Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why the typical child welfare "ombudsman" does so much harm

After the death of a child “known to the system” makes headlines, there often is a demand for greater “accountability” on the part of the child welfare agency. This could be achieved, of course, by subjecting child welfare agencies to the same public scrutiny as most other state and local government agencies. 

Legislatures could open the court hearings and make most child welfare agency records public. But then people would see the extent to which errors go in all directions; they’d see how the same agencies that leave some children in dangerous homes wrongfully remove many more. The “foster care-industrial complex” in any given state, that network of providers paid for every day they hold children in foster care and their allies in the advocacy community, would just as soon you not see that. They pressure legislators to keep everything hidden from the general public. 

Instead, legislators sometimes jerk their knees by creating a new state agency to look over the shoulder of the existing state agency. They create a child welfare “ombudsman” or “Office of Child Advocate.” Typically they can investigate pretty much whatever they want – but must look into deaths of children “known to the system.” To guarantee independence, often the Ombudsman/Child Advocate is appointed to a fixed term and can’t be removed by the Governor. 

The circumstances of these offices births tend to dictate what happens next. The person named to fill the job almost always means well; she or he is typically sincere in believing that the efforts of the office are helping children. But the typical Ombudsman/Child Advocate generally has a “take-the-child-and-run” mentality, and the mandate of the office means he or she will generally be looking at errors in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes. 

Their tough talk, often bordering on swagger, their tendency to reinforce conventional wisdom, and the fact that they are often the only source of information make them media darlings. Often they become what I’ve come to call the Godsource – that one source about all child welfare issues whose words are treated as Holy Writ and whose claims are never questioned. And they can do enormous harm.

In Michigan, during the mid-1990s, the state’s child welfare “ombudsman“ played a crucial role in undermining reforms that had made the state a national leader in child welfare; today the state wallows in typical mediocrity. Washington State’s ombudsman got it into her head that the biggest problem in child welfare was the fact that the state’s incredibly broad “neglect” statute wasn’t making it easy enough to take away children. 

The quintessential state “Child Advocate” was the first one named to the job in Georgia. She was caring, passionate, dedicated – and flat wrong. Her efforts helped encourage a foster-care panic that swept through the state in the early part of the decade, and she worked tirelessly to undercut subsequent reform efforts. NCCPR’s report on Georgia child welfare is devoted to the unintended consequences of her good intentions. After waiting for six months after her term as Child Advocate ended, the Governor replaced her. 

 With only two exceptions I know of, OCAs have been still another thumb tiling the scales of justice against families. One of those exceptions was a child advocate’s office created within the office of New York City’s first Public Advocate, Mark Green. That office took up the cause of children needlessly taken away by the city’s child welfare agency and issued outstanding reports on things like the lack of adequate defense counsel for families. But Green’s successor, Betsy Gotbaum, let the office wither away – and even took the reports off the Public Advocate’s website. Then, a reporter for The New York Times decided the best way to undermine reform in the city was to make deaths of children “known to the system” news again, even creating the myth of a “series” of child abuse deaths where no such series existed. (“It was a series,” she would say later, “but not statistically.”) Gotbaum knew a p.r. opportunity when she saw one. She began churning out press releases demanding creation of a child welfare ombudsman’s office. Apparently, she was betting on mass amnesia among the city’s journalists; it was a good bet, none has pointed out that such an ombudsman once was employed by her own office.

The other exceptional OCA was the one created in New Jersey after the death of Faheem Williams. It was probably the nation’s most powerful and best staffed. But most important, the first person to hold the title of New Jersey Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan, was determined to avoid the pitfalls of other such agencies. Ryan had been a top aide to the governor who appointed him. 

But if anyone thought Ryan would go easy on his former boss, they soon were proven wrong. One after the other, the reports came pouring out of the new office, blasting the child welfare agency for getting almost everything wrong. It probably would be hard to find a news story about the New Jersey Office of Child Advocate in which the word “report” wasn’t preceded by the word “scathing.” Ryan’s reports are widely considered one of the things that forced both the head of the state human services agency and the head of its child welfare division out of their jobs. 

