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.