Monday, March 26, 2012

Foster care in West Virginia: A small newspaper breaks a big story

            Every once in awhile an enterprising reporter writes a story that amounts to an x-ray of a child welfare agency’s soul.  The picture always is ugly.  But no other story I’ve ever read is more searing than the story that appeared last week in a West Virginia weekly, the Spirit of Jefferson.

            What makes this story even more exceptional is that such a big story, and so much dogged reporting, came from such a small newspaper.  The story is behind a very low “paywall” – it will cost you all of fifteen cents to read.  The short time it takes to sign up is more of a barrier.  It’s worth every minute.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Child welfare and race: Did the past meet the future at Chapin Hall’s forum?

Video of the presentations discussed below is available, in full, here.  The section discussed below begins about 30 minutes in.

            About two weeks ago, I wrote about some of the new findings on child welfare and race discussed at a forum convened by the Chapin Hall Center for Children last month.  But the forum itself was as interesting as the findings.

            During the forum, I got a glimpse of child welfare’s promising future, and a reminder of its failed past.  At least I hope that’s what was reflected in two competing visions.

            The future (I hope) was represented by Eric Fenner, who recently retired from a job running the child welfare system in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio.  Fenner took over from a longtime agency chief, John Saros.  Though Fenner was too polite to say so, Saros was the quintessence of all that is mediocre in child welfare.  Year after year, whenever I would read a John Saros quote in the Columbus Dispatch, I would envision a man shrugging his shoulders.

            Saros finally was eased out of Columbus (and promptly landed the same job in nearby Akron).  He left a huge mess behind.  In 2005 the rate of child removal in Columbus was so high that, were it a state it would be the worst in the entire nation.

That changed when Fenner, the first African American ever to run the agency, took over.  Before he ran the agency, Fenner said, there were 6,382 children on its caseloads, of whom 47 percent were African American, 43 percent were white and the rest were other races.  By 2010, the total caseload was cut by nearly one-third, to 4,435, of whom 44 percent were white and 41 percent were African American.

How did things change?  For starters, Fenner’s agency faced up to the problem, something many in child welfare – including, it seems, the very next speaker at the Chapin Hall panel - still refuse to do.  Said Fenner:

Racial bias specific to decision making as a case progresses through the child welfare system is a critically-important consideration in trying to explain [the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care].  If you don’t address racial bias in your organizational practices, I don’t think it really matters what else you do.  You will continue to experience overrepresentation and disparities when it comes to treatment and approaches.

But that does not mean bringing in someone to wag a finger in the face of all the white people in the agency and tell them what racists they are.  They’d actually tried that 25 years earlier, Fenner said, and it took decades for the agency to recover. Instead, Fenner drew a crucial distinction. 

            We began with the premise that individuals could not be racist.  They could be biased – and they probably held preconceived notions, but could not be racists – because [as individuals] they lacked one fundamental element: power.

Individuals can hold beliefs, but they can’t hold you in a repressive state of existence.  If I don’t like you I can move away from you, but if I don’t like how you investigate me  I can’t ignore you, you have authority to investigate me, you have the authority to tell me how I should raise my children, and you have the authority to terminate my parental rights. 

That’s power.  As a representative of that institution - that’s where the racism existed.

(Note how Fenner doesn’t hide behind the b.s. about “we don’t have any power only the courts can take children away” – he knows where the power really lies.)


Once the agency faced up to the problem, people realized they’d been overlooking a vital resource that had been part of poor communities in Columbus for a century: settlement houses.  “We had never connected with them and they had been there for 100 years,” Fenner said.

We started to put more money into settlement houses. … Many of those settlement houses were within walking distance of the kids we were serving.  It’s so much easier to go to an after school program two blocks away, than to see a therapist on the other end of town once a week.  … Most of those kids really had issues and problems that could be addressed on a voluntary basis.

