Monday, May 28, 2007

Unjust Desserts from Pew

Suppose someone set before a group of young children four bowls of food, and asked them to choose one. One bowl contained broccoli, one contained celery, one contained spinach – and one had ice cream. Which would they choose?

The Pew Charitable Trusts just did something similar with another group that has both a low tolerance for delayed gratification and a tendency to like doing what’s easy: Congress.

One of the many “shell groups” Pew has formed to push its agenda issued a report last week on the serious and real problem of children aging out of foster care.

The report then offered four recommendations. Three of them would really help children: Make child welfare funding flexible, fund subsidized guardianships, and allow states to keep savings from reducing foster care. But the latter two would cost more money, and the first one is furiously opposed by the “foster care industrial complex,” that network of big powerful agencies, led by their trade association, the Child Welfare League of America, that lives off a steady supply of foster children. So none of these three is terribly appetizing politically.

But then Pew offered the ice cream: Recommendation four calls for doing no more than repealing the “eligibility lookback,” something described in detail on this Blog on February 6 and February 12. In summary, the lookback is the only remaining restriction on an absolute open-spigot of never-ending entitlement funding for every child placed in foster care for as long as that child is in foster care. Its existence has very, very slowly reduced the proportion of children whose foster care is subsidized by the federal government. It is the one and only pressure point reducing, slightly, the enormous financial incentive in favor of foster care. While simply getting rid of it would increase costs, getting rid of it and reducing the rate of reimbursement per child would be cost neutral. And it would thrill CWLA and its allies. Only the children would be hurt.

So why is Pew jumping on this bandwagon, even though repeal of the lookback was not recommended by Pew’s own Commission on Foster Care? Probably because Pew is run more like a corporation than a philanthropy; the people who run each initiative are expected to produce results. So far, Pew’s big push into child welfare financing reform has produced zero. Its moderate compromise proposal ran into a wall of opposition from the foster care-industrial complex. So now they’ve jumped behind the one change that actually stands a real chance of passage - after which, you can bet they will rush to claim a “victory” – all at the children’s expense.

This is not to say that Pew doesn’t genuinely favor the other three recommendations as well. But the people at Pew know full well what happens if you let a child have his desert before he eats his vegetables.

What makes this even more disturbing is the fact that Pew has enlisted a large number of former foster children, usually college students or a little older, to push its agenda, based on the premise that supporting Pew’s agenda will make it less likely that future generations will have to endure what happened to them. Some of these young people, I am sure, understand the implications of all of these recommendations and genuinely support repeal of the lookback, even if nothing else changes. But I wonder if all of them know that, as long as repeal of the lookback is on the table, this one recommendation, the one that provides more money for foster care, and nothing else, is the only one likely to pass, and everything else is window-dressing?

The recommendations aside, the report on aging out included some important data. It noted that since 1998, the number of children “aging out” of foster care - - that is, thrown out of the system at age 18 with no home of any kind -- has soared by 41 percent.

But, of course, the report made no mention of the principal reason for this tragedy: The so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

ASFA pays states a bounty for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. It also encourages states to abandon safe, proven programs to keep families together in favor of responding to every family problem with an approach that boils down to “take the child and run.” So even as the number of children in foster care on any given day dropped slightly, from 520,000 in 1997 to 513,000 in 2000, the number of children taken from their parents each year increased, setting a record of more than 310,000 in 2005.

The lure of adoption bounties prompts states to rush to terminate parental rights. But terminations consistently outrun actual adoptions, creating a generation of legal orphans with no ties to birth parents, but little hope of adoption either. It’s one of many financial incentives promoting either prolonged foster care or adoption at the expense of keeping children out of foster care in the first place or returning them safely to their own homes.

The most effective way to curb the tragedy of children “aging out” of foster care is to keep them from ever “aging in” to the system in the first place. And that’s why we need to make sure Congress eats its vegetables before it gets dessert.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Piling on in Arizona

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts wrote another column on the case discussed in last week’s blog, this time mostly to gloat about all the outraged reaction the first column produced. But she also implied that, for all the talk of change at the Arizona child welfare agency over the past four years, nothing has really improved.

She’s right, of course. She just got the reasons wrong. Things haven’t improved because Roberts helped set off a foster-care panic in Arizona four years ago, and even as others wised up, she’s done everything she can to keep it going. So workers remain overwhelmed with cases and they keep on making bad decisions, in both directions.

