Monday, October 16, 2006

Why foster care panics don't work in reverse

UPDATE: In the more than 11 years since this post first appeared there have been changes in several of the child welfare systems discussed.  There has been backsliding from reform in Maine and, especially Missouri.  In contrast, Butler County, Ohio, has embraced reform.

            I write often about the phenomenon of “foster-care panic,” huge surges in removals of children following the high-profile death or serious injury of a child “known to the system.”

            “Well, then,” reporters sometimes say, “It must work in reverse.  If the child dies in foster care there must be a drop in removals.”  The comment often comes with the not-very-subtle implication that, perhaps after a child dies in foster care workers become too reluctant to tear children from their parents.

            Some reporters even assume this as fact without checking, or take the word of those who make such a claim, in part because it feeds into the longing of so many reporters for anything that smacks of a “swinging pendulum.” 

            But it’s not true.  Foster-care panics almost never work in reverse.

            On the contrary, no matter where a child dies, a high profile child abuse fatality is likely to lead to an increase in children taken from their homes.

            After it was revealed that Rilya Wilson had been missing from her Florida foster home (and presumed dead) for fifteen months before anyone at the state Department of Children and Families noticed, there was an increase in removals of children from their homes.

            And that’s what’s happening now in Butler County, Ohio.  That’s where three-year-old Marcus Fiesel lived, until he was taken from his desperately overwhelmed mother.  His foster parents are accused of tying Marcus up and leaving him in a sweltering closet.  After Marcus died, the foster mother allegedly made up an elaborate story to fool authorities, while the foster father allegedly burned the body.

            So what’s happened to the number of children taken from their homes in Butler County?  According to a story in the Journal News, the newspaper based in the county seat of Hamilton, Ohio, it’s gone up. Way up.

            That would be bad in any county, it’s worse in Butler, which has a long history of embracing a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  Last week NCCPR released it’s Ohio Rate-of-Removal Index, comparing the propensity of counties in that state to take children from their parents.  Only five counties took children at a higher rate than Butler.  And that was in 2005 – before Marcus died.

            But why does it happen?  Why is it that when a child dies, allegedly at the hands of birth parents, removals go up, while when a child dies, allegedly at the hands of foster parents, removals go - - up?

            Two reasons, I think.

            Reason #1:  When the birth parents did it, it’s easy to find a scapegoat.  Typically one worker, or perhaps one worker and one supervisor, made the decision to leave the child in his or her own home.  That means one or two people who can be fired, demoted, suspended, and/or raked over the coals in news accounts.  Workers know this.  That’s why when a case hits the paper, they become terrified that the next case will be one of theirs and they rush to take away more children.

            In contrast, when the child dies in foster care the blame is more diffuse.  The worker who removed the child often is not the one who chose the foster home. And even if she did, someone else had the responsibility to license the foster parents, so the worker who placed the children can’t be blamed.  The licensing may have taken place years before, so that worker can’t be blamed either.  And, for that matter, the foster parents who kill the child might be the second or third or fourth placement.

            So when a child dies in foster care the response of caseworkers is the same: If I leave a child in his own home and something goes wrong, I’m the scapegoat; if another child dies in foster care, no one’s going to blame me.

            The dynamic is compounded by –

            Reason #2: the profound double standard in media coverage of “lessons learned.”  When the birth parent is the culprit there is an immediate rush to blame “family preservation.”  There is a ready supply of spokespeople, often from agencies that make their living off foster care, anxious to come forward and say, “See: This case proves that the state or county is doing too much to keep families together.”  When the child dies in foster care it’s written off as an aberration, something that can be fixed with more frequent caseworker visits to foster homes or tightening of licensing standards and background checks. 

Nowhere is the double standard more blatant than in Michigan right now.  Three children have died in foster homes under suspicious circumstances in just over a year, two of them in just the past three months. 

Had there been three such cases with birth parents as suspects one can easily imagine the fury on the editorial pages about the state’s allegedly excessive efforts to keep families together.  But with three children dead in foster care, I have found no comment on any editorial page or from any columnist questioning whether Michigan is taking away too many children.