But Ryan’s reports weren’t just tough. They also were smart. Because from the beginning, Kevin Ryan understood that the errors go both ways. Consider the report he issued on the death of Samuel Allen, a five-year-old suffering from autism. The state child welfare agency had investigated the mother, Alicia Day, before. Caseworkers found a struggling single mother working a night shift and, like thousands of others, cobbling together makeshift childcare arrangements. The agency did nothing to help. The New Jersey OCA investigation found some of the same failings commonly found in such reports all over the country, such as failure to interview other children in the household or others who knew the family. But the report also said this: 

The most profound failure here was systemic. The child care, early intervention and homemaker assistance services that this single mother may have needed as she tried to raise four children, including a child with autism, on her own, while working an overnight shift to generate income for the family, simply do not exist in New Jersey to meet the need. The child welfare reform plan’s commitments to make significant investments in prevention initiatives can lead to genuine child welfare reform if they are targeted to strengthen families like Alicia Day’s, based on an assessment community-by-community of the risk factors that place children and families at risk. 

The following year, Ryan became the first government official we know of to address an issue we have come to call “fatal neatness.” There is no field we know of where the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is taken more literally than child welfare – and no field we know where the consequences can be more harmful. 

Over and over again, in fatality reviews and news stories, caseworkers say something like “we never suspected anything because the home was so neat and clean” as though there was some direct correlation between cleanliness and love. In contrast, children can be taken from loving homes because an overwhelmed parent fell way, way behind on the house cleaning. So in his report reviewing child abuse fatalities in 2005, Ryan issued the following recommendation: 

In two cases here, and as also evidenced in the OCA’s prior reports, the caseworkers noted in the file that the home was neat and clean. Until someone demonstrates a correlation between cleanliness and child safety, [the state child welfare agency] should instruct employees that this factor is, at best, hardly relevant unless the filth is severe enough to cause a real and immediate risk to the child. This both will reduce needless removals from dirty homes, and encourage workers not to write off the potential for risk in homes that happen to be spotless. 

But no matter how many such statements appear in reports about fatalities, the very fact that deaths of children “known-to-the-system” may be the only subject investigated can leave the impression that the system errs in only one direction. So at NCCPR’s suggestion, Ryan initiated an audit of “Families Under Supervision” in their own homes, including some who subsequently were placed in foster care. The audit examined the quality of the services to families and whether placement was necessary. It included a casereading of a random sample of case files. The result was a comprehensive examination of cases where the state was right to place children in foster care, and where it was wrong, including this case history:

In February 2004, DYFS determined that two-year-old Tavon was physically abused by his babysitter. During the course of the DYFS investigation, Tavon and his three-year-old brother, Xavier, could not remain with their mother, Katrina, because she was homeless.
Katrina signed the 15-day consent to placement and the children were placed in relative care. Katrina assumed that the placement would be temporary while DYFS helped her to locate permanent housing. However, after the 15-day consent expired, she was asked to sign a six-month consent because she remained homeless. The children remained with their maternal aunt until June 2004 when she informed DYFS that she could no longer provide care for the children.
Tavon and Xavier were placed in a foster home for 1 month and then into separate relative care placements. Meanwhile, Katrina secured employment, attended parenting skills classes and searched for housing. By December 2004, she had secured housing in a boarding home, but she was informed by her landlord that no children were permitted.
When the six-month consent expired, DYFS went to court and was granted custody, care, and supervision of Xavier and Tavon, based solely on Katrina’s inability to secure adequate housing for them despite her efforts and requests for assistance through DYFS and welfare. Time and again, Katrina asked her case manager for assistance but only a bus pass, a list of 8 agencies to contact and a form letter to present to each was provided. As this was the extent of the assistance she was provided, Katrina made no progress towards securing appropriate accommodations.
Katrina’s frustration with DYFS began to grow as the months passed and her children were moved from the maternal aunt’s home to a foster home and then to separate relative placements, in two different cities. Not only was Katrina becoming overwhelmed by her situation and her need to locate suitable housing, but DYFS then began referring her to services that required less urgency, like parenting skills classes.
Soon, the bus pass that DYFS provided to assist her getting to work, housing agencies, parenting classes, and visits with her sons expired. After the children were in placement for over a year, Katrina began to visit them less and less, and the sibling visits also became less frequent. In June 2005, Xavier’s caregiver reported that he had begun to wet his bed and she would like counseling for him. Katrina still did not have housing, which remains her only barrier to reunification. 

