Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Philadelphia is #1 again – and it’s nothing to be proud of

                                                           Photo of Joe Arpaio by Gage Skidmore

For several years, two of America’s top ten big cities have been extreme outliers when it came to tearing children from their families.  When entries into care were compared to the number of children living in poverty Phoenix had the worst rate of removal among big cities; Philadelphia was second.

Well, now that’s changed.  Now children are more likely to be consigned to the chaos of foster care if they live in Philadelphia than any other big city in America.  (Phoenix remains a very close second.) Details are in the updated  NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index.

So now, children in Philadelphia are more likely than children in any other big city in America to have to endure the rotten outcomes of foster care placement – and the risk of abuse in foster care itself.

What happened?


Prompted in part by great reporting by both the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star,  which went all over the country highlighting places that succeeded in safely curbing needless foster care, Arizona has begun to get serious about safe, proven alternatives to taking away children.

The rate of removal in Phoenix is still awful, but not as bad as it was – and no longer quite as bad as Philadelphia.  That’s right, even in the place that elected Joe Arpaio sheriff, they are more careful about harming impoverished children with needless foster care than they are in Philadelphia.

How bad is Philadelphia? The rate of removal is triple the rate of New York City and quadruple the rate of Chicago. 


Of course, one could point out that there have been horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system” in New York City and Chicago.  But there also have been such cases in Philadelphia.  Does anyone seriously believe Philadelphia children are three times safer from abuse than children in New York and four times safer from abuse than children in Chicago?

By the way, if you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia’s record looks even worse.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Child welfare and substance use: The Orange County Register’s exercise in statistics abuse

Photo by Gage Skidmore


The Orange County Register uses horror stories about child abuse deaths in exactly the way Donald Trump uses horror stories about crimes committed by immigrants.




Were there a hotline to which one could report “statistics abuse,” the reporters who wrote the Orange County Register series “Born on Drugs” would have their rights to the calculator apps on their phones terminated.

The Register’s misleading use of data, combined with the resurrection of long-discredited claims about drug use and child welfare, amount to “crack baby journalism” – a revival of the sorts of hype and hysteria that reappear whenever the nation is hit with a new “Worst Drug Plague Ever.”

As it happens, The New York Times published an outstanding eight-part series of carefully reported editorials debunking such myths – at almost exactly the moment the Register published its attempt to revive them – something I discuss in detail on the Southern California online news site WitnessLA.

But the Register also has trouble coping with numbers.  The statistics it cites come without links, so sources can’t be checked and context can’t be verified.  Even the descriptions of sources often are vague, crucial terms are not defined and time spans covered can be unclear.



Most of the statistics revolve around child abuse fatalities. Each is the worst form of tragedy and the only acceptable goal for such fatalities is zero. But hyping the numbers only takes us farther from that goal. Similarly, the goals of the Register journalists were noble.

But by encouraging a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, the Register’s journalism increases the likelihood that there will be more such horrors.  That’s because the real reason for the horrors almost always is an overloaded system and a rush to remove more children needlessly only overloads it more. 

Those of us who are truly committed to child safety know that the real numbers are bad enough, but real solutions often are counterintuitive.

The Big Lie of American child welfare


The Register takes almost every number out of context, and almost every assertion about those numbers is wrong.  It’s all done in the service of the Big Lie of American child welfare: the claim that leaving children in their own homes, or returning them there, is inherently risky while foster care, for all its other problems, at least is safe.

So the Register claims:

A parent’s right to rear children without state involvement is in constant play with a child’s right to be free from maltreatment. The … conflicting mandates have been debated by those inside the system for decades.

None of that is true.

In fact:

● Family preservation is almost always the better option because it is in the best interests of children; it is not a matter of “parents’ rights.”

● The “mandates” do not “conflict.”  There is no conflict with child safety, because in typical cases family preservation is the safer option – as can be seen by multiple studies and by California data the Register ignored.