There are only two occasions I know of in which foster care panics worked “in reverse” – and both times children benefited enormously.  One case was in Maine, where Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her birth mother, only to be tied to a high chair by her foster mother with 42 feet of duct tape and asphyxiated.  The other was in Springfield Missouri, where Dominic James was taken needlessly from his father, only to be killed by his foster father.

In both cases, newspapers refused to be suckered by the “it’s an aberration” argument.  In both cases they refused to settle for bromides about background checks and licensing standards.  In Maine, thePortland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Bangor Daily News all began asking why the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day in Maine was, proportionately, among the highest in the country.

Today, the number of children taken away over each year in Maine is down by 25 percent, and the proportion of foster children placed with relatives has doubled – and it’s been done with no compromise in safety. [UPDATE, MARCH 23, 2011: In the years since, there has been still further improvement in Maine].

In Missouri, the Springfield News-Leader refused to settle for pat answers.  They asked why Missouri was taking away children at a rate well above the national average, and Greene County (which includes Springfield) was taking children at a rate well above the state average.  The 66,000-daily circulation Gannett paper even sent a reporter, photographer and editorial writer to Alabama to look at the reforms there.  TheNews-Leader’s reporting caught the attention of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which also did some very good work.

Today, the number of children taken from their parents is down 15 percent statewide, with no compromise of safety.  In St. Louis, which also is home to an innovation called Community Partnerships for Child Protection, the decline is 36 percent, and safety has improved.

But those are the exceptions.  Because the journalists at those news organizations were exceptional.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Meth and The Oregonian

Two news organizations in Portland, Oregon have been criticizing each other over coverage of methamphetamine lately. One offered a careful, well-sourced analysis. That would be the alternative weekly, Willamette Week, in March. The other offered up derision, straw men and cheap shots. That would be the Portland Oregonian editorial page -- yesterday.

In fact, the hype from the editorial page has undercut reporting in the Oregonian thats been better than most media coverage of meth, and encouraged the paper’s worst excesses.

 I don’t know why the Oregonian is complaining about Willamette Week’s gutsy cover story about the Oregonian’s meth coverage nearly four months after it was published - -but the page has become increasingly shrill in attacking anyone who doesn’t support their party line on meth. In effect, their position is: If you don’t believe every word we write, you don’t care if children die, lives are ruined, and all sorts of other havoc is wrought by meth.

Both the editorial page and the papers managing editor for enterprise, Steve Engelberg, have sought to recast the paper’s coverage, after-the-fact, hiding behind some early, excellent reporting and ignoring the rest.

 I didn’t see Willamette Week’s story when it first ran on March 22. I noticed it cited in a footnote to a recent study which included a discussion of meth and media, and then forgot about it until the Oregonian editorial appeared yesterday. Not that the Oregonian actually mentioned the story - - that would violate the first rule of mainstream media: Never mention your town’s alternative weekly” if it can possibly be avoided. But the editorial reads like a direct response to the WW story.

That story certainly has its flaws. Most notably, it fails to give proper credit to the series that essentially kicked off the papers coverage, Unnecessary Epidemic by reporter Steve Suo. Whatever flaws there may have been in characterizing the scope of the problem are outweighed by the overall thrust of the series - - which remains the only systematic reporting of its kind I’ve seen in any American newspaper.

Instead of the usual horror stories about mom and pop home labs, Unnecessary Epidemic focused on how simple ways to control the ingredients used to make meth at their source, overseas factories, have been blocked by the pharmaceutical lobby. And the series documented the existence of a way to manufacture decongestants whose key ingredient cant be turned into meth and how the pharmaceutical industry would not bring it to market.

 When Columbia Journalism Review gave the series a laurel it was on my recommendation (and I’m sure the recommendation of many others). Others who have criticized meth coverage in general, such as Slate media critic Jack Shafer, also have singled out Suo’s work for praise. Unfortunately, no big national newspaper picked up on Suo’s excellent reporting.

