Saturday, November 19, 2016

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2016

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view
keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations today. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "aged out" of foster care in 2015 with no home at all soared nearly 35 percent over the number in 1998.  And it's been like that, or worse, every year for well over a decade. That means the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has left us with more than 100,000 additional "legal orphans."

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Monday, November 14, 2016

New NCCPR resources on "predictive analytics"

The latest dangerous fad in child welfare is the push to use "predictive analytics" to decide when to tear children from their families.  NCCPR has a new report on the topic, Big Data is Watching You.

Our latest column on the subject notes that, in the presidential election Big Data Lost. Bigly. So maybe it's not a good idea to use the same approach to deciding the fate of children.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The death of “Child 1”: Philadelphia’s child welfare agency makes such tragedies inevitable

A child dies in “residential treatment.” But the heart of the problem is “residential treatment” itself.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services says it had no role in the placement of this particular child in this particular residential treatment facility.

Suppose, hypothetically, we were building our public child welfare and mental health systems from scratch. We could design them any way we wanted.

Now, suppose somebody said: Hey, I have a great idea!  Let’s take the young people we believe have the most serious emotional and behavioral problems, at the very age when they are most susceptible to peer pressure and put them all together in the same place! Won’t that work well?

Odds are most people would think it’s the guy who thought up the idea who really needs a mental health intervention.

Yet that’s exactly what we do.  We slap a nice, reassuring label on it – residential treatment – dress it all up with psychobabble and try to make the grounds look as pretty as possible to impress visitors, but at bottom it’s an approach doomed to failure.

This is one of the relatively few areas in child welfare where the research is close to unanimous. Even when the institutions do not devolve into hellholes, residential treatment is a failure that does terrible harm to children – and costs a fortune. (The link to the research also goes to an
all-purpose foster care-industrial complex excuse check-list, which lists all the standard rationalizations for residential treatment, and why they don’t stand up to scrutiny.)

There is nothing – nothing – that residential treatment supposedly does that can’t be done better and safer with intensive in-home services. In this video, a pioneer in providing such services explains how it’s done:

The death in Philadelphia

All these problems are inherent in the RTC model. In other words, these problems exist before we even reach the issue of horrible conditions and abuse at RTCs – issues that are now getting attention in Philadelphia because a 17-year-old, known only as “Child 1” died in one of them, a place known as Wordsworth Academy. 

It took that death, and a litany of other failures, before the state stepped in and shut down the residential treatment program.  The state did it, not the Philadelphia Department of Human Services,  actually placed “Child 1” at Wordsworth,  which actually oversees child welfare in the city and which has contracted with Wordsworth to provide an array of services to the city’s vulnerable children. DHS says it was not involved in placing "Child 1 at Wordsworth. DHS can't pull a facility's license, but it certainly could have pressed the state on the matter before a child died.

Indeed, when you lock away a large group of people who are overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately people of color, people we don’t want to think about or fear, then keep them out of sight and out of mind, what do you expect?  That’s why these kinds of scandals happen over and over again.  

So why does DHS keep relying on these places?

Because DHS is begging for beds and beggars can’t be choosers.

Though DHS has reduced its reliance on all forms of “congregate care” – group homes and institutions – it still uses these facilities at a rate above the national average. It has to.  Because DHS tears apart families at the second highest rate among America’s big cities, even when you factor in rates of child poverty. When you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is number one.


Philadelphia's high rate of removal

The rate of removal in Philadelphia is triple the rate of New York City and quadruple the rate of Chicago.  Does anyone really think Philadelphia children are three times safer than New York children and four times safer than Chicago children.

And no, that’s not some inevitable result of a bunch of terrible new state laws passed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that encouraged child abuse hysteria and foster-care panic. Philadelphia’s dismal record predates those laws. The figures cited above are from 2014.  And those same laws apply in Pittsburgh, where, unlike Philadelphia, the foster care population did not increase after those new laws passed.

This latest tragedy is one more consequence of years of willful blindness at DHS, an agency that has refused to learn from other cities and states that do a far better job keeping children safe while taking proportionately far fewer children.

Yes, those other places also use group homes and institutions – but they use them less.  So tragedies like the latest death in Philadelphia are less likely.

There’s a lot we still don’t know yet about this latest tragedy.  We don’t even know the boy’s name.  Surely he deserves at least to be known in death by his own name.  And we deserve to know if he ever really needed to be in “the system” at all, much less how he wound up institutionalized.

Perhaps it will turn out his removal to substitute “care,” however it happened, was entirely justified. Perhaps it will turn out that the child was placed "voluntarily" by parents or other caretakers who felt they had no other choice - because no one offered them better alternatives.  Or perhaps there was some other set of circumstances.  But that would mean only that some other child, who did not need to be taken, was in the safe placement that should have been reserved for the youth we now know only as “Child 1.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Reefer madness at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families

According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) is upset over language in a referendum on the ballot next week that would legalize recreational use of marijuana.

