Tuesday, December 12, 2017

NYC child welfare chief takes credit for past commissioners’ success – even as he undermines that success

ACS Commissioner David Hansell
A New York Daily News story today is filled with lavish praise for the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.   Of course, all the praise comes from the Administration for Children’s Services itself – specifically, ACS Commissioner David Hansell.

Though the numbers he cites aren’t wrong (which is refreshing), the problem is the numbers that are left out.  Also left out: The fact that all the good news reflects the work of Hansell’s predecessors – not Hansell.

Hansell is, in effect, claiming credit for some genuine, long term success.  The time periods he cites vary but they all end on June 30, 2017.  Hansell wasn’t even named to the job until March, 2017.  So while the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day has indeed plummeted – over the course of 25 years – and that is a major success story, Hansell had nothing to do with it. It’s the work of better commissioners who used to run ACS and the efforts of family advocacy groups and family defenders. 

The numbers Hansell didn’t talk about


One number in particular is conspicuously absent. That number represents the glaring failing of Hansell’s own leadership – the foster-care panic that has led to a sharp increase in the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year.  In FY2017, entries increased by 13 percent – the first increase in children removed from their homes since 2009.

This actually understates the impact of the panic, because the time period in question, July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 – includes about three months before the tragic death of Zymere Perkins, which set off the panic.

That number, how many children a child welfare agency takes away over the course of a year - known as “entries into care” - is the real measure of whether an agency is committed to the better, more humane and safer option for the overwhelming majority of children – keeping families together.

Hansell didn’t start the foster-care panic. Zymere Perkins died toward the end of the tenure of his predecessor, Gladys Carrion (or, rather, it brought her tenure to an end), undermining significant progress made under her leadership.  But Hansell was, and is, in the best position to stop it.  He hasn’t.


The Daily News story also leaves out something important in this paragraph:

The number of children re-entering foster care after being reunified with family or placed with kin has also decreased, from 9.1% in fiscal 2015 to 6.3% in 2017.

What the story leaves out is fiscal 2016. That year, this figure was 7.8 percent. In other words, during Carrion’s tenure, there was a slow, steady improvement in this safety outcome, even as entries into care were decreasing.

The other key safety measure is ignored entirely: reabuse of children known to the system. That number declined during most of Carrion’s tenure – but it went up in FY17, even as the number of children taken from their homes increased.

Compounding the problem: For months ACS wouldn’t even give straight answers about the entry-into-care numbers. Recall all the dissembling and conflicting stories from ACS about the increase in entries, including Hansell’s erroneous claim that there was no increase.

 A cascade of other problems


The panic that has been, at a minimum, tolerated by Hansell also has caused a cascade of other problems such as a huge increase in court supervision cases. 

As the Center for New York City Affairs explains in this report, this clogs up the entire child welfare system. Court hearings are delayed, and it takes longer to actually set up the hoops through which the families must jump. Where families really do need help, the help is delayed, so family problems can worsen. 

The court delays, as well as new CYA bureaucratic procedures also are delaying when children are allowed to leave foster care and return home.  That, rather than the excuse Hansell gave the Daily News, is the more likely reason for a sharp decline in reunifications in FY 2017.

And, of course, caseloads for investigators are increasing, giving them less time to find children in real danger.

The bottom line is this: Even as Hansell brags about past success, his own approach to child welfare is undermining that success.

If he ever stops the foster care panic, then David Hansell will have something to brag about.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NCCPR in WitnessLA: Power, privilege and foster care – how a northern california politician bent an entire child welfare system to his will

Meet Matt Rexroad. He is an ex-Marine who describes himself as “an influential part of California politics for more than 25 years.” The Sacramento Bee calls him “A no-nonsense political consultant who works to elect Republicans.” His clients have included the state Republican Party the McCain presidential campaign and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. He’s also a former mayor of the city of Woodland, in Yolo County, near Sacramento, and a current member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

About four years ago, Rexroad and his wife took in a foster child, an infant he liked to call “Bonus Baby.” The Rexroads took the boy in because, according to the Bee, they believed “their family could handle a new addition and because of their Christian faith.” We don’t know Bonus Baby’s race, but the odds are about two in three that he is nonwhite. The odds are even greater that his family is poor.

After two years, the Rexroads decided that Bonus Baby would be better off with them. They applied to adopt the little boy. The Child Welfare Services division of Yolo County’s Department of Health and Human Services felt that Bonus Baby could safely return to his own home. The Rexroads hired a lawyer, went to court, and lost.
But the real story is what happened next. The number of children taken from their parents skyrocketed, and child safety worsened. Read about it in NCCPR's column for WitnessLA

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Child welfare and sex trafficking: The problem with residential treatment centers for sexually trafficked youth is residential treatment itself

The New York Times published a story Wednesday about how some residential treatment centers are having problems “treating” victims of sex trafficking. The problem: the young people keep running away.

