Sunday, July 31, 2011

Foster care in Texas: A CASA rubs salt in families’ wounds

This paragraph in this post concerning a CASA chapter in Kansas contains language some people may find offensive.  I certainly hope so.

            Though the overwhelming majority of volunteers in the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program have only the best of intentions, there are times when  the arrogance, the insensitivity, and the sheer cruelty of some CASAs boggles the mind.
            ●There was the CASA in Indiana, a state which, year after year sees the number of children torn from their families escalate and which tears apart families at a rate well above the national average, who insists that

CASA seems to be the counter-balance against a social service system hell-bent on keeping children with their very inadequate families--or putting them into a foster care system where their childhoods will be wasted while their parents “get their acts together."

            But then this CASA doesn’t need facts, because

I can safely and humbly say that there is no one I have ever known who is more familiar than I, on a personal and professional level, with the needs of children who live in families who struggle to rear them.

            I wonder what she says when she’s not being humble?

            ●Then there’s the CASA chapter in Kansas which raised money through an annual Men in Tights drag queen contest.  In 2008, a local mayor won after  dressing up as a woman he named "Smellishis Poon." The "surname" is, in the words of a story in the paid archive of the Arkansas City Traveler, "graphic slang for a female private part." So is the name the mayor chose for his back-up dancers. They were called the "Red Hot Puntangs." Oh, and one more thing: The mayor did his act made up in blackface.

            ●And now there’s Alicia Cardenas, director of the CASA chapter that serves Brownsville, Texas.  She was interviewed in a Brownsville Herald story about a succession of tragic deaths of children in the area.  But these were not children who were beaten, or tortured or starved. 

            So far, charges have been filed in only one of the cases, involving a child left in a hot van.  But even in these cases, a study found that parents were far more likely to be prosecuted if they were poor.

            Another case involved a two-year-old who, the county sheriff says, was “momentarily” out of the mother’s sight when he ingested gasoline from a tube attached to the gas tank of a lawnmower.  A third involved a 13-year-old who broke his neck while jumping and sliding on an inflatable swimming pool.

            Perhaps saddest of all is the death of eight-year-old Anay Alamillo.  Here’s how the Herald told the story today:

Anay, a smart, ambitious girl, died May 31 when she stepped on a live wire in her backyard and was electrocuted. She reportedly was wet from swimming in a neighbor’s pool.

Her family is dealing with more than their grief — they said Child Protective Services is requiring them to fix several things with their trailer if they want to continue living there.

Alamillo said they cannot afford the repairs, so he, his wife and three children have been living with family members for more than a month now.  “They told us they would help us ask for emergency housing, but we haven’t heard from them again,” he said.

He describes his late daughter with reverence.  “She knew more things than us. I was surprised at how she expressed herself, her ideas,” Alamillo said.

No charges have been filed in the case.

If the behavior of Texas CPS sounds familiar, it is, of course, because of the recent case in Houston, where no harm at all had come to any of the children, but, instead of helping with housing, the agency tore apart the family.

The Herald sought responses to the deaths from a number of officials.  The most compassionate was the sheriff.  The cruelest was Ms. Cardenas, from CASA.  I'm sure even she is well-motivated; truly believing that what she does helps children.  But that didn't stop her from offering up a heaping helping of salt to rub in the families’ wounds, including a litany of horror stories utterly unrelated to the deaths that were the subject of the story.

After acknowledging that “Accidents do happen.  I’m not blaming the parents or saying it’s their fault,” Cardenas turns around and says that too many parents “lack common sense.” 

It’s downhill from there.  The Herald story continues:

“Should they not have children? Well, that’s not for us to say. We live in a great country where we’re full of rights,” she said.  … Cardenas urged parents to live up to their responsibilities. Otherwise, parents owe it to their children to ask for help from organizations like CASA, she said. “…[P]ride needs to be set aside if you really care.”

After all, look at how helpful CPS was to the Alamillo family.

And then, a final twist of the knife for all those grieving families:

“We want the children to be reunified with their parents. But, sometimes the parents — honestly — don’t care,” she said. “It’s sad, but true. People become infuriated with my statements, but it’s the truth.”

As is discussed in detail on one of the most popular pages on the NCCPR website, the largest, most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA prolongs needless foster care and reinforces the racial and class biases of the child welfare system.  According to the trade journal Youth Today, CASA’s efforts to spin the findings “can border on duplicity.”

