Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Foster care in America: Child abandonment, Casey-style, part two

Foundation makes a poor choice to lead a new initiative.

            Yesterday’s post to this Blog discussed the misplaced priorities behind a new Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative “to enhance the existing network of state child welfare policy advocates working to achieve comprehensive reforms for children and families involved in child welfare systems.”

            The priorities are to make foster care “better,” and promote adoption – with barely a word, initally, about bolstering efforts to reunify families or keep children out of foster care in the first place.  After this omission was pointed out, a few such words were added to the press release announcing the initiative.

            If that weren’t bad enough, the person they’ve chosen to lead the effort has already used his Twitter account to smear and stereotype any of us who might want to do more to keep families together – he tried to hold us all responsible for the death of a child “known to the system” in Sacramento.

            I’m talking about Bruce Lesley who runs a group called First Focus.  Up to now they’ve done very little in child welfare, concerning themselves largely with broader children’s issues, like the impact of the recession on children.  In one of their few forays into child welfare, they actually took an unusually progressive stand – taking a far more forward-thinking approach to child welfare waivers than groups like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy, who essentially tried to “Yes, but…” such waivers to death.  But that only made a succession of tweets from Lesley last month even more disappointing. 

As usual with people in child welfare, the last thing Bruce Lesley wants to do is anything that would harm children.  The issue, as usual, isn’t motivation, it’s results.

            So what’s the problem with what Bruce Lesley tweeted about child welfare – and why do a few tweets matter so much?  Understanding that requires a brief recap of about 40 years of child welfare history. (For a more detailed history see our Child Welfare Timeline.)


            The family preservation movement started in the 1970s, but it didn’t really start to gain traction nationally until the early 1990s, with passage of the first federal law to put any money behind it, then called the Family Preservation and Support Act (now the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Act).

            The prospect of the federal government actually spending money on family preservation scared the hell out of what I have come to call the foster care-industrial complex, the network of public and private agencies that lives off of a steady supply of foster children.

            Those agencies started smearing family preservation to reporters every chance they got – spreading horror stories, or taking advantage of horrors the reporters found on their own.  Throughout the 1990s, any time a child “known to the system” died, the party line was that it was because of family preservation.  Family preservation advocates supposedly put it ahead of child safety.  Worse, we supposedly put “parents rights” ahead of “children’s rights” and supposedly wanted to return to the days when “children were the property of their parents.”  (For a classic example of how all this played out at the time, see my 1995 critique of how the Chicago Tribune handled the Joseph Wallace case – coverage that, tragically, became the template for much of what followed.)

In places like Arizona and Sacramento, California the smear campaign has never stopped.


            That “property” argument is particularly potent – and particularly dangerous for children.  (It’s usually offered up by the same people who spread the Myth of Mary Ellen.)

Children always are going to need someone else, an adult or adults, to make key decisions for them.  Depending on the children’s age an adult is going to have to decide how late they can stay out at night, whether they have to go to school and even whether they can cross a street by themselves.  That’s not turning children into property – that’s loving them and protecting them.

So the issue isn’t whether children are going to be making their own decisions vs. being the “property” of adults, the issue is whether the best person to make decisions for a child, and indeed, to raise that child, is the child’s parent or the government.

            Sometimes the answer really is the government.  No one – not a parent, or a foster parent or a group home or an institution - has a right to beat, rape, torture starve or kill a child.  But though I am a big-government tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it, when it comes to raising children the right answer is going to be “government” a lot less often than it’s used today.

            The fear and smear culminated in passage of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which blew huge holes into previous law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.

            It’s because of ASFA, and the mentality behind it, that even though actual child abuse in this country peaked in 1993, the number of children in foster care kept increasing until 1999, and the number of children torn from their parents over the course of a year kept escalating until 2005.   ASFA also is the main reason for a 70 percent increase in the number of children aging out of foster care with no home since 1998.

            Part of the reason the smear campaign against family preservation was so successful is that the family preservation movement failed to fight back.  Many advocates naively thought that, because the attacks on family preservation were so preposterous, no one would believe them.  But they did.  As a result, the family preservation movement nearly “niced” itself to death.

            NCCPR was established in part out of the conviction that this must never be allowed to happen again.  No smear against safe, proven alternatives to foster care would go unanswered – not even a smear of 140 characters.


            That effort includes making clear that those of us to advocate for more help for families but less coercive intervention into their lives are the real children’s rights advocates, and it is those who would make it easier for the state to control a child’s life who really want to turn that child into “property.”

If you want to know what it’s like to be treated as property, just ask a foster child who’s been moved from home to home and can’t even sleep over at a friend’s house without a government caseworker’s permission.

            And that brings me back to Bruce Lesley, and one particular tweet.  The tweet concerned this case in Sacramento – a case of a child who died after being returned to a dangerous home.  The case actually is less clear-cut than many that make headlines.  And the Sacramento Bee, often among the worst offenders when it comes to scapegoating family preservation, was much more careful this time.  There certainly is no suggestion that any “parental rights groups” were pressuring Sacramento child protective services to keep this family together.

            But good ‘ol Bruce Lesley rushed in to fill the gap with this tweet on Dec. 26:

Reasons unclear for fatal CPS decision to return a child to her parents - bit.ly/rF0NI1 How do parental rights groups justify this?

            So there it was in 131 characters, a revival of the fear and smear against the family preservation movement by suggesting that we’re all really “parental rights” groups who don’t care if children die – or at a minimum somehow are responsible every time a child protective services agency screws up.

            And a few minutes later, in another tweet, he said it again:

I am saying that parental rights advocates should answer to child deaths too, as does CPS.

That is the equivalent of saying that foster care advocates or agencies providing foster care – or big, new foundation initiatives that stress foster care and adoption and ignore family preservation - should be blamed whenever a child, like, say Logan Marr, dies in foster care.

Lesley’s Twitter behavior is all the more dangerous when citing a case from Sacramento, which, until recently actually took away children at the highest rate of any large county in California.  (Apparently those parents rights groups arent so powerful after all.)


Rather than respond on the issues when I and one other advocate on Twitter took him to task, Lesley just repeated the same mantra over and over in tweet:

some parental rights groups always support parental control & treat kids as property.

After tweet:

Kids are treated as property by some. To act as if that isn't the case is what is ridiculous.

After tweet:

The whole system needs to be improved. But, kids are NEVER the property of others.

Dare to disagree with what Bruce Lesley believes and you’re allied with those evil “parents rights” groups who want to treat kids as property.  And, according to Bruce Lesley, “parent’s rights” groups somehow have something to “answer to” whenever a child known to the system dies.

This is the guy the Annie E. Casey Foundation has chosen to lead its new child welfare reform initiative. 

I have never seen Bruce Lesley tweet that foster care advocates are responsible when a foster child dies.  I’ve never seen him take to task the advocates who have left us with a system that tears apart thousands of families needlessly and churns out walking wounded four times out of five.  I’ve never seen him warn against the danger of responding to cases like the one in Sacramento with a foster-care panic, a huge, sudden surge in needless removals of children.  In fact, his tweets about the Sacramento case risk encouraging such panic.
Unlike some others in the field, Bruce Lesley has not been waging a concerted campaign against keeping families together.  As I noted above, in one of its rare previous forays into child welfare policy First Focus took an unusually progressive position.   I doubt that Lesley even knew the history of his kind of loaded rhetoric when he dashed off those 131 characters.  I doubt he had any idea of the kind of damage that kind of careless rhetoric did in the 1990s.  But that’s the kind of thing you need to know if you’re going to be in charge of a child welfare reform initiative that will depend, at least in part, on persuading policymakers and the public.