The story focuses on two institutions, Pleasantville Cottage School and Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls in Westchester County. According to the story:

People who have worked in child welfare in and around New York City say there is a pipeline from centers like the ones here back to the streets, where children fall prey to the abuse that they were supposed to escape. Over the last 18 months, the state, which oversees residential treatment centers like Hawthorne, stopped sending children to Hawthorne and to the nearby Pleasantville Cottage School. Among the 51 centers statewide, Hawthorne and Pleasantville are the only ones to have faced such severe sanctions over missing children in recent years.

Although not mentioned in the story, both institutions also have had severe problems in the past. For example, a 1990 New York Newsday story found that Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was
 plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

 
The “dilemma” that overlooks the obvious


Wednesday’s Times story goes on to discuss the supposed dilemma: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls opted to go the jail route. They’ve added security cameras, new lighting and “installed a six foot high fence that stretches 200 feet through trees and bush.” The institution may have been prodded by the fact that the Westchester County town where it is located started imposing a $250 fee for every call about a missing child.

And, of course, the institutions say the solution is to give them more money for programs that “engage” the residents – because the more than $400 per day per child they already get clearly isn’t enough.

But once again, the institutions and their supporters overlook the obvious: The solution to the problems of institutionalizing children is to stop institutionalizing children.

There is overwhelming evidence that residential treatment is a failure.  Even the former head of one of their own trade associations was forced to admit that  they lack “good research” showing
residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

There is nothing a residential treatment center can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound services – in which an intensive array of services are provided to young people in their own homes or in foster homes.

That’s what the Westchester Journal News found in 2009 when the failures of institutions in Westchester prompted the newspaper to take a long, hard look at institutionalization, and at better alternatives.  Unfortunately those excellent stories no longer are available online, but I’ve highlighted some of their findings here.

And if anyone still doesn’t believe Wraparound is a better option, even in the toughest cases, have a look at this video from Karl Dennis, who pioneered that approach.



The fundamental failure of institutionalization


If anything, sexually trafficked youth appear to be a particularly poor choice for institutionalization.  It is a classic example of the fundamental failure of institutionalization - the idea that taking children who have endured severe trauma and putting them all together in one place at precisely the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure somehow is a good idea.

It should be obvious that this approach would lead to precisely the pipeline referred to in the Times story. Indeed, what the Times found in the Westchester institutions, and worse, has been the pattern all over the country.

The Times story also says this, citing the head of the agency that oversees the Westchester RTCs:

The majority of the children return to their homes or are sent to a foster home or other setting closer to their families in less than a year 

That is another indication that, had they used Wraparound, the chances are excellent that the children need never have been institutionalized in the first place.

The headline on the Times story is: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?”

And the answer is obvious: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Foster care in Oregon: The horrors keep on coming



The horrors happen everywhere, but they’re more likely in Oregon, a state which, year-after-year, tears apart families at a rate well above the national average.



The state of Oregon has paid $750,000 to three English-speaking foster kids who were placed in the Gresham home of Spanish-speaking foster parents and forced to wear filthy clothes smelling of urine and sleep in a windowless basement.
Two of the three brothers also were sexually abused by another, older male foster child -- and they were unable to tell that to their foster parents because their foster parents didn't speak English, said Portland attorney David Paul, who represented the brothers.
Paul said the brothers' isolation was made even worse because child-protection workers with the Oregon Department of Human Services failed to regularly check on the boys.

The story is only the latest in a “spate,” as newspapers love to call such things, of high-profile cases involving abuse of children in Oregon foster homes, group homes and institutions.

But perhaps the most interesting, and in some ways, the most tragic, part of this story can be found toward the end:

The biological mother lost custody of her sons under allegations that she failed to protect them against another adult who posed a threat, Paul said.

The Oregon Department of Human Services then proved itself guilty of exactly the same thing.  But there’s more:

When the state finally pulled them from the Gresham foster home, the boys returned to her care and they are now living with her with no oversight from DHS, Paul said.

Which raises an obvious question: Did the children ever really need to be taken in the first place?  If there really was another adult from whom the children needed to be protected, could that other adult have been removed from the home instead of the children?

But they don’t think that way in Oregon, a state where a take-the-child-and-run mentality goes back decades, a state where year after year, children are taken away at a rate well above the national average.

And, again from the story, this is the result:

"They come back a shadow of their former selves," Paul said.

The story also leaves one key question unanswered. These children spoke only English and were placed in home where the foster parents spoke only Spanish.

My guess is the reverse is more common. How many Spanish-speaking foster children can’t make themselves understood to their foster parents because those foster parents speak only English?  What, if anything, is DHS doing about it?  And who, if anyone, among Oregon journalists, will try to find out?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A new study confirms the obvious: Florida is taking away far too many children


Even using a method that tends to bias findings toward removal, the study found a massive amount of needless intervention into the lives of families.