Given what’s gone on in Indiana, Kansas, and Texas, that should come as no surprise.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Foster care in New York: A fresh start for New York City child welfare?

The resignation of John Mattingly as commissioner of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services gives New York a chance to catch up to best practice in child welfare.
Whenever the topic is John Mattingly, the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, I have to choose between being an ingrate or a hypocrite.

Only an ingrate would criticize one of those most responsible for your own organization’s existence.  When John Mattingly was at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, he recommended that they fund NCCPR.  The foundation did so for a decade.

But I’ve criticized many other child welfare leaders for doing the kinds of things Mattingly has done. Only a hypocrite would set a different standard for someone who, in a former job, had gotten one’s own organization funded.

I choose ingrate.

Mattingly resigned this afternoon – to return to the Casey Foundation.  There is no doubt he was among the most dedicated child welfare professionals in America.  Like most people in the field he meant well; unlike many he worked tirelessly to make it better.  The issue is how John Mattingly’s vision of making it better changed for the worse.

The John Mattingly who took the job was a visionary, a national leader in pioneering best practices.  But the John Mattingly who leaves the job now let best practice pass him by.  He  became one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare, and New York’s vulnerable children have suffered for it.

The record is depressing:

● While state after state has adopted “differential response” which both narrows and widens the net of intervention into families while making that intervention more humane, Mattingly opposed it; agreeing to pilot it in some “educational neglect” cases and then reneging.

● While state after state embraced subsidized guardianship as an alternative means to permanency for children placed with relatives, Mattingly opposed the bill that allows it in New York.

● Mattingly even opposed a law that does no more than encourage caseworkers to think twice before automatically rushing to terminate the parental rights of mothers who are in prison or drug treatment.

On all three of these issues, the real reformer was New York State Office of Children and Families Commissioner Gladys Carrion, who favored these initiatives when Mattingly opposed them. 

● Mattingly initiated a sibling confiscation-at-birth policy, ordering caseworkers to automatically take away the newborn siblings of any child already in foster care, with only rare, difficult-to-obtain exceptions.

● But worst of all, Mattingly presided over a 50 percent surge in removals of children from their homes in the wake of the death of Nixzmary Brown.  But, as is documented in detail in our report on New York City child welfare (see especially the statistics on Page 20) key child safety indicators worsened.

And just as the surge seemed to be easing at last, the indictment of caseworkers in the wake of the death of Marchella Pierce almost certainly sent them soaring again. (We don’t know because ACS seems to have stopped posting monthly data on entries into care.) There is no indication Mattingly has done anything to try to curb such a surge.


Mattingly’s record includes some genuine progressive accomplishments that were not undone in his later years, including significantly reducing the use of group homes and institutions, and supporting the creation of strong institutional providers of defense counsel for families.

But Mattingly also has a skilled politician’s knack for making everyone feel listened to and included – and then doing what he wanted to do anyway.  And he chose his words with great care, to make everyone feel he was at least in general agreement with them.

The impression was reinforced by the fact that Mattingly sometimes made his harshest statements about reform when he’s not in New York City. 

At a conference in Massachusetts he denigrated differential response and Intensive Family Preservation Services, even though both probably have stronger “evidence bases” than some of the ideas he has pushed.

At a conference in Washington he minimized the problem of racial bias in child welfare and even suggested efforts to stop the removal of children from battered mothers just because the mothers have been beaten may have gone too far.

What accounts for the change?  I don’t know, but I’ll venture a guess: too many fatality reviews.

Anyone who runs a system the size of New York City’s constantly will be immersed in the hideous details of the worst cases.  And because John Mattingly really does care, and really does take every case to heart, my guess is he immerses himself in those details more than most.  That means he may be looking at autopsy photos and reading about unspeakable acts committed against children for hours or days at a time an average of once every ten days or so – because that’s about how often a child “known to the system” dies in New York City.

Spend enough time doing that and I’m sure it’s easy to start thinking of every parent as a sadist or a brute.  It must be easy to forget, in one’s heart if not one’s head, that the overwhelming majority of families caught in the ACS net are nothing like that.  They’re more likely to be like Lillian Lucas Dixon, whose seven-year-old son was taken because he was home alone for an hour so she could make it to her shift at a subway token booth, or the families traumatized by phony “educational neglect” allegations – the kinds differential response could do so much to ease.

I think it was loss of perspective that turned John Mattingly from reformer to obstacle to reform.