The language in question would require DCF to have actual evidence that marijuana use by parents places their children at risk before taking those children away, putting the family under supervision or otherwise interfering with their lives.

The language is so mild that the state’s “Child Advocate” says it wouldn’t change current practice.  Even Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet is not upset by this language.  Bartholet is probably the nation’s most fanatical advocate of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare; her own proposals would require the removal of millions of children from their homes nationwide.

But DCF is throwing a fit. 

Why the language is needed 

This New York Times story explains why the referendum language is needed. It describes how cases involving marijuana possession are misused to needlessly harass families and sometimes take away their children.  There’s also this story from the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper. And this one from Fusion.  And this case from Ohio.

These stories provide chilling evidence in support of what NCCPR President Prof. Martin Guggenheim, told the Globe.  He said the referendum language

“would be a big step forward in equalizing the rights of rich and poor parents by eliminating what should be an irrelevant factor in prosecuting child welfare cases.”
 Guggenheim, a national expert on child welfare law, said child protection is supposed to be about protecting kids who have already been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm.
 Yet, he said, “Child protection statutes have been used for decades to control poor people and take away their kids, using marijuana use as pretense — where, on the other side of town, pot would be winked at.”

The harm to children

As is so often the case with agencies like DCF, their position on this part of the referendum flunks the balance-of-harms test.

Surely, by now, everyone in Massachusetts knows how dangerous the state’s foster care system is to children.  Even a lawsuit brought by the group that calls itself Children’s Rights, a group that is no friend of keeping families together, makes that clear. (Yes, the lawsuit was dismissed, but based on a narrow reading of the law, not on the facts of the suit and the condition of Massachusetts foster care.) 

Two huge MIT studies found that in typical cases children in foster care fare worse even than comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.  Several more studies find abuse in one quarter to one-third of foster homes.

And consider the finding from a study of a drug problem a lot more serious than pot smoking:

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

Before exposing children to all that harm inherent in foster care placement and/or the stress of a child abuse investigation, the referendum language says only that DCF should have “clear, convincing and articulable evidence that the person’s actions related to marijuana have created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child.”

That’s a balancing test that should be welcomed by any agency that really cares about the best interests of children.

Such a test is especially needed in Massachusetts.  For well over a decade, Massachusetts has taken away children at a rate well above the national average -- and that was even before a foster-care panic sent removals skyrocketing in 2015 and 2016. 

DCF’s arguments 

According to the Globe story, DCF maintains that any language anywhere that

could limit a social worker’s ability to consider any substances, including marijuana, as a factor for child custody [is] troubling, especially given the unprecedented spike in DCF cases fueled by the opioid epidemic,

And what, exactly, does smoking pot have to do with the opioid epidemic? Obviously, nothing. But DCF knows that any opportunity to squeeze in a reference to opioid abuse is a great way to stampede people into giving the agency all the power it wants while avoiding even minimal checks and balances.

It appears the Globe had to do a lot of searching to find anyone outside DCF who shares the agency’s view.  They found

Sanford N. Katz, a professor of law emeritus at Boston College Law School,[who] said he doesn’t think the child welfare paragraph in the ballot measure has “any place in the law.”
 “Let some action occur and let it go before a judge to decide whether the impact has been negative” he said. “It’s so case-by-case! For example, if you’re legally growing marijuana and the child has access to it, that may be sufficient for social service intervention.”

Right. The same way DCF regularly hauls away children in upscale Massachusetts towns like Newton and Brookline if the parents forget to lock the liquor cabinet.

As for the seductive argument that we should just look “case by case” and let the judge decide, that conjures  up images of carefully prepared expert social workers using their enormous skills and unlimited time to balance the harm of smoking (or growing) marijuana against the harm of removal.

That’s a fantasy. In fact, case-by-case is a euphemism for arbitrary, capricious, and cruel. It is a system in which overloaded undertrained workers are free to act on whim, prejudice and the profound racial and class bias that permeates the system.

The whole point of having laws at all is to protect against the arbitrary abuse of power. 

As for judges, they are far more prone to wield rubber-stamps than gavels.  And no wonder. Like caseworkers, judges know that if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong, their careers may well be over. Remove hundreds of children needlessly and, while the child may suffer terrible harm, the judge will be safe.  That’s why judges in New York City actually admitted, on the record, that they are so afraid of adverse news coverage that they regularly remove children from their homes even when they think the child welfare agency has not made a good enough case.

The real problem with the language in this referendum is that, for once, Bartholet may be right: It may not really change anything.