than keeping it and trying to work with a family. Keeping a case obligates a worker to do regular home visits and follow-ups to make sure a family is getting preventive services. It also means dealing with anything that may go wrong and continuing to be responsible for the children's safety.

By the time I resigned, I felt strongly that the system was working against children instead of for them. 
[Emphasis added.]

Back when it was written, New York City was taking away even more children than it takes now.  Gradually, the culture changed.  Removals steadily declined.  Workers no longer had to be constantly on the defensive about choosing the best option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time: leaving them in their own homes.

But then came Nixzmary Brown and a new surge in removals.  Today, the rate of removal in New York City still is lower than it was in 2000, when this caseworker told her story.  But now a grandstanding D.A. has responded to the death of a child “known to the system” by bringing charges of criminally negligent homicide against a caseworker and his supervisor. How much longer will it be until the CYA, take-the-child-and-run mentality this worker described once again is the norm at the Administration for Children’s Services.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Foster care in New York City: The grandstanding D.A. vs. the children: A tragedy in three acts

UPDATE, 10:30PM: See also this New York Times story, for context no one else has provided yet.

Last September, I wrote about how the Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney, Charles Hynes, had decided to score some political points, and get lots of media attention by launching a first-of-its-kind criminal investigation of the Administration for Children’s Services, in connection with the death of Marchella Brett-Pierce, a child “known to the system.”

I said that almost certainly would set off another surge in needless removals of children -  the last thing vulnerable children in New York City needed.

New York City had been a national leader in child welfare reform, until ACS Commissioner John Mattingly botched the response to the death of Nixzmary Brown just over five years ago.  His response consisted of a series of so-called “reforms,” which sent the same message to the frontlines: Take the child and run.  And they did.

Removals of children escalated sharply – only in the past year or so were there signs the surge in removals was starting to ease.  But all the standard indicators of child safety got worse.  Details are in our report on New York City child welfare.  And no wonder.  Though there was plenty of new hiring after Nixzmary died, there also were plenty of new cases, and more work in dealing with existing cases.  So it got harder to find children in real danger.

New York’s rate of removal is not nearly as high as Los Angeles or Philadelphia, and the surge in removals following the death of Nixzmary Brown has not been as bad as the one which followed the death of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995.  But the rate of removal in New York is significantly higher than, for example, the rate in metropolitan Chicago, where independent monitors say that, as foster care entries have declined, child safety has improved.

Then, last Septmeber, came Act One of “Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m Charles Hynes and I’m cracking down on child abuse!”

Not surprisingly, during that month, ACS workers removed at least 412 children from their homes, a 13 percent increase over the same month in 2008 and 2009.  (ACS lists entries in two different places in its monthly reports with two different figures, this is an apples-to-apples comparison using the lower figure in each case.)

Fortunately, after that everyone calmed down. 

But now, things are going to get a whole lot worse.  Yesterday, Hynes raised the curtain on Act Two.  He got a grand jury to indict the caseworker and the supervisor involved in the case on charges including criminally negligent homicide – apparently the first time this has happened in New York City. 


There may be cause to charge the caseworker with something – he is accused of falsifying records to hide a failure to visit the home – but not criminally negligent homicide.  And so far, news accounts suggest no reason to charge the supervisor. 

ACS put out a statement expressing fear that the indictments will backfire, since they might discourage good people from becoming caseworkers.  The indictments are going to backfire alright – but for a very different reason.

Caseworkers all over the country already know that they’ll never get in trouble within a child welfare agency for taking away too many children.  In fact, in the nearly 35 years I’ve been following child welfare, I’ve never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended, or slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children.  Which means that, contrary to what one often hears from caseworkers, when it comes to taking away children they are not, in fact “damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” they’re only damned if they don’t.

Now, in New York City, they know that if they leave any child in a home and something goes wrong, they could be thrown in jail as well.

So now the incentives skew even further toward take-the-child-and-run, which not only does enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, it means the system will be further overloaded and there will be even less time to find the next child in real danger.

And it’s going to get still worse.

Hynes offered a preview of Act Three: The grandstanding D.A. is continuing to use the grand jury to conduct an investigation of  “evidence of alleged systemic failures” at ACS.  According to The New York Times:

The grand jury will seek to determine whether the agency had followed through on its plan for reforms after the 2006 death of Nixzmary Brown, …

The real problem is the opposite: ACS did follow through on its so-called reforms – but all of the reforms involved encouraging workers to take away more children.  In that respect they worked just fine.  But, as noted above, every indicator of child safety worsened.

