Thursday, September 29, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Maryanne Godboldo's daughter is going home


There's so much good news today it's hard to keep up.  But WXYZ-TV is reporting that Maryanne Godboldo's daughter gets to go home to her mother.  After weeks of institutionalization, the child had been in the custody of an aunt.  The court also ruled that it will not force the child to take any medication.  So far there are no further details, including whether or not CPS still gets to pry into the family's life.

UPDATE, 6:05PM: CPS Remains in the family's life at least until December 12.

Foster care in Texas: Child wins an order of protection – AGAINST CPS

UPDATE, OCTOBER 4: WELCOME STATE GOVERNMENTS:  There’s been a big surge in traffic to this website today, almost all of it going directly to this post, and a lot of it coming from state governments.  For those who haven’t been here before, welcome to NCCPR.  After you’ve checked out this post, I hope you’ll take a look at our main website,, for lots more information about child welfare that you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

And be sure to check the post below this one for a link to our publication concerning how much federal foster care money would be available for better alternatives in your state if you apply for, and receive, a child welfare funding waiver.

Talk about turning the tables.  It’s not unusual for a battered woman to go to court and obtain an “order of protection” against an abusive husband or boyfriend.  The order requires the abuser to keep away.  Now a child has won such an order of protection – against Texas Child Protective Services.

Here’s what happened according to KHOU-TV:

The 14-year-old child was taken after allegations of neglect, apparently as a result of a misunderstanding.  After 18 months during which she was repeatedly abused in a group home, she couldn’t take it anymore and ran away.  According to the family’s lawyer, the caseworker then said something that speaks volumes about whether the child ever needed to be taken:

”The case worker called (her) mom and said she ran away, but you find her, you can keep her," said Julie Ketterman, the [family’s] attorney.

The mother did find her daughter.  And then Ketterman went to court and won the family that order of protection.  The court ruled that the abuser in this case, CPS, should not have access to the abused child, and must stay away.  According to the ruling:

[CPS] engaged in conduct constituting family violence and good cause exists for issuance of a protective best interest of the child.

This is still another egregious case from Houston, the same region that tore apart the family of Prince and Charlomane Leonard solely because they couldn’t afford adequate housing.

But any joy at the outcome of this latest case must be tempered by what’s already been done to the child, and the fact that she remains afraid, as can be seen in this video from KHOU:


P.S.: Come to think of it, a courageous child like this could be the perfect “named plaintiff” in a class-action lawsuit, like the one being brought against Texas CPS by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).  Except, of course, for the fact that there is no evidence CR gives a damn about children being wrongfully removed and CR’s actions sometimes have made that problem even worse.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Child welfare waivers: The stakes for your state

NCCPR publishes an interactive state-by-state guide to child welfare waivers

            Now that Congress and President Obama have restored the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to offer waivers from rules limiting how states can use a large part of their federal child welfare funds, what’s in it for your state?

            How much federal money that now can be spent only on foster care could be used for better alternatives as well if your state applies for and gets a waiver?  We have the answers and they’re in our interactive guide to waivers available here.

            In addition, this guide looks at another issue: Most states take some of the money from the meager amount the federal government makes available for prevention and family preservation and divert it into things like child abuse investigations and foster care.  It's legal, but unconscionable.  NCCPR's new report has the figures for every state.

Updated October 6 to chage link to the new interactive version of the guide.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Financial incentives in foster care: WE’VE GOT WAIVERS!

Legislation that marks the biggest change for the better in federal child welfare law in 31 years has passed both houses of Congress and is on its way to President Obama.  [UPDATE: The President signed the bill on September 30.]

“Biggest change for the better in federal child welfare policy” is, of course, a pretty low bar, particularly since almost every other change since 1980 has been for the worse.   But this legislation has the potential to make a real difference – if states can be persuaded to embrace it.

That’s because the legislation includes a provision restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue waivers from federal foster care funding restrictions, waivers like the one which allowed Florida to make dramatic improvements in its child welfare system.

The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and in the House by Reps. Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

But special credit also goes to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) who withdrew last-minute amendments to tack on his own proposal.  That easily could have delayed and possibly killed the waivers and the entire bill – which also includes reauthorization of key prevention and family preservation programs. 

In a field where everybody says they put the children first, Sen. Wyden really did it; putting personal pride in his own bill aside in order to get the very important legislation through.

So, the waivers soon will be law.  Then comes the hard part – persuading states to break their addiction to foster care “entitlement” funding and apply for waivers – in particular big, broad waivers like the one that did so much for Florida.

