Sunday, June 24, 2007

Another effort to silence an advocate

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Robin Scoins, a parent from Arizona whose children were needlessly taken away. After getting the children back, she formed the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute. The organization has no paid staff, and no budget, Ms. Scoins runs the group herself and uses her own meager funds. At times she could be reached by phone or by e-mail but not both because she can’t afford to pay for both.

But in an act that virtually defines bullying, a state legislator who strongly opposes Ms. Scoins’ views, Rep. Pete Hershberger, sought to silence Ms. Scoins by demanding that she register as a lobbyist. He sent an intimidating letter to the state Attorney General demanding an investigation.

The result: Ms. Scoins still can speak out, but only as a private citizen. If she invokes the name of her organization, which is how she sought to speak out for others who have asked her to speak on their behalf because they are afraid to come forward, she risks fines and prosecution.

And through it all, almost every newspaper in the state, which will drop everything to crusade for the First Amendment when it’s their privileges at stake, remained silent. There were no editorials on Scoins’ behalf, and only one daily, the Arizona Daily Star wrote about it (the stories were by a reporter in the paper’s Capitol bureau, not the reporter who covers child welfare) – after the story appeared in the Phoenix alternative weekly, New Times.

Now, there’s another effort to silence an advocate for families, this time in Texas. Texas is in the midst of its second foster-care panic in less than a decade. Every day brings another horror story, the most recent: Hundreds of children forced to sleep in offices because there is no place else to put them; just the kind of crisis predicted by NCCPR when we released our Texas report more than two years ago.

About the only thing Texas has going for it is that at least court hearings in that state are open. Unless, it seems, you’re an advocate for families and the judge doesn’t like you.

And that brings me to the story of Johana Scot and the Parent Guidance Center in Conroe, Texas, not far from Houston.

Ms. Scot did not lose a child to the system. In fact, her introduction to the system was as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). There is no more sacred cow in child welfare, which is too bad since the most comprehensive study of CASA ever done, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that pretty much the only thing CASA accomplishes is to prolong foster care and reduce the chances children will be placed with relatives, while doing nothing to improve child safety. One of the few clear-eyed looks at the program is this story from the excellent trade journal, Youth Today.

Ms. Scot saw the harm that CASA was doing, got fed up, and formed the Parent Guidance Center to provide real help to families caught up in the child welfare system. This organization has a real staff and budget, although both are very small. But like Robin Scoins, Johana Scot apparently has made some powerful enemies.

Because last week, Ms. Scot was thrown out of court in Montgomery County, Texas, during a hearing concerning whether the children of two impoverished parents she’d been helping would be placed with their uncle.

Scot had not shouted at the judge or other participants. She had caused no disturbance at all. She was sitting, silent, in the courtroom, there only to offer moral support to the parents, when Judge Joseph Ann Ottis invited lawyers for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the children’s law guardian to move to have Scot expelled, because, the judge said, she was not allowed to do it on her own. The law guardian promptly made the request and the judge promptly granted it.

Ms. Scot explains that it all happened after a closed-door meeting between the judge, the DFPS lawyer, the CASA and the children’s law guardian. The parents have no lawyer, so no one representing the parents was at the meeting. After the meeting, the parents were questioned about why they had changed their minds about surrendering rights to their children forever. The reason was simple: Originally, the parents thought that if they agreed to the surrender, the uncle would get the children. In fact, there was no guarantee the four children would not be consigned to the Texas foster care system.

It was Johana Scot who had warned them about this.

That appears to be the only reason she was expelled – leaving the parents entirely on their own to face the power of DFPS, the law guardian, and the judge.

And Judge Ottis went further. She forbade other parties involved in the suit including CPS caseworkers, CPS program directors, CASA advocates, and attorneys, from so much as speaking to Ms. Scot.

“It is unfortunate that I have been forced to retain my own legal counsel because of the inflammatory, statements and insinuations that were made about me during a volatile questioning of my indigent clients who were unrepresented by legal counsel themselves,” Ms Scot said. “Had they been represented, I feel confident an attorney would have objected to the unwarranted line of questioning about their family advocate. Apparently, the court wanted on record who had given these parents accurate information about relinquishment of parental rights.

