Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Foster care in America: The threat to waivers is even worse than I thought

As is discussed in the previous post to this Blog, when I read the guidance issued by the Administration on Children Youth and Families (ACYF) concerning the kinds of proposals they want to see for child welfare waivers, I was worried.

Now that I’ve heard ACYF Commissioner Bryan Samuels give a presentation about this guidance, I’m even more worried.

Samuels’ approach to child welfare in general, and waivers in particular, is one more classic example of good intentions gone wrong.  Samuels spent a large part of his own childhood in “the system.” I’m sure there is nothing he wants more than to transform the lives of other vulnerable children.  He’s devoted his life to it.  But Samuels’ personal experience was very different from most, and it’s blinded him to the fact that, for most children, the system is unfixable.  It’s blinded him to the fact that the first priority needs to be keeping children safely out of that system.

Last week, I listened by phone to one of several presentations Samuels has given around the country.  Here’s why it was so discouraging:

● Over and over and over again Samuels demeaned the notion that keeping children out of foster care is an end in itself; in effect, dismissing the mass of evidence that foster care is so inherently harmful that its safe reduction should be the top priority for waivers.   “That should not be the measure of success,” Samuels said.  “We want outcomes other than ‘we prevented foster care.’”

● Over and over and over he said that the two standard federal measures of progress – and of child safety -  reducing reabuse of children “known to the system” and foster care recidivism (the proportion of children returned home from foster care who are placed again) - are not valid measures of whether children are better off.  Rather, he prefers inherently more subjective measures of children’s “well-being.”

This ignores the fundamental fact that if you reduce reabuse and foster care recidivism you are improving children’s “well being.”  The whole point of the child protection system is to prevent child abuse.  If you reduce reabuse you have accomplished your primary goal.

That should, in fact, be the primary goal of a system aimed at children and families that includes the ultimate element of coercion.  Any system that can take away your children forever should not be involved in the highly-subjective assessment of whether children are happier or smarter.  Because if you allow that, then you allow coercive systems that have near absolute power and are permeated with racial and class bias to start judging whether impoverished Black children would have improved “well-being” if only they were confiscated from their families and assigned to live with middle-class white strangers.  The problems with that should be obvious.

That doesn’t mean “well-being” should be ignored.  But it should be addressed through a strong network of well-funded services made available to families on a voluntary basis.


● Samuels belittled the achievements under current waivers – including the only  comprehensive statewide waiver – the one in Florida.  “Their crowning achievements are modest,” Samuels said.

The Florida waiver was implemented by two former secretaries of the state Department of Children and Families, Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon.  There is nothing modest about their achievements in using the waiver to dramatically reduce the number of children in foster care on any given day and entries into foster care over the course of a year, while improving child safety (as documented by independent evaluations).  It’s probably one of the reasons Sheldon was named to run the Administration for Children and Families – making him Bryan Samuels’ boss.  But Samuels apparently doesn’t think much of his boss’ work.

● Samuels derided one round of waiver proposals (I couldn’t make out over the phone if it was past proposals or those they may have received already for the current round), criticizing them because they “focus almost exclusively on deflecting children from entering care” – which is exactly what waivers should do.

Yes, Samuels couched all this in terms of providing more “help.”  He argued that children in foster care get more “services” than children in their own homes, and focusing on outcomes other that reducing reabuse and foster-care recidivism would push states to provide more “services” to children in their own homes.

But that is sophistry.  As I noted above, the whole point of having a child protective services system is to stop children from suffering from child abuse.  There are three ways to accomplish this:

--Stop taking children when they were not abused in the first place (when, for example, poverty is confused with neglect).  Instead, provide help to ease the worst of the poverty.
--If stress is building in a family that might lead that family to mistreat a child, provide the help that will ease the stress.
--Where there really has been maltreatment, provide families with the actual help they need so they don’t do whatever it was they did before. 

All of these already require more services.  Reducing reabuse is an excellent, relatively objective surrogate measure for whether the family is getting more help and whether the child’s “well-being” has improved.  Certainly it’s a better measure than some therapist’s subjective assessment – particularly if the therapist is being paid for every session of therapy she or he administers, or works in a group home or institution paid for every day it holds onto the child.