That was made harder by a series of hoops states will have to jump through to qualify for waivers, provisions added in the Senate at the behest of a child welfare establishment that never really liked the waivers – or anything else that limits the foster care “entitlement.”

So we’ve won a big battle.  But it’s a long war.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Foster care in D.C.: Another timely reminder of the price of panic

The previous post to this Blog described how some excellent reporting in New York Magazine exposed the true state of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, through the story of one caseworker and one supervisor.  A grandstanding district attorney charged them with criminally-negligent homicide after a child on their caseload died.  Their boss hung them out to dry.

While criminal charges are extremely rare, there is nothing unusual about politicians destroying the lives of child welfare caseworkers – and children – to boost their own fortunes. 

A prime example is former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.  As readers of this Blog will recall, after the bodies of the children of Banita Jacks were discovered, in January, 2008, Fenty fired everyone who came anywhere near that case, without pausing to check if they’d actually done anything wrong.

They hadn’t.

Last week, Washington Post metro columnist Petula Dvorak wrote about the price paid by the workers and by D.C.’s vulnerable children.

She writes:

Canning those social workers sent a chill across the agency that the city’s abused and neglected children are still paying for today.

Social workers make serious decisions every day, balancing the level of abuse or neglect in a dysfunctional family against the knowledge that removing any child from a home is additional trauma.

In the months after the Jacks case and the firings, social workers went with an “if in doubt, pull them out” policy, yanking hundreds of kids from their homes and placing them in foster care.

Everyone was worried that they had a Jacks case next door, so the agency also experienced a 600 percent increase in calls reporting suspected child abuse. Foster homes were packed. Social workers had gigantic caseloads.

The agency cratered. It has an interim director, the third person to head the agency since the Jacks case ripped it apart. And still, the latest report by a court monitor on the agency’s performance was not stellar.

Here’s how the children still pay:

The number of children torn from their homes soared in 2008, then declined but stayed above the pre-panic level, then soared again last year, to the highest level since 2005.  Washington D.C. takes away proportionately more children than Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and several other cities, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

D.C. tears apart families at a rate nearly triple the rate in Miami and five times the rate of Chicago.  But in those communities independent court monitors have found that the reforms that curbed needless removal of children also made children safer.

And just this week the new D.C. Edition of The Huffington Post has a very good column about another D.C. child welfare outrage.

But on one point Dvorak is mistaken.  In describing the climate in 2008, she writes:  “who was going to listen to [the fired workers] back then?” 

Actually, she did. 

As a reporter at the time she wrote about the foster-care panic and its consequences when almost no one else was interested.  The story is worth rereading again – and every time a high-profile child welfare tragedy is in the news.

When Dvorak became a columnist she did not stop being a reporter.  Before writing her columns about the aftermath of the Jacks case, Dvorak did more reporting.  Issac Bailey of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. takes the same approach.  All the really good columnists do.  And as Dvorak notes in the column, doing her own reporting changed her view of the case and the role of the workers.

Perhaps that’s what The Great Regurgitator, Laurie Roberts of The Arizona Republic, is so afraid of – that if she actually did some reporting she might find out that the crap she’s been writing, over and over, in more than 40 columns is wrong.

Here’s what I’m afraid of.  I’m afraid that, given the state of the newspaper industry, a real reporter for the Republic – someone who went out and actually gathered news - may have been laid off or taken a buyout in order to keep Laurie Roberts employed.

UPDATE, OCTOBER 19: Laurie Roberts has just proven me wrong about those last two paragraphs.  I'm eating a bit of crow in a post here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Foster care in New York: Legacy of a failed commissioner

Two very good stories this week offer rare insight into how child welfare agencies really work, the dynamics of foster-care panic, and the price paid by children for poor leadership.  In a future post, I’ll discuss a Washington Post column about the legacy of former-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s dreadful response to a high-profile tragedy.

First, though, to New York City and its Administration for Children’s Services.

New York Magazine has a very good story  by reporter Jennifer Gonnerman about a caseworker and supervisor indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide after a child on their caseload, Marchella Pierce, died.  (Gonnerman was interviewed about the story this evening on NPR's All Things Considered)

The portrait of caseworker Damon Adams and supervisor Chereece Bell painted by a grandstanding Brooklyn District Attorney is of two workers who didn’t give a damn and one who allegedly falsified records to cover incompetence.

The New York Magazine story paints a very different picture.  Adams fell behind on his paperwork because he was so extraordinarily dedicated that he kept helping parents, and former foster children, who called him even after their cases were closed.  Bell took on the unit that handles all the toughest cases – and she was denied the help other supervisors got because she was so good at her job that others supposedly needed the help more.  She even received an award – “a wooden plaque commending her for her ‘extraordinary efforts to protect children.’” from then-ACS Commissioner John Mattingly.