Roberts also writes that “Last Friday, this newspaper sued CPS, seeking records on three Tucson children who have recently turned up dead on the agency's watch.” Good idea. But Roberts doesn’t explain why the Republic showed no similar interest when two Tucson children died in foster care in rapid succession in 2005. Nor does she explain why she’s never written about those cases, even though the trial of one foster parent took place just last week.

Similarly, an editorial today in the Tucson Citizen, the smaller of the two dailies in that city, says of the recent deaths: “These cases need to be investigated in detail, not only by CPS, but by other authorities working independently from the child-welfare agency.” The editorial notes that had the children been taken from their parents “such moves may have saved their lives.” But the newspaper makes no call to investigate the deaths of the foster children, whose lives might have been saved had they been left in their own homes.

Clearly some children count more than others.

Meanwhile, whoever leaked the file on the Arizona CPS caseworker who wound up as the paramour of a parent she had once investigated had a hefty budget for photocopies. The same case became the lead story in the Citizen last week; and that story found a way to turn one caseworker’s blatant conflict of interest into an attack on all efforts to keep families together. Tucson’s alternative weekly also got the documents, and ran a story pretty much like everybody else’s story.

All of which had to be galling to the editors at the Arizona Daily Star, the other daily in Tucson. When you’ve been beaten by just about everybody, there is enormous pressure to find some way to “advance” the story – or at least look like you have done so.

And that might explain the front-page story in the Star on Saturday, which purported to find two more cases of misbehavior by Arizona CPS workers. And since that totals three, it must, of course, be a pattern.

One of the cases found by the Star reporter (the same one who wrote the highly-selective story about financial incentives discussed in NCCPR’s May 7 Blog, by the way) was, indeed, very serious. It involved a caseworker who was “investigated by police for an inappropriate romantic relationship with one of his teen-age charges in 2003.”

If such charges are true, a worker should be fired. Unless, of course, he’s already on sick leave and quits right after the investigation is completed – as happened in this case. Further punishment becomes a police matter, but, according to the Star story, police did not bring charges because the teenager did not cooperate.

And all of this happened three-and-a-half years ago.

If anyone would appear to be culpable here it is the staff at the group home where the teenager lived. The Star story is not entirely clear, but it appears they waited 11 months before reporting their suspicions to CPS. But group homes are not this reporter’s target, efforts to keep families together are.

The second case involves a 28-year veteran of the agency, who now works as a court liaison. The man’s record apparently was unblemished for the first 23 of those years. Then, according to the Star story:

“…he was charged with domestic violence after throwing something at a young relative during an argument with his wife, police reports and court records show. The charges were dismissed after he completed a treatment plan that included counseling and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.”

And that’s it. No known problems before, none since. And it happened more than four years ago, in November 2002. But now, since the Star named the man, he and his family can relive all the anguish. I rarely agree with the people who run child welfare agencies, but this time, Ken Deibert, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security got it right:

"Child-welfare workers can't have problems in their lives?" Deibert told the Star. "It seems like if somebody has a rough spot in their life, they get help, they get services, they get their lives together. What's wrong with that?"

Both the “newly-revealed” incidents occurred before the current leadership team was in place at the child welfare agency. And while I’m glad to blame a lot of what’s wrong with Arizona child welfare on the current Governor, the second incident even predated her taking office.

None of which mattered to the Star reporter, who spun the three cases into still another cheap shot at keeping families together, and a lead describing the incidents as “several cases coming to light in which CPS caseworkers’ personal actions appear to have been in conflict with their professional responsibility.” (Various dictionaries disagree over whether three qualifies as “several,” by the way.) The Star copy desk went the reporter one-better, slapping on the story a headline that read: “Caseworkers’ acts often seem at odds with their CPS jobs,” [emphasis added.]

A lot of caseworkers are likely to complain to Star editors about that, and you can bet they’ll go the other extreme, and assign what I’ve come to call the “national model worker story,” (See the June 12, 2006 Blog entry for a discussion of this genre) in which a CPS worker of the agency’s choosing is followed around and gets to complain about being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” That kind of story is equally misleading. Particularly since, when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t.

And then what? The foster-care panic surges on, the children keep on dying, and it is left to others to clean up the mess.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Doublethink in the desert

Last week’s Blog noted that Arizona has descended into a state of perennial foster-care panic. Between October 2002 and October 2004, removals of children soared 40 percent. They’ve stayed at that same level ever since. And, of course, instead of making children safer, it only further overwhelmed workers. Deaths of children previously “known to the system” set a record in 2005.

