Sunday, July 29, 2007

The children wronged by "Children's Rights"

The organization with the breathtaking arrogance to name itself “Children’s Rights,” as though the adults who run it and their wealthy benefactors (corporate raider Carl Icahn once chaired the Board of Directors) are the only ones who stand up for children, and the only ones who know what those rights should be, has struck again.

By children’s rights be assured that Children’s Rights does not mean the right of children to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. It does not mean the right to be with the parents who love and cherish them but may be too poor to keep them out of the hands of a child welfare agency. And it certainly doesn’t mean the right to be free from the racial and class bias that has permeated child welfare for more than 150 years. On the contrary, CR’s founder, Marcia Lowry, has dismissed all that as a “liberal agenda” for which she has no time.

That, no doubt, endears her to New York City’s large community of neoconservatives, who dominated public policy during the Giuliani administration. But the neocons have done no better for the children of New York that they have for the children of Baghdad. And CR’s latest analysis of child welfare in New York is about as useful as a lesson on military strategy from Donald Rumsfeld.

The analysis purports to show that reabuse of children worsened during recent reforms in New York City, when the city was taking away fewer children.

But two huge problems stand out immediately:

1. The starting line
2. The finish line.

The report begins with 2000 and ends with 2005. There is no logical reason for this. Data for most indicators are available back to 1993 and reabuse data are available back at least to 1998. Data also are available for 2006. Nothing in particular happened in 2000. There was no reorganization of the city child welfare agency, no change in leadership. And including 2006 data is crucial in order to measure the impact of the huge increase in removals of children that occurred that year in the wake of the death of Nixzmary Brown.

But including data before and after CR’s arbitrary choice immediately undercuts any connection between an alleged decline in safety and a decline in removals.

To see the real trend, including data for every year available, have a look at NCCPR’s report on New York City child welfare, Don’t Turn Back. The stats can be found on page 19.

The first thing anyone who has both this document and CR’s will notice is that, except for fatality data, all our numbers differ from CR's even though we’re both using city sources. That’s probably because, except for fatality numbers, our data are for fiscal years, and the CR report uses calendar year data.

But beyond that, the bigger picture is different from that portrayed in CR’s report.

For starters, consider reabuse of children left in their own homes. Yes, it went up from 2000 through 2005, when removals were declining. But in FY 2006, when removals soared, it went up again. Yet CR seeks to link the increase to the decline in entries into foster care. CR also omits data for 1998, when removals were at their height and reabuse was much greater – though that figure does not come directly from the city, it comes from The New York Times.

So what is the longer-term trend?

In all the years for which data are available, reabuse was at its worst when the city was taking the most children. Reabuse fell sharply, then has slowly increased, both when fewer children were taken and when more children were taken.

More significant is how CR has left out context concerning the second key safety indicator, foster care recidivism - the proportion of children sent home from foster care who must be placed again within 12 months.

For starters, CR fails to acknowledge that this is a safety indicator, providing data on this indicator only in the context of another important outcome, permanence. In fact, it’s a very important safety indicator, since a child is unlikely to have to be returned to foster care unless the child welfare agency thinks that child is unsafe. (Whether the agency is right or whether this was, in fact, a failure to provide support for the family after reunification is another story; indeed, there are indications that often it is the latter, something discussed further below.)

Data on this measure are available all the way back to 1993. And they show significant improvement starting when removals of children started to decline. And this time, the fact is, the improvement continued during the 2006 surge. That may be because, as a far better report just released from the Center for an Urban Future notes, the city has begun a program to provide intensive help to reunified families.

Overall, the rate of foster care recidivism in 2006 is more than 33 percent lower than it was in 1998, when the city was taking almost twice as many children.

At least as disturbing, however, is the way CR spins its own more limited data on this measure. A pullquote on page 102 cites a “25 percent increase” in this figure from 2004 to 2005 – with the percentage going from 8 percent to 10 percent.

Well, yes. But the chart on the previous page shows that for each of the three previous years, the figure was nine percent. So the 2004 figure may well have been a fluke. One unusually low year, followed by one unusually high year tells us nothing. Taking the two years in isolation suggests a trend that may not exist.

The one figure for which CR couldn’t avoid mentioning the year 2006 is deaths of children previously known to the city child welfare agency, since, at least within the child welfare community, that figure is well-known.

But that created a huge problem in PR for CR. Such deaths, in fact, soared in 2006, to their highest level since 1993. Not exactly a testament to the safety of taking away huge numbers of additional children – particularly since the previous record for such fatalities, 36, was set in 1998, during the height of the foster-care panic that gripped the city after the death of Elisa Izquierdo.

Back then, CR’s solution was to highlight the fatalities but simply ignore the increase in removals. This time, they decided to simply reverse their previous position and say that fatalities are a lousy measure of system performance after all. According to the report:

“…the number of fatalities in a given year, and even fluctuations in this number between years, are not particularly good indicators of how well a child welfare system is performing. The number of child fatalities is extremely small, compared to the overall number of children involved with the child welfare system. ACS investigates more than 50,000 reports of suspected abuse and neglect each year and more than 40,000 children are in contact with ACS at any given time in preventive services and foster care cases. During the last decade, an average of 26 children per year who were previously known to ACS died as a result of child abuse and neglect. Fluctuations in such a small number from year to year are likely to be random and not due to the nature or quality of particular policy or service approaches being utilized by the child welfare agency.”

Good point. It should be. It’s a point NCCPR has been making for years – though we always add that as long as fatalities are the measure of choice for the media, we will continue to point out the one consistent pattern all over the country: The deaths go up in the wake of a foster-care panic.

But while we’re glad to see CR realize the limits of fatalities as a measure, we’re puzzled by the fact that they never noticed this before. A report issued by CR in 1999 took the opposite view. And during late 2005 and early 2006, when a New York Times reporter used almost every story she wrote about a child abuse death to note that the death “comes at a time when” or “raises questions about” efforts to keep families together, CR never sought to correct her. Only when deaths soared after the city took far more children did CR decide there is no connection.

That would be the same Times reporter who described the deaths as a “series” of fatalities when, in fact, there had been no change in the rate of such deaths. (“It was a series,” the reporter would say later, “but not statistically.”) Then, when such deaths really did soar to their highest level since 1993, the Times declined to report it.

Needless to say, CR knew exactly where to leak its report ahead of its formal release in order to be sure there would be a news story with no real critical scrutiny. The Times reporter, who previously ignored data on reabuse suddenly found that they were important when spun CR’s way. And the Times reporter, who previously had used fatalities to measure system performance, now finds those data are not even worth mentioning.

And finally, there’s one more number that may be the most important of all, even though it doesn’t come from New York City: 15,000.

That’s the number of children whose cases were examined in the new, landmark study comparing children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes, discussed in the July 8 Blog entry. On average, the children left in their own homes did far better on measures such as teenage pregnancy, juvenile arrests and youth unemployment.

When things are at their worst in New York City, in 1998, the city took 12,000 children from their parents. Even with the upsurge in removals in 2006, the average in the eight years since has been 7,540. Had the city been taking children at the 1998 rate, 35,680 more children would have been taken from 1999 through 2006. That means 35,680 children have been spared the sometimes-unbearable emotional trauma of placement, and the risk of abuse in foster care itself. Indeed, using the results of this new study, it may even be possible to estimate how many of those 35,680 children have been spared from arrest, unemployment, and teenage pregnancy because of the reforms CR wants to reverse.

Whatever the number of children spared this harm, it probably is not as high as it should be. It probably would be higher if not for the efforts of CR to reverse reform. So there are plenty of children wronged by “Children’s Rights.”