Sunday, December 23, 2007

Good news, except in some newsrooms

This Blog will be taking the holidays off. The post about Kansas, and how that state is compromising the integrity of an entire national database of foster care statistics will appear when the Blog resumes on January 2. (In the meantime, I’ve updated NCCPR’s Press Release on the issue).

But before pausing for the holidays, one note about a holiday tradition: the story about coping with holiday depression – you know, the story that talks about how suicides increase during the holiday season.

Except they don’t.

The Los Angeles Times reports on a review of 32 studies of the link between the holiday season and suicides. Here’s the link: Suicides go down, perhaps by as much as 40 percent.

What does this have to do with child welfare? Only this. Like so many “facts” and statistics that appear in stories about child abuse and foster care, the claim that the holiday season leads to more suicide was “too good to check.”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot

Correction: This post states that the Kansas child welfare agency licenses the state's foster homes and institutions. In fact, that is done by another state agency.

There is a land where a child can be interned in an institution for more than a week, cut off even from all communication with family for three days, and yet be an un-person to the bureaucrats who run the state child welfare agency. It is a place where holding a child in foster care for a week can be labeled a way to prevent foster care.

As I wrote last week, it isn’t Oz. It’s Kansas.

In fact, the system in Kansas sounds less like something that sprang from the pen of L. Frank Baum and more like a creation of Lewis Carroll, with an assist from Charles Dickens, Rod Serling and, especially, George Orwell.

The consequences for the state’s vulnerable children are deadly serious.

Like most states, Kansas requires that, when a child is torn from her or his parents based solely on the authority of the child welfare agency or law enforcement, there must be a court hearing within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. But in the state’s largest county, Sedgwick, which includes Wichita, authorities somehow were interpreting 72 to mean 144 – in other words, six days. And since you can’t go six days without hitting a weekend, children really were being interned – mostly in an institution – for eight days before any court ever heard the case. And here’s where it gets a bit Dickensian: The institution in question, the Wichita Children’s Home, actually has a policy of barring all communication between a child and his family for the first three days. Even an accused criminal gets one phone call, innocent children in Sedgwick County do not.

When the legislature “clarified” the law and told Sedgwick County it had to start behaving like every other county, judges and the District Attorney’s office, which effectively represents the child welfare agency in these cases, threw a fit. Their reasons offer a rare x-ray of the soul of a child welfare system. It’s not pretty.

For starters, the Assistant District Attorney in charge of child abuse cases in the county, Ron Paschal, argued that children needed to be held in foster care for eight days in order to prevent foster care. No, really. You see, by holding the child for eight days, he said, workers had time to investigate the case and find an alternative to foster care – like sending the child home or placing the child, informally, with relatives.

There are just two problems with this:

● First, if 80 percent of the children can go home or to grandma’s house within eight days, odds are very few of them ever needed to be torn from everyone they know and love, hauled off to an institution and interned there for a week in the first place – an enormously traumatic experience, particularly for young children.

● Second, (although this one would seem to be obvious): you do not prevent foster care by placing a child in foster care. You prevent foster care by not placing a child in foster care.

Authorities in Sedgwick County explain away this one in a way Orwell surely would have appreciated: Those first eight days in an institution are not foster care, they say. They’re “protective custody”! So they don’t count! (If you find this hard to believe, that’s understandable. Check out NCCPR’s Kansas Report for full citations). And what makes it “protective custody”? Simple. A police officer engaged in the physical act of removing the child, so law enforcement, not the child welfare agency, supposedly has “custody.”

Both Sedgwick County and state officials cling to this rationalization even though it is the child welfare agency that often asks law enforcement to remove the child, the child welfare agency that licenses the places the children go, the child welfare agency that oversees the investigation, the child welfare agency that recommends what to do next and – perhaps most important – the child welfare agency that foots the bill. The child welfare agency reimburse the Wichita Children’s Home.

In fact, this kind of placement – ripping a child away from everyone she knows and loves, sometimes in the middle of the night, based solely on a caseworker’s judgment - is supposed to be limited to emergencies; situations where a child would suffer immediate harm if this were not done. The reason for that is obvious. If the threat of harm is not immediate, there is time to remove the threat instead of the children, or at least time to go to a judge.

So if there really is such an emergency, there should be no need for eight days to “investigate” whether the child needed to be taken at all. Instead of taking children this way only in genuine emergencies, the policy in Sedgwick County, Kansas boils down to take-the-child-first-ask-questions-later. So it’s no wonder that 80 percent of the children could go home or to a relative within a week.

And what kind of a case would warrant traumatizing a child this way. Let Ron Paschal, the deputy district attorney, tell you. Here’s what he told the Kansas Health Institute news service:

Let's say police come upon a two-year-old child at night, wandering the streets. They do some investigating and they find out the child had been left with a six-year-old. Now, maybe the children were unsupervised because mom was passed out drunk or maybe she's working two jobs, doing everything she can to make ends meet - she didn't have anybody she could leave the kids with.
If she's working, it may be that she needs (public) assistance or some parenting classes or some other form of support. Maybe the child can stay with an aunt or uncle or a grandparent while all this is being worked out? If they can, that child may not need to be in foster care.

In other words, the deputy district attorney in charge of child abuse cases in Sedgwick County, Kansas is justifying the internment of children for more than a week – and returning them afterwards not necessarily to their own homes, but sometimes to relatives – solely because of their mother’s poverty.

In fact, faced with this kind of case, a well-functioning child welfare agency would not remove a child from the home for even one minute. Rather, the caseworker would wait in the home until the mother got home from work. Then the agency would send a babysitter into the home. Or the agency could provide a one-time payment of “flex funds” to the mother to arrange for a sitter until after-hours day care could be arranged.

It is incomprehensible why, under these circumstance, Paschal would call first for institutionalizing a child for more than a week and then placing the child 24-hours-a-day with grandparents instead of simply asking those grandparents to baby-sit.

Not that holding a hearing in a timely manner would help much. According to the same news story:

When these investigations don't come together in three days, judges are expected to choose between the uncertainty of a sending a child home and the safety of foster care. "It's a no-brainer," [Juvenile Court Judge Jim] Burgess said. "You go with safety."

Leaving aside the fact that the story makes the classic mistake of assuming foster care is safe and all risk lies in returning the child home, the judge’s interpretation raises questions about whether it is consistent with state law. That law requires probable cause to support a belief there are certain specified grounds to keep the child in foster care. It does not say “hold onto the child while we figure out if there’s actually a problem.”

But then, Paschal himself says the 72-hour hearings are a sham – in all those other counties, that is. In that same news story:

Paschal said he doubted that other judicial districts' hearings are truly held within 72 hours of a child entering police custody. "A lot of times what happens is, yeah, they'll have a hearing and the judge will say [to the parents], 'You want a hearing? OK, here, let's schedule a hearing. When can you be here?'" he said.
"That's not really a hearing" Paschal said. "It's certainly not the way it is in Sedgwick County. When we have a hearing, the evidence is presented, there will be witnesses, and you will have the opportunity to cross-examine your accusers.”

How, exactly, this cross-examination can be effective when the parent’s court-appointed lawyer typically just met her minutes before the hearing, Paschal doesn’t say.

But then, it is almost as if Paschal realizes he may have gone a bit too far. If after all, 72-hour hearings are a sham, and if Sedgwick County must now hold its hearings in 72 hours, then…

So Paschal quickly clarifies matters. Referring to the fact that he believes Sedgwick hearings are not a sham, he says:

"That's the way it was when we had 144 hours and that's the way it is now," he said.

So now, Paschal is saying that all those other counties don’t provide a real hearing in 72 hours – but Sedgwick does. In that case, what’s the problem with holding the hearings in 72 hours? He explains:

"The only difference is the social worker doesn't have as much time to come up with an alternative" to foster care.

But, of course, the child already is in foster care.

It’s not just Sedgwick County that’s playing games. The State child welfare agency is using a similar dodge to grossly underreport the number of children taken from parents every year, undermining the integrity of the entire national data-gathering process. That story next week.

But you would think in Kansas they’d remember: For most children most of the time, there’s no place like home.

P.S. An ombudsman takes on the virtual lynch mob

On November 19, I wrote about how newspaper publishers help poison the climate for civil debate by giving hate-mongers a forum, and the ability to hide behind anonymity. Yesterday, the ombudsman for the Miami Herald weighed in on the topic in a very good column.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's not Oz, it's Kansas

One of the great fictions of child welfare is the one in which child welfare agencies deny that they ever take children away at all. “We don’t do that,” they piously proclaim, only a judge can order a child removed from the home.”

Since this Blog generally adheres to the style rules of a family newspaper, we can only call this nonsense.

In every state, child protective services caseworkers have the power to remove a child from any home they want at any time they want, if not at the snap of the fingers, then at least at the push of a “speed dial” button to call the police to do it for them. They don’t have to give notice to the family, they don’t have to go to court for a hearing – they don’t even have to call the judge on the phone.

Precisely because this is such a drastic action, with no real due process, it’s supposed to occur only in an emergency – a situation where a child is in immediate danger. The reason for this should be obvious: If the danger isn’t immediate, there is time to remove the danger instead of the child or at least to hear all sides first. That’s the theory. In fact, an emergency is anything the caseworker thinks it is, and emergency removal power routinely is abused.