“Parent Guidance Center believes that families involved with CPS deserve accurate information about the child welfare process. Without knowing all the options, outcomes, and possibilities, both positive and negative in their cases, CPS clients cannot appropriately make a life changing decision, such as relinquishment of parental rights.”

Hardly a radical proposition – but apparently more than a Texas judge could handle.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, when some CASAs were thrown out of a courtroom in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threw a fit. The newspaper was right; I even gave them a quote. So, how did Houston media respond when a former CASA who takes a less popular position was thrown out of a courtroom? So far, with silence. A couple of good reporters elsewhere in the state have shown some interest, but because they’re far from Houston, it’s not likely they’ll be able to do a story. And those who are able, seem to have no interest; even though if a judge can throw an advocate out today, odds are she can throw a reporter out tomorrow.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

What do hospitals know that most child welfare agencies don't?

On April 8, Julia Steiny, a columnist for the Providence Journal began one of her columns with a lesson from medicine in the 19th Century that has profound implications for child welfare today. Steiny wrote:

“Before understanding the role of germs or microbes in causing disease, hospitals had a well-deserved reputation for killing patients more reliably than curing them. But toward the end of the 19th century, hospitals began to implement sanitary protocols that increasingly prevented the transfer of germs. As a result, hospitals became more effective at healing the sick. Except in the case of children. The rates at which children died actually rose, and dramatically.
“Sick children who went to the most up-to-date hospitals were well-tended - kept fed, warm, safe and clean - and forbidden to see their germ-ridden family. Hospital workers wore gowns, masks and gloves when handling babies and children. Institutions that permitted brief visits by relatives found the visits to be hugely troublesome, brimming with emotions and trauma at each separation. Most hospital officials thought such visits were counterproductive to healing.
“By the second year of a hospital stay, children's death rates in the sterile nurseries ran over 75 percent.”

The column wasn’t about child welfare, however. It soon veered off into a generalized plea to spend more on children and make schools better. (Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board.) Which means even she missed the point.

In the late 20th Century, as I’ve noted before on this Blog, researchers made a similar discovery about children in the child welfare system.

University of Florida Medical Center researchers studied two groups of infants born with cocaine in their systems. One group was placed in foster care, the other with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out. Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, being taken from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with addicts – it does mean that drug treatment for the parent is almost always a better first choice than foster care for the child.

In the early 21st Century, Minnesota researchers discovered that, on average, children placed in foster care fared worse than equally maltreated children left in their own homes, even when the birth parents got little or no help.

None of this means that no child ever should be taken from her or his home. (I always think that’s obvious, but almost every time I talk to reporters they seek reassurance on this point). But for decades, Child Protective Services agencies have tried to “sterilize” our children’s environment. They’ve decided that parents are just so “dirty,” sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, as in so deeply troubled, that the children would simply have to be better off in a “cleaner” environment.

A long time ago, hospitals figured out what they were doing wrong. They stopped keeping the children away from their parents. For some reason, much of American child welfare has yet to get the message.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

When the foster care debate goes to the dogs

Last week’s post to this Blog dealt with the issue of reimbursement for foster parents. At the end of that post, I wrote that it seemed as though every story I’ve ever read about this issue included the same false analogy, almost always presented in the same terms of shock and outrage. And sure enough, when the issue of raising foster-parent reimbursement arose in California last month, there was this from Capital Public Radio:

“The average Californian pays more to kennel their dog than our state pays to support the care of foster children.”

And this from the San Jose Mercury News:

"The average kennel charges you $620 a month for taking care of a dog," said the measure's author, Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, "so our kids don't even get as much money as a dog."

And this from the Orange County Register:

“[Payments to foster parents] average “$126 less than the average kennel charges to house a dog…”

And this from a San Francisco Chronicle editorial:

That rate isn't even fit for dogs, and the state knows it: it spends $7,440 per year to house a dog in a kennel.

The appeal of this, uh, dogma, is not limited to California. In Florida in just 2 years, the same advocate managed to get his dog kennel soundbite into at least five stories in at least four different newspapers.

Some reporters found this so shocking that they actually did their own survey of kennels just to be sure.

And the whole thing is rubbish.

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 (for-profit or otherwise) 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.

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.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

What is our "social contract" with foster parents?