We’ll probably never know for sure if they’re really that good, anymore than we’ll ever know if they were as bad as the District Attorney claims.  I suspect New York Magazine came closer to the mark, though there are some comments Bell makes in the article itself (which I’ll get to below) which raise concerns.

But the fundamental reason we won’t know for sure is that incompetent workers hide in incompetent systems.  When it is impossible for even the best worker to do the job, it’s hard to tell the best from the worst.


The New York Magazine story captures brilliantly how the system sets up everyone to fail – and the culture of fear created as a result.

The story documents how everyone is mindful of what happened to workers after Nixzmary Brown died in 2006 – not least Bell herself who would tell the caseworkers she oversaw to make those extra calls and visits because

 “You’re not going to make me lose my job; you’re not going to have my face on the front page of the news”

Obviously, such a culture of fear is going to lead to a lot of children being taken away from their parents needlessly.

There was a time when John Mattingly understood that.

More than a decade ago, several New York City Family Court judges said almost exactly the same thing to a commission advising ACS – explaining that this was why they would rubber-stamp ACS removals even when they thought the agency had no case.  John Mattingly served on that panel.   At the time he was appalled.

But after Nixzmary Brown died, Mattingly brought exactly the same culture into ACS – with the same dreadful consequences.  He took a series of actions that all sent the same message to the frontlines: Take away all the children you want and, while the children may suffer terribly, your jobs are safe.  Leave one child in her of his own home and let something go wrong, and I’ll hang you out to dry.

That’s what happened in the Pierce case. 

If, in fact, either Adams or Bell falsified records then they deserve to be fired.  There might even be a case for some kind of criminal charge specific to falsifying records.  But criminally-negligent homicide?  No way.

Mattingly should have been the first to condemn the D.A. for grandstanding at his caseworkers’ expense.  Instead, he remained silent right up until his recent resignation.


But the revelations don’t end with the culture of fear.  The New York story got past Mattingly’s spin on another key point, his claims about worker caseloads.  According to the story:

Mayor Bloomberg, with ACS’s then-commissioner John Mattingly by his side, was telling reporters that the workers’ average caseload was only ten families—less than the national average. This enraged the workers even more, since they all knew this calculation didn’t reflect their entire workload. It includes only active investigations, but not court cases. After an investigation goes to court—often because ACS is trying to get custody of a kid—the case can still stay on a worker’s plate for months, requiring the worker to trek to Family Court, do more paperwork, and sometimes visit the home.

And, as everyone knows, anytime you have to go to Family Court, you’re at the mercy of a notoriously inefficient system. Compared with his co-workers, Adams had “a really bad draw,” as Rae Phillips, a caseworker in the Hospital Unit, puts it. Co-workers recall Adams was in court three or four days a week, sometimes more than once a day. “That’s where all your time goes,” Phillips says. Bell estimates that at the end, Adams had fourteen open investigations and at least twenty court cases. When he was interrogated after Marchella’s death, Adams said his caseload totaled about 40.

The fact that Adams makes this claim doesn’t make it so.  But the entire New York press corps, which normally prides itself on its skepticism, simply took Bloomberg and Mattingly at their word concerning caseloads – unlike decades past when newspapers exposed a shell game behind similar claims during the administration of former Mayor Ed Koch.


The article also illustrates how the culture of fear can undermine even the few progressive moves Mattingly retained even after Nixzmary Brown died, such as Child Safety Conferences.

They’re supposed to work this way: When a caseworker is about to remove children from the home she or he convenes a meeting involving everyone who cares about those children (and if they’re old enough, sometimes the children) in an effort to find a better option.

But the New York article describes a process that has become a sham, in which workers either are too closed-minded, or simply too afraid, to consider any other options:

In practice, caseworkers say, the decision about whether to remove a kid is almost always made ahead of time, rendering these meetings virtually useless. “A fantastic idea, terrible in actuality,” says [a] … former caseworker. “A monumental suck of time.”

Bell often had two of these conferences a day, maybe three, each lasting one and a half to two hours, sometimes even longer. All the while, phone calls are flooding into her voice-mail … and the paperwork was piling up. To a friend in the office, she’d say: “How am I supposed to get anything done with all these f------ conferences?”

These meetings not only consumed much of her time but also left her emotionally drained.

If Ms. Bell finds actually coming face-to-face with the families whose lives she is about to turn upside-down too draining, then maybe the job has become too much for her, and it calls into question some of the portrait in this article.