Of course I say all this well aware that, depending on who replaces Mattingly, reformers might well wind up looking back on the Mattingly years, even the later Mattingly years, as “the good old days.” [UPDATE, JULY 27: Mayor Michael Bloomberg has named Queens Family Court Judge Ronald Richter, a former deputy commissioner of ACS, to replace Mattingly.] 

But when Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose John Mattingly it was a wise choice.  If he makes another wise choice, he can return New York City to the forefront of child welfare reform.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: NOW he tells us: The frustrating, mundane causes of DCFS failure

After years of trying to whip Southern California into a frenzy about some kind of Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy, after a failed effort to scapegoat a waiver from federal funding restrictions and, of course, after doing enormous harm to children by setting off a foster-care panic, Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf finally noticed: According to a Therolf story published on July 18 about an investigation commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors, the real reasons children “known to the system” sometimes die typically are things like buying the wrong computers so workers can’t get the information they need, or not being able to get the best people to work the toughest jobs. 

These are the real horror stories – children dying for reasons that are even more tragic because they are so mundane.

But when there’s no Grand Unifying Theory there’s no quick fix.  When workers know the Times is ready to scapegoat them if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, it’s one more disincentive to stay in the toughest jobs.   And when the real problems involve overloaded workers, setting off a foster-care panic makes everything worse.  That can be seen in another recent Therolf story, about children sleeping in an office building.

Therolf blamed it on

“ a chronic shortage of foster homes throughout the United States as fewer families prove willing or able to care for the most difficult-to-handle children.”

The problem is not “a chronic shortage of foster parents.”  If that were true, then children would be warehoused in office buildings throughout the United States all the time.  They aren’t.

It is happening in Los Angeles now because the Times’ hype-and-hysteria-filled “reporting” falsely scapegoating efforts to keep families together whenever a  child dies has derailed efforts to curb needless removal of children.  With caseworkers terrified of landing on the front page if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, they tear apart more families needlessly.  There are plenty of children who are not abused until DCFS takes them away.  The problem isn’t too few foster parents, it’s too many foster children.  (For details see our report on Los Angeles child welfare.)

When children have been warehoused in office buildings in other cities, and it has happened several times over the years, it’s almost always in the wake of foster-care panics, just like the one the Times started in Los Angeles.

So while many people share responsibility for all the suffering this has caused to children and their families, Garett Therolf and his editors at the Los Angeles Times rank high on that list.


Just as disturbing is this conclusion from the report to the Supervisors concerning a series of  checklists known as “Structured Decision Making” (SDM).  The report to the supervisors also found that

 child welfare officials need to reexamine the use of a computer program called Structured Decision Making, which is designed to measure a child's risk of maltreatment. Currently, the report said, the program is used "improperly or not at all."

The Supervisors do indeed need to reexamine its use – but not to use it even more.  Rather it needs to be reexamined for racial bias.

 In Los Angeles, caseworkers use the checklists to assess the functioning of a family.  They add up the score and they’re supposed to transmit the information to a computer.  The computer, not the caseworker, then decides if the child is supposed to be removed.  Or as the headline on a Therolf story in 2009 put it: “How computers call the shots for L.A. County children in peril; Social workers feed in data on suspected abuse and neglect, and a decision pops out.” 

While it was not the intent either of DCFS or the creators of SDM, when used this way, SDM turns into what amounts to computerized racial profiling.

This is discussed in detail in material we released at a news conference in Los Angeles in 2009 (See Page 17).  At the time DCFS itself acknowledged that SDM may have contributed both to an increase in removals of children from the home and an increase in racial disproportionality – that is, removal of minority children from their homes at a rate greater than their representation in the general population.

But the problem isn’t limited to Los Angeles.  One of the best reports on racial bias in child welfare in any state, the Michigan Race Equity Review found profound bias in SDM in that state.

And this year, an evaluation by the respected Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that using SDM may have increased racial bias in child removals in that state – though the researchers caution other factors also may have been at play.

In response, the people who came up with SDM – and peddle it to child welfare systems all over the country and internationally - have the same standard answers: If a finding is unfavorable to SDM, the researchers got it wrong or the people using SDM didn’t use it right.