The findings were so striking that even the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare – couldn’t ignore them:

[A] study out of one of Florida’s most populous counties suggests that much of this new influx [of children into foster care] could be handled without the use of an out-of-home placement, and in some cases, without much child welfare involvement at all.
Broward County (seat: Fort Lauderdale) tested its current child welfare decision-making process against a predictive analytics approach, which relies on data collection and machine learning to predict likely future behavior. The study, conducted by a group of researchers and supporters of predictive analytics modeling, suggests that 40 percent of cases referred for either a foster care removal, intensive services or both could have been handled with less-intrusive options.

The Florida findings should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the foster-care panic that has engulfed the state for the past three years.

The study doesn’t break down what proportion of removals were unnecessary; the 40 percent figure is for all cases in which a court either ordered removal or the “services” for families, such as counseling and parent education.

But if even half  - 20 percent - of the removals are unnecessary that’s more than 3,500 Florida children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love every year - shoveled into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five, and placed at high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

All that misery is being inflicted on children because, three years ago, the Miami Heralddecided more children needed to be taken away – and because what passes for leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families caved in to the Herald’s campaign to smear efforts to keep families together.

When "help" doesn’t help


There’s another important finding from the study:  Providing the kinds of “help” that makes the helpers feel good – forcing parents into “counseling” and “parent education” -  instead of giving families what they really need, usually concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, can be worse than not intervening at all.

Again, no surprise.  Advocates of family preservation have been making this point for decades. Now, even the CEO of ChildNet, the nonprofit in charge of providing the services in Broward County, agrees, telling the Chronicle:

 “It might not be that my child was removed because I was bad parent, but that I’m homeless,” [ChildNetCEO Emilio] Benitez said. “If I lost my job, and I just don’t have stabilized housing, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. But we almost always make them go to parenting classes.”

 The one surprise in the study


But one thing is a surprise: Predictive analytics tends to magnify the biases of child welfare workers. If, even using predictive analytics, it’s clear that Florida is taking away too many children, the study almost certainly underestimates the extent of the wrongful removal problem. In other words, the study underestimates the harm that the Miami Herald and the weak-kneed leadership at the Department of Children and Families have done to children.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Arizona court decision offers another chance to see how a child welfare agency really works

And, as usual, the picture is ugly.

An Arizona Court of Appeals decision illustrates how
the Arizona Department of Child Safety undermines child safety

Monday’s post to this blog discussed a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals overturning a lower court decision to approve a request from the state child welfare agency to terminate a mother’s parental rights.

That post focused on how the case was part of a pattern by the state’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) to, in fact, undermine child safety by taking away the children of battered mothers.  That is so harmful to children that one expert has called it  “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

But this case also illustrated many other failings in the Arizona system – failings that are common in child welfare agencies throughout the country.

Like the Connecticut case discussed in NCCPR’s analysis The DCF Revenge Machine, this Arizona case is one of those typical cases that dominate the caseloads of child protective services workers.  And the failings of the agency are typical as well.  As such, this case is another of those rare opportunities to take a close look at the day-to-day failings of America’s child welfare establishment.

But I’ll let the court do most of the talking.

Failing #1: Sloppy casework


From the court ruling:

In the summer of 2016, a new case manager was assigned.  The new case manager testified at the severance hearing that she mistrusts Mother’s judgment and ability to protect the children from future abuse.  But  … [t]he case manager testified that in reaching her conclusion she read several but not all of the parent-aide notes (which total 145 pages), never met with Mother outside of court hearings, only consulted with one of the service providers who worked with Mother, never attempted to confirm her suspicions that Mother and Father were still dating, never observed Mother with the children, and never visited or attempted to visit Mother’s home to see if it would be safe for the children.

Among the most interesting sections of the opinion is where the court blasts DCS for relying heavily on a single note from a parent aide – and misinterpreting that note. Again, from the opinion:

This entry (one of dozens made over the course of eight months) is not proof of Mother’s inability to protect the children. To the contrary, it shows that Mother was concerned with Father’s treatment of I.R. and confronted him about it. Nor is there a single notation in 145 pages of parent-aide notes to suggest a pattern of selection of abusive partners by Mother, or abuse by Mother. According to the parent-aide provider’s records, there was not a single instance of Mother failing to come prepared for a visit nor a single situation involving Mother that required the assistance of the parent aide. Every entry notes the love and affection Mother showed for the children.

Given the extent to which caseworkers tend to be overloaded in Arizona and in most of the country (largely by false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with “neglect”) there is no reason to believe what happened here was unusual. 