So does the way she responded to some of Adams’ efforts to go the extra mile for families:

 “Get off the phone!” Bell would holler when she heard him counseling yet another parent whose case had been closed. “We don’t have time for that!” Sometimes she would rip the phone right out of his hand and slam it onto the receiver.

(As that comment indicated, Bell argues this isn’t what she wanted to do, it’s what she had to do in order to keep up with the workload.)

But while it’s hard to blame workers trapped in a culture of fear for refusing to take the conferences seriously, the fact is in other parts of the city, workers have risen above that culture.

Michael Arsham, executive director of an outstanding grassroots family advocacy group, the Child Welfare Organizing Project,* discussed this in a comment on the New York website:

CWOP has partnered with the Manhattan Borough Office of ACS and the Center for Family Representation [which provides high quality legal representation for families caught in the ACS net], training life-experienced Community Representatives to staff CSCs in East Harlem. CWOP parents have staffed over 700 of these conferences, and have helped avert non-relative placement of children in about two-thirds of them. In the over four years that we've been involved in this initiative, we have never heard any of our ACS partners deride CSCs as a distraction from their duties. In fact, there is nothing more fundamental to good child protective work than talking in a direct, straightforward way with parents about child safety concerns, and how best to address them through use of extended family supports and community services.

Because of the unit in which Bell and Adams worked, the article also risked leaving a mistaken impression of typical cases.  As Arsham pointed out:

ACS is repeatedly characterized as the agency that investigates "abusive" parents. It would be much more accurate to say "allegedly neglectful" parents. The large majority of parents called to the attention of ACS - 85 - 90% - are accused not of abuse but of neglect, usually related to poverty: substandard housing, lack of health insurance or daycare, children resistant to attending failing schools, etc.


The article concludes with the final irony:

These days, the fears that keep Bell up at night concern her own children, her 12-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. It seems the ultimate irony: the possibility that this whole saga might end with her being removed from her home, taken away from her two kids. For Bell, it’s the most terrifying part of this whole ordeal. In the courtroom, in front of the prosecutors and the reporters, she tries to conceal her fears, but to a former co-worker she admitted the truth. “I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Do you know I could go to jail for four years? Do you know how old my son will be when I come home?”

That prompted a question, posed on the NCCPR Facebook Page, by Melanie Williams Smotherman, the director of another outstanding grassroots organization, the Family Advocacy Movement in Nebraska:  She wonders if Adams and Bell realize how similar their treatment is to the way many caseworkers treat families?

*NCCPR receives funding to assist CWOP with media work.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On our Blog at Youth Today: Foster care in America: It’s not the recession, it’s the RESPONSE to the recession

The long decline in the number of children in foster care on any given day is slowing way down.  And the decline in the number of children taken  away over the course of a year stopped entirely in 2010.

America’s latter-day “child savers” will claim, almost gleefully, that this is a result of the recession supposedly causing more child abuse.

But it’s not The real reason is discussed on our Blog at the trade journal Youth Today.

And on Monday: A major magazine article reveals the failed legacy of a child welfare agency leader.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: How Marcia Lowry helped make Michigan’s poor families even poorer

Not since Newt Gingrich suggested throwing poor people’s children into orphanages has anyone stated the connection between plunging families deeper into poverty and taking away their children more bluntly than a spokeswoman for the Governor of Michigan did last week.

The comments are in a New York Times story about the impact of state budget cuts on the poorest families.  According to the story:

Here in Michigan, more than 11,000 families received letters last week notifying them that in October they will lose the cash assistance they have been provided for years. Next year, people who lose their jobs here will receive fewer weeks of state unemployment benefits, and those making little enough to qualify for the state’s earned income tax credit will see a far smaller benefit from it.

But don’t worry, says a spokeswoman for the Governor -- just look what we’ve done instead:

Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican in his first term, said his efforts had focused on creating an economic climate in the state for more and better jobs, while also protecting and even enhancing core safety-net services like Medicaid, she said.  Ms. Wurfel added that the state had, for instance, hired hundreds of new child welfare workers. [Emphasis added.]

So you see, there’s really no problem at all.  When the parents can’t afford food, clothing or shelter for the kids, Michigan’s newly-hired child abuse investigators will be ready and waiting to take the kids away!

The version of the story on the Times website included a link to this press release about the hiring.  The release also touted a claim that  Michigan is doing even more to speed up the process of getting those children it takes away adopted.