But if SDM is that hard to use then that, in itself, is a problem. Its use should be suspended until its proponents can prove they have a model that isn’t biased against minorities – and which is within the capabilities of child welfare systems to use correctly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: DHS needs a “platitude” adjustment

            In every field of law, certain decisions become touchstones.  These decisions state fundamental principles that form the foundation for interpreting the law in their field.  Sometimes they are cited by both sides.  That’s because, typically, the sides don’t dispute the principles themselves, only how they apply to a particular case.

            So, for example, in Troxel v. Granville, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

“[S]o long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e. is fit), there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent’s children.”

            In Parham v. J.R., the Supreme Court said:

 “[T]he statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition.”

            The decisions are two of several quoted in a brief submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of a father challenging the termination of his parental rights.

            But, apparently, the Michigan Department of Human Services and its new director, Maura Corrigan, disagree with these bedrock principles. Because in a stunning and scary statement in their reply brief, DHS and the Michigan Attorney General dismiss these principles as “platitudes.”

            The notion that there should be some reasonable limits on government intrusion into the family is, according to DHS, a platitude.  So is the idea that there should be a presumption that, when it comes to making decisions for children, a fit parent knows best.

            This also is one more indication of how child welfare crosses ideological lines in unusual ways.  Corrigan, the DHS Director (and former State Supreme Court Justice) who now apparently is ready to embrace the above “statist notion” is a conservative Republican.  But perhaps that’s no surprise, since Corrigan also has remained silent about recent revelations that orders to take away children, orders that are supposed to be signed by real, live judges, are merely rubber-stamped, allegedly by DHS workers.

            The dismissal of fundamental principles as “platitudes” is even more frightening since DHS is defending a law that any child welfare agency that really cared about the welfare of children would be fighting to strike down.  It is a law, possibly unique to Michigan, which says that if one parent “admits” to maltreating a child, the other parent loses all right to contest those same allegations.

            Of course, it is reasonable that, if one parent really is abusing a child, that should be enough for the state to intervene to protect the children.  That’s not the issue here.  The Michigan law goes far beyond that.  In Michigan a non-custodial parent could “admit” to “maltreating” a child and the custodial parent would be stripped of all rights to contest any allegations. (There is a detailed discussion in our first report on Michigan child welfare, on page 52.)

            In the case at issue, the mother did have custody and she “admitted” neglecting her children.  But the father was entirely innocent.  He wasn’t even living in the home.  He had never been accused of maltreating anyone and had no other problems that would make him unfit.  In short, he would be an excellent placement for the children.  Yet he was required to jump through a whole series of hoops without a shred of evidence that he needed the “counseling” “parenting classes” etc.  He had no chance to challenge these conditions.  And when he didn’t manage to jump through every one of the hoops exactly the way DHS wanted, the trial court itself ordered DHS to seek termination of parental rights. 

            At first, even DHS didn’t agree – telling the trial court the move to termination, after the children had been in foster care for seven months – was premature.  But DHS followed orders and now is fighting to uphold the termination, and the horrendous law on which it’s based – in part with that claim about “platitudes.”

            It’s one more reason to worry about the fate of Michigan’s vulnerable children with DHS being run by Corrigan.  Other reasons range from her lame attempt to defend DHS’ actions in cases like the seizure of Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter and the “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case (if you really want to see platitudes, check out her op ed in the Detroit Free Press) to her turning the Michigan Supreme Court website into a propaganda vehicle for adoption, with all other options for giving children permanence ignored, to her walking out on parents when they had their one opportunity to address one of those obligatory blue-ribbon commissions states name to study child welfare. (Details are in our first report on Michigan child welfare, starting on page 54.)

            Obviously, Corrigan didn’t write the brief.  There are plenty of lawyers in the Attorney General’s office and at DHS for that.  We don’t know if Corrigan saw it before it was filed – though it would be disturbing if she allowed it to be filed without seeing it first.  Either way, as DHS director, she’s responsible for it until and unless she repudiates it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

UPDATE: Foster care in Texas: Publicity, not CPS, reunites Houston family

This post was updated July 21 at 1:00pm

Prince and Charlomane Leonard have been reunited with their six children.  A judge reunited the family yesterday afternoon after they were able to obtain rental housing.  The housing was obtained only after news organizations publicized how the family was torn apart solely because of their housing problems.   

There’s another good story from Anita Hassan of the Houston Chronicle today.  See especially the comments from the lawyer who was supposed to represent the children's "best interests" According to the Chronicle:

He said the compost toilet was deemed unsanitary, that the family took baths and washed dishes using the same water from a 55-gallon barrel, and that the children were unsupervised and seen running around barefoot.