● Samuels again made his distorted priorities obvious when he gave some examples of relatively low cost ways states could spend their waiver money, making clear these are things he’d like to see in proposals:

            --More “parent education.”
            --More effective “counseling” that might not be covered by Medicaid.
            --Helping young people in “independent living” develop relationship skills.
            --Training foster parents in understanding trauma.

In other words, use the money to make foster care “better” instead of to further reduce it. 

Notice also that these are the kinds of services likely to warm the hearts of the “foster care-industrial complex” – the network of counselors, parent educators, and operators of group homes and institutions who live off a steady supply of foster children.  They’re so-called “soft” services in which the family is “diagnosed” with an “illness” and cured through the beneficence of people who, in the 19th Century, proudly called themselves “child savers.”  There was no mention of the kinds of concrete help like housing and child care and emergency cash that most families caught up in the system really need.

● Perhaps most appalling, Samuels even suggested that the waiver funds could be used for “redesigning how group homes work” and making residential treatment centers better.  Once again, Samuels ignored the mountain of research showing that institutions not only do not work, but also are inherently harmful.


That was the great paradox of Samuels’ presentation.  It was slathered in stultifying, au courant child welfare jargon.  Indeed, Bryan Samuels seems to believe there is no problem in child welfare that can’t be solved by throwing buzzwords at it.  One slide in the inevitable power-point presentation was headed: “Initiative to Improve Access to Needs-Driven Evidence-Based/Evidence-Informed Mental and Behavioral Health Services in Child Welfare.” 

The good news: A state that loads up its proposal with enough buzzwords probably will be able to do what it wants.

The bad news: Though Samuels constantly chants the mantra of “evidence based/evidence informed” he refuses to face up to the evidence about substitute care.

For example, in proposing that states waste waiver dollars on making residential treatment centers better, he cites one study of one institution that supposedly improved outcomes – but  the study did not follow up to see what happened to the residents after they were discharged.  In contrast, dozens of studies show the enormous inherent harm of residential treatment.  But Bryan Samuels pretends that evidence base doesn’t exist.

Only at the very end of his presentation, in response to a specific question, did Samuels make comments that appeared to be favorable toward some of the things one community, Los Angeles, tried to do to curb entries using its waiver.

What accounts for this?  Probably the tyranny of personal experience.

Samuels was institutionalized – living in the same institution for 11 years.  Unlike most, he was able to cope with it.  And in a system in which only one in five alumni does well, he became one of the one in five. 

But that, apparently, has left him incapable of facing up to what the system does to the other four in five; and, in particular incapable of getting beyond a notion that boils down to:  If we just make the foster homes and the group homes and the institutions “better” the other four in five will do just as well as I did.

The evidence base says otherwise.  And someone needs to make sure Bryan Samuels faces up to that, before a whole lot of money – and children’s lives – are wasted on waivers designed to “fix” foster care.  Because the evidence base is overwhelming: The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.  And that is what waivers should be all about.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Foster care in America: HHS guidelines undermine child welfare waivers

The best chance in decades to get serious about reducing the number of children torn from their families each year is being undermined by the agency that is supposed to make it work.

Last September, Congress restored the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue “waivers” from rules that restrict a huge proportion of federal child welfare aid to funding foster care and only foster care.

Under current law, the foster care money is an open-ended entitlement.  For every “eligible” child placed in foster care – and that’s nearly half of all foster children – the federal government picks up a large share of the cost.  This creates a horrendous incentive: Though foster care costs more than better alternatives in total dollars, there are times when it might cost a state or county less to use foster care because the federal government picks up so much of the tab.

States that receive waivers get the chance to spend the money on better alternatives, as well as on foster care.  In exchange, they accept the money as a flat grant instead of the current open-ended entitlement.  The state gets the same amount of money, plus inflation, for every year of the waiver (typically five years), even if there are fewer children in care.  So as foster care is reduced, the state gets to keep the savings, as long as those savings are plowed back into child welfare.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that, had this deal been made available to every state back in 2005, and had every state accepted it, the states would have had $5 billion more to spend on child welfare by 2010 than they actually got under the current entitlement.

So the fact that Congress now is allowing ten states per year over the next three years to receive these waivers seemed like a real breakthrough.  But the devil is in the details – in this case, the guidelines issued by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF).  The guidelines appear to have been written to undermine any effort to use waivers to prevent children from entering foster care or to speed reunification.  They will be discussed at a so-called “town hall meeting” at the ACYF offices in Washington this afternoon.