So let’s go through the Register stories, statistic by statistic

Misleading statements about what happens


The Register tells us:

More than 2,200 children have suffered fatal and near-fatal incidents in California since 2009. 

Can you find the needles?
Why use a figure that covers at least nine years? Because it sounds worse than saying: In a state with 11 million children, an average of 244, or 0.002 percent suffer fatal and near fatal incidents each year.  Putting it that way also tells us that the number of children who suffer such “incidents” – a term the Register never defines – are both 244 too many and also needles in a gigantic haystack. So figuring out which 244 children are in that sort of danger is not nearly as simple as the Register stories imply.

Notice also that the Register has moved, without explanation, from discussing deaths allegedly linked to parental substance abuse to all forms of fatal and near fatal “incidents” – leaving readers to assume that all these incidents were caused by drug using parents.

(Later, when the Register offers an estimate of the number of children under 5 who are said to have died due to “drug exposure” it averages out to about than nine per year – in a state with at least 2.4  million children under age 5. That’s 0.0004 percent.)

Misleading statements about where it happens


The Register continues:

The overwhelming majority of these tragedies — more than 90 percent, according to a Southern California News Group analysis of data from California Department of Social Services — occurred while the children were in the care of their own parents and legal guardians.

Wow, sounds like a child’s own home must be the most dangerous place in the world, doesn’t it?

But what the Register doesn’t tell us is that at least 95 percent of California children live with at least one parent or a legal guardian.  So this statistic really tells us that, when it comes to children who suffer “fatal and near fatal incidents” they are probably safer in their own homes than elsewhere.

And in fact, this is confirmed by the mass of research showing that foster care itself has a terrible track record for safety, with study after study finding abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The record of group homes and institutions is even worse.

The Register offers up its misleading statistics about safety right after telling us something else:

While the number of kids in California’s child protection system plunged almost 50 percent between 2000 and 2018, the number of infants — younger than one year — shot up more than 9 percent.

Thus, readers are left to conclude: Aha! Foster care plummeted and now all these children are dying.

Except: At no point does the Register offer data indicating that the rate of deaths and near deaths was lower back when California had so many more children in foster care.

In fact, it is almost impossible to reliably measure trends using child welfare fatality data. One reason is one for which we should all be grateful: Even in a state the size of California, the number of such horrible tragedies is low enough that is hard to draw conclusions.  Also:  Determining whether a death is due to abuse, neglect or accident is surprisingly subjective.  (But, just for the record, the only data I could find suggest that the figure fluctuates from year to year with no discernable relationship to the aggressiveness of child protective services.)

As foster care declines in California, child safety improves


But here’s what we do know: A far more reliable measure of safety is the rate of alleged recurrence of maltreatment.  That is, of all the cases in which workers declare an allegation of abuse or neglect “substantiated” in what percentage is there another “substantiated” allegation within 12 months.  During those same years in which foster care “plummeted” that measure improved in California by 28 percent.  So as foster care declined, California children got safer.

That is not as counterintuitive as it may sound. The more that workers are overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases, cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect and all the other cases that don’t belong in the system, the less time they have to find those needles in the haystack.  So again, it’s advocates of family preservation who are the true supporters of child safety.  In contrast, the hype and hysteria offered up by the Register is likely to make all children less safe.

As for the claim that from 2000 to 2018 “the number of infants — younger than one year — shot up more than 9 percent,” that’s an increase of about one-half-of-one-percent per year – a pretty weird definition of “shot up.”

False claims about reunification


Over and over, the Register stories suggest some kind of fanatical devotion on the part of the system to family preservation at children’s expense.

So a social worker tells the Register “California is a reunification state,” adding:

“That was embedded in me through my education process. They’re always going to work towards reuniting families, because there’s this belief that that’s better for the child overall. I don’t always agree with that.”

But it’s not just a belief; it’s a fact, documented in study after study showing that in typical cases, including cases involving substance use, children typically fare better in their own homes than in foster care.