Two recent stories from California, both about the state budget, raise a question that child welfare systems usually avoid: What is our “social contract” with foster parents?

The first story ran in the Contra Costa Times on May 21. It is a thorough examination of proposals to cut off welfare benefits to children in families where the parents don’t dot every I and cross every t on welfare-to-work rules. (Footnote: Back when Rudy Giuliani was racing to throw families off welfare in New York City, at any given time, according to some news accounts, about 10 percent of all recipients were sanctioned off the welfare rolls due to bureaucratic error. Does California do better?)

In any event, since the biggest cause of foster care is the confusion of poverty with neglect, the cuts are likely to increase the number of impoverished children placed in foster care.

According to the story:

In urban areas, 80 percent of the children involved in the foster care system come from impoverished families, said Chet Hewitt, director of Alameda County Social Services. In most cases, children are removed from their homes for neglect, especially lack of food and medical care.
By cutting CalWorks benefits, "you raise the specter of putting poor families in the case of being more likely to not meet the needs of their children," Hewitt said. "Of not being able to keep food in the refrigerator or pay fare for buses or cabs to get to the medical treatments."

The story was greeted with a collective yawn by media and politicians. If any other newspapers ran anything like it, or followed up with outraged editorials, I missed it.

The very next day came a long story in the Sacramento Bee about another constituency affected by the proposed budget. They weren’t being cut, but they were fighting mad over not getting a raise.

This story got picked up all over the state, politicians vented their fury, and at least two newspapers rushed to offer outraged editorials.

But then, this was a constituency with whom journalists and politicians can identify; this was a constituency made up of people they might know personally as something other than story subjects:

Foster parents.

Why is it, exactly, that when a birth parent wants a little help to raise her own child she’s a “welfare queen” but when her child is taken away, placed in foster care, and the foster parent wants significantly more money than the birth parent ever got, 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.

In most cases, reimbursement for foster parents isn’t as bad as most news stories make it sound. For starters, stories typically 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 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 about again at any time. So it’s fair for the state to help out with the costs.

But do we really want those costs covered completely? Isn’t foster care 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?

And what if a foster parent says that, on the contrary, she can and does love the children who come through the door, from day one, exactly as if she’d given birth to them? Like most such stories, the Sacramento Bee story begins by profiling a saintly, model foster parent who says, at one point:

"I feel like they're mine. I never see them as my foster kids. We always tell them, 'You're our sons.' "

Leaving aside the fact that this may not, in fact, be good for a child who desperately wants to return to her or his birth parents, does that not also raise a question as to why the foster parent needs to be paid more than she would get if, say, she were a birth mother on welfare?

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.

And then there is the argument that, in fact, all parents should receive some sort of pay for being parents, otherwise work that is still done predominantly by women is devalued compared to the work of men.

But we don’t have to stroll through this entire minefield now. The question of the moment is: What is the best way to spend scarce dollars to help children? Help their impoverished birth parents or raise reimbursement for more-likely-to-be-middle-class foster parents?

In endorsing the raise for foster parents, the San Francisco Chronicle writes that “raising rates would help to attract and retain quality foster parents…” Would it? Isn’t one measure of the quality of any parent the willingness to sacrifice a little, financially, for the children in their care?

Similarly, it’s argued that “low” rates are contributing to the loss of foster homes. But is that all bad? Are low rates, in fact, weeding out foster parents who otherwise would go into foster care for the wrong reasons?

The Sacramento Bee story quotes Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, who says: “If they were our children, we'd never treat them this way.”

But the state of California (and every other state) treats children living with impoverished birth parents far worse – witness the proposal to cut welfare benefits which, in every state, already are far lower than payments to foster parents.

And, like so many other such stories, the Bee story ends with this quote from the foster parent profiled:

"It's not like regular work. We never have vacation."

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?

A wonderful foster parent in Maine, 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.”

Isn’t that the kind of foster parent any state would want to “attract”?

One postscript: the Bee story and almost every other about the demand for a reimbursement raise included a false analogy. In fact, it sometimes seems that almost every story ever written about foster parent reimbursement includes this analogy, always written with the same tone of shock and outrage. I’ll discuss it next week. One hint, though: It’s a false analogy that has dogged coverage of child welfare for decades.