For starters, the guidelines accept the false premise that all children in foster care have been abused or neglected.  The guidelines emphasize addressing the trauma caused by that abuse.  Nowhere do the guidelines recognize that many children in foster care have not, in fact, been abused or neglected (unless one considers poverty itself to be neglect) and it is foster care itself that often causes the trauma.

So it’s no wonder that instead of encouraging states to curb needless foster care – indeed, that’s not even listed as a goal - the guidelines give top priority to doing no more than providing a bigger Band-Aid to cover the gaping wounds opened by needless foster care placement.  The second priority is to create still more incentives to push adoption.

For page after page, the guidelines prattle on about improving “well-being outcomes.”  In other words: Try to undo some of the harm already done by bouncing children from home to home by providing more “counseling.” Or try to undo the harm done by moving foster children from school to school with mentoring programs and tutoring.

To the extent that helping families is mentioned at all, it is in a context that strongly implies providing more “counseling” for them – after their children already are in foster care.

Thus, for example, the guidelines state that

in order to achieve better outcomes for children who have experienced maltreatment it is essential to engage families, whether biological, foster or adoptive, in the process of healing and recovery. [Emphasis added.]

Note first the use of the pejorative, offensive term “biological parent,” instead of “birth parent,” which is value neutral.  The rest of the sentence makes clear the author’s view that all children in foster care have been abused and need help to heal from what the abusers did to them.


At least one study actually has tried to measure how much good this Band-Aid approach would do.  The answer?  Not much.

The study, done by Casey Family Programs in cooperation with Harvard Medical School, found that only about 20 percent of former foster children are “doing well” as young adults. (There is a complete analysis of the study and a link to the full study on our website here.)

The authors went on to design a complex mathematical formula to attempt to figure out how much they could improve these outcomes if  they could invent and use the perfect Band-Aid and every single problem besetting the foster care system magically were fixed. Their answer: 22.2 percentage points.  In other words, if tomorrow, foster care miraculously became perfect, it would churn out walking wounded only three times out of five, instead of four.  Yes, that’s worth doing – but not at the expense of better solutions.

To see why Band-Aids don’t work, one need look only at an example from the ACYF guidelines concerning an issue they propose to target: the misuse and overuse of psychiatric mediation on foster children.  This is a very serious, very real problem – but it is a problem inherent in foster care.  We know this because when children with exactly the same kinds of needs are placed in kinship foster care – that is with relatives – the percentage placed on meds is far lower.  It’s not hard to figure out why.  Grandparents are a lot more likely to love these children than total strangers – so grandparents are a lot more likely to put up with behavior that would prompt a stranger to demand a prescription to make the child more docile.

Thus, the solution to the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children is to keep more children out of foster care and, where that’s absolutely unavoidable, do more to place them with relatives.  But the guidelines are seeking proposals not to curb foster care but only to provide that bigger Band-Aid, in this case “behavioral and psychosocial interventions [that] are considered first line or concurrent treatments for children for whom psychotropic medication is being considered or used.”


The second priority is using waiver funds to further increase adoptions. 

Since 1997, the American child welfare system has been fanatical about equating permanence for children with adoption. The federal government even has offered states a bounty of up to $12,000 for every finalized adoption of a foster child over a baseline number – sometimes with awful results.  There is no similar incentive for reunifying families.

Instead of trying to balance the scales by asking for waiver proposals that emphasize quickly and safely reunifying families, the guidelines seek proposals that will further tilt those scales toward adoption.  Indeed, in a section discussing the need for programs to address permanence, every example deals with adoption.

Still another section deals with changing financial incentives for the foster care-industrial complex, the network of private foster care agencies, professional helpers and assorted hangers-on that lives off a steady supply of foster children.

The guidelines call for proposals that will implement “performance based payments.”  Often called performance-based contracting, this has enormous potential to reduce needless foster care.  A state with a waiver could use flexible funds to reward agencies for keeping children out of foster care or increasing the number of children reunified with their parents.  But the guidelines ignore those possibilities.  Instead, the one and only example offered is this:

A state could condition provider payments … on measurable improvements in child well-being outcomes or increased numbers of successful adoptions among the longest-waiting children in foster care.


On one level, this fundamental betrayal of the primary purpose of waivers shouldn’t be surprising.  These priorities are a perfect reflection of the priorities Bryan Samuels, the commissioner of ACYF, the agency which drafted the guidelines.  His unfortunate priorities have been noted on this Blog before.