Willamette Week mentions this good work only in passing, and criticizes Suo largely for his role in a PBS Frontline documentary based in part on the series. (Suo did tell WW that he approved Frontline’s script).

Suos series wasnt the only time the Oregonian got it right.

 On the specific issue of meth and child welfare, I have repeatedly recommended to journalists a powerful story by a team of Oregonian reporters led by Bryan Denson. They followed the case of one infant, Timothy, with one reporter covering the birth parents, another the foster parents and a third the caseworker.

The result was a finely-nuanced story (“A baby in the balance,” March 27, 2005, available in the papers paid archive), which undercuts much of the hype that would turn up later in the Oregonian itself. The mother used meth, but was in outpatient treatment and doing well. The father was not accused of drug use at all. The child was in foster care because there was no inpatient drug treatment facility in the local community for the mother, and because of child welfare system’s pervasive bias against fathers.

Yet, for statistical purposes, this is a “meth case.” And when child welfare agencies claim that a huge percentage of their cases involve meth use, that includes cases like this one.

Willamette Week didnt mention this story either.

But where Willamette Week does criticize the Oregonian its usually right on the mark. Time after time the alternative weekly takes an Oregonian claim, usually built on some “advocacy number” or other, tracks it back to its source and finds - - there is no source, or at least none that is remotely reliable. And WW’s target often is the editorial page itself, and its increasingly shrill rhetoric.

WW also took a close look at an August, 2005 piece by Joseph Rose on meth and child welfare  which ignored and undercut all the good work Denson and his colleagues had done several months earlier. (The Children of Meth,” August 28, 2005).

Every cliche that turns up in bad meth coverage can be found in this story, including the term meth orphans,” which, if anything, is even worse than that notorious term from the 1980s, crack babies.”

The story accepted as fact the claim that Oregons astoundingly high rate of child removal is all because of meth. But Timothy, that child at the center of the Bryan Denson piece, was not an orphan in any sense. He had a mother recovering from addiction and a father who was not abusing drugs. And, of course, when Rose accepted at face value claims that 2,750 children in foster care were taken away because of meth, that includes Timothy.

Roses piece also contains a huge, fundamental error of fact, which he has refused to correct. The story claims that the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act requires states to terminate parental rights if a child has spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care. Not true. ASFA often requires states to ask a court to terminate parental rights under these circumstances and even then, there are several major exceptions, including one that covers cases in which parents are doing well in drug treatment.

I wrote to Rose and asked him where he got this misinformation. In an e-mail Rose said it came from  “various sources” apparently including grandparents caring for grandchildren taken from meth-addicted parents. His sources did not include the crystal-clear text of the law itself.

Hmmm. Which source to choose for what a law requires? Second-hand impressions of well-meaning grandparents or the actual text?

But my biggest concern with the story was its toxic mix of horror stories and advocacy numbers.

The story begins with Sadie, a child whose experience is atypical even for meth cases. Most children do not, in fact, live in meth labs and most do not have parents whose behavior crosses the line from neglect to sadism. Then come the numbers alleging huge proportions of cases involve meth. Then back to Sadie. By the time the reader is done, he is left with the impression not only that almost every foster care case is a meth case but that almost every parent in such a case is like Sadies sadistic dad.

The misimpression is reinforced by Roses claim, toward the top of the story that “roughly 2,750 children” were taken from parents using or making the potent drug [emphasis added].

Only much later in the story it is noted that of those 2,750 children, fewer than four percent were found in labs. (Even if you double or triple that number to account for the children in school, clearly labs are not the heart of the problem). Even a top Oregon Department of Human Services official told the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare that the number of times that [child protective] workers confronted actual manufacturing was rare in their practice compared to the number of families affected by methamphetamine abuse and dependence.

And, of course the story ignored the most fundamental fact of Oregon child welfare: That state has been taking children at an absurdly high rate since at least 1985, long before it could be blamed on meth.