What the Times story doesn’t mention, and the reporter almost certainly didn’t know, is the role of one person in helping to plunge more Michigan families deeper into poverty, despair, and the possible loss of their children: Marcia Lowry.

Marcia is the founder and executive director of the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).  It was their dreadful settlement of a class-action lawsuit that calls for the child abuse investigator / foster care worker hiring binge.

Yes, that’s the same settlement that has led to the expulsion of at least 1,500 children in kinship foster care from the homes of their grandparents and other relatives because those relatives couldn’t comply with ten single-spaced pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements.

Did Marcia demand that the hiring binge be financed by slashing benefits for poor people?  Of course not.  The problem is, her settlement did nothing to prevent it.  The settlement included no provision requiring the state to maintain its already meager level of help for poor families.  The settlement did not even include a “maintenance of effort” provision requiring the state to maintain programs specifically targeted at child abuse prevention and family preservation.  So those were cut back, too.

Marcia Lowry is not an idiot.  She had to know that a state in desperate financial straits would finance her settlement by taking the money from those least able to fight back.

Apparently, she just didn’t care.

The Marcia Lowry who demonstrated she once understood the value of families, even poor families, is long gone.  As I wrote on this Blog two years ago:

More than 20 years ago, Marcia brought to a Congressional hearing the lead plaintiff in one of her class-action lawsuits – a 12-year-old named Boyd, forced to endure five years in foster care just because his mother lacked adequate housing. At the time Marcia was crusading to enforce a 1980 law requiring "reasonable efforts" to keep families together.

''Boyd's mother had a difficulty, not a very serious difficulty, but it took her five years to get her children back,'' Marcia testified, according to a New York Times story. ''There was never any question of abuse with this family. These are children who are supposed to be protected by this very fine legislation. But reasonable efforts were not made in this case or in thousands of cases.''

And then the Times quoted Boyd: ''They took almost five years away from my life," he said, "and I'm only 12.''…

I have no doubt that, were a child like Boyd to show up at CR's offices today, their reaction would boil down to: "Go 'way kid, ya bother me."

Back when she brought Boyd to testify before Congress, Marcia’s organization was a project of the American Civil Liberties Union.  But that didn’t last.  Marcia told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that she left the ACLU in part because too much of what the ACLU did was tied to a “liberal agenda.”  Leaving the ACLU also may have made her more appealing to Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who once chaired her Board of Directors.

Marcia likes to say that she doesn’t know how to fix poverty, but she knows how to fix foster care.  In fact, notwithstanding the disgusting love fest in federal court in July, Marcia has made Michigan foster care worse.   Entries into foster care are increasing – and that doesn’t even include all the children already in foster care with grandparents who were kicked out of those homes and placed with strangers.

And now, once again, she is helping to make poverty worse, too.

So while Marcia hobnobs with celebrities at CR’s next glitzy fundraiser, thousands more Michigan families will be trying to figure out how to put food on the table, and keep those newly-hired child abuse investigators away from the door.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Child welfare in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Where stigma and bias “flourish”

The case file had a single word written across the top.  There was no context for this one word, no explanation.

But in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and surrounding Linn County, when that word is on a child welfare file, no explanation is necessary.  Everybody knows the word means the agency doesn’t like the family, the family deserves an extra measure of suspicion and the case worker really thinks the children would be better off with people with whom that worker is more comfortable.

That one word amounts to seven scarlet letters for a family caught up in the net of the Iowa Department of Human Services in Linn County.

The word is “CHICAGO.”

Why does the file say “Chicago”?  Because over the past several years, cities like Cedar Rapids and nearby Iowa City have seen an influx of “urban immigrants” – they actually use that term – from Chicago.  Many are poor people who moved to the region when giant public housing projects were torn down.

As Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Jennifer Hemmingson has written:

Iowa City’s shifting demographics have brought real changes to our neighborhoods and schools. But “those people from Chicago” have also been convenient scapegoats.

So why does the file say “Chicago”?  Because it’s a great codeword.  The caseworker would have gotten in trouble if he or she’d simply written across the top of the file: “BLACK.”

The file marked “Chicago” was found by researchers for the Center for the Study of Social Policy as they prepared an Institutional Analysis Report on the child welfare system in Linn County.  To its credit, Iowa DHS invited CSSP to do the study as part of an effort to reduce racial bias in the system.

That bias is profound.  Data compiled by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges show that African American children are trapped in Iowa foster care at a rate nearly quadruple their rate in the general population.  The rate of “disproportionality,” as it’s called, is even worse for Native American children – no surprise in a state where the chief juvenile prosecutor in a county in which one in ten Indian children is in foster care, says: “I don’t think there’s anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse.”