Fortunately, Samuels’ boss knows better.  His boss is George Sheldon, commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families (ACYF is a division of ACF and both are within HHS).  As Secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families Sheldon and his predecessor, Bob Butterworth implemented the only statewide waiver granted the last time they were made available in 2006.  They used the waiver to cut significantly both the number of children in foster care on any given day and entries into care.  They did it by emphasizing permanence in all its forms – reducing the number of children who entered care, bolstering reunification and adoption.

Few people in child welfare seem to have a better understanding of the need to prevent needless foster care than Sheldon.  And Sheldon championed waivers both before and after taking the job at ACF.

That suggests that a state that really wants to use its waiver to actually reduce foster care through prevention and reunification probably still can do it – and should not be discouraged from trying by these guidelines.  The guidelines have lots of wiggle room.  And, frankly, it’s possible there won’t be much competition for the ten waivers available each year.

So a state with gutsy leadership and a strong commitment to prevention and family preservation still should be able to get a waiver.  But the state will have to emphasize what Bryan Samuels already should know:

● The best way to improve the “well-being” of children at risk of foster care is to make sure they are never placed in foster care.

● And the best way to improve the “well-being” of foster children is to get them the hell out of foster care.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Foster care in Michigan: Did the state’s child welfare chief mislead the public on purpose ...

…or was she just appallingly ignorant herself?

That’s the question raised by the latest outstanding investigative report from WXYZ-TV in Detroit.  In a series of reports dating back to last August, the station exposed the fact that probation officers were – literally – rubber stamping court orders to tear children from their families; orders that are supposed to be approved only by a real live judge.  The issue first came to light as a result of Maryanne Godboldo’s fight to rescue her daughter from needless institutionalization by the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Not surprisingly, that happens to be illegal.  But the practice was stopped only after WXYZ exposed it.

But the Wayne County Juvenile Court refuses to release any information about how many children were removed illegally or what has happened to them.  Neither will the Michigan Department of Human Services – unless the television station pays more than $32,000.  In effect, DHS is holding what should be public information for ransom.

If anyone should be scrupulous about adhering to the law it is the Director of Michigan DHS, Maura Corrigan.  After all, she is a former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

But, as WXYZ reported:

Following one of our first stories a year ago about child removals, DHS Director Maura Corrigan refused to speak to us on camera.  The day after our investigation aired, Corrigan wrote an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press.  The headline: “Removing children from families always follows legal procedures.”

Now that that’s been proven to be false – we asked a DHS spokesman if they have been trying to determine how many children may have been wrongly taken from homes with invalid court orders. [Emphasis added.]

This raises an obvious question: Did Corrigan know full well that the process of removing children from their homes in Detroit was rife with illegality when she claimed otherwise – or was she appallingly ignorant herself?

If it’s the latter, it appears Corrigan has been doing nothing to educate herself.  Because in answer to WXYZ’s question, the agency said it is not lifting a finger to find out how many other children were affected by illegal rubber-stamp removals.

And if you’re wondering what the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” – the group that has a consent decree with Michigan DHS – is doing about all this, the answer is: absolutely nothing.  More than nine months after the illegal rubber-stamp removals were revaled, CR hasn’t said a word about them.

But at least one member of Congress isn’t settling for silence and stonewalling.  In a follow up story, WXYZ reports that Representative Hansen Clarke (D – Detroit) is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Corrigan’s agency.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Foster care in Maine: Will one dumb politician undo a decade of progress?

UPDATE, MAY 16: Longtime Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz has a great column today about a classic case of Maine's child welfare agency confusing poverty with neglect - a perfect illustration of why the state needs to do more, not less, to curb needless foster care.

I’ve written often about the transformation of child welfare in Maine, and how child safety improved after the state abandoned a take-the-child-and-run approach in favor of one which emphasizes safe, proven programs to keep families together.  I’ve written about how the death of Logan Marr, a little girl taken needlessly from her mother only to die at the hands of her foster mother, a former child welfare caseworker, shocked the conscience of the state.

Maine’s reforms have been recognized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which made those reforms a finalist for its Innovations in American Government awards.  The executive director of Maine’s leading child advocacy organization, the Maine Children’s Alliance, who also serves as the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman, even wrote a guest column for this Blog praising the reforms.