When I wrote to Rose I offered to meet with him the following month while in Portland for the annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Unlike Denson, editorial writer Mary Kitch and several colleagues whod met with me on a previous trip, Rose declined.

Clearly the WW piece hit a nerve. The day after the piece ran, and was noted in Jim Romeneskos media news column, Engelberg, the Oregonian managing editor for enterprise, sent a long e-mail to WW and Romenesko - -which both published on their websites.

Unlike the WW story, which was measured in tone, Engelberg lashed out, calling the WW story: “a one-sided, intellectually dishonest, fake expose built on anecdotal comments that ignore the facts of The Oregonian's coverage. It meets no acceptable journalistic standard and is filled with hyperbole, sloppy reporting and the use of intentionally misleading statistics.”

And the WW story may explain why, starting last month, the Oregonian editorial page got nasty with any of us who question anything the Oregonian says about meth.

On June 6, an editorial declared that All those people now chattering about whether the meth epidemic is little more than media hype ought to visit with some of those abused and neglected kids carrying their few belongings into Oregon foster homes.”  This appears to be a shot not only at Willamette Week, but also at an excellent Youth Today story on the hype surrounding meth and child welfare -- and its off-base about both.

First, the statement is an example of a disturbing habit on the Oregonian editorial page: setting up straw men. If you dont believe everything the Oregonian says about meth you must believe there is nothing to the problem at all but media hype. No in-between options are allowed.

Second, the Oregonian is particularly unqualified to criticize anyone else for not talking to abused and neglected kids. Until late 2004, Oregon was a “black hole” for coverage of child welfare. The states largest newspaper appeared unaware of the fact that the state had a child welfare system. The papers own public editor” took it to task for lacking “sustained coverage” of the topic.

In contrast, the author of the Youth Today story is Martha Shirk, the journalist who practically invented the childrens beat during a long, distinguished career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her most recent projects include co-authoring a book about the problems of children aging out of the foster-care system.

In short, she has almost certainly talked to more foster children than all the reporters writing about the topic on the Oregonian news and editorial page staff combined.

Then came yesterdays editorial attacking the tinny little chorus of media critics and drug control skeptics” who dont accept every word about meth in the Oregonian as Holy Writ. The editorial continues in a nasty, personal vein, explaining that theyd previously resisted deigning to dignify criticism of their coverage with a reply because, after all, its hard to argue with anyone who can look seriously at Oregon and much of rural America, at meth use and addiction, at meth-related crime and child abuse and still insist that the problem is a myth.”

Once again, a straw man. The Willamette Week story never uses the word myth nor does it imply that the problem is a myth. Ive used the word, but to describe things like the claim that meth is more difficult to treat than other drugs - -which is, in fact, a myth - not to claim that meth is not a problem.

Mostly, the editorial regurgitates Engelbergs e-mail to Romenesko nearly four months earlier; in particular the way Engelberg hid behind Steve Suos original series. According to the editorial:

[F]rom the beginning of Suo's initial meth series, "Unnecessary Epidemic," published in October 2004, The Oregonian has consistently called for international, national and state steps to control access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the legal chemicals used in cold medicines and the central ingredients in meth. Virtually all the world's pseudoephedrine, Suo found, is produced by a few Asian manufacturers. That makes meth far more vulnerable to interdiction and control than drugs produced from poppy and coca fields around the globe. Suo used drug treatment statistics and other data to show that past efforts to control ephedrine and pseudoephedrine had been successful, before they were abandoned or subverted.

O.K. So according to the editorial, this 351,000-circulation newspaper, which can explain itself at whatever length it chooses every single day, has been misunderstood. Or victimized by a conspiracy of media critics albeit one too small even to notice. According to the editorial, “those few scattered critics” (who now are worth an entire editorial in the Sunday paper) “keep trying to twist our meth coverage.”

Or maybe, if your coverage is so misunderstood, you haven’t always written about the topic all that well.

The editorial goes on to note that the Oregonian has advocated only enlightened solutions, such as control at the source and treatment. But the hype in the editorials themselves and stories like Rose’s meth orphans” piece drown out that reasonable message.