Declared the lawyer: "It was never about poverty."

Right.  Because, as Anatole France explained, and as I noted in a previous post: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

For some reason, the children don't seem particularly grateful for their law guardian's "help."  As one of the children told KHOU-TV: "CPS shouldn't have did that, and it was wrong of them to just come bother us."

But what about all the cases in which CPS agencies routinely tear apart families for lack of housing, but which take no unusual twists and turns and so get no publicity?  Several studies estimate that, nationwide, at least 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing.  On any given day there are about 424,000 children trapped in foster care – that means about 127,200 are stuck there solely because of housing.  

So I guess this is a case of six down, 127,194 to go.

Foster care in Michigan: Another reason for the love fest in federal court

For an overview of our perspective on Michigan child welfare, listen to this segment of  The Craig Fahle Show on WDET public radio.

The Detroit News had a story yesterday which further explains why a lawyer for the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights was cracking jokes with Maura Corrigan in federal court yesterday even as children continue to suffer.

Corrigan turns out to be a big backer of still another of CR founder Marcia Lowry’s bureaucratic obsessions: separating the state child welfare agency from the larger human services agency.

There is not a shred of evidence that this kind of change makes a child welfare system any better – and a pattern is beginning to emerge suggesting it may be easier to create an improved system without such a change.

When you look at the few child welfare systems that are, relatively speaking, national models – with strong, independent evidence that child safety has improved, they all have one thing in common: They focused on reducing the number of children torn from their families.  But many have something else in common as well: They are not stand-alone agencies.  Rather they are part of larger human services agencies.

●A class action lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law transformed the child welfare system in Alabama into, relatively-speaking, a national model.  (Co-counsel for plaintiffs is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.) The New York Times wrote about it here. In Alabama, the child welfare system is part of the larger human services agency.

●A former Michigan DHS official who got fed up with having all his reform ideas stymied in Michigan, Jim Beougher, went to Maine and led a transformation of child welfare so remarkable that, in 2009, it was a finalist in Harvard’s Innovations in American Government awards.  I’d be glad to send stories about Maine to anyone interested.  Beougher runs the child welfare division within a larger human services agency.

● Still another fed up Michigander / Michiganian (I’m neutral on that one), David Berns, led a similar transformation of child welfare in the county-run system in El Paso County Colorado.  Key to making the transformation work was the fact that child welfare and other human services were in the same agency, according to an evaluation by the Center for Law and Social Policy.

● Similarly, Marc Cherna, who was hired to run the child welfare division of the Allegheny Department of Human Services and now runs the entire agency thinks having everything in one agency was crucial to his success.

● And in Florida, although it sounds like the Department of Children and Families deals with nothing else, Florida DCF actually has pretty much the same functions as Michigan DHS.  Florida’s dramatic improvements were the result of bold new leadership and a waiver from federal funding restrictions (the same waiver Michigan got, but then turned down at the last minute.) The Florida reforms also caught the attention of The New York Times.

● In Illinois, which was transformed thanks largely to a number of class-action lawsuits and a relatively brief outbreak of good leadership, the child welfare agency is a stand-alone agency.

● In New Jersey, making the child welfare agency a separate agency was a way to get CR off everybody’s back.  The separate agency per se changed nothing.  What made the difference was an unusually good settlement, largely because CR was guided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (a former funder of NCCPR), and, especially, strong leadership from the first commissioner of that new agency, Kevin Ryan.  Ryan now is the monitor for the Michigan decree.


The most ludicrous claim is the one from Corrigan that Indiana is doing well by creating a separate child welfare agency.  I am aware of no one anywhere in the country who cites the Indiana system as it exists today as a model of anything good.

On the contrary, Indiana takes away children at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average and nearly triple the rate of Illinois.  In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, even as most states were able to reduce entries into care, Indiana saw an increase.  Perhaps that’s exactly what Corrigan likes about Indiana, which certainly wouldn’t bode well for Michigan.  Or perhaps Corrigan simply assumes the child welfare agency in Indiana must have improved because a conservative governor named a grandstanding judge to run it.