Unfortunately, because child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA, sometimes all it takes is one dumb politician to bring down a decade of reform.  Looks like Maine has found its dumb politician, the current governor, Paul LePage.  For starters, as Governing magazine reported, LePage got rid of Jim Beougher, the head of the child welfare division at the state Department of Health and Human Services, who led the reform effort.

Now LePage has found a horror story to exploit. In the wake of that case, LePage now says he “feels” that the state has gone too far in reducing entries into care.  The state’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, compounded the error by confusing two sets of numbers, wrongly claiming that entries into care in Maine have been cut in half.  They have not.

Here are the facts, and how they stack up against LePage’s “feeling.”

● No state can prevent every child abuse death.  Though each is the worst form of tragedy let us be grateful that the number is low enough, especially in a small state like Maine, that the number can rise or fall due to random chance.  That’s why the federal government uses a different measure: the percentage of children reabused in any way within six months after their cases become “known to the system.” 

Since Maine began its reforms in 2003, that percentage has declined by 20 percent.  In other words, with caseworkers spending less time on false allegations and trivial cases, they have found more children in real danger, and made Maine’s children safer – not safe enough, but safer than they were during the era of take-the-child-and-run; the era to which LePage apparently wants to return.

● The claim that the number of children removed from their homes in Maine has declined by 50 percent is flat-out false; and all it takes is two clicks of a mouse to prove it. 

Every state must report these data to the federal government.  In Maine, the number of children removed over the course of a year peaked at 1,052 in 2000 and 1,047 in 2001.  Click here to see for yourself. The number of removals fell after Logan Marr died, and after the PBS series Frontline exposed the failure of Maine’s former take-the-child- and-run approach to the entire nation.  In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, 760 children were taken from their families in Maine.  Again, click to see for yourself.

So yes, over the course of a decade, entries declined, as they should – but by about 27 percent, not 50 percent.

● As can be seen by clicking on those same links, the number that fell by about 50 percent is the number of children trapped in foster care on Sept. 30 of each year.  But that number can rise or fall for reasons totally unrelated to whether children are taken away in the first place. 

Children taken more than a decade ago, during the heyday of Maine’s take-the-child-and-run fanaticism, may simply “age out” of the system with no place to go.  Other children, like the suspect in the current tragedy, himself a former foster child allegedly abused in foster care, are adopted.  This “snapshot number” is important, but it tells you nothing about whether a state is doing more to keep children out of the system in the first place.

● NCCPR compares the propensity of states to take children from their homes by comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children living in each state.  By that standard, Maine still takes away children at a rate slightly above the national average.  In other words, if anything, the reforms in Maine haven’t gone far enough.

Maine also has made great progress in where it places children when they really do need to be taken from their homes.

● Study after study has found that, when a child really must be taken from her or his home, placing that child with relatives is more stable, better for children’s well-being, and most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”  Back when Logan Marr died, Maine had one of the worst records in the nation for kinship care.  Now, Maine uses kinship care at a rate slightly above the national average, though still behind the national leaders.  (Details are in NCCPR’s interactive database.)

●Maine’s greatest success has been in dramatically reducing the worst form of care, the use of group homes and institutions.  The proportion of children trapped in so-called congregate care has been cut by at least 73 percent. (Again, details are in NCCPR’s interactive database.)

But, of course, that means the reform effort made powerful enemies – the people who ran all those group homes and institutions that had to cut back or close entirely.  That foster care-industrial complex apparently has the governor’s ear in a way that vulnerable children do not.

Finally, one more number: 15,000.  As I’ve noted often on this Blog, that’s the number of cases examined in two massive studies of how children fared in typical cases seen by workers for child protective services agencies.  In those typical cases the children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be taken from her or his home.  Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses.  A little girl named Logan Marr had to lose her life before Maine learned that lesson.  To forget that lesson now would be like spitting on her grave.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Child welfare in New York: A poll worker’s rash mistake, and a foster care tragedy

This is not meant to minimize in any way what Andrew and Jessica Schiefer and their children have had to endure at the hands of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  But they got off easy.

Their five-year-old daughter was not taken away from the white, middle-class family in Queens.  The allegation against the parents almost certainly will be declared unfounded.  But they’ll never forget the trauma of the interrogation, or the fact that the process will drag on for 60 days, or the fact that the ACS worker will march all over their child’s school poking into the family’s life, or the fact that there will be a file on the family in New York’s Central Register of alleged “child abusers” forever.