In contrast, as noted previously on this Blog, John Mattingly turned his back on real reform, becoming one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare.  Matingly’s record includes reneging on a pledge to use "differential response" (a national innovation he's long opposed) to deal with some "educational neglect" cases, opposing state legislation to encourage workers to be slightly more flexible about rushing to seek termination of parental rights for some mothers who are in jail or drug treatment, and even opposing legislation to place more children permanently with relatives through subsidized guardianship. Fortunately, both bills passed despite Mattingly's objections.


Still another possible indicator of ACS’ failure came last week in the case of the horrifying, near fatal beating of a 17-month-old foster child, Kymell Oram.  The foster mother’s boyfriend has been charged.

The New York Times quotes a friend of the mother as saying she was in the process of adopting the child.  And according to the Daily News, someone from ACS came to the foster mother’s apartment just last month and saw nothing wrong. 

There are a number of possible reasons for this:

●Perhaps there was nothing to see.  Perhaps everything was fine and the foster mother and her boyfriend have nothing to do with the beating, or someone suddenly and unpredictably exploded.  Perhaps even the most diligent ACS worker had no reason to suspect anything.

●Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, when it comes to dangers in foster homes, caseworkers are prone to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file since, of course, it is the child welfare system that put the child in the home in the first place.  How else to explain the fact that academic studies repeatedly find rates of abuse in foster care that are up to 30 times higher – or more – than the ridiculously low rates reported in official figures?

●Here again, another factor may be the surge in entries into foster care as a result of those ACS “reforms.” The more children you take away, the greater the pressure to lower standards for foster homes. 

●There may be still another factor as well; what in this case might be called “near-fatal neatness.”

As I noted on this blog four years ago, there is no field I know of where the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is taken more literally than child welfare – and no field I know where the consequences can be more harmful. Over and over again, in fatality reviews and news stories, caseworkers say something like “we never suspected anything because the home was so neat and clean” as though there is some direct correlation between cleanliness and love. In contrast, children can be taken from loving homes because an overwhelmed parent fell way, way behind on the house cleaning.

So in his report reviewing child abuse fatalities in 2005, the first director of New Jersey’s now-defunct Office of Child Advocate (and later commissioner of the state child welfare agency) Kevin Ryan issued the following recommendation:

In two cases here, and as also evidenced in the OCA’s prior reports, the caseworkers noted in the file that the home was neat and clean. Until someone demonstrates a correlation between cleanliness and child safety, [the state child welfare agency] should instruct employees that this factor is, at best, hardly relevant unless the filth is severe enough to cause a real and immediate risk to the child. This both will reduce needless removals from dirty homes, and encourage workers not to write off the potential for risk in homes that happen to be spotless. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps the word has not crossed the Hudson.  The Daily News quotes a “police source” as saying:

"The apartment was in okay shape and there was food in the refrigerator. Apparently that's all they look at."


One might hope that, when it comes to bad messages sent to caseworkers, the fact that one tragedy in the home of birth parents and one in the home of foster parents are in the news at the same time might cancel each other out – that is, the temptation to take away more children and throw them into foster care might be tempered by the tragedy in foster care itself.

It doesn’t work that way.  As I wrote five years ago, I believe there are two reasons for this:

Reason #1:  When the birth parents did it, it’s easy to find a scapegoat.  Typically one worker, or perhaps one worker and one supervisor, made the decision to leave the child in his or her own home.  That means one or two people who can be fired, demoted, suspended, and/or raked over the coals in news accounts – or charged with criminally negligent homicide.  Workers know this.  That’s why when a case hits the paper, they become terrified that the next case will be one of theirs and they rush to take away more children.

In contrast, when the child dies in foster care the blame is more diffuse.  The worker who removed the child often is not the one who chose the foster home. And even if she did, someone else had the responsibility to license the foster parents, so the worker who placed the children can’t be blamed.  The licensing may have taken place years before, so that worker can’t be blamed either.  And, for that matter, the foster parents who kill the child might be the second or third or fourth placement.

So when a child dies in foster care the response of caseworkers is the same: If I leave a child in his own home and something goes wrong, I’m the scapegoat; if another child dies in foster care, no one’s going to blame me.

The dynamic is compounded by –

Reason #2: the profound double standard in media coverage of “lessons learned.”  When the birth parent is the culprit there is an immediate rush to blame “family preservation.”  There is a ready supply of spokespeople, often from agencies that make their living off foster care, anxious to come forward and say, “See: This case proves that the state or county is doing too much to keep families together.”  When the child dies in foster care it’s written off as an aberration, something that can be fixed with more frequent caseworker visits to foster homes or tightening of licensing standards and background checks. 