Precisely because this is such a drastic action, most states require a court hearing within 24, 48 or 72 hours (usually excluding weekends or holidays). Even the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, which has never been a big booster of family preservation, says it is best practice to allow no more than 72 hours to pass before the hearing.

Sadly, the hearings don’t do much good. On one side is a child welfare agency and/or its legal representative which has had 24 to 72 hours to prepare a case. On the other side is almost always an overwhelmed, impoverished birth parent who, if she has a lawyer at all, met him in the hallway five minutes before the hearing.

Presiding is a judge who knows that he can approve hundreds of needless removals and, while the children may suffer terribly, his career is safe. But return one child home and have something go wrong and that career may well be over.

So it’s no wonder that, at these hearings, judges are far more prone to wield rubber stamps than gavels.

But all that is an argument for making the hearings meaningful, not putting them off for even longer.

All of which brings us to Kansas, and, in particular, Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita. NCCPR released a report on Kansas child welfare last week. Kansas is one of the states that has a rule requiring that first hearing to be held within 72 hours. But Sedgwick County judges, and the county district attorney’s office, which essentially represents the state child welfare agency in these cases, somehow were “interpreting” 72 hours to mean 144 hours – six days. Since you can’t go six days without hitting a weekend, that really means that in Sedgwick County, caseworkers had a free shot at any child I the county with no hearing of any kind for eight days.

And most of these children were not even placed with a family. Instead they were placed – interned is really a better word – at what amounts to the local orphanage, the Wichita Children’s Home. To add an extra dollop of cruelty, while a common criminal gets “one phone call” children interned at WCH do not. The children are cut off from any and all contact with their families for the first 72 hours.

In 2006, the Kansas Legislature clarified state law, to make clear that Sedgwick County has to do what every other county manages to do – hold that first hearing within 72 hours.

The judges and the D.A.’s office threw a fit - they’re trying to get the legislature to give them back the additional days. But it was an enormously revealing fit.

By the time they were done making their case:

--A judge admitted rubber-stamping removals even when the child welfare agency hadn’t really made a case.

--The Deputy D.A. in charge of child abuse investigations effectively endorsed taking away children solely because of poverty.

--The Deputy D.A. admitted that the 72-hour hearings are a sham – except in Sedgwick County.

--And most remarkable of all: The Deputy D.A. estimated that of all the children taken from their parents without a hearing in 2006, 80 percent of them were returned home or placed informally with a relative before that first court hearing.

But, of course, if 80 percent of the children you take away can be returned home or placed informally within a week, odds are most of them never needed to be placed in the first place.

Of course, as far as the child welfare agency in Kansas is concerned – they weren’t. In Kansas, all children placed in foster care but sent home before the first court hearing are what George Orwell called “unpersons.” When it comes to the state’s official statistics, they don’t exist. The children also don’t exist in reports every state is required to submit to the federal government. Kansas either is violating federal regulations concerning reporting entries into foster care, or has come up with a clever, albeit reprehensible, scheme to evade those regulations. NCCPR has asked the federal Administration for Children and Families to determine which it is.

More on all of this next week.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

How "Dr. Sooze" distorts the nooze

Last week, I wrote about the harm done by child welfare “ombudsmen” or state Offices of Child Advocate. Because they are almost always created in the wake of deaths of children “known to the system” their primary mandate almost always is to focus on such cases. That inherently distorts the perspective of the office, leaving the impression that systems err in only one direction, leaving children in dangerous homes. The problem is compounded by the fact that the people named to head these offices often come to the job with exactly that preconceived notion.

Last week’s blog focused on one of the two exceptions: Kevin Ryan, New Jersey’s first Child Advocate. It talked about how his tough-minded reports focused on errors in all directions, and how that helped improve one of the nation’s most troubled child welfare agencies.

The New Jersey system was never very good, and a few years ago, under dreadful leadership dominated by a take-the-child-and-run mentality, it hit rock bottom. The number of children taken from their parents started to soar in 2001, engulfing workers and collapsing the system. That became all too apparent when the death of Faheem Williams was discovered in January, 2003. News coverage of that case set off a foster-care panic, making everything worse.

A class-action lawsuit settlement, and the naming of Ryan to run the child welfare agency, brought the first steps in the right direction – reduced entries into care and concrete evidence of improvements in child safety. The improvements were attested to in a report by the independent court-appointed monitor overseeing the settlement.

But those findings soon were overshadowed by the work of “Dr. Sooze.”

That’s how Dr. Susan Hodgson likes to be known. When Ryan went from watchdog over the child welfare system to top dog within that system, Hodgson was named the new “Child Advocate.”

Dr. Sooze is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse cases. In other words, she’s spent much of her life in settings where one sees the very worst cases, cases which bear no resemblance to a typical CPS worker’s load. It’s a background that easily can distort one’s impression of who gets caught up in the system and why, and that helps explain what happened next.

Dr. Sooze promptly abandoned the innovative approach of her predecessor. It was back to spewing out conventional reports filled with conventional wisdom about deaths of children “known to the system” – and nothing else.

And then she did something worse. She broke the previous record for an agency making vast generalizations based on minuscule, unrepresentative samples. The previous record-holder, New York City’s Department of Investigation, trashed the City child welfare agency based on the eleven worst cases it could find over a period of about six months. (See the August 13 entry on this Blog).

New Jersey OCA goes New York DOI one worse. It draws sweeping conclusions about the work of thousands of dedicated people in New Jersey’s child welfare agency based on the absurd notion that a grand total of three horror story cases, one of which dates back to 2004, can possibly tell us anything about the overall status of casework in 2007. The link to this report on the OCA website describes it as a report on “Global Issues.” The press release calls the issues “systemic.” But the report offers not a shred of evidence that the issues are either.

At least, unlike New York City’s DOI, OCA acknowledges on the first page that “from this review, it is impossible to know how widespread the errors are that were present in these cases…” but the report then goes on to generalize anyway.

And it’s the generalizations that are the problem.

On the one hand, the tone of the report is commendably measured and the specific recommendations largely meet the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy test: They’re mostly harmless. A few even are good.

But the biggest problem in this report is the problem that is inherent in how OCA, and its counterparts around the country, are structured. They are geared to examine fatalities and near fatalities. Inevitably, they leave the false impression that the child welfare agency errs in only one direction: leaving children in dangerous homes.

That impression is heightened when Dr. Sooze goes on to make broad, sweeping generalizations based on the three worst failures she can find. The distorted impression that leaves concerning where things stand in New Jersey child welfare, and what’s wrong with it, promptly overshadowed a far more objective, more nuanced – but still highly-critical – report from the court monitor.

Imagine what would happen were any of us judged the way Dr. Sooze judged the child welfare agency. Even the best doctors make mistakes. But what if a doctor’s entire career were judged solely by the three cases in which his or her diagnoses were farthest from the mark. Imagine if any of us walked into one of those annual “performance review” rituals only to be told that we would be judged only by our three worst screw-ups over the past 12 months.

Or to put it more cosmically, for those who believe in such things, suppose when its time to go to our eternal reward, we are judged solely on the basis of the three worst things we ever did in our entire lives. Were that to happen, I suspect most of us would be doomed to spend eternity trapped on one of the more odorous sections of the New Jersey Turnpike.

The issue here is not that Dr. Sooze’s methodology is unfair to the child welfare agency. Rather, it’s unfair to New Jersey’s children. The wrong methodology leads to the wrong diagnosis, and, as every doctor knows, if you get the diagnosis wrong, the patient is far less likely to recover. The New Jersey child welfare system is still in critical condition. To switch metaphors, the monitor’s report offered a road map for further reform, Dr. Sooze offered only a detour.

The detour is especially dangerous in light of one of the three cases that made up the so-called Global Issues report. In this case, the most critical of many tragic errors took place all the way back in 2004; when the system still was laboring under the foster-care panic set off by the death of Faheem Williams. If anything, this case was still one more illustration of how foster-care panics endanger children. But instead of pointing this out, the Global Issues report only increases the likelihood of another panic.

The only way to know the status of typical casework is either to be in a position like that of the court monitor, able to use a wide variety of means to see how the system typically operates, or to review a random sample of cases, using reviewers who either are objective or who are drawn from organizations with differing perspectives that balance each other. That’s exactly what Kevin Ryan did when he was child advocate, producing the Families Under Supervision report described in last week’s blog.

One look at the website of the current New Jersey Child Advocate suggests we’re not going to see anything better anytime soon.

One can see what has gone wrong at the New Jersey Office of Child Advocate just by looking at the agency’s website. Anyone who has seen the website evolve since “Dr. Sooze” took over will notice one thing immediately. The site, which used to be crisp and professional, is now cutesy and cloying. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is summed up by the following item that appeared in October under the heading “Dr. Sooze says:”

“Eating healthy will keep kids awake and aware throughout the school day. All children should be sure to start the day with a healthy breakfast and eat only snacks that help them grow up strong throughout the day.”

Now I just want to go on the record: I, too, favor children eating a good breakfast and healthy snacks. But so do 99 percent of New Jersey parents. They don’t need a smug reminder of the obvious. When it comes to the parents who are likely to be the subject of child welfare agency attention, what they need is help in getting the food.