And Fenner had a way to make voluntary help work: Franklin County became one of a number of Ohio counties piloting “differential response,” an approach embraced by progressive child welfare leaders across the country.  Under differential response, low-risk cases are referred for an assessment instead of a full-scale investigation.  Twenty-three separate evaluations of differential response have found no compromise of child safety.  Every evaluation found lower rates of subsequent reports alleging abuse for families diverted to a differential response assessment.

In part, this new approach was rooted in Eric Fenner’s own life experience:

I grew up in inner-city Washington DC, in a poor neighborhood.  …  If you didn’t have a chance to meet me and know me, or come to the neighborhood I grew up in, just saw it on a datamap, you’d walk away with one perspective. But if you came to the neighborhood and you if you spent a few days with children and families you would walk away with very different perspective.  It’s more than the data and the research, it’s really about the people and who they are and where they came from.


If the very next speaker was listening to any of this, it had no apparent impact on his presentation.  That speaker; the one who, I hope, is the blast from the past, was John Mattingly, now back at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which he’d left in 2004 to run the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.

As I’ve noted before, NCCPR would not exist if not for John Mattingly – he recommended that Casey fund us back in 1998.  So whenever the topic is John Mattingly I have to choose between being a hypocrite - ignoring statements and decisions I would criticize had they come from anyone else - or an ingrate.  Once again, I choose ingrate.

Mattingly’s presentation was defensive and, at times, disturbingly arrogant.  Just moments after Fenner’s clarion call to face up to the fact that racial bias is “a critically important factor” in the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care, Mattingly said, in effect: Well, the jury’s still out – much the way tobacco companies spent all those years saying we still don’t really know if smoking causes cancer.

But here’s the statement that should make jaws drop.  Apparently John Mattingly is a strong believer in the Myth of Child Welfare Exceptionalism; the notion that people who work in child welfare are just plain better than the rest of us mere mortals, and have developed an immunity to prejudice.  Or, as Mattingly put it:

While rigorous research has demonstrated that racial bias and discrimination exists in key public systems, including financial lending, employment, education, juvenile justice and housing. I personally know of no studies that can accurately claim the same for child welfare systems.  Certainly the doubt must be there that racial bias and discrimination also exist in our nation’s child welfare systems, yet we have no reason to believe that racial bias is the only or even the primary cause of disparities. 

Right.  It’s only all those other places – financial lending, employment, education, juvenile justice, and housing where it’s a problem. Child welfare?  Well, maybe a little, but we’re oh, so special. (By the way, there is in fact, plenty of evidence for bias in child welfare.)

Mattingly’s big, overarching fear is that somehow, somewhere in America there is a Black child who has been denied the benefits of having a child protective services agency barge into her or his family’s life, because of his race.  The fact that there is only one state in America where Black children are in foster care at a lower rate than in the general population  has not quelled his fears.

And by intervention, Mattingly does not mean something smart like “differential response.”  On the contrary, he’s opposed it for at least a decade, and blocked its implementation in New York City.  No, a typical case when Mattingly ran ACS was more like the appalling example discussed in this previous post.

Yes, Black children are overrepresented in foster care, Mattingly says, but that’s just because Black parents are more likely to be child abusers.  Or, as Mattingly put it:

Recent evidence shows significant difference in the need for child welfare intervention by race. African American children are, in fact, at greater risk of child maltreatment than white children across the entire society. That should be no surprise given the correlation between child maltreatment and poverty and the higher rates of poverty and social disorganization facing African American families.

But that is not, in fact, what “recent evidence” reveals.  Rather, a great deal of this so- called “greater risk of maltreatment” is a consequence of labeling.  Poverty itself often is labeled neglect.  Since Black families are more likely to be poor, their children are more likely to be labeled “neglected.”  This example from Houston is a classic case in point.

So what the recent evidence shows is a need not for intervention by child protective services but rather for intervention to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty – the kind of thing done through options like differential response, which John Mattingly opposes.