Almost none of it was necessary.  But of course, ACS is encouraging more of the same.

Meanwhile, things didn’t go nearly so well for a nonwhite family on Staten Island.  Their child was taken away in a case that raises questions about whether ACS is complying with a class-action consent decree.  The child died in foster care.


According to WNBC-TV, Channel 4, for the Queens family, the story begins on April 26, the day of the Republican primary in New York.  Andrew Schiefer brought his five-year-old daughter with him when he went to vote.  The little girl has eczema, a chronic skin condition characterized by scaly rashes.  From time to time, when they see the family on the street, people ask them about the rash.  The Schiefers answer the question and that is the end of it. 

But a poll worker didn’t bother to ask. Instead, she simply assumed that the rashes were bruises and called the New York State child abuse hotline.  That is exactly what New Yorkers have been encouraged to do year after year by everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg on down.  It was easy for the poll worker to give the hotline the name and address – she used the voting records at the polling place.

It was unreasonable of the poll worker to jump to conclusions.  But once she did so, it was reasonable for a child protective hotline to screen in a claim by an eyewitness that she saw a little girl with bruises on her hands and legs.  It was reasonable for ACS to send a caseworker to the door.

But as soon as the parents produced the prescription eczema ointment and the name and contact information for the doctor, that should have been the end of it.

Instead, the “investigation” drags on and the family is dragged through the mud; all so that the caseworker can protect herself from sanction if she doesn’t follow every bureaucratic procedure required in the investigation – and, of course, to protect herself from landing on the front page if she doesn’t do it on any particular case and then something goes wrong.

A previous post to the blog gives a sense of the extent to which a typical family is put through the wringer.  And this excellent story from New York Magazine gives a sense of why caseworkers in New York City are on the defensive.

Both the Schiefers and at least some of the reporters who interviewed them couldn’t understand why they would have a permanent record as a result of such an obvious mistake.  You can blame that on some legislative grandstanding.

In New York State, the standard for having an allegation “indicated” is absurdly low.  It’s essentially a caseworker’s guess.  The caseworker is supposed to check the “indicated” box on a form when she thinks she has “some credible evidence” of abuse or neglect – even when there is more evidence of innocence.

Only when a case can’t meet even that preposterously low standard is the case ruled “unfounded.”  So it’s no wonder that, until 1996, New York State law wisely called for expunging the records of unfounded reports.  But then, after a high-profile case, the death of Elisa Izquierdo, state legislators started falling all over themselves to show who could look tougher on child abuse. So they changed the law, and now, except in very rare cases, families like the Schiefers never can clear their names completely.


The Staten Island case concerns William Monge, his girlfriend, Nicole Fair, and their two children.  They say the only reason their children, a two-year-old and a six-month old, were taken away was what a news story called their “constant fighting.”

Thanks to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit, in New York City it is illegal to take children from a battered mother just because she has been beaten – because of how harmful that is to the children.  (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)  It’s not clear whether this case violates the letter of that decree, but it sure seems to violate the spirit.

And even if a child must be taken away, the first option is supposed to be placement with a relative.  Monge and Fair say they begged ACS to place the children with relatives.  Instead, they were placed in stranger care. Now, the infant is dead.  According to WABC-TV, channel 7:

The baby died Monday night after being rushed to the hospital from her foster mother's Steuben Street home on Staten Island.  Sources now tell Eyewitness News the baby had a 105-degree fever and marks consistent with past trauma. The medical examiner says results of an autopsy are inconclusive, pending further study.

Meanwhile, back at Channel 4, reporter Melissa Russo was making the classic reporter’s error in these cases, using her closing “stand-up” concerning the Schiefer case to parrot the ACS party line.  Said Russo:

As difficult as this situation might be for this family, too often we’re out here reporting on tragic stories where a caseworker does not do the minimum amount of investigation or neighbors don’t say something when they see something.  So ACS tells us, when in doubt, when you suspect child abuse, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

But there was nothing cautious about what that poll worker did.  And there certainly was nothing cautious about the behavior of the ACS worker on Staten Island who took two children from a couple and sent them to a foster home where one of those children died.  On the contrary, these were profoundly reckless acts. 