I’ll bet almost every child taken into foster care was eligible for school lunch and school breakfast programs – precisely because those parents couldn’t afford to give them that “healthy breakfast.” So wouldn’t it be a lot more helpful if “Dr. Sooze” provided links to food pantry locations and to places where these parents could get help obtaining foodstamps? But no. There was only a link to another website full of things like “Halloween Candy Hints” and similar information.

It’s the difference between a mindset that emphasizes a helping hand and one that emphasizes a wagging finger, and a mindset that has some concept of what it means to be poor, and one that doesn't.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why the typical child welfare "ombudsman" does so much harm

After the death of a child “known to the system” makes headlines, there often is a demand for greater “accountability” on the part of the child welfare agency. This could be achieved, of course, by subjecting child welfare agencies to the same public scrutiny as most other state and local government agencies. 

Legislatures could open the court hearings and make most child welfare agency records public. But then people would see the extent to which errors go in all directions; they’d see how the same agencies that leave some children in dangerous homes wrongfully remove many more. The “foster care-industrial complex” in any given state, that network of providers paid for every day they hold children in foster care and their allies in the advocacy community, would just as soon you not see that. They pressure legislators to keep everything hidden from the general public. 

Instead, legislators sometimes jerk their knees by creating a new state agency to look over the shoulder of the existing state agency. They create a child welfare “ombudsman” or “Office of Child Advocate.” Typically they can investigate pretty much whatever they want – but must look into deaths of children “known to the system.” To guarantee independence, often the Ombudsman/Child Advocate is appointed to a fixed term and can’t be removed by the Governor. 

The circumstances of these offices births tend to dictate what happens next. The person named to fill the job almost always means well; she or he is typically sincere in believing that the efforts of the office are helping children. But the typical Ombudsman/Child Advocate generally has a “take-the-child-and-run” mentality, and the mandate of the office means he or she will generally be looking at errors in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes. 

Their tough talk, often bordering on swagger, their tendency to reinforce conventional wisdom, and the fact that they are often the only source of information make them media darlings. Often they become what I’ve come to call the Godsource – that one source about all child welfare issues whose words are treated as Holy Writ and whose claims are never questioned. And they can do enormous harm.

In Michigan, during the mid-1990s, the state’s child welfare “ombudsman“ played a crucial role in undermining reforms that had made the state a national leader in child welfare; today the state wallows in typical mediocrity. Washington State’s ombudsman got it into her head that the biggest problem in child welfare was the fact that the state’s incredibly broad “neglect” statute wasn’t making it easy enough to take away children. 

The quintessential state “Child Advocate” was the first one named to the job in Georgia. She was caring, passionate, dedicated – and flat wrong. Her efforts helped encourage a foster-care panic that swept through the state in the early part of the decade, and she worked tirelessly to undercut subsequent reform efforts. NCCPR’s report on Georgia child welfare is devoted to the unintended consequences of her good intentions. After waiting for six months after her term as Child Advocate ended, the Governor replaced her. 

 With only two exceptions I know of, OCAs have been still another thumb tiling the scales of justice against families. One of those exceptions was a child advocate’s office created within the office of New York City’s first Public Advocate, Mark Green. That office took up the cause of children needlessly taken away by the city’s child welfare agency and issued outstanding reports on things like the lack of adequate defense counsel for families. But Green’s successor, Betsy Gotbaum, let the office wither away – and even took the reports off the Public Advocate’s website. Then, a reporter for The New York Times decided the best way to undermine reform in the city was to make deaths of children “known to the system” news again, even creating the myth of a “series” of child abuse deaths where no such series existed. (“It was a series,” she would say later, “but not statistically.”) Gotbaum knew a p.r. opportunity when she saw one. She began churning out press releases demanding creation of a child welfare ombudsman’s office. Apparently, she was betting on mass amnesia among the city’s journalists; it was a good bet, none has pointed out that such an ombudsman once was employed by her own office.

The other exceptional OCA was the one created in New Jersey after the death of Faheem Williams. It was probably the nation’s most powerful and best staffed. But most important, the first person to hold the title of New Jersey Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan, was determined to avoid the pitfalls of other such agencies. Ryan had been a top aide to the governor who appointed him. 

But if anyone thought Ryan would go easy on his former boss, they soon were proven wrong. One after the other, the reports came pouring out of the new office, blasting the child welfare agency for getting almost everything wrong. It probably would be hard to find a news story about the New Jersey Office of Child Advocate in which the word “report” wasn’t preceded by the word “scathing.” Ryan’s reports are widely considered one of the things that forced both the head of the state human services agency and the head of its child welfare division out of their jobs. 

But Ryan’s reports weren’t just tough. They also were smart. Because from the beginning, Kevin Ryan understood that the errors go both ways. Consider the report he issued on the death of Samuel Allen, a five-year-old suffering from autism. The state child welfare agency had investigated the mother, Alicia Day, before. Caseworkers found a struggling single mother working a night shift and, like thousands of others, cobbling together makeshift childcare arrangements. The agency did nothing to help. The New Jersey OCA investigation found some of the same failings commonly found in such reports all over the country, such as failure to interview other children in the household or others who knew the family. But the report also said this: 

The most profound failure here was systemic. The child care, early intervention and homemaker assistance services that this single mother may have needed as she tried to raise four children, including a child with autism, on her own, while working an overnight shift to generate income for the family, simply do not exist in New Jersey to meet the need. The child welfare reform plan’s commitments to make significant investments in prevention initiatives can lead to genuine child welfare reform if they are targeted to strengthen families like Alicia Day’s, based on an assessment community-by-community of the risk factors that place children and families at risk. 

The following year, Ryan became the first government official we know of to address an issue we have come to call “fatal neatness.” There is no field we know of where the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is taken more literally than child welfare – and no field we know where the consequences can be more harmful. 

Over and over again, in fatality reviews and news stories, caseworkers say something like “we never suspected anything because the home was so neat and clean” as though there was some direct correlation between cleanliness and love. In contrast, children can be taken from loving homes because an overwhelmed parent fell way, way behind on the house cleaning. So in his report reviewing child abuse fatalities in 2005, Ryan issued the following recommendation: 

In two cases here, and as also evidenced in the OCA’s prior reports, the caseworkers noted in the file that the home was neat and clean. Until someone demonstrates a correlation between cleanliness and child safety, [the state child welfare agency] should instruct employees that this factor is, at best, hardly relevant unless the filth is severe enough to cause a real and immediate risk to the child. This both will reduce needless removals from dirty homes, and encourage workers not to write off the potential for risk in homes that happen to be spotless. 

But no matter how many such statements appear in reports about fatalities, the very fact that deaths of children “known-to-the-system” may be the only subject investigated can leave the impression that the system errs in only one direction. So at NCCPR’s suggestion, Ryan initiated an audit of “Families Under Supervision” in their own homes, including some who subsequently were placed in foster care. The audit examined the quality of the services to families and whether placement was necessary. It included a casereading of a random sample of case files. The result was a comprehensive examination of cases where the state was right to place children in foster care, and where it was wrong, including this case history:

In February 2004, DYFS determined that two-year-old Tavon was physically abused by his babysitter. During the course of the DYFS investigation, Tavon and his three-year-old brother, Xavier, could not remain with their mother, Katrina, because she was homeless.
Katrina signed the 15-day consent to placement and the children were placed in relative care. Katrina assumed that the placement would be temporary while DYFS helped her to locate permanent housing. However, after the 15-day consent expired, she was asked to sign a six-month consent because she remained homeless. The children remained with their maternal aunt until June 2004 when she informed DYFS that she could no longer provide care for the children.
Tavon and Xavier were placed in a foster home for 1 month and then into separate relative care placements. Meanwhile, Katrina secured employment, attended parenting skills classes and searched for housing. By December 2004, she had secured housing in a boarding home, but she was informed by her landlord that no children were permitted.
When the six-month consent expired, DYFS went to court and was granted custody, care, and supervision of Xavier and Tavon, based solely on Katrina’s inability to secure adequate housing for them despite her efforts and requests for assistance through DYFS and welfare. Time and again, Katrina asked her case manager for assistance but only a bus pass, a list of 8 agencies to contact and a form letter to present to each was provided. As this was the extent of the assistance she was provided, Katrina made no progress towards securing appropriate accommodations.
Katrina’s frustration with DYFS began to grow as the months passed and her children were moved from the maternal aunt’s home to a foster home and then to separate relative placements, in two different cities. Not only was Katrina becoming overwhelmed by her situation and her need to locate suitable housing, but DYFS then began referring her to services that required less urgency, like parenting skills classes.
Soon, the bus pass that DYFS provided to assist her getting to work, housing agencies, parenting classes, and visits with her sons expired. After the children were in placement for over a year, Katrina began to visit them less and less, and the sibling visits also became less frequent. In June 2005, Xavier’s caregiver reported that he had begun to wet his bed and she would like counseling for him. Katrina still did not have housing, which remains her only barrier to reunification. 

But it wouldn’t last. In proof of the adage, “no good deed goes unpunished,” a new Governor named Ryan to run the state child welfare agency. (He spent Thanksgiving with a family he’d personally intervened to reunite after their poverty had been confused with neglect.) But at OCA, the Governor replaced Ryan with a typical type, who’s doing typical harm. 

Next week: How “Dr. Sooze” distorts the nooze.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Standing up to the virtual lynch mob

The Washington Post had an article last week headlined “With Cruelty and Malice for All” lamenting the astounding viciousness that characterizes many of the things people say when they can post comments online anonymously.