One can only hope that this really is the past, and that Eric Fenner really does represent the future.  The reverse is too depressing to contemplate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Foster care in Nebraska: The Governor agrees: His state takes too many children

UPDATE, MARCH 19: The Lincoln Journal Star also agrees in an editorial today.

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman had an interesting perspective on NCCPR’s new report on Nebraska child welfare.  The report says that Nebraska takes away too many children.

The governor says we’re right.  He told the Nebraska Radio Network:

Another key issue that we still haven’t resolved yet that we need to get to the bottom of: why in this family-friendly state called Nebraska do twice as many kids come in to our child welfare system as any other state in America? We need to address that.

He doesn’t have the figures quite right – Nebraska’s rate of child removal is more than double the national average when comparing entries into foster care to total child population.  Using the fairer method that factors in rates of child poverty, Nebraska’s rate of removal is more than triple the national average.  But at least Heineman is saying he seems to realize that wrongful removal is the problem that is driving everything else.

The governor says he’s not ready to decide if he’ll sign a series of child welfare bills likely to pass soon – bills which have one thing in common: They do absolutely nothing to address the state’s obscene rate of removal.  As for what he could do: So far, his state human services agency has committed itself to applying for a waiver from federal funding restrictions.  That was one of our 25 recommendations for reform.  How about the other 24? He could start by admitting that the disastrous law he pushed that punishes children for being sick and unable to attend school needs to be repealed.

The governor’s response probably is a result of the extensive coverage of the news conference called by NCCPR and the Family Advocacy Movement to release the report at the State Capitol Monday.

That coverage included this story from KLKN-TV in Lincoln:

And also:  KOLN/KGIN, Lincoln/Grand Island, KHAS-TV, Hastings/Grand Island, KVNO Public Radio, the Associated Press, Nebraska Watchdog, and the Omaha World-Herald.  The Nebraska Radio Network’s story includes the audio for the entire news conference.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Child welfare in Nebraska: Never mind the deck chairs, SAVE THE SHIP

Today, NCCPR releases a comprehensive report on child welfare in Nebraska, where the child welfare system sometimes seems to exist just to make the others look good.  This link   goes to the full report and supporting material, including more graphics like the one below, illustrating the state’s obscene rate of removal: 

Number of children taken from their homes
per thousand impoverished children, 2010:

                                                 IL    AL   US*   ME   FL    NE
                                                                              *National Average

Also today, on our blog at the trade journal Youth Today, we look at one of Nebraska's key child welfare failures:  a truancy law that eliminates all distinction between an excused and an unexcused absence from school.  The law turns children into criminals, and subjects their parents to child abuse investigations, if they keep the children home from school for too many days for any reason – even serious illness.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Child welfare in Los Angeles: The lawyer who didn’t know his own client (and other things we know only because L.A. courts now are open)

            Granted, a hearing in a child welfare case can include a lot of people.  There may be a lawyer for each parent as well as the children and, of course the child welfare agency.  The entire family may be present, along with witnesses.  That’s just for one case, and these courts hear a lot of cases.

            Still, you would think that Kyle Puro, a court-appointed lawyer for indigent parents would have recognized the guy sitting right next to him in Los Angeles County dependency court recently.

            It was his client.

            Puro was “representing” the father of a 15-year-old boy.  Apparently, he’d either never met the man or spoke to him so briefly whenever they did meet that it didn’t make much of an impression. Yet now, Puro was supposed to stand there and make the strongest possible case for his client – whoever the guy is.

            The referee (sort of a not-quite-judge in these kinds of cases) Robert Stevenson, was not pleased.  He became even less pleased when he found out that Puro didn’t have his file for the case with him either.  “You’ve got to pull it together,” Stevenson told Puro, before ordering Puro to join him in another room for a private chat.