And the real reason for those horror stories Russo mentions, in which a caseworker doesn’t do enough, almost always is because caseworkers are overwhelmed wasting hour after hour day after day on cases like the one against the Schiefers in order to protect not the children, but themselves.  The more people take the advice of Russo (and Bloomberg’s and ACS) and call in anything and everything, the more likely it is that workers will be further overloaded with false allegations and have even less time to find children in real danger.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Child welfare in Minnesota: Investigate more cases, get more $

The previous post to this Blog discusses an impressive report from the auditing arm of the Minnesota Legislature.  The report documented the extent to which child welfare in that state is arbitrary, capricious and cruel.

The report’s authors gave ten hypothetical “vignettes” to workers who decide whether or not to accept a report alleging child abuse or neglect for investigation.  There was no unanimity on any of them and relative consensus on only three.

But the real bombshell in the report concerns an idiotic decision by the Minnesota Legislature concerning financial incentives.

I’ve written often about how financial incentives at the federal level encourage the misuse and overuse of foster care.  But in Minnesota, where child welfare systems are run by individual counties, the legislature has compounded the problem.

That’s because of the formula the legislature came up with for how the state Department of Human Services will distribute both state social services funds and federal social services aid under a program called Title 20.

Here’s how the audit report explains it:

The 2011 Legislature created the Vulnerable Children and Adults Act.   Among other things, the act specifies how DHS should distribute state and federal Title XX funds to county agencies.  Increasingly, the funds are to be distributed based on the number of vulnerable children and adults in each county.

The number to be used in the formula is the number of children who were the subject of screened-in maltreatment referrals.  Thus, agencies that cast wider nets for screening in child protection referrals could receive more funding, even if their caseloads reflect less-serious child protection cases than agencies that more selectively screen their referrals. [Emphasis added.]

So in Minnesota, if you subject children to the considerable trauma of a needless child abuse investigation, and waste the time of workers that could be better spent finding children in real danger, you get more money.


There is another oddity in Minnesota worth noting: a practice known as a “child welfare check.”  Again, from the report:

[L]aw enforcement officers may conduct “child welfare checks” on their own initiative or at the request of a child protection agency. As its name suggests, a child welfare check involves going to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child.  A child welfare check may result in a referral to a child protection agency if the officer sees conditions or actions that constitute child maltreatment. Finally, law enforcement officers may take a child into custody for emergency placement if the child is found in conditions that endanger or could endanger his or her health or welfare.

So what, exactly, is the difference between a “child welfare check,” which “involves going to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child”  and a child abuse investigation, which, of course involves to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child?

Now here’s where it gets weird: Workers at county child welfare agencies in Minnesota said they typically requested such checks on cases they screened out as not rising to the level where they needed an investigation.  In still other cases, the child welfare agency itself may do a “child welfare check” on a case that was screened out as not worthy of an “investigation.”

So in parts of Minnesota, if a case does not meet even the minimal standards to be screened in, it still may well be investigated.

The report cites some examples:

Staff at one agency stated that their city police make child welfare checks on every screened-out child protection referral. Staff at another agency stated that workers go out on almost every call that is screened out in order to do preventive work. However, other agencies do not perform child welfare checks or ask law enforcement to perform these checks.

While an initial child protection referral may be screened out, follow up from the agency or the police could result in an additional referral, which may be screened in for child protection. As a result, families in similar situations ultimately may be screened in to child protection by agencies that use child welfare checks, whereas families in the jurisdiction of agencies who do not use child welfare checks regularly may remain screened out.

Several respondents to the vignette portion of our screeners survey commented that a screened-out vignette could become a screened-in child protection referral after more information was learned through child welfare checks. … Another agency stated that they would screen out a vignette involving a teenager who had allegedly been punched by her dad, but added: "We would make a ‘strong’ Child Welfare visit. … If physical discipline continues we would very likely do a child protection family assessment in the future."

Making all this even weirder is the fact that Minnesota has pioneered the use of “differential response” for less serious cases that are screened in.  Under differential response families are not investigated or “checked.”  Rather they are offered an “assessment” and voluntary help.

So to sum up, in parts of Minnesota the system works like this:

● Reports deemed most serious: child abuse investigation.

● Reports deemed less serious but still “screened in:” voluntary assessment.

● Reports that are even less serious and so are screened out entirely: “child welfare check” – which is another term for a child abuse investigation.