Failing #2: A crappy “psych eval”


No matter what the reason for removal, parents almost always are forced to undergo a “psychological evaluation.”  That’s because of another child welfare obsession – trying to turn every family problem into a mental health issue – instead of facing up to what often is the real issue: poverty. 

That orientation, combined with the fact that the people doing the evaluations typically are paid by the child welfare agency means that, as one lawyer put it long ago, “Nobody walks out of [a psychological evaluation] with a clean bill of mental health.” There is evidence from across the country, that psych evals often are a sick joke. See, for example, this ProPublica story.

In the Arizona case, the court found that the evaluation was “untethered to the evidence” and questioned whether it ever should have been admitted into evidence at all.  The decision suggests that DCS stacked the deck by being selective about what it told the evaluator – and then the evaluator compounded the problems because of his own biases. According to the decision:

Conspicuously absent from the information the Department gave the psychologist is any reference to the 14 months of services Mother had successfully completed or was currently receiving. Mother had — without exception — tested negative for drug use; successfully closed out of her drug-testing service because of the lack of any positive test; closed out of drug rehabilitation because the service provider determined that no drug treatment was necessary; participated in domestic-violence counseling and group meetings; and successfully completed at least eight months of parent-aide services and supervised visitation, where she always came prepared and showed proper parenting skills.…
Because he neither considered the available information nor attempted to evaluate Mother’s parenting skills, his conclusion that she is unable to successfully parent for the foreseeable future is not reasonable evidence of Mother’s parenting ability. Indeed, the foundation for his opinion is so lacking that we question (though we do not here decide) its admissibility.

Failing #3: The hype about drug abuse


In light of the fact that we are currently drowning in hype and hysteria over drug abuse and child welfare, the most useful part of the decision may be how the court concluded that both the Arizona child welfare agency and the psych eval misrepresented the issue of drug use by the mother:

Mother never tested positive for drugs, and the service provider concluded that she needed no services to address drug abuse.[Emphasis in original.] Yet the psychologist opined that Mother was at a high risk of relapse and was only sober because “she sees herself in trouble.” …
According to the psychologist’s own notes, Mother experimented with a variety of drugs before turning 21 and regularly used marijuana thereafter, but she ceased all drug use when J.R. was born (when she was 25) and had not used drugs for at least three years. The Department failed to inform the psychologist of Mother’s negative drug tests and the treatment provider’s determination that she did not need drug treatment - - even the evidence he had did not support his conclusions about drug use.

NCCPR has long supported creating a strong “rebuttable presumption” that court hearings and most case records in child welfare cases should be public.  Details are in our Due Process Agenda.  But that’s not because we think those records are Holy Writ. On the contrary, they are one side of the story – the child welfare agency’s side of the story.

There’s almost always another side.  But few reporters – or appellate courts – are willing to look for it.  Fortunately, one appellate court in Arizona did.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

On #GivingTuesday help NCCPR Keep fighting to reform child welfare


Today is #GivingTuesday, the one day of the year that I point out that there’s a donate button just to the left of the headline for this post. (Or if you’ve subscribed to this blog and you are reading this in an email there’s a link for donations right here: http://bit.ly/2A4rFKp)

I don’t make a lot of pitches for funds because most of the people caught up in the child welfare system are poor, and they need every dollar they have to fight to get their children back and rebuild their lives.

And, fortunately, NCCPR can go a long way on just a few thousand dollars per year. That’s because we’re now an all-volunteer organization. So, if you can afford it, and if you think the work of NCCPR is worthwhile, please click the link to the left (or here http://bit.ly/2A4rFKp to donate.)  And click here to find out more about NCCPR’s accomplishments: http://bit.ly/2zBtrmH

Thank you.

Richard Wexler, Executive Director

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Arizona child welfare’s obsession: Making things worse for battered mothers – and their children

When a child’s parent, usually the mother, is beaten by another parent, usually the father, one of the worst things you can do to the child is to remove the child from the home – instead of removing the abuser.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

In Arizona, child welfare policy boils down to “please pass the salt.”


First of two parts; read part two here.

To understand one of the worst features of child welfare in Arizona, it’s best to start in New York City  -- with a courageous woman named Sharwline Nicholson.

Nicholson decided to break off a relationship with her daughter’s father because he lived far away in South Carolina. When she told him, he became enraged. “He started hitting on me, pounding me, kicking me…”

But even as she was bleeding profusely, suffering from a broken arm, broken ribs, and gashes to her head, as she called 911 and waited for an ambulance to take her to a hospital, she arranged for a neighbor to care for her children.

But that wasn’t enough for New York City’s child protective services agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. As Nicholson lay in her hospital bed, the child welfare agency took the children from the babysitter and threw them into foster care with strangers.  Nicholson was charged with “engaging in domestic violence” in front of the children.

“It reached the point where I said ‘Oh, why did I call 911,’” Nicholson said.