            We know about Kyle Puro’s apparent lack of preparation thanks to Ben Baeder, a reporter for a chain of newspapers in suburban Los Angeles, including the Pasadena Star News.  He’s written the best eyewitness account yet, in the month since such accounts became possible.

Until just over a month ago, most people in Los Angeles would have had no way of knowing about appalling lapses like this.  It all would have taken place behind closed doors.  But then Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, who is at least as fed up with this kind of sloppiness as Stevenson, ordered those doors opened.  Now hearings are presumed open to the press.  Members of the public have to meet a higher bar for entry, but they stand a better chance of getting in than in the past.

            Notwithstanding the fact that parents in these cases often are among those most anxious to have these hearings open, Kyle Puro’s bosses are trying to get Judge Nash’s order overturned and shut the public out again.  No wonder.  Imagine the public seeing the wretched performance of their attorneys day after day.  People might even wonder if Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, Inc. (LADL), a consortium of private law firms, located one next to the other on the fourth floor of the same building, really ought to have this contract at all.

            Something similar happened in New York City.  In part because of news accounts after these courts were opened there, the system for assigning counsel to indigent parents was completely revamped – and vastly improved.  Santa Clara County also saw changes after judges there let Karen De Sa of the San Jose Mercury News see what really goes on.

            But in Los Angeles, Puro’s boss, Marlene Furth, was busy blaming the presence of a reporter for Puro’s apparent memory lapse:

            "There was just this level of tension," she said of a reporter being in the courtroom. "Everyone is like, `The press is watching. The press is watching."'

            In fact, the blunder may not have been entirely Puro’s fault.  If his caseload was typical, in addition to representing the father he didn’t even recognize, Puro was representing parents in 199 other cases.  Furth told reporter Baeder that

"The one thing [the lawyers] say, the one thing, is that they don't have time to talk with their clients," she said.  There isn't really time to have a case-by-case review of whether the press should be in the courtroom, attorneys said.

            Of course, if you don’t have time to talk to your client, there is no time for a case-by-case review about anything – and no way you can possibly provide decent representation.  So legal representation for indigent parents becomes little more than a sham.

            There also are questions about whether high caseloads are necessary for the firms that make up LADL to stay in business.

            The story doesn’t say how much money the firms are paid, but the law firm supposedly representing the children (where the attorneys juggle caseloads of “only” 150)   get $680 per case.  No, not $680 per hour, or even $680 per day - $680 per case.  If that’s what Los Angeles is paying the firm that represents the children, it’s hard to imagine that, politically, there is any way the firms representing parents are doing any better.

            Thanks to open courts, and Baeder’s story, we learned about some odd behavior by at least one lawyer representing children as well:

One attorney representing a 2-year-old child recommended the county launch an investigation into the child's former foster parents because the foster parents had taught the child a few words in sign language. The attorney alleged it inhibited the child's verbal speech, but an investigation was never launched.

The child's birth parents defended the former foster parents. "They did a great job," said the [child’s] father of the former foster parents.

It was a happy day for him and the child's mother. They had officially regained custody of their daughter and were no longer under court supervision.

            So, thanks to open courts, readers learned that birth parents and foster parents aren’t always adversaries – they can work together to help a child, as long as the child’s “law guardian” doesn’t come along and throw a monkey wrench into the works.

            Needless to say, the firm that has the contract to represent children’s attorneys also is trying to get Judge Nash’s ruling overturned.

            But in the meantime, the quality of representation just might get just a little better.  Because, as Marlene Furth would say: “The press is watching. The press is watching.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Child welfare and race: The not-so-shocking data that shocked Chapin Hall

            The Chapin Hall Center for Children, the onetime orphanage and residential treatment center that now often is home to regressive advocacy disguised as “scholarship” held a forum last month about “new findings” concerning child welfare and race. The findings seemed to  thoroughly flummox the Chapin Hall researchers.

            But there’s nothing perplexing about the findings.  In fact, they mirror what NCCPR has been finding for years, when we compare the propensity of states and counties to take away children.