So rather than counterbalancing each other, these two cases actually reinforce the tendency of caseworkers to rush to tear children from their homes. 


And here’s what makes it even scarier:

In New York City, a child “known to the system” dies an average of once every 9.5 days.  It’s only every few years or so that media pay attention.  Well, now they’re paying attention.  So when the next one happens, it officially becomes three tragic cases.  And that makes it “a series” or “a spate” of tragedies that “raise questions” about ACS.

It was exactly that kind of misreporting that started this cycle in 2006 in the first place. (Recall the New York Times reporter who declared “it was a series – but not statistically.”)

So there may be even more than three acts to this tragedy – unless someone rushes in real soon and demands that Charles Hynes, and the rest of the playwrights, do a rewrite.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Not OK: CR’s double standards for measuring abuse in foster care

The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) has put out a press release concerning a report it commissioned from an outside expert, John Goad, concerning foster care in Oklahoma.

The findings are indeed horrifying.  They suggest a pattern of willful blindness to widespread abuse in substitute care in Oklahoma, especially in group homes and institutions.

For some reason, one division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services investigates abuse in family foster homes while another, known as the Office of Client Advocacy (OCA) investigates it in group homes and institutions. 

That latter division, in particular, is the Keystone Kops of child welfare, according to the report.  According to CR’s press release, these “investigators”

do not specialize in child welfare or receive adequate training on how to investigate abuse or neglect. Investigations of harm in institutions and group homes “lack any sense of urgency, are haphazard, and superficial,” wrote Goad. “OCA’s failure to conduct even marginally adequate child protection investigations for this vulnerable population is far outside any reasonable standard.”

While it’s always good to have anyone point out the severe risk of abuse in foster care, as so often happens when it comes from CR, the press release leaves that strong, bitter aftertaste of hypocrisy.

That’s because there is not one word in CR’s lawsuit about the problem at the heart of so much abuse in foster care: Too much foster care.

Oklahoma takes away children at a rate 40 percent above the national average and more than double the rate in states widely recognized as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe.  The more children you take needlessly the greater the temptation to misuse and overuse group homes and institutions and lower standards for foster homes.  States like Oklahoma are begging for beds and beggars can’t be choosers.

So, having concluded that often Oklahoma foster care is hell, CR doesn’t lift a finger to keep more children out of hell in the first place.

But neither the revelations, nor the hypocrisy end there.


It seems that OCA is on a different computer system from the one that compiles data about everything else in Oklahoma child welfare.  So the abuse OCA does manage to find never gets into the statistics it shares with the public, or the statistics it is required to report to the federal government.

CR’s director, Marcia Lowry (or whoever wrote the quote in the press release for her) declared herself appalled:

“It is appalling to hear DHS rely on numbers it knows to be inaccurate at the same time it is completely ignoring the suffering of an entire group of children in its care.” 

That is indeed appalling.  It’s also appalling to see a group that claims defend these children apply one standard for measuring abuse in foster care in one state and another somewhere else.  Because in this case, CR’s hypocrisy extends all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In Milwaukee, CR already has a settlement.  When the agreement first was reached in 2002, NCCPR pointed out in an op ed column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (available in the newspaper’s paid archive) that a key weakness in the settlement was the lack of independent monitoring.  We wrote:

It wasn’t that long ago that …[CR] alleged widespread falsification of case records in Milwaukee.  Yet now, CR proposes to rely on the alleged falsifiers to provide accurate information …

And sure enough, CR is doing just that.  The Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare has examined itself and proclaimed that abuse in foster care is at an all-time low!   And what was CR’s response? No request for independent verification, much less the kind of study done in Oklahoma.  Instead, CR simply took the child welfare agency’s word for it and sang the agency’s praises.  According to the Journal Sentinel, CR attorney Eric Thompson declared that:

"The bureau has made tremendous progress transforming its child welfare system over the last several years improving the basic safety and well-being of the many vulnerable children in its care.”

What accounts for the difference?

Perhaps it’s because CR still is suing in Oklahoma, so they need ammunition.  In Milwaukee they’ve settled and need to show donors they’ve accomplished something.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Letting kids in foster care keep their own money: Is CWLA softening its opposition?

            The world of child welfare is filled with ugly little side streets and dark alleys – practices that may not affect huge numbers of children, relatively speaking, but which add insult to the injuries endured by some of the children already harmed by the foster care system.