Nicholson could not even visit her children for eight days, and then only with supervision at a foster care agency.  As the judge wrote in his decision, “Ms. Nicholson was able to locate her nine-month-old daughter within the building by following the sounds of her crying.” 

She found her “sitting on a chair by herself with tears running down.” She had a rash on her face, yellow pus running from her nose, and she seemed to have scratched herself.  Her son had a swollen eye.  He said the foster mother had slapped his face.  When another foster mother was assigned to take him away, he asked the new foster mother: “You’re not going to hit me, are you?”

Long after being reunited, the harm ACS did to her children remains.  Once, when her son heard police were in the building he froze and said “Oh no, they’re going to take me.”

Nicholson became the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit demanding that New York City stop tearing apart families just because the mother had been beaten. . (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)

In a scathing decision, a federal judge ordered the practice stopped. It took him four pages just to sum up the research on how harmful this practice is to children.  Yes, witnessing domestic violence can harm children, the judge found. But taking the children away from the victim harms them far more. One expert said that doing this to a child is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

Ultimately the city settled the suit.  A decision by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals had the effect of extending the ban statewide.
  

Arizona’s track record


Unfortunately, as is discussed in this column for Youth Today, the practice remains common in much of the country. And nowhere, it seems, is the child welfare establishment more fanatical about inflicting this trauma on women and children than in Arizona.

● As we discuss in our 2007 report on Arizona child welfare, more than a decade ago, a defender – and funder – of one of the worst forms of “care” first stop parking place “shelters” – attacked NCCPR for siding with mothers like Shawrline Nicholson and their children because, she felt, the children should be warehoused in shelters instead.

● Earlier this year a report from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that, in Arizona, witnessing domestic violence was given as a reason for taking away the children in nearly one-quarter of all removals for “neglect.”

● And this month, the state Court of Appeals overturned a decision to terminate parental rights where the central issue was a mother’s alleged “failure to protect” a child from the father’s abuse.

It’s easy enough to see what happened in this case. The child’s father was abusive to the mother and at least one of the children.  Though Mom clearly was afraid of him, there also is evidence that she stood up to him. Here’s what the judges wrote:

…[A]fter Mother discovered the severity of I.R.’s injuries, Mother and Father argued because Father would not allow Mother to take I.R. to the hospital. Father then left the house for a few hours, but Mother failed to take I.R. to the hospital while he was away.
The next morning, Mother asked her sister and cousin to take I.R. to the hospital while she was at work. Her sister asked Father if she could take I.R. to Chuck E. Cheese. Father agreed. Mother’s sister and cousin then took I.R. to the hospital.

The court concluded that termination of parental rights

…cannot stand on a record that shows only that [the mother]was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of the person who abused the children — a person who is no longer present in the children’s lives. To hold otherwise would be to punish the victim for the behavior of the abuser. [Emphasis in original].
It is true that Mother failed to take I.R. to the hospital immediately when she discovered his injuries, but her resort to artifice so that her relatives could take him the next day hardly reveals complicity in the abuse. …

This does not mean that child protective services agencies need to do nothing in these sorts of cases.  But there exists a relatively simple and far better alternative to removing the children: Remove the abuser. We already have a mechanism for that.  It’s called arrest.  We even have a “placement” for such people.  It’s called jail.

The reason child protective services agencies don’t do this is because they’re not really about protecting children, they’re about punishing “bad parents” – especially “bad mothers.”

Perhaps, at long last, Arizona’s child welfare agency will figure out that when it takes a swing at those “bad mothers” the blow almost always lands on the children.

The Court of Appeals decision goes on to tear apart the rest of the state’s case against this mother, citing sloppy casework, a crappy “psych eval” and false assumptions about drug abuse. Unfortunately, that makes this case a pretty typical example of how child welfare agencies operate all over the country.  Those issues are discussed here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

When parents must pay child welfare ransom, children pay the price


Last August I wrote about the latest in a long line of studies that document how the best “preventive service” in child welfare is not counseling or parent education or assorted other “public health” initiatives that mostly make the helpers feel good.  The best preventive service is cash. Period.

That study documented how simply increasing the minimum wage by $1 an hour reduces what child protective services agencies call “neglect” by ten percent. Many other studies produce similar results.

So, if providing poor families with more money reduces so-called “neglect,” anyone care to guess what happens when you take money away from families already enmeshed in the system?

To what should be the surprise of absolutely no one, another new study finds that if you try to take $100 a month away from poor parents who have children in foster care, it prolongs the foster care by an average of more than six months.

At least that is the case with a particularly awful way of making poor people poorer: trying to force them to help pay the costs of foster care.

Officially this is termed “child support.” But the payments don’t go to support the parent’s own child – they go to support the child welfare system.  When someone takes away a child and makes the parents pay money to get that child back, the proper term for those payments is not “child support” – it’s ransom.