            Chapin Hall compared the proportion of Black children taken from their homes and the rate of racial disparity – the extent to which Black children are in foster care at a rate above their rate in the general population – to levels of poverty and “social disadvantage” in various communities.

            They expected to find that proportionately more Black children would be removed and that disparity rates would be higher in counties with higher poverty rates and greater social disadvantage.  In fact, they found the opposite.

            But of course Chapin Hall expected this because Chapin Hall wants to believe certain things: First, they want to believe that poverty not only is confused with neglect but also contributes greatly to actual child abuse.  Since child abuse is linked to stress and poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, it is reasonable that there would be some increase in actual child abuse in poor communities.  But that is likely to be dwarfed by the extent to which the poverty itself is confused with neglect. 

            Chapin Hall also wants to believe that child welfare systems are rational – that caseworkers go in with their checklists of “risk factors” and remove children based on the actual amount of harm or threat of harm. 

            If these hypotheses are true, then, of course, there would be not only a greater number of Black children removed in poor communities, but also a greater proportion of Black children removed in poorer communities.  

            Such findings also would help Chapin Hall it its ongoing efforts to downplay the role of racial bias in child welfare decision-making.

            But instead, they found the opposite.  They found that the proportion of Black children taken away and rates of disparity actually were greater in counties with less child poverty. 

            They can’t figure out why.  And as long as they’re “in denial” about the extent of racial bias in child welfare, they never will.

            In fact, this is something NCCPR has been tracking for years.  We’ve noticed, for example, that the rate of removal  - entries into care compared to the total number of impoverished children – tends to be lower in big cities than their surrounding states.  So New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, for example, all have lower rates of removal than New York State, Illinois and California.

            Several times, when comparing rates of removal within states, we’ve found astoundingly high rates in very affluent counties.

            Once you acknowledge that the racial bias that is part of the rest of American life does not, in fact, stop at the child welfare agency door, it’s not all that hard to figure out why. 

            Big cities often are poorer than their surrounding states.  In addition, the poverty in big cities is concentrated and very, very visible.  So child protective services caseworkers are used to it.  They see it all the time.  So they are less likely to confuse the poverty they see with neglect.

            In contrast, in a county filled with McMansions, the substandard housing in which poor people must live may well shock a caseworker, so she is more likely to take the child and run.

            Similarly, there is likely to be more racial bias in a community where few minorities live.  

            One can see how this all plays out by looking at one very, very affluent county in Georgia; Fayette County, near Atlanta.  Median household income in Fayette County is $79,000 per year, compared to $46,000 for the state as a whole.  When we first calculated the rate of removal in Georgia counties, in 2007, Fayette county had one of the highest rates of removal we’d ever seen in any jurisdiction anywhere in America to that point. 

            There were very, very few poor people in Fayette County – but the poor people who were there were prime targets for child protective services in a way that just didn’t happen in, say, Atlanta.

            In the intervening years three things happened:

            ● NCCPR’s findings prompted the Fayette County NAACP to increase its own, ongoing efforts to curb bias in child welfare in the county – they already had been active as a result of individual cases.

            ● Reform-minded leaders at the state child welfare agency replaced the leaders in the Fayette County office and began working to curb wrongful removal.

            ● But also, the demographics of the county changed.  The percentage of children living in poverty, though still low, nearly doubled, from 5.9 percent to ten percent.

            Total entries into care declined sharply, and today the rate of removal in Fayette County is roughly at the state average.

            A combination of aggressive action by local advocates and the state and the simple fact that Fayette County child welfare workers got more familiar with poor people and less prone to confuse their poverty with neglect – or their race with bad parenting – made a huge difference.

            So the Chapin Hall findings are a mystery only if, like the people at Chapin Hall, you are unwilling to accept that racial disparity in child welfare has a whole lot to do with – race.