So why does CR keep pushing for a change for which there is no evidence of benefit?  Probably two reasons.  First, anything that separates children from their families, whether individually or in bulk, seems to appeal to Maura Corrigan and to Marcia Lowry.  And CR loves anything that involves more bureaucracy.  Add another form to fill out, move around the boxes on a table of organization, and somehow CR thinks something has been accomplished.  As I’ve said before, 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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: CR makes its indifference to families perfectly clear

            According to a new statement from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights

  the overarching aim of the [Michigan] reform campaign holds true — permanent, stable families for older youth; enhanced services for teens aging out of the system without a permanent family in place; increased adoptions for all kids. 

            Notice anything missing?

            To hear what CR forgot about, listen to NCCPR’s take on WDET Public Radio.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Here comes the new settlement, just like the old settlement

UPDATE, JULY 19: I discussed the failings of the new consent decree on The Craig Fahle Show on WDET public radio.  You can hear it here.

            The previous post to this blog predicted a disgusting spectacle in a federal court in Michigan today – and that’s just what it was.

            Sure enough, according to one news account, there was DHS Director Maura Corrigan “cracking jokes” with one of the lawyers suing DHS on behalf of the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) as they agreed to a new settlement which is every bit as bad as the old settlement.

For the vulnerable children of Michigan, there is nothing to laugh about.  They gain absolutely nothing.  And all the harmful provisions of the old decree remain in effect.  That guarantees that many more children in Michigan will be shedding a lot more tears, while Corrigan and her new pals at CR pat each other on the back.


            The worst provision of the old settlement required grandparents and other relatives taking in their own family to comply with all of the hypertechnical licensing requirements imposed on strangers. 

            Of course, certain minimal health and safety standards are essential.  But the Michigan regulations, all ten single-spaced pages of them, go far beyond that; often revolving around middle-class creature comforts.  As I’ve noted often before, the apartment in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother could not have passed inspection under the Michigan standards.

            The old settlement included cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to allow for the occasional exemption from some of these requirements or for waivers from licensing.  But the overall message was clear: The safer easier path, not for the families, but for DHS workers, was to say: No license, no child.

            That’s exactly what DHS has done.  As a result, by March, 2010, anywhere from 1,500 to 2,400 children had been expelled from the homes of their own grandparents and other relatives.  By September 30 of that year, the figure probably was at least 1,300 higher.   No one is keeping track of what happens to them.  Neither DHS nor CR seems to care.

            The new settlement changes none of this.  It has the same cumbersome procedures, and that sends the same dreadful message to the frontlines.  This puts at risk every grandchild now in the loving home of a grandmother or grandfather who is not licensed in accord with the bureaucratic mentality of DHS and CR. 

            Another onerous provision from the original settlement appears to give a preference to adoption of a child by total strangers over guardianship by a relative.  That, too, remains in the new agreement.


            The old settlement required DHS to conduct a “needs assessment” and then, based on that assessment, spend a small amount of money on services to help families.  By implication this was supposed to be additional money.  But DHS played a shell game.  DHS simply cut existing services to help families to fund the ones called for in the needs assessment.  DHS also has cut other prevention and family preservation services to fund other parts of the settlement, like the child abuse investigator / foster care worker hiring binge.

            Having seen how disingenuous DHS was about the first settlement, one would think that the new settlement would include a specific requirement that new funding for prevention and family preservation be additional funds, not just money moved from one pot to another.

            There is no such provision in the new settlement.

            That’s not surprising.  Since the settlement is with a group, CR, that doesn’t give a damn about keeping children safely in their own homes, obviously CR isn’t going to fight to avoid cuts to those programs.


The original settlement contained an attempt to repeal the laws of human nature known as “concurrent planning.”  Under concurrent planning, people who desperately want to adopt a child – and the child welfare agencies that desperately want those people to adopt -- are told, in effect: “Now remember, your first goal is to work with the birth parents and do everything you can to help them get the child back – but if, by some chance, you fail at this then you get what you really want – someone else’s child for your very own.”

One parent in New Jersey was honest enough to tell The New York Times what she called “the mantra” of parents in this kind of program, which is: “I’m on the next plane to South America if they think they’re getting this baby back.”

Meanwhile, the caseworkers are supposed to work equally hard to get the child adopted by people they like and can identify with – typically middle-class foster parents - as they do to try to reunite the child with people they often can’t stand, overwhelmingly poor disproportionately minority birth parents.

The new settlement continues “concurrent planning.”  Anything else would have been a shock, given that it’s hard to know who is more fanatical about adoption-at-all-costs, the director of CR, Marcia Lowry, or the Director of DHS, Maura Corrigan. 


