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.”