            One of those dark alleys involves a practice that seems hard to believe: There are about 30,000 foster children eligible for some form of Social Security, usually disability of survivors benefits.  But, as is explained in this previous post, child welfare agencies typically swoop in and grab the money for themselves, so they can keep funding their foster care systems.  As I said last year, it’s worse than stealing candy from a baby.  But it’s perfectly legal.

            Up to now, the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America, has wanted to keep it that way.  After all, why should foster children get their own money when it can go to one of those oh-so-worthy CWLA member agencies instead?  So when Rep. Pete Stark (D-California) first introduced legislation to ban this practice, CWLA opposed it.  So did the Children’s Defense Fund, which has no interest in defending foster children against having their own money taken from them.  CDF is far more concerned that somewhere, somehow there might be a child welfare agency that has a little less money to use to throw children into foster care.

            That greedy stance is all the more amazing since while this money can make a huge difference to the individual foster children, it represents well under one percent of what government spends on child welfare every year.  That’s just one reason CDF really should change its slogan to “no dollar left behind.”

            Rep. Stark announced yesterday he is again introducing legislation to ban this practice. And judging by what longtime CWLA official Linda Spears told the Associated Press, they just might be modifying their position.  Said Spears:

            “In tough economic times, the states are between a rock and a hard place — they can’t afford services beyond the basic necessities. But the young person is there saying, ‘What about me?’ ... There’s so much in foster care that makes young people feel they’re not in charge of their lives, and that could be changed to give kids more say.”

            This is rather like saying “On the one hand you were mugged.  On the other hand, the mugger said he really needed the money.”  And it’s disingenuous since CWLA condoned this practice before the recession hit.  In fact, I’ve never known them to oppose this practice, no matter what the state of the economy,

            Still by CWLA standards, this may be progress.  Or it may be a calculation that the bill won’t pass, and they can remain neutral while still being sure the foster children won’t see their own money.

            Meanwhile Prof. Daniel Hatcher of the University of Baltimore continues to pursue his lawsuit challenging the practice in Maryland.  This greatly upset Judith Schagrin, assistant director for children’s services with the Baltimore County social services department.  She told AP that “States are not in fact maliciously stealing children’s money.”

            We didn’t say it was malicious.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The case for foster care finance reform, from those who know it best

It anyone still has any doubt about the need to reverse the perverse incentives in federal funding that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives, they should take a few minutes to listen to Isha “Charlie” McNeeley and Jojo Murdock.

They are former foster children from Oregon and California who spoke eloquently about their own experiences at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee last week.

The hearing concerned restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to grant waivers from foster care funding restrictions, waivers like the one that has done so much to improve child safety in Florida, according to independent evaluations.

Legislation to do this passed the House of Representatives in the final days of the lame duck session last year, but it got nowhere in the Senate.  Now, it seems, some in the Senate may be ready to take up the cause.

No one at the hearing actually spoke against restoring this authority. But that’s always the m.o. of groups like the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for public and private agencies, including many that would go out of business without a steady supply of foster children: never say no, just “yes, but…” reform to death.  You can bet that’s what CWLA and its allies will be doing if there are any signs that restoring waiver authority actually might pass.

Ideally, of course, Congress would go well beyond simply restoring the authority to grand waivers.  At a time when good entitlements, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are under attack, it would be nice if Congress turned its attention to an entitlement that actually does harm – the never ending open-ended entitlement to federal aid for foster care for every eligible child.

Ideally, Congress would end this entitlement, give all states what they’re getting now as a flat grant, indexed to inflation, and let the states keep any savings they achieved by reducing foster care.  But a state or county that caved in to a foster-care panic and started taking away lots of children needlessly would have to pick up the full tab for those placements. 

The Bush Administration wanted to give every state this option, on a purely voluntary basis, back in 2003.  As NCCPR reported in the trade journal Youth Today, had that passed Congress, and had every state taken the deal, states would have $5 billion more to spend on child welfare now than they got by sticking to the “entitlement.”

But CWLA and its BFFs at the Children’s Defense Fund, which is trapped in a 1960s entitlement = good, everything else = bad mentality, and their allies, killed the idea.  And it looks like they’ve learned nothing from their $5 billion blunder.

So odds are the best that young people like Ms. McNeeley and Ms. Murdock can hope for is that Congress might let HHS give more states the chance to reform foster care financing through waivers.  And given how the child welfare establishment really feels about this kind of reform, they might not even get that.

There is more about all of this in our briefing paper on child welfare finance reform.