            The original settlement was nearly silent on efforts to keep children in their own homes.  So is the new settlement.  Once again no surprise.  Keeping families together is the best option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time, it is of almost no interest to either Corrigan or Lowry.

            So children at risk of foster care in Michigan, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority, remain at the mercy of CR and DHS, both of which appear to far prefer seeing them in the  middle-class suburban homes of strangers than in the poor, urban but loving homes that most of them came from.

            Only one question remains.  When Corrigan signed the new document, did she do it herself with a pen, or did she do it the Michigan way and just have some clerk  rubber-stamp it?

See the previous post to this Blog for a review of the record of DHS – and Maura Corrigan.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: What they won’t be talking about in federal court Monday

Sometime tomorrow (Monday), according to one news account, there may be an announcement about a new modified consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights. If it happens, it’s likely to be a pretty disgusting spectacle.

On one side: the director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, Maura Corrigan will be there.  In her previous job on the Michigan Supreme Court, she turned the court’s website into a propaganda organ for adoption as the only form of permanence.  While serving on one of those pointless Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions she walked out during the one part of one session in which birth parents told their stories.

On the other side: someone from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights.  Since they, too, view permanence almost exclusively in terms of adoption, and they don’t care about keeping families together either, there’s not much to argue about, is there?

So here’s a reminder of what neither side will be talking about.  It was written in response to a request for statements of support by organizers of a Speak Out in support of Maryanne Godboldo, whose children was taken needlessly after Godboldo, in consultation with the child’s doctor, took her off psychiatric mediation.

            I am sorry I cannot be with you in person; I am honored to be with you in spirit.

            Maryanne Godboldo has been doing what the overwhelming majority of parents – that giant majority who do not abuse or neglect their children - do in one way or another, for as long as they are parents: She is fighting for her child.

            Maryanne Godboldo did not volunteer for this fight.  You might say she was drafted.  But in fighting with such determination and courage for her own child, she has become a leader in a fight for thousands of children all over America needlessly torn by child protective services agencies from everyone they know and love.

            Just last week, we learned about Prince and Charlomane Leonard in Houston.  When Prince Leonard could not get full-time work as a welder, there was no housing he could afford where the family could live safely.  So they moved to a gated community – the storage shed they had rented for some of their belongings.  Prince Leonard built shelves and a loft, installed heating and air conditioning.  The children were happy and healthy.  Then the helping hand of child protective services struck.  They offered no help of any kind, they just took away the children on the spot.

            How common is that?  Three major studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing.

            But what about Michigan?

            ●Michigan is a state so backward, that a former District Attorney in Oakland County tore apart a family and tried to jail the parents on charges of sexual abuse based on something called “facilitated communication” – essentially a glorified Ouija board.

            ●Michigan is a state where a study of case records found that when a white family is asked about drug use and says there is none, the case record would say “no history of drug abuse.”  When the same question produces the same answer in a black family, the file would  say “denies history of drug abuse.”

            ●Michigan is a state where millions of dollars are paid to agencies that are supposed to provide in-home help to families. Some of the agencies keep the money, and then refuse to go into Black neighborhoods.

            ●Michigan is a state where, if a family makes the mistake of calling DHS because they don’t have heat in the winter, all they’re likely to get is a cold house with a child abuse investigator at the door.

            ● Michigan is the state where, in an anonymous survey, 40 percent of juvenile court  judges admitted they lied about one of their most fundamental responsibilities.  Under federal law, states are required to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together and avoid placing children in foster care.  A judge – a real, live, judge – is supposed to certify either that reasonable efforts were made, or that there was no way to do it safely.  If they don’t at least check one of those boxes on a form, foster care in that case is not eligible for federal funds.

            In that survey I mentioned, 40 percent of the judges admitted that they lied, and said reasonable efforts had been made when they didn’t really believe it themselves.

            ●Michigan is a state where, as is discussed in our first report on Michigan child welfare, on page 52, if one parent – even a non-custodial parent - “admits” maltreatment, the other parent is denied a trial, forced to do whatever DHS wants her or him do and may lose the child forever; all without a court ever determining if that parent ever did anything wrong.