But the social worker can stop worrying. The data belie the rhetoric. California is not “a reunification state.”

A record that is resolutely average


For starters, even with the “plummeting” rate of foster care placement since 2000, California’s record is resolutely average.  As of 2017, the most recent year for which comparative figures are available, the rate at which children were trapped in foster care in California was indeed below the national average – by all of five percent, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  And California’s rate of placement was more than 30 percent higher than New York, another large, relatively progressive state where individual counties run child welfare.

So in fact, it’s back when California had proportionately far more children in foster care, the time the Register seems to view as the good old days, that California was an outlier -- and children were less safe.

As for reunification: In federal fiscal year 2017, again the most recent year for which comparative data are available, nationwide 49 percent of the children who left foster care were reunified.  In California it was 51 percent – hardly suggestive of a fanatical dedication to reunification.  And again, California’s results have come with improvements in child safety.

The Register goes on to offer up a toxic mix of extreme horror stories and stats that have almost nothing to do with the horrors.

So after describing in detail the suffering of an infant “born on drugs,” the Register goes on to tell us that “Nearly 50,000 drug-exposed infants have been born in California since 2000, a parade of human suffering that has touched families, communities and taxpayers.”  They put the figure for 2017 at 5,050.  Again, they leave out context.  The figure is under two percent of all births in California that year.

And, of course, “drug exposed” is not defined.  We are meant to assume the worst, of course. But it actually can mean anything from giving birth in the middle of a home meth lab to smoking marijuana to ease the pain of labor. It also can include cases in which the mothers are prescribed legal drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine as part of a program to treat addiction to opioids.

But the clincher, the one journalists who seek to fan the flames of take-the-child-and-run hysteria love most, begins in the Register series with the subhead “Deadly benefit of the doubt?” and continues:

It’s unclear how often the push to keep families together ends badly.

Actually that’s not true.

As noted earlier, as California has done more to keep families together, the rate at which children “known to the system” are abused or neglected again has declined, indicating that whatever push there may be to keep families together actually has made children safer.

The most misleading statistic in child welfare


But the Register reporters ignore all that, and all those studies on how children in typical cases typically fare better in their own homes. Instead they rely on the single most misleading statistic in all of child welfare – the one about the proportion of horror stories involving children “known to the system.”  So the Register tells us:

[S]ome three-quarters of child deaths due to abuse and neglect tracked by the state of California – and some 60 percent of serious injuries – happened in families that had previous contact with the child welfare system. Examples of the system backfiring can be horrific.
Indeed they can. Examples of undocumented workers committing terrible crimes also can be horrific. That’s why Donald Trump uses them at every opportunity to draw broad, sweeping - and false - conclusions.

The Register does exactly the same thing.  As is discussed in the column for WitnessLA, the requisite horror stories are followed immediately by:

The wisdom of California’s goal – keep families together even when parents struggle with addiction – is called into stark relief by such tragedies.

No, it’s not.  No more than the wisdom of say “sanctuary cities” is “called into stark relief” by Trump’s horror stories.

In fact, the wisdom of California’s goal, assuming there is such a goal, is proven by the fact that overall, children are safer and more children are spared the horrors of foster care itself.


If every effort to keep families together is “called into question” by horror stories then no child ever should be kept in her or his own home – because no system can avoid every horror story.  And even that won’t work, because then you still have all the horrors of foster care.  In fact, if any approach that leads to a horror story is off the table, then there can’t be any foster care either – because sometimes children die in foster care.

But of course that whole 77 percent figure is meant to leave an impression of massive failure – almost as if 77 percent of the time reunification leads to death or near death.

That’s because this figure leaves out another crucial number.

In a typical year nearly 500,000 California children are “involved with the child protection system” as, at a minimum, subjects of investigations. That's the blue in the pie chart above.  Of that number, roughly 188 died or nearly died.  That’s 0.04 percent. That's the red portion of the pie chart.