“I don’t know what it is about this particular moment in human history which lends itself to the sanction of miscellaneous and casual cruelty,” John Perry Barlow, vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Post.

In fact, there are plenty of candidates to blame for this. For starters, right-wing hate radio, various cable talk show hosts and the corporations who find that the venom those talk show hosts spew enhances their own bottom line. But one contributor to the undermining of civil discourse has gone largely unnoticed. Certainly it went unmentioned in the Post story: America’s newspapers. I don’t mean fringe elements of the press, either. I mean big respectable mainstream dailies – like The Washington Post. All it took was a sense that there was money to be made with one technological “advance”: Adding a section where people can comment on items published in the paper’s print edition.

It’s not the addition of comment sections per se that causes the problem, of course. Newspapers have had letters to the editor pages for decades, and they have added a great deal to public discourse. But that’s because of two key features: First, an editor reads and screens letters before they are published. Second, with rare exceptions, the writer has to sign her or his name to the work, and the name is published.

Internet comment sections typically have neither safeguard. The result is an outpouring of vile sentiment that can’t help but poison the well of public debate. I don’t think people have gotten any nastier; I just think America’s newspaper publishers have given the extreme haters a forum.

The fact that the people who post on these sites are not necessarily a representative cross-section of America doesn’t change the fact that offering a place for haters to gather and spread the venom harms us all. (And before anybody whines about censorship, I’m suggesting no more than that anyone who posts to a newspaper comment section be required to sign his or her name and city, something that can be verified when people “register” to post comments. An alternative is to have moderators for the sites. The New York Times does this. As far as I know, every other newspaper in America is too stingy to pay anyone for that task.

Since anyone can see this for him or herself, I’m not going to contribute to the hate by offering examples. But particularly striking is the racism. America’s newspapers have created something new: the virtual lynch mob where the vilest among us can use their anonymity the way a Klansman uses a sheet.

What brings all this to mind is an unusual contribution to the op ed page of a newspaper in Florida, the Vero Beach Press Journal last month.

Regina Watts, an impoverished Black single mother wrote about her struggles with the Florida Department of children and Families. She was honest about her own mistakes, and wrote about all she’d done to overcome them – only to be thwarted by the hoops DCF makes her jump through. The lynch mob formed quickly. Readers gleefully summarized the writer’s mistakes and ignored everything else. At first.

Then came something surprising. Other readers came to this mother’s defense. First came “stevensna” who wrote:

“She admits that she has made not one mistake but several. But her children should not be held accountable for her lack of family support, and agency support. Once you reach bottom it is hard to pull yourself out and up if there is no one reaching down to her and help pull her out she doesn't know how to find the steps and directions to go.

“DCF tells you they will help you and promises the world of support and services but they give you no tools to work with there is little success from just words. It takes action, plans and steps to follow. She needs someone in her community, church, or a women shelter since she has been abused to give her direction to regain her children and help her build her self-esteem.

“There are a lot of Regina Watts in this world, but what have you done to help change the outcomes for all the Regina Watts.”

Then came “MissMara:”

“I understand what she is going through, because it really is hard being a single parent. She is not asking for help. I do feel like we should help her before we criticize her!”

Then “itmaiden:”

“…even if her background was pristine and she had more funds, the scenario with DCF would be the same. Families do not deserve to be torn apart just because a parent is low income, or without transportation. The cost of living in Florida is high, the wages are low, and DCF makes "jumping through the hoops" to get your kids back as difficult and as impossible as they can. This woman has been through a lot of stress. Why lay more on her ? She is trying to educate herself and provide better opportunities for herself and her children. … Send her a card, some encouragement. God's second commandment is that we Love each other.”

And then this, from “sunbird”

“Regina, bless you pay no attention to those who criticize without lending a hand. I, too, had my first child at the age of 15. I graduated from college with a degree in Engl Ed. and a smug attitude. I hated welfare moms so much, I became a Republican (Happiest time in my life being ignorant of world affairs). 16 years later, after moving to Florida, I became a single mom all over again. Yes, I repeated my mistake! No longer ignorant of the world, and experiencing my own struggles, I learned not to judge others. With one son in college and a very difficult toddler, I struggled without any taxpayer help. Then came the DCF caseworker to ‘help’ me. The child care she arranged kicked my son out, and the other help was denied because my 20,000-something income was too much. So the caseworker visited again and told me to clean my house -- the house I mortgaged with MY income -- or my son would go in foster care. I put a hitch on my car and moved back to Illinois instead where I work, perhaps ironically, as a public high school teacher.

“To all: Before you lecture anybody about poor choices, consider the options that were presented to them. And telling the mother of a disabled child to get a job is shameful. How many employers will allow her to take off for doctor's appointments? (Mine will, thanks to a strong Il. union). And shouldn’t our taxes pay to support those children with the parent they love and not some paid foster family? Regina, you are in our prayers.”

So for offering a momentary respite from the nonstop hate unleashed by America’s stingy newspaper publishers, thank you “stevensna,” and “MissMara” and “itmaiden” and “subird” – whoever you are.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

When child welfare systems go to pot

California has legalized the use of medical marijuana. One can obtain it with a prescription. But they don’t stock it at the local CVS. So co-ops have sprung up across the state. But while the state says it’s legal, the federal government says it’s not. So the Drug Enforcement Administration has been raiding the co-ops.

But they don’t stop with arresting the adults who run the stores and confiscating the marijuana. They make sure to phone the local child protective services agency to try to get them to confiscate the children.

In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, Ronnie Naulls was prescribed marijuana for chronic pain resulting from an auto accident in 2001. He opened a co-op so he and other patients would not have to drive long distances to obtain medical marijuana.

Naulls had always understood he could be raided, he understood his home might be trashed, he even understood he might face jail. But, he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, he never thought child protective services would take his children, ages 1, 3 and 5. "If I would have known my kids would be taken away, I never would have done this. I never thought this would happen."

Naulls’ lawyer, James Anthony, didn’t see it coming either. "I warn all my dispensary clients that the federal government will try to capture and imprison you, but it hadn't occurred to me that the government will also kidnap your children," Anthony told the online newsletter Drug War Chronicle. "It's just unbelievable, barbaric."

(Even Mr. Anthony doesn’t quite get it, however. Among the reasons he says CPS was out of line is because the Naulls family lives in “a nice middle-class home.” So if Mr. Naulls also were poor and the home was messy this would be o.k.?)

The children were trapped in foster care for five weeks. The first time the oldest child, the five-year-old, was allowed to speak to her father by phone she said: "Daddy, we're ready to come home now, we promise to be good."

Of course, just because DEA calls a child protective services agency doesn’t mean the agency has to be idiotic enough to traumatize innocent children in order to aid and abet the feds’ war on medical marijuana. But Mr. Naulls had the misfortune to live in Riverside County. As NCCPR’s California Rate of Removal Index shows, of all California’s larger counties none is more enamored of a take-the-child-and-run approach than Riverside. A high-profile death of a child “known to the system” almost certainly has made the county’s record even worse.

But even as caseworkers stage protests over unmanageable loads, somehow, Riverside County CPS found time to harass the Naulls family and traumatize the children. One can only wonder how much real maltreatment they missed while they were doing so.

And Riverside is not alone in this practice. One group advocating for medical marijuana patients told Drug War Chronicle they’ve gotten 30 or 40 calls about similar cases in the past couple of years “and those are just the people who call us.”

Given everything we know about how much harm needless foster care can do to children, one can only contemplate the actions of Riverside County CPS and wonder: What are these people smoking?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dumb and dumber in Indianapolis

A four-month-old baby in Indianapolis is in lots and lots of pain from teething. She’s crying for hours. Nothing seems to work. So her mother tries a folk remedy: swabbing whisky on the baby’s gums. (The belief that this helps apparently is widespread. A Google search for “whisky and gums and teething” produced 17,700 hits, including articles trying to dissuade parents from the idea). So mom tries it. It doesn’t work.

But then things take a serious turn for the worse. According to the baby’s grandmother, mom then figures if applying whisky to the gums doesn’t work, maybe putting it in the baby formula will. The baby passed out. The mother calls an ambulance. According to police, the baby had a blood-alcohol level of 0.048. Fortunately the baby was unharmed.

"She wasn't doing anything to hurt the baby, and she thought she was helping the baby because the baby had been up all night crying," the grandmother told Indianapolis television station WRTV. "It wasn't anything in malice or intent to harm in any way, shape or form."

What the mother did was dumb, and it was dangerous. What the child protective services agency did was dumber – and also dangerous: They took away the baby.

That’s bad enough anyplace, it’s worse in Indianapolis, where every child removed from the home is parked first at an orphanage. The younger the child, the greater the potential for enormous emotional trauma from separation. That, of course, is without even reaching the issue of the rate of abuse in foster care and orphanages. And, though it is hard to tell from the news account, it appears the child was placed with strangers, and not with her grandmother, which at least might have cushioned the blow.

The point here is not that the child welfare agency should have done nothing. If a mother can make one dumb, dangerous mistake like this, she might make another. But instead of taking the baby out of the home, how about bringing help into the home.

It wouldn’t take the kind of intensive help I usually recommend, either. All that might be needed is the kind of Healthy Families America home visiting approach that the child welfare establishment is always talking about. (This program gets good results; the model which uses trained nurses to do the visits does better.)