Ransom may prolong foster care in a number of ways. The money paid in ransom is not available for rent, so the parents can’t obtain adequate housing – often a requirement imposed by child welfare agencies before children are returned. Multiple studies estimate that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing.

Or the impact may be more direct.

As I discussed in this column for Youth Today, failure to pay ransom can be, in and of itself, an excuse to prolong foster.  Child welfare agencies have persuaded courts to refuse to return a child home until the ransom is paid.  Failure to pay the ransom even has been used as grounds to terminate parental rights.

It doesn’t even help taxpayers


The harm to children should be obvious. But this even hurts states and taxpayers.  There is no way the payments demanded of parents can equal the cost to the state of extending foster care by months or even years.

So why do we have state-sanctioned ransom? Because it sounds so good in a press release from a politician ready to take advantage of how we stigmatize and stereotype anyone who loses a child to foster care.  What could be more popular than making “child abusers” pay?

Of course, often the people who lose children to foster care are not child abusers at all. Often they are people whose poverty is confused with “neglect.” (That’s why raising the minimum wage reduces “neglect.”)

And in any case, it isn’t really the parents who paying.  When foster care is prolonged and when children needlessly lose their parents forever it is the children who pay, in ways that can’t be counted in dollars and cents.

So here’s the bottom line from the latest research:

● Make poor people less poor: Child “neglect” goes down.
● Make poor people more poor: Foster care is prolonged.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

ANOTHER study shows CASA is a failure (much to the distress of the person who did the study)

Laurie Tuff really, really wanted her little study of the local Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program to show that it worked.

That’s understandable. At the time her study was completed, in 2014, she’d been associated with the local CASA program for 14 years, first as a volunteer then as a member of the staff.  At the time she conducted her study she was a program director.

But it didn’t work out that way.  In fact, based on the outcomes she chose herself, most of which are exactly the outcomes one would expect to measure to see if CASA is effective, CASA did no good at all.  On one measure, it did harm.

When the results didn’t turn out the way she wanted them too, what was Tuff’s conclusion?  She must have chosen the wrong outcomes!  If these outcomes don’t show CASA is doing any good, she says, we need to find other outcomes!

CASA’s poor track record


CASA is the program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then these amateurs tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever. In more than 60 percent of cases, judges rubber-stamp every single recommendation these amateurs make.

A law review article aptly describes CASA as “an exercise of white supremacy” – not just because of outrages such as these, but because of the program’s very nature. 

And the largest, most comprehensive study ever done of the program, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself and conducted by Caliber Associates, found that it does nothing to make children safer. The study also found that CASA prolongs foster care and reduces the chances children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers.  The trade journal Youth Today found that CASAs efforts to spin that study’s findings “can border on duplicity.”

So it’s no wonder a staffer with a CASA program would be desperate to find evidence of effectiveness.

Enter Laurie Tuff and her “capstone project” for her graduate work at the University of Washington. 

Tuff didn’t work for just any CASA program. She worked for the scandal-plagued program in Snohomish County, Washington. - the one blasted by a county judge for “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …”  The one in which the judge said a program volunteer “infiltrated” – the judge’s word – a listserv for parental defense attorneys. The one which had as a volunteer for 20 years someone whose comments about the families he investigated (and about one entire religion – you can probably guess which one) read as if they’d been written by Steve Bannon.

First came the standard excuses


Tuff first offers the same excuse CASA always dredges up when studies don’t go their way. She claims the Caliber study supposedly didn’t take into account that CASAs tend to be assigned to more difficult cases.

But the Caliber study did take that into account – and took a series of steps to, in the study’s own words “level the playing field.”  (It is not clear if Tuff read the full Caliber study. Her bibliography mentions only an eight-page summary issued by Caliber.)

Tuff was able to find exactly one study which found what she wanted to find – a very small study from one county published in 1999.  A small study means nothing unless it can be replicated.  Tuff set out to do just that.  And Tuff bent over backwards to make sure that the cases in her study in which children had CASAs and those in which they did not were equally difficult.

She writes that:

The purpose of the present research was to replicate [the] 1999 study … and to compare the results … The hypothesis was that cases assigned a CASA worker were more likely to have shorter dependencies [time in foster care] fewer out-of-home placements, obtain more services for the child and have more family contact after dismissal.

The actual results for the children with a CASA:

● No shorter time in foster care
● No more services
● No more family contact
More moves from placement to placement

The study is very small, probably even smaller than the 1999 study.  If this were all the evidence that CASA didn’t work it would prove very little (though the burden should be on CASA to prove that it does work).  But this study is in addition to the massive, rigorous Caliber study.

