Monday, June 18, 2012

Foster care in America: Rutledge Q. Hutson is gloating - and that’s never good news for children

Regular readers of this blog might remember Rutledge Q. Hutson.  Her formal title is Director of Child Welfare Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.  A better title would be Leader of the “Yes, but…” Brigade that tried to stop Congress from enacting waivers from federal child welfare financing restrictions.  Those restrictions limit a huge pot of federal child welfare aid to funding foster care and nothing else.

Hutson is an expert practitioner of a standard tactic of America’s latter-day “child savers:” never say no to a good idea, just “yes, but…” it to death.

Despite her best efforts, Congress passed a law restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue up to ten child welfare waivers per year for the next three years.  But what Rutledge Q. Hutson and her allies couldn’t do in Congress, they managed to do through their man on the inside, Bryan Samuels, who runs the Administration on Children Youth and Families within HHS.  As is discussed in previous posts to this blog, Samuels has issued guidelines that effectively undercut the intent of waivers – to reduce needless foster care.  Instead, the guidelines seek to turn waivers into a program to make foster care “better” by providing more “services” to improve children’s “well-being.”

So it’s no wonder that last week, Rutledge Q. Hutson couldn’t resist gloating.  She took her victory lap during a meeting of representatives of various child welfare organizations.  For starters, she admitted the obvious: That she had, in fact, been against the waivers all along.  But not anymore.  Bryan Samuels had so radically altered their true purpose that Hutson was thrilled.  In particular, she’s ecstatic over the fact that waivers won’t be evaluated based on whether they keep children safely out of foster care and prevent reabuse. Instead, for a waiver to be successful it will have to show it also improved these children’s “well-being.”

This ignores two salient facts:

● The purpose of child protective services, the agency that can come into your home and take away your child, is not, in fact, to apply subjective judgments about that child’s “well-being.” Rather, its purpose is to prevent children from being abused.

● One of the best ways to improve any child’s “well-being” is to get him out of foster care if he’s already there and keep him out if he’s never been taken away.

Like almost all child savers, Hutson means well.  After all, the very first child saver, Charles Loring Brace, who, in the 19th Century, engineered the confiscation of thousands of poor Catholic immigrant children and shipped them off to the south and Midwest to be raised by Protestant families, also meant well.  He sincerely believed Catholic immigrant parents were genetically inferior, and his scheme was essential for their children’s “well-being.”  Both Charles Loring Brace and Rutledge Q. Hutson have devoted much of their professional lives to a vision for helping vulnerable children.  The problem isn’t the good intentions, the problem is the lousy vision.


Turning child welfare agencies into Well-Being Police sets up both waivers, and parents, to fail.  It actually risks increasing entries into care in states with waivers.

That’s because it compounds one of the biggest problems in the system right now: the fact that once a parent loses a child to foster care that parent actually is held to a higher standard than a parent who never had child protective services in her life in the first place.

For example, no law says that a person who is unemployed can’t have a child.  But once a child is in foster care, getting a job – not just any job, but a job that satisfies the whims of a caseworker - often is a condition for getting the child back. Similarly, no law says that parent who lacks housing deemed suitable by a caseworker can’t have a child.  But once the child has been taken away, regardless of the reason, “suitable housing” often is a condition for getting a child back.  Witness these cases from Texas and South Carolina.

Now, under the Samuels waiver guidelines, the bar for getting a child back and being allowed to keep that child is raised still higher.  Waiver success, and therefore, parental success, is to be judged not only based on whether the parent does not abuse the child, but also on the basis of whether all sorts of “well-being” indicators improve.  So if a waiver keeps children safely at home but they still do poorly at school, that’s a failure.  If a waiver keeps children safely at home but they still have the same emotional problems (plus those that may have been caused by foster care) that, too, is considered a failure of the waiver and the parent.

Obviously, that ratchets up the pressure on parents.  And it creates a back door to bring the coercive power of child protective services far deeper into a family’s life.  In short, it gives child protective services even more grounds to tear apart families and hold children in foster care.

Gwendolyn Clegg, a parental defense attorney in Oklahoma, aptly summed up the problem with this approach in a recent article in the Tulsa World:

"Social workers want to fix all the issues in the whole family. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. …[but] The law only requires you be a D-plus parent, meaning it only requires them to correct the reasons their kids came to us.”

Of course that kind of statement gives a lot of my fellow liberals (especially Rutledge Q. Hutson-type liberals) apoplexy.  After all, shouldn’t every child have A-plus parents?

Well yes.  But not by government force or fiat.

There are all sorts of ways government can and should improve children’s well-being.  Government could ensure that every American has decent health care.  Government could pour funds into low-performing inner city schools (and, by the way, stop scapegoating the people who teach there.)  Government could guarantee access to high quality day care and preschool.  Government could ensure that no American is homeless or lacks decent housing.

Every step the government takes to reduce the scourge of poverty will improve all children’s well-being and help parents do an A-plus job.  And not one of those steps involves imposing on families the extremely dangerous, coercive power of the state.

When it comes to what government should be able to do by force of law to a family, it should indeed require no more than D-plus parenting.  There are a lot of good reasons for that, not least the fact that, foster care so often produces D-minus outcomes for children.

The idea of government as Well-Being Police also plays right into the hands of those on the far right who love to stereotype all liberal ideas, and undercut all efforts of government to offer a true helping hand, by exploiting the extremism reflected in the Hutson-Samuels approach.


Does this mean waivers are doomed to do more harm than good?  Not necessarily.  The actual federal law creating the waivers includes none of this nonsense perverting their intent.  What Samuels has issued are guidelines.  Waiver proposals that focus on their rightful purpose, safely reducing foster care, and on measuring success by seeing if foster care is, in fact, safely reduced (as determined by things like reabuse rates and rates at which children are returned to foster care) still can be approved, particularly if there turns out not to be a lot of competition for the ten available each year.

And the public will have some voice, at least in theory.

The first round of waiver proposals are due on July 9.  At some point thereafter, ACYF will post the proposals on its website and solicit public comment.  So check back then and see if your state has submitted a waiver proposal.  Then speak out – for it if it meets the true purpose of waivers, and against it if it’s the kind of waiver that would make Rutledge Q. Hutson and her latter-day child saver allies jump for joy.

Because the final decision rests with someone who understands what a waiver is supposed to do.

ACYF is part of the Administration for Children and Families, which is run by George Sheldon.  Back when he was running the child welfare system in Florida, which implemented a classic waiver with great success, he testified at that same hearing as Rutledge Q. Hutson.  During that hearing Sheldon talked about meeting with former foster children:

Child after child after child told me I would have rather stayed at home and dealt with the issues in that home than gone into a foster care system where I was moved from home to home and school to school.

So the best hope, maybe the only hope, for what should have been the biggest change for the better in American child welfare in decades is that George Sheldon will show Bryan Samuels who’s boss.