One reason the panic has never been allowed to abate is that one of the state’s more powerful media voices has never allowed it to abate. Almost everyone who encouraged the panic back in 2002 and 2003 soon realized it was a mistake (they don’t acknowledge this, but by about May of 2003 their rhetoric had changed dramatically). But one columnist still thinks the answer to every child welfare problem is “take the child and run.”

So every time there’s a chance the panic might calm down, Arizona Republic metro columnist Laurie Roberts finds a way to help keep it going. She’s written dozens of columns, all with the same theme: Arizona Child Protective Services is not aggressive enough about taking away children.

It’s never hard to find horror stories to bolster that particular false premise. Child welfare systems tend to be arbitrary, capricious and cruel. They make horrible mistakes in both directions – leaving some children in dangerous homes, even as other children are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help, only to face the terrors of foster care.

And if there’s a horrible mistake, Laurie Roberts wants to hear about it – so long as it’s only the first kind. Any CPS worker who wants to resist the state’s feeble efforts to turn the tide and do more to help families knows that all she has to do is feed information about the latest God-awful screw-up to Roberts and there’ll be a column, or two, or three, to scare workers away from keeping families together. (These workers would not have such power, of course, if CPS agencies weren’t so obsessive about secrecy.)

But it’s not the columns Roberts writes that are the problem - when an agency screws up, its failings need to see the light of day - it’s the columns she doesn’t. You’ll never find a Laurie Roberts column about, say, Patrick Traufler, or Emily Mays or Dwight Hill – because they had the temerity to die in foster care. And impoverished birth parents can write and call and e-mail forever, asking her to please look into their claims of wrongful removal. It’s not going to happen. The one and only time I know of where she did write about such a case was on one of the very rare occasions when the injustice reached into the kind of middle-class family with whom journalists can identify.

Sadly, this is not all that unusual among reporters and columnists. But I would have thought Roberts’ most recent column might have made her wonder.

It involved a caseworker’s dealings with a father who had a long record of trouble with the law and with CPS. In 2002, she recommended reuniting the father and his children; he’d lost them to a neglect charge in 2000. Four months later, the same father allegedly beat one of his children. Six weeks later, that case was closed. In 2004, the youngest child allegedly suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of the father – who, by that time was romantically involved with the caseworker from the 2002 cases.

CPS found nothing wrong with this because the caseworker said she did not become romantically involved with the father until a year after the 2002 cases were closed. Not only was the caseworker not sanctioned, she was promoted.

Ironies abound here. First, in suggesting that the caseworker-turned-paramour had a role in closing the second case in 2002, Roberts writes this: “While a judge would have had to approve the plan, CPS workers tell me that judges rely heavily on the case manager's input and that it would be rare for such a thing to happen without the case manager's OK.”

That is true. But you almost never hear caseworkers admit that they are the ones with the real power. On the contrary, ask them about wrongful removal and they’ll make absurd claims about “checks and balances” that don’t really exist, and then piously proclaim that “we don’t take away children, only a judge can do that.” And journalists like Roberts tend to be the first to buy it.

Even more striking, however, are the overall allegations against the caseworker. They bear a remarkable resemblance to things often said by those claiming their children were wrongfully taken. Often these parents allege that caseworkers behaved unethically, threatened them, retaliated against them for going public or just plain lied in their reports to superiors and to the courts. Or, as a far more open-minded columnist wrote years ago, quoting a mother who had strong evidence for such behavior: “They lie, they lie, they awfully lie.”

But that columnist was exceptional. More often, when an accused birth parent says it, the Laurie Roberts’ of the world roll their eyes, and send the e-mails and letters into the circular file.

In fairness to the overwhelming majority of caseworkers who try their best in an often-impossible job, outright lying probably is rare - though not quite as rare as romantic relationships with accused child abusers. The more common problem is rooted in human nature: We all tend to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear. That’s one reason the pervasive secrecy surrounding CPS is so dangerous and it’s why all interviews conducted by CPS workers should be tape-recorded.

But it takes more than human nature to believe that when workers allegedly behave unethically it is only in the direction of keeping children with abusers, and the same workers never, ever stretch the truth to take away a child.

Believing that takes a willful act of denial.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Arizona: State of willful ignorance

Last week, I was contacted by a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, the larger of two competing dailies in Tucson. He’d contacted me the week before, acknowledging he was new to the child welfare beat and knew little about the subject. This time he was calling because he’d gotten a tip.