If it's hard to spot on a pie chart, imagine what it's like for caseworkers.

What does “involved” with the system mean?


The Register also offers up a misleading description of families “involved” with the system, describing them as families “officials knew were problematic.”  On the contrary, many of these children were the subject of false allegations that were screened out at child abuse hotlines.  Not only did agencies not know the families were supposedly “problematic,” they didn’t know them at all. 

Most of the rest were determined to be unfounded.  (And before anyone dredges up that old canard about how “Well, unfounded doesn’t mean it was false, maybe the worker just can’t prove it” look again at the data: The only study I know of to second-guess these decisions found that, nationwide, workers are two to six times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly label it unfounded.  Oh, and workers don’t need proof to “substantiate” an allegation, their own guess usually is enough.)

When a system is deluged with false reports, whether by malicious spouses or neighbors, “mandated reporters” terrified of not reporting cases they know are absurd, or simply well-meaning people who confuse a family’s poverty with neglect or otherwise are mistaken, it is the system that’s problematic, not all those families.

Yet, among this huge number of allegations, The Register thinks that there’s a vast family preservation conspiracy because an average of 188 per year - four one hundredths of one percent - died.

Yes, some of those cases had files with more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. Most do not.  Many are indistinguishable from many of the other 499,812 children who come to the attention of the system in some way every year. 

So what, exactly, does the Register propose to do with the other 499,812 children? Take them all away – instead of just the 28,000 or so California takes in a typical year?  And where, exactly would the Register propose to put them all?

What the figure actually shows is that parents almost never kill or nearly kill their children.  Those who do are those needles in a haystack.  You are not going to find those needles by trying to vacuum up the haystack with more reporting, more investigation more foster care and assuming that every mother with a substance use problem is a likely killer.

Toward real solutions


So what can be done?

Nine years ago, a liberal think tank in Texas – and yes, there really is such a thing -- tried to answer that question.

Here’s what they found does not work:

● The rate at which people report child abuse does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state takes children from their parents does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

What actually does contribute to child abuse deaths?

● High rates of poverty

● High rates of teen pregnancy

● Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

And when the issue is substance abuse, what works? Exactly what The New York Times suggested in those groundbreaking editorials: Drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment, and help that is neither judgmental nor patronizing.  One more thing that would help: Not assuming that every parent who uses a substance, legal or illegal, is incapable of being a good parent.

One of the editorial writers who worked on the Times series Jeneen Interlandi, summed it up perfectly in a series of tweets.  She began with this:


 A mother or a pregnant woman takes hard drugs, and we immediately sharpen the knives. Hang her, shoot her, lock her up. At the very least, take her kids away. Because what kind of mother does that?

Eight tweets later she concludes:

What if the answer to the question, "What kind of mother does that?" is, "A mother who is just like you, except that she has substance use disorder."

It looks as though the reporters at the Orange County Register were too busy on their own righteous indignation high to consider that possibility.  They should be careful. That kind of high can be addictive.

Friday, January 18, 2019

NCCPR in WitnessLA on a California newspaper's shameful revival of "crack baby journalism"

As 2018 turned to 2019, The New York Times published two stunning editorials with profound implications for child welfare – and for journalism. Unfortunately, at almost the same moment, the Orange County Register was making the same mistakes The New York Times was warning against.

Read the full column at WitnessLA

And there will be more about the failures of the Register stories on this blog on Tuesday.

Friday, January 11, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today: New York Times editorial series shows how decades after media and child welfare got “crack babies” wrong, the damage lives on

Editorial writers rarely do their own reporting. Most of the time they comment on what reporters for their publications have found, or what they’ve read elsewhere.

But when editorial writers have done their own reporting, they’ve produced some of the nation’s best journalism about child welfare.  The year 2018 ended with an outstanding example: An eight-part series of editorials in The New York Times.