So it also should come as no surprise that the CSSP researchers found that the child welfare system in Linn County, Iowa is a place where “stigma and bias are permitted to flourish…”

The racial bias is on top of the fact that, year after year, Iowa tears apart families of all races at one if the highest rates in the nation.  In 2010, Iowa tore apart families at the fourth highest rate in the nation, a rate more than two-and-a-half times the national average.  (That’s part of a national pattern.  The states that have the worst record on racial bias, like Iowa and Nebraska often also are the states with the highest rates of child removal for all races.)

Though not as detailed as CSSP’s similar report on Michigan, the Linn County report uses the same combination of hard data, rigorous case record review and interviews with participants in the system to produce a compelling narrative that interweaves data and case examples.  (Throughout this post, when it comes to conclusions, unless that conclusion is quoted directly from the report or attributed to it, it’s my interpretation, not necessarily CSSP’s).

The incident about the case file marked “Chicago” is in an entire section devoted to the ways African American families are stigmatized by the Cedar Rapids DHS office.  (The section is headed “Stigma.”) Other examples cited by the study include:

● One therapist described a "loud,” “emotional” father as being perceived as “risky” and “hostile.”
· An African American youth described how he hoped to change his last name when he became an adult because his family had a “reputation” in the community.
· An African American father was told that the only way he could prove he was not seeking reunification to benefit financially from his son’s public assistance was by using his own money to purchase a car seat for his son.
The report concludes that:

In a system with weak accountability, issues of stigma and bias are permitted to flourish and become part of the agency’s culture, resulting in a troubling lack of consensus about policy and practice in Linn County.

The stigmatizing and stereotyping apparently runs so deep that some caseworkers may view African American parents as almost literally sub-human, so it may not even occur to them to consider the emotional trauma inflicted on the child by removing that child from the home.  Consider this example:

…a three month old infant was removed when the child’s mother called the hospital because the infant had fallen from a bed. DHS filed a report and removed the infant after the mother failed to bring the infant to the hospital, even though the child’s mother had called her own mother – a nurse – the night of the fall for medical advice. The infant sustained no injury, a visiting nurse was in the home at the request of the mother, and the mother brought the infant to the doctor the next day. Although the infant was currently safe and the mother had significant community based supports in place, the hospital, the DHS worker, and the court all supported a decision to remove the infant from the care of this young mother. Six months later, the infant had experienced two foster home placements and was not gaining weight in foster care. [Emphasis added.]

On the other hand, the error in this next case is so common in lousy child welfare systems that I suspect it could as easily have happened to a child of any race:

Another young child in a residential treatment program misbehaved after returning from an overnight visit with her parent, resulting in DHS denying overnight visits rather than considering that the behavior might be related to a child missing her family and working with the family to get to the root cause of the behavior.

The very fact that young children are warehoused in residential treatment centers at all is appalling – since the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment does no good, and is particularly harmful for younger children.  Yet that issue arises again in another case:

a six year old African American boy with behavioral issues was placed in a residential program. Professionals working with the mother on this case determined that a residential setting was the only available service to meet this young child’s needs. After nine months, when this boy was being prepared to exit placement, it was unclear what, if any, at home and in school supports would be available. Further, it was unclear if residential placement could have been avoided altogether if meaningful, intensive in home and community based services had been available.

Residential treatment also is among the most expensive services – so lack of money is no excuse for the lack of alternatives that not only are better, but also cost less.  Rather, it is a function of a system that dehumanizes impoverished children and families, especially impoverished Black children and families.

The dehumanization extends to victims of domestic violence.  According to the report:

data indicated that African American women who defend themselves in battering situations are often assessed as the aggressor and their case plans then require them to attend anger management classes, rather than providing them assistance as victims of domestic violence.

It all adds up to a system that, the report says, “intervened with some African American families in extensive ways with no clear reason or rationale.”

According to the report, the Cedar Rapids DHS office would force families into substance abuse screening and treatment when there were no substance abuse issues and harass a family with unannounced visits “three or four times a week” – a full year after a child had been returned home with no problems.  As the mother’s attorney told the CSSP researchers it is nearly impossible for clients to “prove they are not doing something.”  Private agencies that were supposed to provide help would re-report families to DHS for “minor new concerns.”

But it will be easy to prove whether or not, at long last, Iowa decides to do something about its penchant for tearing apart families in general and minority families in particular.  One need simply watch the figures for entries into care.

And there are signs that Linn County, at least, is taking some first steps in the right direction.  According to the Gazette, the number of cases in which a caseworker declared an allegation of child maltreatment against an African American family to be “substantiated” was cut in half in the seven months ending July 1, compared to a similar period in 2010.