And the hype about meth and child welfare makes meth the perfect all-purpose excuse for any decision to remove any child from any home under any circumstances.  No one need look at Oregon’s absurdly high rate of removal going all the way back to 1985, if state child welfare officials can reply to every criticism just by crying meth.”

When I wrote to Joseph Rose, I began the letter this way: “Can a major social problem be serious, real and hyped? Yes.  And thats what’s been happening in the case of methamphetamine and child welfare.

 Why do so many at the Oregonian find that so hard to understand?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Foster care in America: Big Media takes a meeting

DECEMBER 1, 2011: This post, and several that follow, originally were posted before this Blog was on Blogger.  Because ABC News coverage of foster care is again an issue, I've reposted them.  Dates are the actual dates for the original posting, and the content is unchanged. 

            Say this much for the people at ABC News – the ones I’ve been criticizing for much of this month:  Unlike most of the rest of what I’ll call “Big Media” – the huge, national news organizations like The New York Times, and some other broadcast news organizations, at least they’re willing to listen.

            Just over a week ago, I made my second request to ABC News executives for a meeting.  I said I wanted to include in such a meeting members of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, an excellent grassroots group in New York City, so they could hear the stories of birth parents who not only deserved to get their children back (as these birth parents did) but never should have had their children taken in the first place.

            The answer surprised me.

I’d expected to be turned down.  It’s one thing to ask to meet with an editorial board with which you have no grievance or introduce yourself to the new reporter on the child welfare beat.  Aside from some journalists at some of the largest news organizations, almost all are willing to at least take time to listen to a wide range of points of view.

But it’s different when trying to meet with executives on the news side when you have a complaint, particularly when one approaches Big Media.  Big Media usually hates to meet with advocates.  We usually are dismissed and disdained as “pressure groups.”  They hate even more to meet with advocates who are critical of their stories.  And they especially hate to meet with such advocates when they’re from very small groups that have no leverage other than the force of their arguments.

            This incident, recounted in a 2004 story in Columbia Journalism Review is pretty typical:

a group of doctors and scientists was  lobbying The New York Times to drop terms like crack baby from its pages. The group included the majority of American researchers investigating the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure or drug addiction. They were spurred to action by the papers coverage of a New Jersey couple found to be starving their four foster children in late 2003. For years the couple had explained the childrens stunted growth to neighbors and friends by saying, among other things, that they were crack babies. The Times not only failed to inform readers that crack babies dont exist, but reinforced the myth by reporting, without attribution, that the youngest [of the children] was born a crack baby.

Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal refused to meet with the researchers, saying via e-mail that the paper simply couldnt open a dialogue with all the advocacy groups who wish to influence terminology.After some haggling, he did agree to publish a short letter to the editor from the researchers. 

            But ABC was different.  The senior producer of the Primetime program, a field producer, and the network’s Director of News Practices welcomed CWOP’s Executive Director, the chair of CWOP’s Board, two other parent advocates and myself and discussed child welfare with us for well over 90 minutes.  They listened carefully as the parents told their personal stories, and they asked good questions.  We even discussed terminology.

            I don’t know how any of this will affect future programs, if at all. A meeting is not an end in itself.  But it’s a beginning.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The caseworker shortage: It's worse than we thought!

The Seattle Times picked up an award yesterday for a story following one case, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer picked up an award for a story following one caseworker.  But apparently, in all of Seattle, there is only one worker to follow:

Baby M was 2 days old when Mary Marrs, a veteran CPS investigator, showed up. “Do you know why I am here?” she asked Liz and Mike.
--Seattle Times, December 8, 2005

"Why do you think I'm here?" Marrs asked the young mother, beginning the same way she always does.
                                --Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 2005

Monday, June 12, 2006

Foster care in America: Primetime gets it wrong, part four

  In one of his excellent mystery novels, Chinese émigré writer Qiu Xiaolong tells us that in China, under Mao Zedong, the People’s Daily sometimes would run stories about “National Model Workers,” designed to inspire the masses.  One also can find such stories in the United States.  In fact, they’re a staple of child welfare reporting.  You’ve almost certainly seen them.  They’re the day/week/month/year-in-the-life-of-a-caseworker stories.  Sometimes, they are touted as an inside look at the system.  And sometimes, reporters break the usual boundaries of the genre and achieve something close to that.  But often, they are a whitewash.