The primary theme of the series is the erosion of the rights of children as a result of fetal personhood laws – or related government interventions even when there is no law.  The examples cited include cases in which pregnant women have been criminally prosecuted for falling down stairs or having a miscarriage and other examples that sound like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

But two of the eight parts zero in on how the child welfare system has made everything worse, for the mothers and their children. Indeed, those two parts make the case that hysteria over so-called “crack babies” in the 1980s and 1990s, – a hysteria driven as much by the political left as by the right - and the resulting demonization of poor black mothers, gave enormous fuel to the fetal rights movement.  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Foster care in New York: What’s worse than being “docked for the time you were up in the sky”?

Do 19th century railroad barons and  21st century child
protective services agencies really have anything in common?
Unfortunately, yes.

When I was in middle school music class, we learned a 19th Century folk song about the workers who built the railroads – and how they were oppressed by their bosses.  It’s called Drill Ye Tarriers Drill.  It tells the story of a man named Jim Goff who was blown “a mile in the air” by an explosion.  What happened next?  See the lyrics below – or just let The Weavers tell you:


Next time payday came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked "What for?" came this reply:
"You was docked for the time you was up in the sky."

Of course that’s just a folk song.  In real life no one would ever - - ah, but any regular reader of this blog will know where this is going.

Meet child welfare’s Jim Goff.  Her name is Stella B. – she doesn’t dare give her full name for fear of reprisal from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  But here’s what happened to her, as described in this excellent story by Rachel Blustain for the New York City publication City Limits:

Stella B., says she never had the opportunity to be properly investigated because her children, 8 and 17, were removed on an emergency basis and placed with a relative after she was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and held for eleven days—a fact confirmed by a letter from the Manhattan district attorney’s office—while child protective services “indicated” a case of neglect against her. [Emphasis added.] A case is deemed “indicated” when investigators contend they have found enough evidence to support the claim that a child has been abused or neglected.

The consequences vary from state to state, but typically it means you are listed on a “central registry” for years, sometimes decades and are barred from any job involving working with children.  And, of course, as in Stella’s case, it can be much worse:

Because of that indication, her children were kept out of her care for four months, and even after their return, her case remained indicated until recently, when she appealed the finding. She allows me to look at the document from New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services that shows the judge’s determination, several years after the fact, that being kidnapped did not make her guilty of neglect. [Emphasis added.]

The theme of the story is the urgent need for high quality family defense – and the need to provide that defense as soon as an investigation begins – as opposed to Stella B’s case, where, as the story notes: “She was provided a lawyer only after ACS took custody of her children and indicated her case.”

Sure, one hopes that 21st century child protective services leaders are more humane than 19th century railroad barons.  And sure, one hopes you wouldn’t need a lawyer at all to explain to a child protective services agency that being a kidnapping victim does not make you guilty of neglect.

But since that seems to be too much to expect of CPS agencies, we really ought to bring in the defense lawyers early.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

On our Florida blog: Tampa Bay Times exposes a crisis made far worse by the Tampa Bay Times

The Times tells us all about the enormous harm done to children when they are moved from foster home to foster home - without ever mentioning the Times-fueled foster-care panic at the root of the problem.




“Nowhere to call home,” says the headline on a big story in the Tampa Bay Times at the end of last year. “Thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm.”  The subhead declares that “A Tampa Bay Times investigation finds Florida’s overburdened foster care system repeatedly bounces children from home to home and family to family.”

Tampa Bay Times investigation?  Really?  All they had to do was turn on a television and watch the stories on WFLA-TV.  The television station broke the story and beat the you-know-what out of the Times on it all through 2018.

The Times catch-up story goes on to describe the terrible toll taken on children by being moved from placement to placement. It does add some data giving a sense of how often it happens in Florida in general and Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in particular.  Any story reminding people of this institutionalized child abuse has value, even one that adds little to what WFLA already told us.