            A challenge to that law is heading for the Michigan Supreme Court.  A lawyer for the father – a father who didn’t even have custody of the children - submitted a brief citing the many times the U.S. Supreme Court and courts in Michigan have written decisions emphasizing that children need to be raised by their own parents, decisions making clear that this bond is sacred, and should be severed only in the most serious cases.  In its brief in reply, Michigan DHS dismissed those noble statements as, and this is a direct quote:  “platitudes.”

            So that’s what Maryanne Godboldo, her daughter, and so many others like them are up against: a child welfare agency, run by a former state supreme court judge, no less – that dismisses some of the most important writing in American jurisprudence as “platitudes.”


            But, of course, that’s not all DHS dismisses.  DHS also dismisses notions like due process of law.

            For decades I’ve written about how there are no real checks and balances in child welfare – how anything these agencies want is rubber-stamped.

            I thought it was just a figure of speech.

            But now, thanks to Maryanne Godboldo, her lawyers, and some very good journalists at Channel 7, we know that in Michigan, it’s literally true.  No real live judge signed the order to remove Maryanne’s daughter from her home.  The order was, literally, rubber-stamped.  The same thing happened in the Mike’s Hard Lemonade case.

            And consider this: That DHS bureaucracy doesn’t come cheap.  All those investigators and foster care workers and group homes and institutions and court hearings (not to mention the occasional SWAT team and helicopter) cost a lot of money.  And the whole process takes a lot of time.

            All the time, money and effort wasted doing so much harm to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter is being stolen from some child in real danger who really does need to be taken from her or his home.  So those children are overlooked.  And that’s the real reason for the horror story cases of real abuse that make headlines.

            But you’re not just up against DHS.


            Governors, legislators and DHS directors come and go, but always lurking in the shadows are scores of private agencies paid for every day they hold your children in foster care.  To use the late columnist Jack Newfield’s phrase, they are the “permanent government” of Michigan child welfare.  They are the ones who stand most strongly opposed to doing anything to keep families together.  They are the ones who oppose programs to keep Black children in their own communities.

            In 2006, the head of a trade association for private agencies told the Michigan Legislature that impoverished black children are better off far away with total strangers than close by with their own kin, because the strangers, he said, live in better neighborhoods with better schools. (See our first Michigan report, page 61).

            Now consider all the money that was wasted just on institutionalizing Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter.  That money could have gone to rent subsidies, so families aren’t destroyed because they can’t afford housing, or day care, so children are not taken on “lack of supervision” charges.

            But you’re not just up against the private agencies, either.

            Tomorrow, there is going to be another kind of court hearing.  According to one news account, the hearing will discuss a plan to revise the consent decree between DHS and a group of lawyers who operate under the Orwellian name “Children’s Rights.”

            The people at CR, as I call them, are good people.  They really think they are helping children.  But they’re not helping children in Michigan.
            I say the group’s name is “Orwellian” because I don’t know many children who crave the “right” to be torn from everyone they know and love.  But CR has done nothing to pressure Michigan to do more to keep families together.  In fact, CR’s settlement with DHS has made things worse.

            The Michigan settlement has sent DHS on a hiring binge, hiring more child abuse investigators and foster care workers – paid for, in part, by cutting programs to help keep families together.

Few children are demanding the “right” to be taken from grandma and grandpa  because those grandparents can’t comply with ten single-spaced pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements – requirements so absurd that the apartment in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother would not have qualified.

            As a result, more than a thousand children have been expelled from the homes of grandparents and other relatives across Michigan.

            Yet CR won’t even say who invited them to Michigan in the first place.

And of course CR stands silent in the face of everything that has been done to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, refusing to stand up for her children’s rights.

            So I hope that you will take your protests to the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights as well.  Send them polite, civil e-mails (don’t let them divert attention from what they’ve done to how you’re complaining about it).  Tell them you want to know who invited them into Michigan in the first place.  Tell them to speak out against what is being done to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter and all the children like her. And tell them to either fix their consent decree to address wrongful removal – or get out of Michigan.
            And there is one more thing I will ask of you.

            After Maryanne Godboldo and her daughter win this fight – and they will – don’t stop fighting.  Please keep up the fight for all the other children like them.  Or, as Joe Hill said nearly a century ago: Don’t grieve. Organize.

            Other cities have grassroots organizations of families fighting to reform their child welfare systems. You know some of them, in Philadelphia, in Los Angeles and in New York.  Detroit doesn’t have one – yet.  You can become that organization.  Those other organizations, and NCCPR, stand ready to help.  

            Thank you for your courage, thank you for your determination.