Law enforcement did not exactly acquit itself well either. The mother faces criminal charges not only for neglect, but also for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

When background-check fetishism backfires

Last week, I told the story of how Ohio lawmakers, and journalists, became mired in background-check fetishism. They did not respond to the death of Marcus Fiesel, who was killed by his foster parents, by asking why the county that put him in foster care takes children at one of the highest rates in the state. They did not respond by asking if the overuse of foster-care was prompting the county to lower standards. They simply assumed that better “background checks” would solve the problem.

But the Cincinnati Enquirer went further. Apparently the newspaper decided that if the counties weren’t doing good enough background checks, the Enquirer would do the checks itself. All the newspaper needed were the names of all the state’s foster parents, and other pertinent identifying information.

The newspaper filed a request under the state’s freedom of information act. But the state agency that oversees the county agencies that run foster care in Ohio refused. The issue is now in court.

But the Ohio Legislature appears poised to pre-empt the issue. The version of the background check bill which passed the Ohio House of Representatives includes an amendment specifically keeping foster parent names a secret.

News organizations are having a fit – and they’re right. It wouldn’t make a huge difference if newspapers could do their own checks on foster parents, because the reason such parents get into the system isn’t primarily because agencies don’t do enough checking, it’s because agencies are so desperate for beds that they lower standards. But it might make some difference, and that’s reason enough. It just might prevent a tragedy, and if it can’t do that, at least it might help hold agencies accountable for their errors after-the-fact.

But the debate actually reveals something much sadder: how far behind most of Ohio is when it comes to best practice in child welfare. It also reveals how the state’s journalists sewed the seeds of their own defeat on this issue: creating and nurturing the very stereotypes that have come back to haunt them.

The case for secrecy boiled down to one argument: the Myth of the Stalking Birth Parent. After all, if news accounts are to be believed, birth parents who lose their children to foster care are the quintessence of evil. The only time you hear about them is when they’ve tortured, raped or brutalized a child. It’s not that these stories are inaccurate, it’s that they leave the public confusing the aberration with the norm. And, no, I’m not saying the aberrations shouldn’t be reported. I’m saying the stories that put the aberrations into context are missing.

And even birth parents who are not sadistic brutes get demonized. It happened to Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother, who was vilified in editorials and letters columns, and by some politicians, far more than the foster parents who stuffed Marcus in a closet until he died and then burned the body.

The stereotypes run so deep that the evil of birth parents was the one issue on which all legislators could agree. The sponsor of the secrecy bill, himself a former foster parent, conjured up horror story scenarios of birth parents stalking and terrorizing foster parents. A backer of openness responded – by arguing that birth parents are so sneaky and conniving they’ll find the foster parents even if agencies keep their names secret.

But the overwhelming majority of birth parents are nothing like the stereotype. They haven’t brutalized their children. They have not raped their children. They have not tortured their children. They are a lot more likely to simply be poor, or perhaps to be poor, uneducated and depressed – like Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother. And whatever else one may think of her, I don’t think anyone familiar with her believes she ever was likely to track down and assault a foster parent.

So the fraction of dangerous birth parents is tiny to begin with. It is even more absurd to think that among that tiny faction are lots of people who will obtain lists of foster parents and then manage to track down the particular foster parent who has their child.

In fact, among the 30,000 news stories about child welfare in NCCPR’s database, I don’t recall even one reflecting that scenario. There are very rare examples of other bad things happening: birth parents kidnapping their children during visits and even assaulting a caseworker. In one recent Kentucky case, the caseworker was killed. And the fact that I don’t think I have a news account of a birth parent assaulting a foster parent doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. But it is so rare that any foster parent who doesn’t want his name made public as a result of this fear also had better never leave the house – because I’ll bet the odds of being hurt in an auto accident are far greater.

But the larger issue is what this says about how foster care is done in Ohio. Best practice in child welfare says that, in most cases, birth parents are not just going to know who the foster parents are, they’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. In the best programs foster parents work as mentors to birth parents – working together to help the child. It’s common practice in Cuyahoga County as part of the Family to Family program (a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which also funds NCCPR).

It is not done in every case, nor should it be; some birth parents really are a danger to their children. But in good systems it is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Yet no one from the Governor on down seems to realize this. Certainly no one at the state agency that oversees Ohio’s county child welfare agencies has pointed it out – on the contrary, they seem to be reinforcing the fear-mongering by supporting secrecy. So one can only wonder about how far from best practice things really are in most of Ohio.

And saddest of all, most journalists seem to believe the stereotypes as well.

The secrecy amendment has produced an enormous amount of coverage and lots and lots of outraged editorials – the quantity and volume of journalistic outrage always tends to increase when reporters’ own interests are at stake. But none of these stories or editorials confronts the foster parents’ fear head on; none tries to actually refute it with facts about birth parents. Rather the editorials offer some decent arguments about avoiding another tragedy like the death of Marcus Fiesel and a lot of the usual boilerplate about the public’s right to know, which always sounds self-serving coming from journalists.

One can only wonder if legislators would have been so quick to vote their irrational fears of birth parents if news coverage hadn’t done so much to stoke those fears in the first place.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Take that, Osama bin Laden! Now you'll never be a foster parent in Ohio!

We can all breathe easier now. Under legislation likely to reach the Governor’s desk soon, Osama Bin Laden will be barred from becoming a foster parent in Ohio. Under the bill, terrorism and soliciting or providing support for terrorism will be added to the list of crimes that automatically disqualify foster parents.

And authorities will be watching out for any record of such crimes because they’ll be required to perform more rigorous background checks. Because Ohio lawmakers know that the easiest way to cheap glory after a foster-child dies is to wallow in background-check fetishism. But the Ohio story is particularly instructive because of a new wrinkle. The quick-and-dirty solutions and the stereotypes promoted by news organizations are coming back to haunt them.

The story begins, of course, with a tragedy.

Tragedy changes child welfare systems. When media pay sustained attention to some horrible failing in the system, usually the death of a child “known to the system,” that system will change. Usually, it will change for the worse. Usually, the attention will only set off a foster-care panic.

And, as noted previously on this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse. Even if the child died in foster care, that still often leads to an increase in placements. That’s largely because of a pernicious double-standard that characterizes much child welfare coverage. If the child dies at the hands of a birth parent, it’s supposedly proof that the system does too much to try to keep families together, and broad systemic changes – most of which boil down to “take the child and run” – are needed. If the killer is a foster parent, the case is written off as an aberration, and it’s assumed the problem can be solved by visiting foster homes more often, toughening licensing standards and doing better “background checks” on foster parents.

So even when the child dies in foster care, the result of all the press attention often is the same lousy system only bigger.

Systems only get better when the coverage gets more sophisticated. That’s what happened in Maine, after Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her mother and killed by his foster mother and in Missouri after Dominic James was taken needlessly from his father and killed by his foster father. In both states, news coverage began by focusing on the narrow issues of visits, licensing and background checks. But in Maine, reporters began to wonder why a child was more likely to be trapped in foster care in that state than in all but five other states. (When poverty rates were factored in Maine’s record may have been the nation’s worst). In Missouri the Springfield News-Leader and then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began asking why Missouri was taking children at a rate well above the national average – and why the Springfield area took children at a rate far above the state average.

Perhaps most important, the newspapers’ approach to birth parents changed. For starters, birth parents began to exist. They were quoted in news stories. And they were treated as three-dimensional human beings, instead of monsters who appeared in the newspapers only when they were accused of torturing or murdering their children. The News-Leader even sent a team of journalists to Alabama to examine the groundbreaking reforms there.

The focus on the real problems led to real solutions. Today, at least 22 states hold proportionately more children in foster care than Maine, and the number of children taken from their parents has dropped significantly. Missouri also has seen a marked drop in removals. And in both states, there has been no compromise of safety.

But it’s been a different story in Ohio in the wake of the death of another foster child, Marcus Fiesel. He, too, was taken needlessly from his mother, Donna Trevino. He was taken by the county-run child welfare agency in Butler County, near Cincinnati, an agency plagued with problems for many years, and an agency that takes children at one of the highest rates in Ohio.

The newspapers in Butler County, essentially one newspaper under a variety of names, did the best they could. But they have a small staff and an even smaller amount of space for news stories. The papers, part of the Cox chain, are laboring under a “redesign” that makes the original USA Today look like The Wall Street Journal. Under the circumstances, the reporters and editors performed admirably, especially the county government reporter at the time the story broke.

But the dominant newspaper in the region, the Cincinnati Enquirer, performed less admirably. They “flooded the zone” with reporters, but, with one notable exception, those reporters largely regurgitated conventional wisdom. From day one, they became mired in background-check fetishism; feeding readers a steady diet of stories and commentary suggesting that, if only background checks were tightened, such tragedies wouldn’t happen.

That’s not entirely wrong, of course. Comprehensive background checks make sense; occasionally they will weed out a dangerous potential foster parent who might have gotten through otherwise. That makes them worth doing, as long as they’re done sensibly, without creating the debacle that occurred in Utah, where botched implementation of an extra level of checking wound up delaying kinship placements for weeks and actually increased the danger to children. (See “Utah’s Big Bureaucratic Blunder,” the September 16 post on this Blog).

