Thursday, March 24, 2016

Foster care in Texas: Could they at least stop institutionalizing 11-year-olds?

I’ve previously written about the hellscape of Texas foster care – as described by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who found that abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions isn’t just common, it’s rampant.  She ordered some limited reforms, and also promised to name a “special master” to oversee reform efforts.

After the judge issued her ruling, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) apparently decided they’d get in big trouble if they kept ignoring awful conditions in so-called “residential treatment centers.”  So they suddenly pulled dozens of children out of two of them.   But, of course, they had no place else to put the children.

Here’s what happened to one child, as reported by the Dallas Morning News:

An 11-year-old girl from Tyler, who’s had at least eight placements during her nearly three years in CPS custody, was among those shuttled from [the residential treatment center in] Lubbock.
After arriving at the San Antonio shelter, “Mary” (not her real name) was taken for at least one night to a psychiatric hospital, where she was sedated, according to interviews and court documents.
Removed from her birth family nearly three years ago because of emotional and physical abuse, “she does not deal with change,” said Tyler lawyer Karen Bretzke, who represents Mary’s interests.
“When the staff changes a shift, she gets a bit agitated,” Bretzke said. “You have to keep her world as consistent as possible.”

So, let’s review.

She's 11-years-old, she can't cope with shift changes - but the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services institutionalizes her.

No doubt, DFPS would say the usual: Not enough placements, didn’t have a choice, blah, blah, blah.  That’s also the theme of the story, of course, because in Texas many journalists reflexively write off the very idea of not taking away so many children as a bizarre notion concocted by a vast right-wing conspiracy.  This may be partly a response to the fact that a could case can be made for the idea that Texas is largely run by a vast right-wing conspiracy.  But it’s still wrong, and it’s still enormously harmful to children.

This story, for example, repeatedly refers to every child removed from the home, from the moment a DFPS caseworker or law enforcement officer takes the child away, as “abused and neglected.”  In criminal justice, reporters never say that everyone arrested is a “criminal.” They wait for a court to decide.  But in child welfare, children typically are taken away and consigned to foster care for months before a court ever decides the child was, in fact “abused and neglected.” 

But just as the normal standards of due process don’t apply in child welfare systems themselves, often the normal standards of journalism often don’t apply in child welfare coverage.

Or perhaps a lot of Texas reporters just think DFPS is so brilliant, so capable and so competent that the agency could never do things such as confuse poverty with neglect.

So they write the same stories over and over and over and get the same results for vulnerable children: None.  Meanwhile, the number of Texas children torn from their families is skyrocketing, up an average of 500 per month over a year ago.  That won’t change until reporters stop ignoring the only option that works: taking away fewer children needlessly by building a system that emphasizes help to keep families together – so there’s room in good foster homes for the children who really need them.

One state that learned that lesson the hard way is New Jersey. That state also faced a class-action lawsuit.  It ended in a settlement that was notably better than what Judge Jack has ordered so far.  That’s one reason why, at one point, New Jersey significantly reduced the institutionalization of young children.  The state also curbed entries into care.  There’s almost certainly been some regression since, but the lessons still are important for Texas.  That’s because the other reason for the progress was because, for several years, the state’s child welfare agency was run by Kevin Ryan.

Judge Jack has just named Ryan one of two “special masters” overseeing her order.

No one should expect miracles.  But perhaps we can finally expect a little progress – especially if a few Texas journalists decide to stop ignoring what works.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

NCCPR in Youth Today on the failures of the child abuse fatalities commission

Child Abuse Fatalities Commission Staggers to a Close

During a congressional hearing in 2011, Michael Petit, who then ran an organization called Every Child Matters, was asked which states do the best job protecting children. His answer: those that have “smaller, whiter populations.”

Today, Petit is the driving force behind the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, a federal commission that seems to view part of its job as squelching any discussion of the pervasive racial bias in child welfare.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

CECANF shocker: Commissioner blasts work of child abuse fatalities commission in scathing dissent

She publishes it herself after commission chair allegedly threatens to censor dissents.

One day before the release of the final report of the so-called Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (or as we call it, the Keystone Kops of Commissions) one of the Commissioners has issued a scathing 24-page dissent that excoriates the Commission not only for some of its recommendations but for its chaotic process and wasteful spending.

Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Court’s Child Protection Division, and one of only two African-Americans on the Commission (the other is Commission Chair David Sanders) published the dissent herself after, she says, Sanders threatened to edit or censor entirely dissents he didn’t like.

We don’t agree with all of Judge Martin’s recommendations, but her report adds vital context to the debate over child welfare – and crucial insight into the stumbling, bumbling way the Commission did its job.

Among the revelations:

● The final report includes major changes made after the Commissioners took their final votes.  “Those changes were incorporated into the Consenting [Majority] Report without being seen, deliberated or voted upon by the entire Commission.”  The report even went to the printer before Martin was allowed to see it, she says.