On the other hand, the same story reports that neighboring Johnson County, they’re not even trying to reduce needless removal of children – they’re just trying to find more Black foster parents.

How very Iowa of them.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

UPDATE: Foster care in Michigan: Wayne County bars rubber-stamp removals

This post was updated at 7:20pm to reflect additional information about the new policy.

The Michigan Department of Human Services no longer will be allowed to simply get a clerk of probation officer to rubber-stamp orders to tear children from their families. WXYZ-TV in Detroit has a story about the decision.

After the practice was exposed by attorneys for Maryanne Godboldo and some excellent reporting by WXYZ, Wayne County officials issued an unsigned memo changing the policy.

Effective immediately, orders must be signed, personally, by either a judge or a “referee,” a lawyer appointed by a judge to hear cases and make recommendations.  At least that appears to be the minimum required according to the somewhat-unclear written policy.  Though it's not in the written memo WXYZ reports that the policy requires that even when a referee "reviews" the order, a judge personally will have to sign it.

The change in policy is an important first step.  It sends a vital message to DHS that tearing a child from everyone she or he knows and loves is not a trivial act to be rubber-stamped.  And it means that, at a minimum, a real live human being with actual training in the law has to review the allegations before allowing such drastic action.

There still is a long way to go.

● First, it would be useful to have a clear, written statement that a judge and only a judge can sign these orders.  Though that's what the policy reportedly means, it can be read as allowing a referee to sign the orders.

A referee is not a judge.  Responsibility for inflicting the trauma of removal on a child should be taken, personally, by a judge.  Indeed, DHS director (and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice) Maura Corrigan herself has claimed that, by law, "only judges" can do this.   She made that claim even when probation officers were, in fact, rubber-stamping the orders in Wayne County.  Presumably, she didn't know.  But even after the rubber-stamping was revealed, Corrigan never spoke out against it.  Nor did she instruct her caseworkers to refuse to accept an order that was rubber-stamped.

● Second, while it is not entirely clear, the new policy still may allow verbal orders over the phone after hours.  In an age of e-mail there is no reason to tolerate a verbal order.  Orders to tear apart a family can and should be in writing at any hour.  There needs to be a complete written record of what was alleged.  The Godboldo case illustrates why - it is the errors throughout the written order and the failure to cite any valid reason to tear apart the family on the spot that document the slovenly nature of DHS practice in that case.  And having the order in writing helped Judge Ronald Giles reach his wise decision to throw out the criminal case against Godboldo.

● More generally, while this should mean the end of the use of a literal rubber-stamp, judges and referees all over the country are far too willing to do whatever child welfare agencies  want them to do.  As is discussed in the previous post to this Blog, juvenile court judges need to bring to bear the same wisdom and same respect for the Constitution shown by Judge Giles, who presides in Wayne County District Court.

● And  Michigan law itself makes it too easy to take away children without a full-scale court hearing first, or even going to a judge or referee at all – the standard is significantly lower than in other states.  That law needs to be changed.

But this change is still an important start. 

Maryanne Godboldo never chose this fight – and her daughter never chose it either.  But having been forced into it, they now have won an important victory for all of the vulnerable children of metropolitan Detroit. 

Foster care in Detroit: What a difference a judge makes

Do Wayne County Juvenile Court judges have a conflict of interest whenever the issue is rubber-stamp removals?

The judge was appalled.

Watch, in this story from WXYZ-TV, as Judge Ronald Giles holds in his hand the “order” used to remove Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, by force, from her home and institutionalize her for seven weeks.  Listen as Judge Giles declares:

It is ridiculous to remove somebody’s child based on this order.  It does not even express any situation where we have contingent circumstances that says the child is at risk.

We’re talking about a person’s constitutional rights here and to have that put up against this order, which is grossly inadequate, incorrect, the mistakes on it are numerous as identified by the protective services worker who typed it up.

Judge Giles is talking about a “court order” that never was issued by an actual court.  It was never so much as seen by a real live judge.  Instead, a probation officer literally rubber-stamped the order.  It’s a routine practice in metropolitan Detroit.  And, as WXYZ explains in this excellent in-depth report, experts on the law say it’s illegal.

Judge Giles went further.

When Detroit police tried, illegally to serve the illegal order, Maryanne Godboldo barricaded herself and her daughter in the house.  Police allege she fired a shot at them, something Godboldo’s lawyers deny.  But it resulted in a slew of criminal charges against Godboldo.