He’d been sent a memo showing that in Arizona, state employees receive 30 cents an hour of their pay as an incentive bonus. They lose that 30 cents if their agencies fail to meet certain goals each year. The state human services agency, which includes child protective services, needs to meet any two of the following three goals:

● Promote economic self sufficiency
Safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care (by less than one-third-of-one percent) [emphasis added].
● Reduce the number of children and adults placed in institutions by developing the capacity of extended families and communities.

I told the reporter I certainly understood why this was newsworthy and why he was calling, but I told him it also was a bit frustrating. I explained that child welfare was a system filled with pervasive incentives, financial and otherwise, and almost all of them encouraged everyone in the system to do the wrong thing.

These incentives include:
● Bounties paid to the state by the federal government for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.
●Per diem reimbursements for private agencies, encouraging them to hold children, needlessly, in foster care.
● Avoiding the risk of negative news coverage by taking away huge numbers of children needlessly, since no caseworker ever has been attacked in the press for taking away too many children, whereas such attacks are common if a worker leaves a child in his own home and something goes wrong.
● Avoiding firing, suspension, demotion or any other penalty of any kind by doing the same thing. Though caseworkers often claim they’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” that’s simply not true; when it comes to taking away children, they’re only damned if they don’t.

But reporters almost never write about these incentives.

In our previous conversation, I’d told the reporter how Arizona was in a state of perennial foster-care panic. Between 2002 and 2004, removals of children had soared 40 percent - -and, as usual, this had left children less safe. By 2005, deaths of children known-to-the-system had set a record, as workers, overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who didn’t belong in foster care, actually had less time to find children in real danger.

And, of course, as a result, thousands of children needlessly were torn from everyone loving and familiar; they were forced to endure the emotional devastation of foster care and they were placed at risk of abuse in foster care; where there probably is abuse in at least one foster home in three.

In most states, after a year or two of foster-care panic, people calm down, look around, say, in effect, “Oh, my God, what have we done to these children?” and change course. But in Arizona, the foster-care panic has never stopped. Children still are being taken at the same rate as when the panic was at its height.

To counter the state of never-ending foster-care panic, the financial incentives to take away children and the non-financial incentives to take away children, the State of Arizona offered one puny counter-incentive: 30 cents an hour, which also could be retained by meeting other goals.

And to top it off: It didn’t work. The incentives didn’t, in fact, reduce removals. There is no evidence that the incentive, which required maintaining safety, compromised that safety. But there is plenty of evidence that foster-care panics, including the one in Arizona, leave children less safe.

But one thing deeply disturbed the reporter: Why, he asked, should there be any incentives at all in child welfare? Why can’t workers exist in a state of noble purity, immune from all base influences and able to make decisions based solely on what was best for the children?

I told him that was a nice idea - but it could work only if the public knew about all of the incentives and if policymakers then were able to eliminate all of them. I pointed out that incentives, good and bad, are a fact of life in every endeavor, including journalism.

Reporters self-censor, avoiding stories they know management hates, and pursue stories that appeal to editors’ interests in order to curry favor. Or they work harder when they know there’s a vacancy in a coveted bureau – or rumors of still another round of layoffs. Or they work a little less hard if it’s the Friday before vacation and they’re anxious to get out of the office - -just as a caseworker may not make the extra phone call to find, say, a relative with whom to place a child if she can just dump that child in a shelter instead.

It’s human nature in journalism, child welfare, or any other line of work.

So what could good leadership in a child welfare agency do about this? They could try to repeal the laws of human nature and eliminate all incentives. Or they could do everything possible to balance the incentives, so workers are encouraged to do what’s best for the children, and discouraged from doing anything else. That’s exactly what Arizona tried, except the attempt at balance was so feeble, so pathetic, that it changed nothing.

But readers of the Arizona Daily Star would learn none of this.

On May 3, they would find, instead, a lead story headlined “CPS staff to see pay cuts if goal is unmet.” They would finish the story left with the impression that there existed one, and only one, incentive in child welfare: The 30-cents-an-hour for goals that include safely keeping families together. CPS did nothing to correct this misimpression (or if they did, the reporter omitted it) saying only that the incentive would not prompt workers to compromise safety. (Going only to CPS - an agency nobody ever believes, often for good reason - is the standard way reporters with an axe to grind give the illusion of presenting all sides, without the substance.)

Readers probably weren’t alone in being left in the dark by the Star story. Editors read what a reporter turns in, not what he leaves out. So I don’t know if the reporter’s own editors know about all the other incentives. At least one editor from another part of the paper had no idea there were any financial incentives other than the one in the story (and when I explained this, didn’t much care).