            That’s not necessarily the fault of the journalists who write them.  No child welfare agency lets reporters choose the worker at random.  They’re almost always, well, National Model Workers -- the ones portrayed as having boundless enthusiasm, astonishing dedication, unusual savvy and far more experience than the typical CPS caseworker, who only lasts a year or two.

Such was the case when Primetime did the National Model Worker story as part of its report about foster care on June 1.  One actually saw very little of the NMW on the air.  The follow-her-around segment was bumped to a webcast and there also was a print story on the ABC News website.

The story begins with a basic factual error, one of several in the program.  It refers to all CPS workers as “social workers.”  The NMW is, in fact, a social worker.  But that’s actually unusual.  Typically, a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course is the extent of the qualifications.  Thus, the impression ABC News seeks to leave, that removal decisions are made carefully, by trained professionals, often is incorrect.

A staple of almost every National Model Worker story is a complaint like this from the caseworker:

"If we remove we acted too quickly, and if we don't remove and something bad happens, we did not pay enough attention."

That’s a claim I addressed in this Blog on April 17:

            “Caseworkers for child protection agencies are not jack-booted thugs who relish destroying families.  By and large they are dedicated and caring.  But they’re often underprepared, undertrained and overwhelmed.  But I lose sympathy for caseworkers when they complain that they’re subject to terrible criticism and sanction if they take away too few children – or too many.  Countless news stories have accepted at face value the claim by caseworkers that “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”   
            “I have been following child welfare for 30 years now, first as a reporter, more recently as an advocate. In all that time, in child welfare agencies all over the country, I have never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of these things have happened to workers who left even one child in a dangerous home … caseworkers know full well that when it comes to taking away children you’re not damned if you do and damned if you don’t – you’re only damned if you don’t.”

Primetime’s National Model Worker continues:

"I hear crazy rumors out there like we get bonuses for removing kids. Removing kids is the saddest part of the job. We are underpaid and overworked, but we do what is best for the children under our watch."

No, workers dont get bonuses for removing kids.  But states get bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number, an issue that has arisen in connection with adoption tragedies in Michigan and Ohio.

Im sure the National Model Workers sadness about removing children is genuine.  But she also said this:

"I believe that children have the right to an education, to medical needs, mental-health needs and permanency,"

So far, so good.  But she continues:

"And if that can't happen in the home with their natural parents for one reason or another, if a parent is not providing those needs, then the children need to be removed."

Regardless, it seems, of whether the parent is at fault. That is a brief for the confiscation of the children of the poor.  If thats now the model workers feel, what about the rest?

The NMW is heard making this comment after taking children from parents whose children were, according to Diane Sawyer not being sent to school and left dangerously unsupervised. Thats it, aside from the claim that child protective services had been monitoring this family for years.  Perhaps things would be different had they tried helping the family  not with a cookie-cutter service plan full of meaninglesscounseling and parent education but with concrete help geared to what the family actually needed. 

But now that theyve been taken away, Sawyer tells us that the children are frightened, but safe.  Frightened?  Definitely.  Safe? Maybe  given the rate of abuse in foster care, no one can be sure.

But the National Model Worker was the personification of restraint compared to Diane Sawyer.  She accompanies our NMW to check up on a single mother, who like many impoverished single mothers, sometimes gets overwhelmed and yells at her child.  The camera is there for what Maine foster parent Mary Callahan would call the gotcha moment, when the child imitates her mother yelling at her.

That child is not removed  yet.  But there is no indication that this mother is getting anything but the usual counseling and parent education” – nothing to actually ease the burdens overwhelming her.  So what happenes after they work with her for years?