Where background checks become a problem is when they become the be-all-and-end-all of reform, a way for politicians and journalists to declare victory and get out without facing the real problems. In other words, exactly what’s going on in Ohio now.

Lack of a complete background check isn’t the main reason for foster-care tragedies. Not even close. There were plenty of warning signs already known about the foster parents who killed Marcus Fiesel and he was placed in that home anyway. That’s what often happens when child welfare systems take too many children. They wind up begging for beds. And beggars can’t be choosers.

But the Enquirer made up its mind almost from day one. Within weeks of the discovery that Marcus was dead, an Enquirer editorial made clear that real change already was off the agenda:

...we urge policymakers, agencies and the public - all of us - to focus on three critical, and practical, ways to improve the odds for children like Marcus. They are:
--Fine-tuning, or simply enforcing, regulations that will directly improve foster children's care.
--Improving the recruitment, retention and training of strong, stable foster care families.
--Improving communication about the foster care system - and within it.

And while, of course, there was no declaration of an equally-narrow focus on the news side, the news stories stuck to a similarly narrow focus.

Meanwhile, coverage of child welfare in the Enquirer’s home county, Hamilton, consisted almost entirely of horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system,” allegedly at the hands of vile, sadistic birth parents. So it’s no wonder that most readers, and Ohio legislators, thought of all birth parents in those terms. Even Marcus Fiesel’s mother wound up vilified, excoriated in editorials and letters columns to a far greater degree than the foster parents who had tied Marcus up, stuffed him into a closet and, after he died there, burned the body. (One reporter was a notable exception, but her finely-crafted, carefully nuanced portraits of the birth mother were, in effect, drowned out by the chorus of birth parent bashing.)

So it’s no wonder that legislators quickly figured out that the path to cheap glory was to cash in on background-check fetishism. They’ve gained plenty of good press with legislation to increase training for foster parents (as if foster parents need to be trained not to kill foster children) toughen licensing standards and, most of all, do lots of new, improved background checks. In the process, lawmakers may have stuck a couple of time bombs in the bill. The bill goes beyond to ruling out Osama Bin Laden. It also may rule out some fit relatives, including those who may have committed minor offenses long ago, and, under some circumstances the bill may rule out one-time battered women from becoming foster parents. And, while the language is not clear, it may be setting the stage for a Utah-style debacle.

As this is written the Ohio Legislature is on the verge of passing a final version of the bill, after which you can bet they will preen about how they “cracked down on child abuse” and issue pious proclamations about how, thanks to their background-check bill, Marcus Fiesel did not die in vain. Then they’ll declare victory and get out.

The Enquirer has already praised them for it. When the bill passed the State Senate in June, the Enquirer wrote in an editorial that “with this action the Legislature has chosen not to let [Marcus Fiesel’s] brief life pass unnoticed. His legacy can be rules that will serve as safeguards for other children. “

But the praise was a little premature. The bill acquired an amendment in the Ohio House. It seems the Enquirer overplayed its hand, the background check fetishism and the birth-parent bashing combined in a way no one could have expected – and now the stereotypes Ohio newspapers helped create are coming back to haunt them. One could cherish the irony, if not for the fact that it’s likely to make the entire state child welfare system even worse.

That story in a future post.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Update: Turning foster parents into welfare queens will cost $1 billion

So now it’s official. The group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” – apparently on the assumption that the “right” children crave more than any other is to spend more time in foster care – is out with its report trying to justify the notion that foster parents should be reimbursed for every dime they spend caring for foster children. (See the previous entry on this Blog).

It was obvious from the start that this would cost a fortune. But because the amount CR wants to lavish on foster parents is even greater than I’d expected, the price tag is even larger than I’d imagined. Not that CR actually offers a total, of course. But using data from the report, a very conservative estimate is that doing what CR wants done would cost at least one billion dollars a year. That’s one billion dollars that could be used for, say, rent subsidies for birth parents, so they don’t lose their children because they lack housing, which CR says should go instead to help foster parents pay their utility bills – and cover extra wear and tear on the furniture. That’s one billion dollars that could be used to help parents pay for day care so they don’t lose their children because of “lack of supervision” charges, going instead to foster parents to cover every penny of whatever it may cost them to send the same children to day care.

And we’re not just talking about necessities here. CR wants foster parents reimbursed for the cost of after school activities and admission to movies and amusement parks. They even want the government to pay a foster parent to buy his foster child a teddy bear or a video game.

The excuse CR offers for proposing what amounts to a billion dollar transfer of funds from the poor to the middle class is that low reimbursement rates supposedly are contributing to America’s “shortage” of foster parents.

But for starters, America doesn’t have a shortage of foster parents. America has a surplus of foster children. Spend another $1 billion on housing, day care and other help for struggling families and a large number of foster homes would empty out in a hurry. (One third of foster children could be home right now if their birth parents just had decent housing). And that would be the end of the foster parent “shortage.”

But even if one believes we need more foster parents, there is little evidence that a giant pay raise is the way to get them. For starters, CR offers no evidence that states which pay high rates have less of a “shortage” than states paying lower rates. Furthermore, as it happens, another group released a report yesterday, the National Council for Adoption. Their press release cites a poll in which foster parents are asked why they quit. The top reasons have nothing to do with money. Rather, they cite lack of support from child welfare agencies and poor relationships with caseworkers. And that is just what one would expect from a group that is, on the whole, generous toward children, in every sense of the term.

But it turns out that CR has almost as much contempt for foster parents as it has for birth parents. Because CR apparently believes foster parents are so greedy that they won’t even buy a foster child a toy unless the government picks up the tab.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Turning foster parents into welfare queens

Though I qualify as a "have," I have learned a great deal about the "other side of the tracks" in my current profession: foster mother. Most of the children I've had in my home come from young, low-income, single mothers who did the best they could but were deemed "neglectful" for being unable to provide for their children. In some ways, I have taken these women's places. The state now pays me very well to stay home and raise their kids while they flip burgers somewhere and send a portion of their income to child support. It might be an OK situation if the kids did not cry themselves to sleep every night, missing their mothers.
I am the new welfare queen.

--Mary Callahan, Maine Foster Parent, in a letter to Newsweek, 2002

I’ve written previously about the lousy work done in the name of children’s rights by a group that presumes to call itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) – how their Michigan lawsuit is likely to undercut reform there, by bolstering powerful private agencies and placement with strangers at the expense of safe proven programs to keep families together and, when that is not possible, kinship care. And how their recent report on New York City engaged in statistics abuse to distort data on reform in that system.

Now, they’ve got a new brainstorm: They want to compliment America’s large-scale transfer of children from their own parents to strangers with a large-scale transfer of money in the same direction.

On Wednesday, the group will stage an event to unveil a report demanding that every state pay every foster parent enough to cover every dime of the cost of food, clothing, shelter, and even school supplies, for every foster child in their care. (Naturally, the trade association for agencies that live off foster care, the Child Welfare League of America, will have someone there to cheer them on.) I haven’t seen the report; for some reason NCCPR isn’t on the list for advance copies. But I’ve heard all the arguments – in fact, I discussed them on this Blog in June, when a rate increase was proposed for foster parents in California.

The biggest problem with the CR’s bright idea is that it’s a profound waste of money. The same funds could accomplish so much more if they were used to help birth parents keep their children in the first place.

No, that doesn’t mean lavishing money on sadistic brutes and hopeless addicts. As is described in detail in our Issue Papers, ( are a very small percentage of the parents seen by the typical Child Protective Services worker. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.

We know that four separate studies in the past decade have found that at least 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their own parents just had decent housing. We know that the largest single category of child maltreatment allegation often is “lack of supervision” – and that often means a single parent, desperate to keep her job, couldn’t find day care. And we know that even when substance abuse is an issue, children do better when left with birth mothers able to care for them than they do in foster care.

So imagine what would happen if all the money Children’s Rights wants to lavish on middle-class foster parents were spent instead on rent subsidies and day care for the working poor, and on drug treatment programs where parents can live with their children? America’s foster-care rolls would plummet; so would caseloads for CPS workers, so our child welfare systems would have a better chance of finding the relatively few children in real danger.

But CR wants to take limited funds that could be used for things like rent subsidies and day care to help impoverished birth parents care for their own children and use it to make sure foster parents are reimbursed for every dime it costs them to take in those same children.

If this issue is even raised when the report is released, and it almost certainly won’t be, CR’s director, Marcia Lowry and her allies will have a smug and facile response: We want to fund both, they’ll say, and they shouldn’t have to compete with each other. Then where is the big, fancy report calling for helping birth parents with housing and day care, Marcia? And besides, we all know what will really happen if you tell Congress or a state legislature that you want to fund middle-class foster parents, who are routinely depicted in media accounts as saints, and also help birth parents who lose their children to foster care, people routinely portrayed as scum of the earth.

It is those very stereotypes which help explain what former Maine foster parent (and current adoptive parent) Mary Callahan understands so well: When a birth parent wants a little help with housing so she can raise her own child she’s a “welfare queen” but when her child is taken away because of unsafe housing, placed in foster care, and the foster parent wants significantly more money than the birth parent ever got – including payment for all additional housing costs - the foster parent is a hero.

Raising this issue does not mean that I think most foster parents are “in it for the money.” But when foster parents defend themselves against that claim (which, oddly, almost always is raised by the foster parents themselves, not by others) their main argument is that they can’t be in it for the money because there’s not enough money. But that also means the more they succeed at raising reimbursements, the more they undercut that claim. If anything, CR’s proposal is likely to make foster care more attractive to the minority who go into it for the wrong reasons.