Spinning the results

But the most amazing part of Tuff’s study is how she sought to spin the results.  She writes:

...[T]he present research was unable to replicate the findings of [the 1999 study], confirming that these measures of effectiveness may not properly assess the value of CASA involvement. … [T]raditional measures of effectiveness are too narrowly defined and miss the subtlety of the CASA’s contribution to the child’s well-being.

What if the study had come out the other way?  If, by these measures, children with CASAs did have better outcomes would these magically become valid measures of children’s well-being after all?  If the measures don’t really tell us anything about whether CASA helps children, why bother trying to replicate a study that used them?

The answer is obvious: From the perspective of Tuff and others in CASA, if the measures make CASA look good, then they’re valid, if they make CASA look bad, get new measures!

After all, Tuff writes, there is “widespread anecdotal evidence that CASAs are effective at representing the best interests of the child…”

And if there’s anecdotal evidence,” what else do you need?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2017

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.

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE DRILL


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 on Saturday. 

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 (Now Tampa Bay 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.

(As for how the Tampa Bay Times regards birth parents – see this post from earlier this month.)

    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.

THE DANGERS OF ADOPTION DAY

    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 nearly two decades. 

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. In just the past year, in Iowa alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving children adopted from foster care.

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.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today on how to sucker a state legislature

Want to see how to pull the wool over the eyes of state lawmakers? Check out the testimony at a legislative hearing in Florida on child welfare and the opioid epidemic.
The problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real. But when the hysteria over one meets the hysteria over the other the result is catastrophic for children: a surge in needless foster care. That surge affects children where drug abuse really is a problem — and where it isn’t. The latest “drug plague” becomes the all-purpose excuse to take the child and run.
Read the full column in Youth Today here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Child welfare in Connecticut: The DCF revenge machine

This case is the story of child welfare all over America, not just Connecticut



NCCPR's new report explains how this can happen
This week, NCCPR released an in-depth analysis of a child welfare case in Connecticut that serves as a microcosm for the failings of child welfare all over America. In fact, child welfare systems in most states are worse.  You can read the full analysis here.

These are the key points:

● Profoundly embarrassed after they took away the children of Kirsten Fauquet only to have one child nearly die in foster care, the Connecticut child welfare agency is conducting what amounts to a vendetta against Fauquet and her partner John Stratzman.

● The extent of the vendetta can be seen in the fact that  DCF is seeking termination of parental rights against the recommendation of its own expert.

● As is so often the case when child welfare agencies take swings at parents, the blows are landing on the children.  DCF’s vendetta has compounded the trauma for the children.  They have been separated from siblings as well as their parents and moved from foster home to foster home.

● At the root of this case is the biggest problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect.  Yes, the parents made mistakes – but when you are poor, there is no margin for error. 

● This is the kind of case that is far more typical than the stories of parents who beat and torture their children.  The only thing that makes this case unusual is the brutality inflicted on one of the children while in foster care.  (Abuse in some form is not unusual, however.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.)

What has been done to this family is done to tens of thousands of families every year. But it goes largely unnoticed.

● That’s partly because child welfare systems can hide almost everything they do behind confidentiality laws that protect agencies, not children.  This case illustrates the value of open court hearings in child welfare cases.


● But there’s another reason child welfare systems get away with hurting children this way:  Too many reporters are too willing to accept a child welfare agency’s version of events without asking tough questions.  This case illustrates how often, when all sides are heard, the full story looks very different from the version presented by the child welfare agency.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Congratulations, Tampa Bay Times, you got just what you wanted (aside from the part where the child dies in foster care, of course).

“When in doubt, take the kid from abusive home,” said the headline on the Tampa Bay Times editorial on September 29.

“Take the kid,” the editorial begins.

That is once again the lesson from another death in Florida that could have been avoided if child welfare workers would have erred on the side of caution rather than on keeping a dysfunctional family together.

It is at least the second such editorial in the Times, which marches in lockstep with the Miami Herald – creating a near monopoly on child welfare reporting in Florida, and shutting out almost all dissent.

In fact, the Florida child welfare system already has been following the Times’ advice, with a vengeance. Statewide, removals of children from their homes are up 19 percent since March, 2014, when the Miami Herald ran its exercise in journalistic demagoguery Innnocents Lost. The number of children trapped in foster care on any given day is up 31 percent.

And even as that Times editorial was written, an infant named Kwon McGee was in the Tampa Bay area foster home where he would lose his life.

As far as I can tell his death has not even been covered by the Times.



From the story on the television station’s website:

It all started on July 29 when [the child’s mother, Shira] Sangamuang gave birth at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and social workers began talking to her about where she would live after she left the hospital. Sangamuang was unemployed and broke and needed temporary shelter, but had plans to move to Connecticut with Kwon to live with her mother. 
Days later, those same social workers came to the Travelers Inn in Clearwater where Sangamuang was staying and demanded that she hand over Kwon. “She’s like, well two officers, two sheriffs came up and said, ‘look ma’am if you don’t give me your baby, I will arrest you and take you to jail and you will no longer have your baby,’” Sangamuang said. 
The baby ended up in the care of foster parents in Pasco County while Sangamuang tried to arrange for counseling and other directives ordered by a judge to get her child back.