Giles threw all of those charges out, saying there was no evidence for the claims about the shot.  (The prosecution isn’t giving up. With Wayne County and the Michigan Department of Human Services, apparently desperate to retaliate against a mother who stood up to them to protect her child, the county is appealing Judge Giles’ ruling.)

Earlier this month, another judge, Lynne Pierce, upheld the same rubber-stamp court order that Judge Giles essentially said was a piece of crap.  Judge Pierce would not even allow Godboldo’s lawyers to challenge the validity of the order – so the jury in that courtroom never heard about its questionable legality.

In contrast, the jurors heard all about the standoff and the allegation that a shot was fired at police -  the very claim for which Judge Giles found no evidence.

What accounts for the difference?

Quite possibly the type of court.  Judge Pierce presides in Juvenile Court, where the issue was whether Godboldo “neglected” her daughter by exercising her legal right to remove the child from potent psychiatric medication that was causing serious side effects.  In juvenile court, judges are used to the slovenly approach of Wayne County DHS, in which clerks or probation officers routinely rubber-stamp judges’ names onto inaccurate orders to remove children for no good reason.  In fact, the name on the rubber-stamp is that of presiding judge of the juvenile court, Leslie Kim-Smith – in effect, Pierce’s boss.

That, of course, raises a couple of intriguing questions.  Had Judge Pierce ruled that rubber-stamp removals are illegal, would she have been saying in effect: “My boss has been, at the very least, condoning illegal activity over and over again for however long this has been going on”?  If so, is it, in fact, a conflict of interest for any Wayne County Juvenile Court judge to rule in a case where rubber-stamp removals are an issue?

More generally, Judge Pierce’s ruling is in keeping with the ethos of juvenile court since its inception 115 years ago, an ethos that boils down to: “We’re not out to punish anyone, we’re only here to help, so we don’t need all that fuss and bother about due process and protecting people’s rights.” 

In the juvenile justice field, the U.S. Supreme Court saw this for the farce it was nearly half a century ago.  Making clear that it understood that juvenile courts do, indeed, punish, sometimes severely, the high court declared in In re Gault that “Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.

But in child welfare, juvenile courts still tend to operate under what can best be described as a “pre-Gault mentality.” Too many judges behave like frustrated social workers.  (Be especially wary when they start talking about “therapeutic justice.”  You can bet they’ll be heavy on so-called “therapy” and light on justice.) 

In Michigan, this contempt for the law has reached the point where a survey found that 40 percent of juvenile court judges admit that they lie and certify that DHS has met its burden under federal law to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together, even when the judges don’t believe it themselves.

So it’s no wonder Godboldo lost in Pierce’s courtroom.


In contrast, Judge Giles presides in district court, which handles a variety of civil and criminal cases, but not juvenile cases.  So he’s in the kind of court where, in theory at least, everyone is supposed to get a real lawyer, and old-fashioned concepts like evidence, due process and the presumption of innocence prevail.

My guess is that Judge Giles doesn’t see many of those rubber-stamp court orders to take away children.  So he looked at this one with fresh eyes – and was shocked at what he saw.

And speaking of fresh eyes, here’s what the Michigan State Court Administrative Office told WXYZ about the practice of substituting a rubber-stamp for a real, live judge:  “A judge should never delegate the decision to remove a child to a staff member."  The SCAO is an arm of the Michigan Supreme Court.  So the administrator reports to the court and, in particular, the Chief Justice.

For several years the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was Maura Corrigan.  Of course, now Corrigan has a different job – running the Michigan Department of Human Services.  So Corrigan is allowing workers for her new agency, DHS, to do exactly what her old agency, the State Court Administrative Office, says is utterly improper.

And, of course, just weeks before the rubber-stamp removals were revealed, Corrigan herself wrote in the Detroit Free Press that “only judges can issue orders removing children from their homes; such orders are issued only in the most extreme circumstances.”

The most generous interpretation of this is that Justice Corrigan was misinformed on both counts.


Although Judge Giles’ wise decision has been described as a victory for Maryanne Godboldo, it’s really a victory first and foremost for her daughter, who was needlessly torn from everyone she knew and loved and institutionalized for more than a month.  That kind of trauma can scar a child for a lifetime.  It is state-sanctioned child abuse.  Continuing to pursue the case, in either court, can only further harm the child.

Sadly, judge Giles ruling ends only the criminal part of the case.  DHS still has legal custody of Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, who remains, for now, in the physical custody of an aunt.  Later this month, there will be another hearing in juvenile court.  It’s anybody’s guess what will happen once the case returns to kangaroo country.