How the Times made the whole problem worse


But the biggest problem with the story is the problem with all of the Tampa Bay Times reporting on child welfare over the past few years.  In a state that’s been in the midst of a media-fueled foster-care panic since 2014, and where, by some measures, the panic is worst in the Tampa-St Petersburg area. The Tampa Bay Times has spent years committing journalistic malpractice, helping to fuel the panic by denying the very existence of the problem that drives everything else: needless removal of children.

Read the full post on our Florida blog.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Group home industry admits what we’ve always known: It’s $ first, kids second


● Their public face is all about how they don’t even think about money (except that they wish they had more of it to help those poor, helpless children, of course.) But when they think we’re not listening the talk is all about “capital” “revenue” and “equity portfolios.”

● And when they think we’re not listening they admit that tens of thousands of children warehoused in institutions don’t need to be institutionalized.


No, the people who run residential treatment
centers are not like Montgomery Burns
on The Simpsons. But financial incentives for
needlessly institutionalizing children are very real.

 Discussions about financial incentives in child welfare usually revolve around incentives for governments.  Sometimes that discussion is oversimplified with claims that governments “make money on foster care.”

Actually they don’t.  But the reality is almost as bad. A series of perverse incentives lead to a situation in which governments sometimes lose more money by helping a family than they lose by just consigning the children to foster care – even though the help for the family costs less in total dollars.  So even though governments don’t literally make money on foster care, there are financial incentives to misuse it and overuse it.

Another set of perverse incentives encourages quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements, by paying bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.  Even when the adoptions fail, the states still get to keep their bounties.  There is no similar incentive for reunifying a family.

Incentives for private agencies


But there is another set of even worse incentives that gets far less attention: incentives for private agencies. Such agencies typically provide most of the worst, and most expensive forms of “care” – group homes and institutions. In some states and localities they also oversee foster homes. 

These agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in their care.  So of course, they have a profound incentive to encourage needless removal of children and then hold them in foster care for a long, long time. 

This does not mean that your typical private agency leader is like Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, gleefully rubbing his hands each time another child is placed in his group home or institution.  Rationalization is powerful. So the group home industry, (a term that encompasses all forms of “congregate care” from your basic group home to your “residential treatment center,”) convinces itself that, contrary to a massive amount of evidence, the children really, truly benefit from being institutionalized and really, truly have to be in their care for a long, long time.

(The term group home industry itself was coined by the director of a residential treatment center who had a crisis of conscience and had to fight the industry when he sought to vastly reduce institutionalization and emphasize services to children in their homes or foster homes.)

Nonprofits can be greedy, too


The various components of the group home industry are typically, though not always, nonprofit organizations.  That’s a big blind spot for journalists.  Reporters are trained to be skeptical of government and of big corporations. But there is surprising naiveté about the so-called “independent sector.”  But the will to survive can induce in nonprofits a form of greed that is as corrosive of common decency as the worst corporate behavior.


And that brings me to a column written by Jennifer Jones and Theresa Covington, two leaders of the so-called Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.  That’s one of those Orwellian names so-beloved in child welfare. It’s actually a trade association for human services agencies, including many that run group homes and residential treatment centers.

Writing in what they apparently consider their safe space, the Chronicle of Social Change, they effectively admitted that what really concerns many of their members is: Money, money, money.

The column deals with the so called Family First Prevention Services Act. They claim that “One of the areas that will be most impacted [sic] by the bill is residential care.” (In fact, that part of the law is so strewn with loopholes that, unfortunately, the “residential care” industry is unlikely to be impacted – or even affected – much at all.) They go on to write about how they’re conducting “a series of cohort initiatives to help inform and advance a transformational shift …”

True confessions, part 1:


But two elements of the column are striking. First, this trade association that includes so many residential treatment providers admits, in writing, that a huge proportion of the children their members have institutionalized don’t need to be in institutions.