In most cases, reimbursement for foster parents isn’t as bad as most news stories make it sound. For starters, you can bet the CR report will focus on the base rate - the lowest rate a state ever pays. But most states have a sliding scale of rates, with reimbursement increasing if the child is considered to have more severe problems. (That creates issues of its own, such as a built-in incentive to claim that foster children are as sick and as difficult as possible.)

In Maine, which is very much at the high end, a foster parent who takes a child at the highest “level of care” can get as much as $27,000 per child per year.

Most foster parents don’t get anything like that. But whatever they get, since it is considered reimbursement, not salary, it is generally tax-free. The child’s health insurance is provided through Medicaid, and there may be a clothing allowance and other allowances as well.

At the base rate, none of this makes foster parenting profitable, or easy, -- not for good foster parents. (Paradoxically, if you want to be a rotten foster parent, you may, in fact, be able to make money on the deal.) But few foster parents are rotten; many foster parents really are heroes.

I also believe that some reimbursement for foster parents is reasonable. It’s unrealistic to expect people to go deep into their own pockets to care for a stranger’s children, children the foster parents don’t even know until they walk in the door, and who may walk out again at any time. So it’s fair for the state to help out with the costs. On the other hand, no foster parent who is demanding that every cent of expenditure be reimbursed can also turn around and claim to “love these children as I do my own.” Anyone who really loves a foster child as much as her own child should be willing to pick up at least a small part of the cost of caring for that child.

Why would we want to completely cover the cost of what is, after all, an act of charity that comes from the goodness of the heart, for which the primary satisfaction should be psychic? If you volunteer to, say, tutor children at an after school program, you may have to dig into your own pocket a little. You’re not going to be reimbursed for mileage, and you may have to purchase some supplies. But, presumably, it’s worth it for the psychic satisfaction of helping someone in need.

So shouldn’t we be worried about middle-class people who volunteer to be foster parents but who are not willing to pitch in financially, at least a little?

In fact, the intersection of love and money is a minefield, raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions. For instance: What if the foster parent who comes forward is the child’s grandmother? The former head of the human services agency in one state used to say that her agency wouldn’t help grandparents at all because it’s simply a family’s obligation to take care of their own. Did this same state official return her own parents’ Social Security checks on grounds that she should be picking up the costs of their retirement? I doubt it.

In fact, if any foster parent has a case for supplementing love with money it’s a grandparent who, like the parent, is likely to be poor. But though kinship foster parents usually are much poorer than strangers, they almost always get far less than strangers, unless the kinship parents manage to become licensed foster parents. The problem there is that licensing standards often revolve around middle-class creature comforts like having a bedroom for every foster child rather than just issues of health or safety. But I read CR’s Michigan lawsuit as an attempt to pressure the state to force all grandparents and other kinship caregivers to become licensed or lose their children. So the one group that has a real case for an increase in reimbursement is the one CR is doing the most to harm. (See the top two entries in this section of the Blarchive:

And, of course, you can be sure that at the big event unveiling the report on Wednesday, someone will play the “kennel card.” In a tone of shock and horror someone will point out that it costs more to kennel a dog than some states pay foster parents to care for children.

Now, I certainly don’t claim to know a lot about the economics of boarding dogs, but I know this much: A kennel is a profit-making enterprise, a foster home is not – or at least it’s not supposed to be. More important, kennel fees go to pay all sorts of costs that are already covered in foster homes:

● Kennels have staff who must be paid salaries. Foster homes are run by volunteers. Foster care payments are only supposed to cover expenses specific to adding a foster child to the home, not the entire cost of maintaining the home and making a living.

● Kennels have to pay for their entire physical plant through fees. A foster home’s mortgage, furniture etc. are covered by the foster parents’ regular jobs. A foster child’s food is covered by reimbursement, but the refrigerator already should be paid for. More important, a foster home is supposed to be big enough to accommodate the children when it is licensed, so what is likely to be the biggest cost in the household, the mortgage, already is covered.

● Kennel fees have to cover veterinary services if dogs get sick while there. Foster children’s health care is covered by Medicaid.

And so on and so on. So the notion that paying less to foster parents somehow reflects treating children worse than dogs is hogwash.

The right analogy would be the cost of a kennel versus the cost of a business that is built, is run, and has salaried staff, all specifically for the care of children: a group home or an institution. In California, the low end of the cost continuum for those kinds of places is $82 per day. The high end can be $300 a day or more; and that’s a lot more than the cost of a kennel.

On the other hand if someone wants to suggest that, despite this enormous cost, children in some group homes and institutions get worse care than dogs in a kennel, they’ll get no argument from me.

The other argument often heard from foster parents is that they work 24/7.

In fact, being a parent of any kind may be the world’s most rewarding combination of work and play, pleasure and frustration. But shouldn’t we worry about the children of any parent who views every moment with them as a chore?

Mary Callahan, responded to the 24/7 argument in an op ed column arguing in favor of a cut in reimbursement for foster parents in that state who receive the highest rates of reimbursement. Callahan wrote:

“I am not working when I am sitting around the dinner table with my children talking about the day. Or when we are in front of the television watching our favorite show -- "Lost." Or when we are driving down the road and singing to the oldies.

“Some foster parents might see this as work, but most of the time I am just living my life -- the one I chose -- with my favorite people.

“I never want to give my foster children a reason to doubt that.”

I suspect there are a lot of foster parents out there like Mary Callahan – foster parents who really don’t want to be welfare queens.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Utah's big bureaucratic blunder

Try to imagine the trauma for a young child. The child suddenly is taken from everyone he knows and loves. Perhaps the move was necessary, perhaps not; either way, for a young enough child it can be an experience akin to a kidnapping.

First the child is institutionalized, his “care” in the hands of rotating shift staff. Every time the child gets used to someone, gets comfortable with someone, the shift changes and that person’s gone. Then the child is uprooted again to spend a couple of weeks with total strangers.

And all the while, waiting in the wings, is someone who was ready from day one to comfort this child and cushion the blow of substitute care: Grandma. But grandma is denied custody of the child for weeks on end

This needless trauma, this inexcusable uprooting of children first to an institution and then to a stranger before the child winds up with grandma – turning what should have been one placement into a total of three – is happening routinely in one state: Utah. It’s happening because of a giant bureaucratic blunder in a state that already was profoundly hostile to kinship care. And it’s happening because the man with the power to undo the damage in an instant, the director of the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, Duane Betournay, refuses to act.

The story begins with the passage last year of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (one of the last pet projects of disgraced former Florida Congressman Mark Foley). It’s one of those laws designed primarily so Members of Congress can send out press releases preening about how they “cracked down on child abuse.”

Like a safe, but ineffective medicine, the law is mostly harmless “when taken as directed.” But Utah forgot to read the label.

At issue is a provision which adds a new layer of criminal records checks for prospective foster parents. The issue is not whether to check the background of a prospective foster parent or not; records checks have been required under federal law for nearly a decade and most states have been doing them for far longer. Rather the Adam Walsh Act specified a particular, additional check: sending off a prospective foster parent's fingerprints to the FBI to see if that turns up someone with a criminal record.

It turns out that, absent the right kind of technology, it can take a long time for the FBI to get back to you with the results; seven weeks is not unusual.

That’s not a problem for strangers who volunteer to become foster parents. For them, the background check is part of a licensing process that takes weeks or months anyway, and they have not come forward in the interests of any one particular child.

But it can be a huge problem for grandma. After all, she had no intention of becoming a foster parent until she got a call, perhaps in the middle of the night, saying her grandchild had been taken away, and could she step in to help?

But now, because of the new background check requirement, would children really have to wait seven weeks for kinship placements? Child welfare agencies began doing the sensible thing: they started asking questions.

And as NCCPR learned about the new requirement through news accounts and a discussion with a Congressional staffer, we asked around, too. Other advocates were hearing similar concerns. The Children’s Defense Fund found the answer. They found it right on the website of the Administration for Children and Families. On January 31, 2007 ACF issued specific guidance assuring child welfare agencies that they were free to place children with grandparents and other relatives while they waited for the results of the FBI fingerprint check.

Problem solved, right? Surely no child welfare agency would be so callous, so mired in bureaucratic thinking, that it would rush out and ban these placements without carefully checking first, would it?

And, indeed, as far as I know, no child welfare agency in the entire country made such a mistake.

Except Utah.

A lot of fingers are being pointed concerning why, but the bottom line is, Betournay and his staff at the Utah Division of Children and Family Services jumped the gun, assumed they could not place children with grandparents and other relatives while the background checks were pending – and started warehousing children in parking place shelters and then ultra-temporary homes with strangers (all foster home placements are supposed to be temporary, these placements were intended to last for a few weeks) while they sat on their hands waiting for the background check results. Utah officials claim they asked questions first, but apparently they didn’t ask the right people, and they didn’t wait for a definitive answer.

But surely finding that definitive answer would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? That’s what I thought, after CDF found the guidance on the ACF website. I wrote to Betournay to share the good news, and included the link to the ACF guidance. I naively expected that, given definitive guidance from the feds, Betournay would simply reverse his agency’s blunder.