It does not appear that the reporter explained this to people he contacted for quotes, either. So it is no wonder the story was filled with comments like this one from a legislator: “We’re tipping the scales with performance pay,” he said. In fact, the incentive did not tip the scales at all; rather it was a puny, pathetic, failed effort to bring them back into balance.

And soon, even that will be gone. You can bet that within a week a memo will go out rescinding the incentive either in fact or by implication. And, of course, the story itself will give one more kick-start to the never-ending Arizona Foster Care Panic.

When I e-mailed the reporter to complain about the omission of all mention of other incentives, I discovered that in just a few days, his question about “why are there incentives at all?” had morphed into a decree; a dictat from which no dissent shall be permitted. He wrote:

You seem to miss the point. It is not that keeping kids with the family is good or bad. It is not that putting them in foster care is good or bad. It is, rather, the issue of linking employee bonuses to outcomes. Those decisions should be made based strictly on the best interest of the children involved. Financial motivations, or even the perception someone could be swayed by financial motivations, are inappropriate.

There are several problems with this.

For starters, while such a comment is appropriate coming from a columnist or an editorial writer, such pronouncements have no place coming from a reporter. Whether financial incentives are or are not appropriate is something for readers to decide - after being given enough information to make an informed decision.

Second, the story deals with only one kind of incentive - and since that incentive deals with only one kind of outcome, keeping kids with the family, the story does indeed deal with the issue of whether “keeping kids with the family is good or bad.” Only a story which dealt with incentives in both directions could be genuinely neutral on this point.

And third, by pressuring CPS to abolish an incentive in one direction while leaving all the others intact, the story does the opposite of the reporter’s own alleged goal. Arizona’s vulnerable children are a large step farther away from a system that makes decisions purely on the basis of best interests than they were five days ago, because the scales are now father out of balance. And that means, these children are less safe. (Of course, if the reporter’s real goal was to encourage more foster care, then his goal was accomplished; and I’ll leave for another day the whole issue of defining best interests and what happens when the best interests of the child conflict with the best interests of children.)

As it happens, on the very day the Star story appeared, the need for balance in incentives was illustrated, albeit indirectly, in a story in Tucson’s other daily, the Tucson Citizen.

It reported on the trial of a foster mother charged in connection with the death of her foster child, Dwight Hill. Dwight died in November, 2005, within weeks of the death of another Tucson area foster child, Emily Mays. These cases got far less attention than the recent deaths of children in the same community at the hands of birth parents. (Nothing new, there.)

Dwight was born with cocaine in his system. He was confiscated at birth and parked at the local parking place shelter. Then he was placed in a foster home recruited and overseen by a private agency. They also were caring for three other foster children, including two toddlers, and a birth son with medical problems. The foster father listed his occupation as unemployed, the foster mother listed hers as “foster mother” – raising a question about financial incentives a lot bigger than 30 cents an hour.

Eleven days later Dwight Hill was dead. According to the Citizen: “A Pima County coroner's autopsy report indicated the baby died of blunt-force trauma, bleeding in the brain and a fractured skull.” The prosecutor said he died "in a way no person should have to endure."

The foster mother says she has no idea how Dwight died and was not negligent in getting him medical attention. That, a jury will decide.

But here’s what we do know:

There was every incentive for the caseworker to confiscate Dwight at birth - and no incentive for her to, say, fight extra hard to find a drug treatment program where mother and child could live together, which research shows is far better for a child’s well-being than even a good foster home. There was every incentive to just dump Dwight at the shelter – nothing could be easier, and no one would ever question it - and no incentive to work extra hard to find a relative, if Dwight really couldn’t stay with his mother. There was every incentive for the private agency, paid for every day Dwight was held in foster care, to push to keep him there as long as possible. There was every incentive for that private agency to stuff as many foster children into that home as the law allowed. And there was no incentive for anyone to ask if four very young foster children and a disabled birth child were too much for the foster mother.

This all happened before the state tried to balance the scales with that tiny incentive to think more carefully and work a little harder to keep children like Dwight and Emily out of foster care.

So by the logic of the reporter who wrote the Star story, the decisions to remove Dwight Hill from his own home and place him first in a shelter and then in the foster home where he died were perfect in their purity, utterly untainted by filthy lucre, and so, must have been made solely based on Dwight Hill’s best interests. The same must have been true with the decisions in the case of Emily Mays.

One thing puzzles me, though.

How was it in the best interests of Dwight Hill and Emily Mays to die?