OK, let’s stop there for a moment. Why was the mother forced to get counseling? What she needed was housing and a job.

Now, back to the story:

The child’s father, Ladell McGee, was away when Kwon was born and says he never had a chance to see his son.

The reason for that is, of course, that the son is dead.

Again, from the WFLA-TV story:

The family’s rough patch turned utterly tragic Oct. 24, when the foster parent reported putting Kwon down to sleep in an adult bed after a feeding and later found him unresponsive. 
[Eckerd Connects, the private agency that runs child welfare foster care in the county] says the foster parents failed to follow Eckerd’s baby safety checklist that says all infants should sleep in a crib with a firm mattress and tight-fitting sheets without other materials that might suffocate a baby. 
“Our guidelines weren’t followed in this particular case and that’s the tragedy here. We feel this death could have been prevented if the child had been put in a crib,” Tobin said. …

This death also could have been prevented had Eckerd Connects or the Florida Department of Children and Families or the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which does child abuse investigations in that county, simply said: Hey, wait a minute, all this mom needs is a rent subsidy and help to find a job – or simply some cash so she could move to Connecticut.

When anecdotes collide …


To conclude that this one case “proves” Florida is taking away too many children would be to make the same mistake as the Herald and the Times keep making – reaching sweeping conclusions based on horror stories.  When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.

What proves that Florida is taking away too many children is the fact that, when Florida took fewer children independent monitors found that child safety improved – a pattern that has been repeated across the country in the few places that have embraced safe, proven alternatives to foster care.

Rushing to “take the kid” is not erring on the side of caution – it is a profoundly reckless act.  Of course most children won’t pay the ultimate price, as Kwon McGee did. But they will pay a price.  The research is clear that in typical cases, even when there has been maltreatment – and there was none in this case – children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably maltreated children in foster care.

And while this child apparently died as a result of a tragic accident, study after study has found high rates of abuse in foster care – another reason not to throw children there just because their parents are poor.

So why did the caseworkers and the sheriff’s deputies ignore the research? Why did they so easily confuse poverty with “neglect” They probably were too terrified of being the subject of the next front page story in the Miami Herald or the next editorial in the Tampa Bay Times demanding they “take the kid.”

So they took the kid.

Now the kid is dead.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today on a major court ruling in Massachusetts

The court ruling makes clear that the state's highest court is fed up with the way the state's child welfare agency ignores the legal requirement to make "reasonable efforts" to keep families together.

The ruling also provides a rare look at how a child welfare agency really functions. As usual, the picture is ugly.

Read the column here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The REAL foster care housing crisis

The so-called Chronicle of Social Change - the Fox News of child welfare - has released a report on what it is calling "The Foster Care Housing Crisis."

The report is one more effort by the Chronicle to thwart real reform - in this case, it's an effort to undermine reforms aimed at curbing the worst form of foster care - group homes and institutions.

NCCPR has released a comprehensive rebuttal.  You can read it here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Halloween reminder to CASA: No, it’s not a good idea to raise money by holding a talent show with a blackface act. (And yes, one CASA chapter actually did that.)

We suggest that the National office for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program use this item from The Daily Show as a training video


This Halloween, The Daily Show offers a useful history lesson: The topic, why it’s a really bad idea for white people to dress up in blackface:




But the lesson isn’t just useful for Halloween. It’s also something that anyone involved with that most sacred cow of child welfare – Court-Appointed Special Advocates -- needs to know.

CASA is a program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever.   That, of course, raises problems of inherent bias.  But some CASA chapters have made their biases depressingly obvious.

Consider what happened nine years ago in Arkansas City, Kansas. To raise funds for the local CASA chapter, they held a talent competition. The winning act featured the mayor of Arkansas City – dressed in blackface.  The head of the local CASA chapter couldn’t understand why that was a problem.   "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." That’s only the beginning. All the awful details are here.

It would be one thing if this were just an isolated example of racial bias. But it’s not.

● There was the CASA chapter in Marin County, California, which fell apart when the state CASA association merely asked that they strive for more diversity among the volunteers.

● There was the appalling racist rant by someone who says he volunteered in a scandal-plagued Washington State CASA program for 20 years.

● There’s the fact that the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA volunteers spend significantly less time on a case if the child to whom they are assigned is Black.

● And then there’s the question of whether the very structure of CASA makes it, in the words of a law review article, “an exercise of white supremacy.”

Showing the Daily Show video won’t solve all these problems; not even close. But it might help prevent the worst excesses of racial bias in CASA programs.