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.


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.


    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.