Instead, I got one dissembling bureaucratic response after another. It soon became clear that the agency was, in fact, desperately searching for ways to justify its decision, including searching for other agencies that made the same mistake. So far, it has found none.

So I asked for help from the Youth Law Center, an outstanding public interest law firm that has been particularly aggressive on the issue of curbing the misuse and overuse of shelters. They have successfully curbed their use in Arizona in part by threatening to sue that state. (To see why shelters do so much harm, check this section of the Blarchive and do a search for “human teddy bears.”) YLC Executive Director Carole Shauffer arranged a conference call with Betournay, some of his deputies, and NCCPR.

Only then did Betournay drop another bombshell: Not only did his agency jump the gun and misinterpret the law, they rushed to get their own legislature to change state law to bar placements with relatives until the new checks were completed. By now it was May and the legislature was out of session. So the damage Betournay and his aides had done to state law could not be undone, he claimed, until January.

Ultimately, we wrung three concessions out of Betournay:

● He would make available statewide new technology, called Livescan, which, he claimed was shortening the timeframe for the new checks to 48 to 72 hours in Salt Lake City.

● He would return to the legislature when it reconvenes in January 2008 to seek repeal of the change in state law.

● He would gather more data on the use of shelters and begin looking at ways to reduce shelter use, including, at Shauffer’s suggestion, creating “gatekeeping mechanisms” so it is not simply the easiest choice for a caseworker in a hurry.

Once again, however, weeks went by before Betournay finally would confirm these commitments in writing.

After that, hearing nothing further I assumed that the problem had at least been ameliorated by the techno-fix, and the rest would be solved in January.

But then the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story on a separate, but related topic: the fact that Utah finally would be exiting from a consent decree that forced improvements in its child welfare system. The lawsuit was brought by the National Center for Youth Law (which should not be confused with the Youth Law Center) and overseen by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, the agency created by Paul Vincent, the reformer who did so much to transform child welfare in Alabama.

Even as children continued to be trapped in the shelters, Betournay et. al. did lots of bragging about getting out of the consent decree, including a claim that, as a result of the improvements under the decree, Utah had significantly reduced the number of children taken from their parents each year.

But NCCPR tracks entry-into-care data very closely. We knew that wasn’t true. We contacted Vincent, who passed our concerns on to Betournay. Betournay admitted the information his agency gave the Tribune was wrong – they had mixed up two databases, he said – and the Tribune ran a correction.

It may well have been an honest mistake – but it reminded me of the honest mistakes my students made when I taught journalism: No one ever did more work or turned in a paper early because of a misunderstanding about course requirements or deadlines.

So it seemed like a good idea to see if the fix promised in May really was working. I contacted a very good reporter who covers social services for the Salt Lake Tribune, Kirsten Stewart, and told her about the whole controversy. She did some digging, and in a compelling story earlier this month, she came up with the answers:

● The Livescan technology often failed; background checks still were taking weeks.

● Shelter officials were even discouraging placements in those ultra-temporary foster homes with strangers, holding children in the worst form of placement even longer.

● Betournay’s agency actually had made the children’s trauma worse. Again, citing the Adam Walsh Act, the agency was refusing to allow even overnight visits between the children they had institutionalized and their grandparents or other relatives, while the background checks were pending.

The Tribune followed up with a suitably scathing editorial.

This is, in fact, a problem that Duane Betournay could solve in the blink of an eye. Since everyone agrees what Utah did was a huge mistake – Betournay himself is now on record saying so – who would object if the change in law were not enforced for a few months? Child welfare agencies fail to enforce laws and regulations all the time – that’s why they get sued so often. So for once, why not do it in a way that helps children instead of hurting them?

Or, if that’s really too much to ask, Betournay could ask the Governor to call the legislature into special session. Yes, that could cost – but so what? Isn’t it time for a state to put some money where its mouth is when it comes to all the gooey rhetoric about “children are our first priority,” blah, blah blah.

And besides, a special session probably would save money in the long run, since placements with grandparents cost a lot less than warehousing children in shelters.

Yet months after learning that it was within his power to help these children, Betournay hasn’t budged. One has to wonder if this is related to Utah’s longstanding hostility to kinship care – the Tribune reports that the state uses kinship care at one of the lowest rates in the country (even though such placements tend to be more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than either stranger care homes or institutions).

The failure has implications beyond this one issue. Earlier I mentioned the fact that the state is about to exit a consent decree. Largely thanks to a reform plan crafted by Vincent, the decree has led to real improvements in child welfare. And the hard work was accomplished largely under Betournay’s predecessor running DCFS. It is extremely difficult to sustain such gains once the court isn’t looking over an agency’s shoulder (and, often, even when the court is still there.) The key to sustaining such gains is strong, gutsy leadership from the child welfare agency.

It’s hard to see where that leadership is going to come from in Utah.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Works every time!

From our report on child welfare in Butler County, Ohio, released November 14, 2006, in a section on why agencies push adoption-at-all-costs at the expense of other forms of permanence:

“The only time a child welfare agency can count on getting unquestioning good press is when it gets the adoption numbers up… because nobody is looking too closely at whether all those children really needed to be adopted.”

From the Cincinnati Enquirer, September 4, 2007

“…Butler County Children Services was doing something right in the same year the agency was pummeled with criticism over its foster-care practices following the August 2006 death of 3-year-old Marcus Fiesel of Middletown.
“ In 2006, the agency ranked third among Ohio's 12 largest counties for the percentage of children being adopted and for finding families for black foster children, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.”

Sunday, August 26, 2007

NPR: It still stands for No Parent Response

Back in January, 2006, shortly after Nixzmary Brown died and some news organizations were scapegoating efforts to keep families together, National Public Radio broadcast a report from “member station” WNYC which was just like so many others. The entire thrust of the report was that the death supposedly proved that the city was doing too much to keep families together. No birth parents were heard from, nor was anyone who represents them.

NCCPR and local advocates complained both to WNYC and to NPR. WNYC responded by proving that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. The station did a follow-up story.

As we first noted on this Blog in April, 2006, for the follow-up story the reporter who did the original piece visited the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a group that helps parents advocate for themselves and for reform of the system. She spoke to one of those parents about her fear that, having lost her children to the system once, she might lose them again. The follow-up story aired on February 3.

And she didn’t stop there. The next month WNYC broadcast another story from the same reporter, this time about the special problems faced by immigrant families dealing with the child welfare system.

But NPR aired neither story.

And NPR had a very different response to our initial complaint, sent to the network’s ombudsman at the time, Jeffrey Dvorkin. Dvorkin passed on a response from Andrea de Leon, whom he described as the story’s editor. De Leon wrote in part:

“Ultimately, the piece was not about removal of children vs. prevention and support. There's broad agreement with Mr. Wexler's view that keeping families together is superior to foster care. This story was about whether NYC's system makes the best choices about whether families are healthy enough to keep their children and how well the city agency and the private contractors work together. …

“I do not think including families that have lost children and predict that this will again become a common result would have been appropriate. It seems like fear mongering. I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today. I do think, as I mentioned on the phone, that journalists should investigate the claim of a spike in family separations in the wake of the Nixzmary Brown media coverage. I can't say whether that's something we'll put on the air nationally but I can tell you that we are looking into it.”

Even taking de Leon’s characterization at face value, the story still offered only one side of the question she posed, the side represented by all those people who felt the city’s Administration for Children’s Services was making poor choices “about whether families are healthy enough to keep their children.”

But it’s the second paragraph that ought to be shocking to anyone who expects NPR to present all sides of a story.

Fear mongering? People can disagree about whether the spike in child removals in New York City is good or bad, but no one disputes that it exists. How does reporting indisputable fact become “fear mongering”?

And the only way one can believe that birth parents are not “key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today” is if you personally believe that all such parents are sadistic brutes who don’t care about their children. As soon as you concede the possibility that birth parents might love their children and care desperately about them, then their status as “stakeholders” becomes obvious.

So de Leon’s reply tells us an enormous amount about her personal biases and deep animosity toward any birth parent whose child is caught up in the system.

But de Leon does not even afford them the dignity of being called “birth parents.” Rather they are referred to as “these people” – a phrase with a particularly ugly resonance in a city like New York, where the children taken from their parents are almost entirely nonwhite.

But the ombudsman wrote us that, just like WNYC, NPR would return to the story:

“I think that NPR has a deep commitment to this story and I can assure you that there will be more on this subject.”

One year and eight months later, the ombudsman is gone. His replacement as ombudsman is gone, and NPR apparently has decided it’s too good to need an ombudsman.

The additional reporting has yet to materialize.

At one point, NPR was planning to do a multi-part series exploring these issues in some depth. A team of journalists was assigned and even had tentatively picked the state they would focus on. A reporter had begun extensive research. I’m not going to name her because she’s a very good reporter who probably would have done some fine stories, and I’m sure what happened next wasn’t her decision.

What happened next was – nothing. The project was first delayed and then, apparently, abandoned. The reporter has not responded to repeated queries about this.

The closest NPR came to a major child welfare project was a multi-part series on, what else, middle-class adoptive families. Meanwhile the reporter who would have done the foster-care stories was assigned to something else: A multi-part series on the admissions process at the nation’s elite colleges. I found it fascinating – as would any other upper middle class parent with a college-age child. And, of course, there were no comments from “these people” that might spoil a good “driveway moment.”