Back in the NMWs car, the multi-millionaire anchorwoman who probably hasnt had to cope with a mundane chore of day to day living  much less the stresses of poverty  in decades asks the NMW: What keeps you from wanting to take some of these parents and just shake them and say: Whats the matter with you? these are your kids! Come on!

This prompted the following response from Charles Baker, the retired CEO of the Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency in Kentucky:

Instead of "shaking her," shouldn't we be shaking Congress for failure to raise the minimum wage? Or for any commitment to provide adequate hosing or health care for all US children? Shouldn't we be shaking the media for not interviewing a single expert for any alternative to child rescue?

Later this week: Primetime saves the worst for last.


In Monday’s Blog, I quoted the “National Model Worker,” the Kentucky caseworker ABC News followed around for its Primetime program about foster care.  At one point she says:  "I hear crazy rumors out there like we get bonuses for removing kids….”

            As it happens, NBC News also was in Kentucky recently, following up on some excellent reporting by the Lexington Herald-Leader.  The newspaper disclosed pressure on caseworkers to remove children from their homes needlessly and rush them to adoption, in order for the state to collect the bounties offered by the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act.

            And in this story, NBC reports that in Kentucky, workers don’t get extra cash, but they can get extra time off.  According to the story, “ States can earn federal bonuses for keeping adoption numbers high,and in Kentucky workers can even get extra vacation” [emphasis added].

            Good thing somebody’s checking those “crazy rumors.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Foster care in America: Primetime gets it wrong, part three

Friday’s blog offered an overview of the failings of ABC News’ Primetime report on foster care.  Today, the start of a look at the program segment-by-segment.

            Much of the program is devoted to a staple of mediocre journalism: The puff piece about a “residential treatment center” in this case Maryhurst in Louisville, Ky.  And Maryhurst knew it would be a puff piece. Days before the program aired, the institution was promoting it, complete with a picture of CEO Judy Lambeth posing with Diane Sawyer.

Like many other Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs), Maryhurst has lovely grounds and a slick p.r. operation.

RTCs know how to sell themselves.  They know how to explain how things like not being able to so much as open the refrigerator to get a snack without permission actually is part of the “therapeutic milieu” and is simply the “structure” that the children need.  Actually, it’s needed to keep the institution running when you take a bunch of troubled children at an age when they are most influenced by peers and put them all in one place.  (As I noted yesterday, I expect Maryhurst to claim that having an 11-year-old’s face on camera as she told about being sexually abused, and abusing others, was “therapeutic” for her). 

They always have a couple of anecdotes about success ready – well, maybe one.  But the anecdotes don’t match the data.  Residential treatment is among the biggest failures in child welfare.

· A U.S. Surgeon General's report found only "weak evidence" of residential treatment’s effectiveness.

· Another study found that within six years, 75 percent of the children released from the centers were back to living in the only places they understood - institutions - either mental health facilities or jails.

· A comprehensive review of the literature by the University of North Carolina School of Social Work found that "when community-based services are available, they provide outcomes that are equivalent, at least [to RTCs]."

· Even the head of the trade association for child welfare agencies nationwide, the Child Welfare League of America, admitted that they lack “good research” showing the effectiveness of residential treatment and “we find it hard to demonstrate success…”

How does Primetime deal with this? By ignoring the facts in favor of pretty pictures and syrupy music.  Maryhurst doesn’t even claim success - -except for one former resident who now works there on the staff.  In other words, even the one success story could be comfortable as an adult only at the institution.  (An almost identical puff piece on another institution, on Now with Bill Moyers a couple of years ago, also could show only one success story, also someone who came back to work at the institution.  As a result, that institution’s innovative new CEO is trying to reduce institutionalization.  Now would find a very different story if they went back).

Primetime avoids confronting all this failure by saying, in effect: What do you expect?  The kids are so troubled.  In a comment that is astounding for its arrogance, CEO Lambeth declares that "If we're not successful, no one can be. These are the children that nobody else can handle.”


