Sunday, March 18, 2007

One place where the news about child welfare is, mostly, good

That place is Maine, and nobody would have said that just six years ago.

Back in 2000, a little girl named Logan Marr was taken from her mother, Christy. Christy had some problems, but she had never harmed Logan nor had she allowed anyone else to harm her. Mostly, Christy’s problem was, she was poor.

Logan may have been abused in her first foster home. After that, Logan and her sister, Bailey, were moved to the home of Sally Schofield, herself a former caseworker for the child welfare agency.

In her searing account of the case, Logan’s Truth, award-winning independent journalist Terilyn Simpson published a letter that Christy wrote to Logan’s new foster mother:

Dear Sally,
My name is Christy. I'm Logan and Bailey's Mom. I'm writing this so you can know and understand my children. I thought I would let you know their likes and dislikes.
Logan - she likes butterflies, pizza (what kid doesn't?), flavored noodles, pitted black olives (she likes to put them on her fingers), white cheese, grape soda, Babes in Toyland (her favorite movie) the Cartoon Arthur. Logan's dislikes - peas, fish sticks, going to bed early, not picking out her clothes. Bailey's likes - her brown teddy bear blanket (she takes it everywhere, including visits), dry cereal, pitted black olives, cheese, eggs, cooked carrots.
Bailey's dislikes - having her poopie diaper changed (if you haven't noticed), someone taking her pacifier, fish sticks, someone feeding her (she likes to do it herself). Please ask [caseworker] Allison Peters what the kids are allergic to.
I don't blame you for not wanting me to know who you are, I will respect that. Regardless of what you have heard or read, I love my little ladies with all my heart. I have never hit, spanked or put my hands on my girls. I do respect my children. I'm not saying you would or wouldn't, but Please don't hit or hurt my children. The girls have already been through enough they don't need the added stress in their life.
Every night I look up at the sky about 7:45pm and say goodnight to my girls. In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. Please tell the girls before they go to bed I love them and give them a big hug and kiss. Thanks again!

A few months later, Logan was dead.

Sally Schofield was convicted of taking Logan down to the basement and tying her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape. She died of asphyxiation. Logan’s story was told on the PBS series Frontline.

A month before she died, Logan could be heard on home video during a supervised visit complaining that her foster mother hurt her. Nothing was done. Indeed, at one point, the caseworker who was supposed to be supervising the placement sent an e-mail to Sally Schofield gloating about the prospect of terminating parental rights, so Logan could live with Schofield forever.

But I said this would be, mostly, a good news story.

At first the response to the death of Logan Marr was what it usually is when a child dies in foster care: The press focused on issues like whether there were enough visits by caseworkers to foster homes, were the licensing standards good enough, were background checks adequate, etc. Those are reasonable questions, and it’s understandable that they are the first to pop into people’s heads.

But whether a system will reform in the wake of a foster-care tragedy depends on whether journalists move on to the real problems. In Maine, that meant confronting a culture of child removal embedded in the child welfare agency. At the time Logan died, the proportion of children trapped in foster care in Maine was among the highest in the nation. But Maine was never the child abuse capital of America.

NCCPR began raising these questions – and the state’s newspapers began pursuing them. Two legislative committees held hearings, and one of them produced some good recommendations. An independent office of child welfare ombudsman was created, under the auspices of a leading state child advocacy group, the Maine Children’s Alliance.

At about the same time, a very good foster parent got fed up. Mary Callahan kept finding that the children placed with her could have remained in their own homes if only the birth parents had gotten the kind of aid she received as a foster parent. Already a published author, she decided to write a book about her experiences. It’s called Memoirs of a Baby Stealer (Pinewoods Press, 2003). She organized the Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform, a grassroots organization that demanded systemic change.

A new governor listened. Governor John Baldacci saw immediately what the problems were. He brought in new leadership. When a committee was formed to reorganize the human services agency, each member of the group found a copy of Callahan’s book at her or his place at the table. Her presentation to the committee is on NCCPR’s website.

A lot more committee work, and much frustration followed. Callahan describes it in an op ed column for the Bangor Daily News.

But the change has been remarkable and, by child welfare standards, remarkably swift.

● Since 2001, the number of children in foster care has dropped by one-third and the number of children taken from their homes each year is down 30 percent. More than a thousand children have been spared needless confinement to foster care.

● When children must be taken, far more are placed with extended family, which is better for children’s well-being and safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

● The proportion of children trapped in the worst form of care, institutions and group homes, has dropped from 28 percent to 18 percent.

● The independent child welfare ombudsman has found that the reduction in substitute care has come with no compromise of safety. He strongly supports the reforms.

There still is a long way to go. For example, that reduction in the proportion of children in group homes and institutions is a reduction from a rate that was 50 percent above the national average to a rate no worse than the national average. But the national average is, itself, too high.

And for some people, praising reform in Maine is like rubbing salt into a wound - -these are the people for whom reform came too late, or those it still hasn’t reached. Because every system still makes mistakes, in both directions. Every system leaves some children in dangerous homes and every system takes some children needlessly. What sets apart reformed systems, like Maine’s, is that the mistakes occur less often.

But what is good for vulnerable children can be bad for the industry that has grown up around them. With group homes closing and staff losing their jobs, the people running such places have launched a campaign of fear and smear, arguing that the pendulum has swung too far away from institutionalizing children.

In fact, as noted above, Maine has simply reduced the proportion of children in group homes and institutions from more than 50 percent above the national average to the national average, an average which is, itself, too high. If anything, the pendulum hasn’t swung far enough.

The most offensive argument from the group home industry is an unctuous claim that while they supposedly care only about children, the state allegedly is interested only in money. This from an industry scarfing up an average of $134,000 per child per year, paid on a per diem basis. The longer they hold onto a child, the more money they make.

Much has been said about the addiction problem in child welfare. But as I’ve noted before on this blog, the biggest addiction problem in child welfare is not substance-abusing parents, though that problem is serious and real. The biggest addiction problem is powerful, well-connected child welfare agencies that are addicted to their per-diem payments. And they are putting their addiction ahead of the children.

Six years ago, when NCCPR first criticized child welfare in Maine, the old leadership replied that Maine is a leader in human services. That’s true. Maine always has been in the forefront of helping its most vulnerable citizens, often setting an example for the nation. At the time, child welfare was a glaring exception.

On January 31, the sixth anniversary of the death of Logan Marr, NCCPR was able to add Maine to our short list of best practices around the country, Eleven Ways to do Child Welfare Right. Because now, thanks to the concerted efforts of state leaders, and the people of Maine, the state has a child welfare agency that is worthy of the state it serves.

I can’t believe anyone is going to let the selfishness of a few group home providers undo all that progress.