They write:

“Therapeutic Residential Care,” as it is known, focuses specifically on providing treatment for youth who have a mental health diagnosis or have experienced trauma and need help regulating their emotions. … However, according to recent data, more than 4 in 10 children who are currently in residential care have no mental health diagnosis, medical disability or behavioral problem that would warrant such a setting. [Emphasis added.]
… Recent research suggests that young children living in residential programs are at a higher risk for developing physical, emotional and behavioral problems. These young children are also less likely to be placed in a permanent home than those who live in foster care.

The “recent research” comes on top of the vast store of research that has told us as much for a long, long time. Back in 2005, Shay Bilchik, who then was running another trade association for agencies that has an Orwellian name, the Child Welfare League of America, admitted that they lack “good research” showing residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

What’s new is that now the so-called “Alliance” is admitting it as well, and suggesting that tens of thousands of institutionalized children should not, in fact, be institutionalized. (The 4 in 10 number is an underestimate. There is no evidence that residential treatment is successful for any population – but, hey, it’s a start.)

True confessions, Part 2:


So, what is it that is stopping the Alliance’s member agencies from abandoning this largely worthless endeavor?  After all, these agencies tell us over and over that their only concern is the best interests of the children, and they don’t even think about what the agencies themselves need. 

But now Jones and Covington tell a different story:

This shift requires residential providers to make significant changes in policy, practice, budget, historical programming and organizational culture. The growing evidence base continues to point to this change movement as being in children’s best interests and necessary, yet providers continue to seek out clearer and more efficient pathways to understand this new reality and make this transformation a reality.

Translation: We might be willing to do this, but only if we don’t lose any money, or, God forbid, go out of business.  Money first, kids second. 

Jones and Covington cite figures from one of their member agencies indicating that residential treatment brings in a disproportionate share of its revenue. And, they write,

Many child welfare providers and operators of residential treatment facilities have a tremendous amount of equity and capital in their physical structures and campuses and a large portion of their organizational identity is encompassed in their role as residential providers.

Translation: If we do what’s best for the kids, where will we get our money?  We’ve got all that equity and capital to think about! 

Jones and Covington continue:

It can be challenging for leaders and board members of these organizations to still deliver on their stated mission when such a large part of that mission is being transformed.

But if the stated mission is institutionalizing children, then the mission is crap and it should be scrapped. 

Jones and Covington again:

Child welfare providers are among the oldest community-based nonprofits in the country, with a significant number of them owning and operating facilities that began as orphanages more than a century ago.

Actually, they’re still orphanages.  “Residential treatment” is largely an exercise in rebranding. 

And finally, Jones and Covington tell us:

These physical campuses make up a large part of their equity portfolio and many organizations are hesitant to make the leap to repurpose or divest these resources.

But why?

If all they care about is what’s best for the children, as they keep telling us, they should be thrilled to follow pioneers such as Children’s Village, EMQ Child and Family Services and Youth Villages which all have dramatically altered their mission to put far more emphasis on services in children’s own homes, in foster homes.

Unless of course, what they really care about is self-preservation.

Meanwhile, back at the whine cellar …


And, of course, no column by a trade association of providers would be complete without whining about how they don’t get enough money for whatever it is they provide. So, Jones and Covington write:

The theory of change represented within the [Family First] bill requires a robust array of home- and community-based services, yet there was no federal funding put in the bill to help states build up that part of the system. So, state legislatures and local governments are going to need to make further investments into developing this part of the system in order to keep children in the least restrictive, most family-like settings. 
Actually, that’s not quite true. As the authors note in the same column, Family First does include some funding for reforms. It allows money once limited to substitute care to be spent on better options – though the options are severely limited, so very little money actually is likely to be available.

But more important, you get the money for alternatives to institutionalizing children by not institutionalizing children. 

Institutions are not just the worst form of care, they’re also the most expensive.  So pretty much anything else you do for a particular child will cost less than institutionalizing the child. So all you need to do to “make further investments” in better alternatives is to take the state and local money you would have spent to institutionalize children and spend it on those better alternatives. 

That is, if all those concerns from agencies about “capital” “revenue” and “equity portfolios” don’t get in the way.