There are better alternatives that have shown more success with exactly the same kinds of children.

In 2002, the Journal-News in Westchester County, N.Y. looked at Wraparound, pioneered in Milwaukee, as part of a comprehensive examination of residential treatment.  They found that “[Wraparound] cut the number of Milwaukee children in RTCs by 90 percent, dramatically shortened their stays, reunited hundreds of families, reduced the incidence of crime and saved millions of dollars in treatment costs. It became a national model for treating emotionally disturbed children, offering a more effective and economical means of helping youngsters without the traditional reliance on costly and controversial institutions. …”

Of course, the institutions didn’t shrink without a fight.

“I remember meeting with groups of people and folks saying, 'Let's get some reports out that show they [Wraparound] are going to start hurting kids now,' " the head of a large institution told The Journal News.  "Well, nobody could ever bring the reports to the meetings, 'cause there were none that existed that said we were doing anything all that great. We didn't really have any solid anything that demonstrated we were able to fix kids. … I think, looking back on it now, what we’re doing for kids today [with Wraparound] is far more helpful.”  The full story is available here.

            And sometimes, institutions have crises of conscience. After studying their own program and finding it didn’t work, EMQ Child and Family Services of California closed 100 of its 130 institutional beds.  Now they serve more children at less cost in their own homes or foster homes.  According to this story in the authoritative trade journal Youth Today, EMQ’s biggest obstacle was “the group home industry” which tried to stop the state from funding EMQ’s alternative approach.

Youth Villages in Tennessee also embraced community-based care after finding that residential treatment failed – and their biggest problem also was getting the state to fund it, even though it costs less. Says Youth Villages’ visionary director, Patrick Lawler: “In the 28 years I have been entrusted with caring for other people's children, some of whom come from dire circumstances, I have learned firsthand there is no substitute for a child's birth family. I used to think we could do a better job of raising these children. We know better now. The best way to help a child is to help his or her family.”

And that includes adoptive families.  Primetime is a mass of internal contradictions and one of them is seen here.  Even as the program pushes adoption-as-panacea, it chronicles an adoption that is failing; the adoptive parents are returning their adopted child, -- the 11-year-old seen on camera -- and shipping her off to Maryhurst.  For this child, the “forever family” – wasn’t.  Perhaps things wouldn’t have come to that were Wraparound services available.  But as long as RTCs like Maryhurst bleed systems of so much of their limited funds, there won’t be alternatives.

Of course ignoring community-based alternatives in favor of residential treatment has another advantage: A residential treatment center is a great source of horror stories about the relatively few birth parents who really are brutally abusive and really should have their children taken away. 

But intriguingly, even one of the cases highlighted by Primetime involves a family that might have been saved, the family of a girl who desperately misses her mother.  This child’s mother did not beat her or torture her or starve her.  She may have neglected her because she used marijuana and cocaine.  We see the child visit her mother in jail, and we hear Diane Sawyer’s contempt as she makes clear the child is naïve to chink that mom won’t let her down once again.

But what if, early on, her mother had been offered family-based drug treatment, at a place where parents can live with their children? Such places have excellent track records. What if Maryhurst had been such a place, instead of an institution that scarfs up $186 per child per day for a program that can’t show success?

As it happens, Louisville is home to two safe, successful alternatives to substitute care: Community Partnerships for Child Protection and Family to Family (a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which helps to fund NCCPR).  We predicted that Primetime would ignore these programs.  We were wrong.  Elements of one of them were mentioned for all of one minute and 40 seconds, barely noticeable between the endless parade of horror stories about the brutes and the sadists.  There also was a brief mention of the programs on the ABC News website.  It misconstrued how they work and what they’re about. 

            These programs involve working with families, not demonizing them or patronizing them.  These programs recognize how often “neglect” is really poverty.  But that’s not the Primetime worldview. So instead of demonstrated success, Primetime lavishes attention on a proven failure:  residential treatment.

            Later this week: The “National Model Worker” story.