● Poor people paid for the Commission.  The Commission spent lavishly - $4 million over two years – traipsing around the country holding hearings and hiring a 20-person staff.  That would be less of a problem if the money had not come directly out of poor people’s pockets.  It turns out, Martin says, the funding was drawn from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) – the program that replaced “welfare as we knew it” in 1996. 

So money that was supposed to go to help poor families with things like day care – so they are less likely to have their children taken away on “lack of supervision” charges – was diverted to fund a Commission whose recommendations, if enacted, would lead to many more children being taken needlessly from their homes.

Sadly, this is only the most flagrant example of using TANF as a child welfare slush fund.  States have been doing it for years.

● Martin says the Commission “misrepresents or ignores” the experts who testified at the hearings.  One example she cites is the Commission’s embrace of the latest fad in child welfare, “predictive analytics.” Martin writes:

[T]he Consenting Commissioners recommend immediate implementation of “predictive analytics.” First, predictive analytics needs further testing and requires the building of a solid data infrastructure in order to work. Second, the expert testimony emphasized the inherent limitations of predictive analytics.

Martin then quotes the testimony of Prof. Emily Putnam-Hornstein of the University of Southern California School of Social Work, who told the Commission:

“[W]e would be mistaken to think about predictive risk modeling, or predictive analytics, as a tool we would want to employ with that end outcome specifically being [preventing] a near fatality or a fatality, because … I don’t think we will ever have the data or be able to predict with an accuracy that any of us would feel comfortable with and intervene differently on that basis.”

● Martin also blasts the process by which the Commission developed its signature recommendation – something it called a “surge” until it tasked its huge staff with coming up with a better euphemism.  Under the “surge” caseworkers would reinvestigate thousands of cases in which they already had decided to leave children in their own homes under supervision – disrupting the families all over again.

Martin calls this recommendation “another example of this practice of selective citation and arbitrary creation…”  She writes:

Not one witness recommended nor intimated such an approach to eliminate fatalities. Instead, Commission leadership unilaterally decided to include it as a “signature recommendation.” More troubling is that this recommendation encourages foster care placements despite expertise and research that demonstrates that the better path for our children is providing services in home. While purporting to “save lives immediately,” this signature recommendation corrupts theConsenting Report.  … The Consenting Report reads like a tabloid or infomercial relying on sensationalism to convince Congress and the Administration to eschew their good sense and spend an additional $1 billion annually on this recommendation. [Emphasis added.]

● Martin also blasts “The unorthodox process for editing the Consenting Report…”  She writes:

Commissioners have been allowed to submit changes and additional materials after the final vote. Those changes were incorporated into the Consenting Report without being seen, deliberated, or voted upon by the entire Commission. Moreover, the final report incorporating those changes was not released to this Commissioner prior to submission for printing. A simple comparison of the voted upon draft and the final report reflects substantive changes. Thus, the full Commission was deprived of information to perform its duties and/or select commissioners were granted favor to privately shape the report devoid of deliberation. … Therefore, it is this Commissioner’s position that the validity of the Consenting Report must be viewed with trepidation. [Emphasis added.]

And Martin describes what she had to do to get her report published:

[T]he independent submission of this Dissenting Report is yet another reflection of the flawed process. As the reader may be aware, there were two dissenting commissioners. The process was structured such that the opinions of individual commissioners were limited to two page letters to be printed with the Consenting Report. No commitment was made for dissenting opinions. Instead, the Chairman of the Commission stated that he would review dissents and then decide unilaterally whether to exclude the dissent, to edit the dissent, or to include the dissent without alteration in the Commission’s official submission to the President and Congress. As a result, this Commissioner chose to submit the two page letter and to absorb personally the costs of printing and distributing this official document.
We're doing our part to get the word out.  We've posted Judge Martin's dissent here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Responding to the Big Lie of American child welfare

O.K., this time it's personal.  An excerpt from my latest column in the Chronicle of Social Change:

After 40 years of following this issue, 26 of them as an advocate, I’ve about had it with seeing people who invent outstanding alternatives to foster care such as the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program, and people who put their careers on the line every day fighting to transform child welfare systems being stigmatized and stereotyped as being less concerned about child protection than all those people who built the terrible system we have now. The kind of people who gave us this hellscape, and this one, and this one; people who almost always mean well but nevertheless keep right on destroying in children “whatever it is that makes people human.”

Read the full column here

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Friday, March 4, 2016

The overprivileged foster parents of Idaho and the hellscape of Texas foster care

I have often said that there are too many people in child welfare who seem to view the system as the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

To those who doubt this, I’d like to introduce you to some foster parents in Idaho.  Foster parents like Jamie Law.  Here’s what she told the Idaho Statesman about what happened when she first met a two-day-old infant she would take into her home. 

“I picked him up from the hospital and thought ‘This is totally my kid.’”

Read the full column at the Chronicle of Social Change

And at Youth Today: Read the NCCPR column on Touring the Hellscape of Texas Foster Care