But it wouldn’t last. In proof of the adage, “no good deed goes unpunished,” a new Governor named Ryan to run the state child welfare agency. (He spent Thanksgiving with a family he’d personally intervened to reunite after their poverty had been confused with neglect.) But at OCA, the Governor replaced Ryan with a typical type, who’s doing typical harm. 

Next week: How “Dr. Sooze” distorts the nooze.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Standing up to the virtual lynch mob

The Washington Post had an article last week headlined “With Cruelty and Malice for All” lamenting the astounding viciousness that characterizes many of the things people say when they can post comments online anonymously.

“I don’t know what it is about this particular moment in human history which lends itself to the sanction of miscellaneous and casual cruelty,” John Perry Barlow, vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Post.

In fact, there are plenty of candidates to blame for this. For starters, right-wing hate radio, various cable talk show hosts and the corporations who find that the venom those talk show hosts spew enhances their own bottom line. But one contributor to the undermining of civil discourse has gone largely unnoticed. Certainly it went unmentioned in the Post story: America’s newspapers. I don’t mean fringe elements of the press, either. I mean big respectable mainstream dailies – like The Washington Post. All it took was a sense that there was money to be made with one technological “advance”: Adding a section where people can comment on items published in the paper’s print edition.

It’s not the addition of comment sections per se that causes the problem, of course. Newspapers have had letters to the editor pages for decades, and they have added a great deal to public discourse. But that’s because of two key features: First, an editor reads and screens letters before they are published. Second, with rare exceptions, the writer has to sign her or his name to the work, and the name is published.

Internet comment sections typically have neither safeguard. The result is an outpouring of vile sentiment that can’t help but poison the well of public debate. I don’t think people have gotten any nastier; I just think America’s newspaper publishers have given the extreme haters a forum.

The fact that the people who post on these sites are not necessarily a representative cross-section of America doesn’t change the fact that offering a place for haters to gather and spread the venom harms us all. (And before anybody whines about censorship, I’m suggesting no more than that anyone who posts to a newspaper comment section be required to sign his or her name and city, something that can be verified when people “register” to post comments. An alternative is to have moderators for the sites. The New York Times does this. As far as I know, every other newspaper in America is too stingy to pay anyone for that task.

Since anyone can see this for him or herself, I’m not going to contribute to the hate by offering examples. But particularly striking is the racism. America’s newspapers have created something new: the virtual lynch mob where the vilest among us can use their anonymity the way a Klansman uses a sheet.

What brings all this to mind is an unusual contribution to the op ed page of a newspaper in Florida, the Vero Beach Press Journal last month.

Regina Watts, an impoverished Black single mother wrote about her struggles with the Florida Department of children and Families. She was honest about her own mistakes, and wrote about all she’d done to overcome them – only to be thwarted by the hoops DCF makes her jump through. The lynch mob formed quickly. Readers gleefully summarized the writer’s mistakes and ignored everything else. At first.

Then came something surprising. Other readers came to this mother’s defense. First came “stevensna” who wrote:

“She admits that she has made not one mistake but several. But her children should not be held accountable for her lack of family support, and agency support. Once you reach bottom it is hard to pull yourself out and up if there is no one reaching down to her and help pull her out she doesn't know how to find the steps and directions to go.

“DCF tells you they will help you and promises the world of support and services but they give you no tools to work with there is little success from just words. It takes action, plans and steps to follow. She needs someone in her community, church, or a women shelter since she has been abused to give her direction to regain her children and help her build her self-esteem.

“There are a lot of Regina Watts in this world, but what have you done to help change the outcomes for all the Regina Watts.”

Then came “MissMara:”

“I understand what she is going through, because it really is hard being a single parent. She is not asking for help. I do feel like we should help her before we criticize her!”

Then “itmaiden:”

“…even if her background was pristine and she had more funds, the scenario with DCF would be the same. Families do not deserve to be torn apart just because a parent is low income, or without transportation. The cost of living in Florida is high, the wages are low, and DCF makes "jumping through the hoops" to get your kids back as difficult and as impossible as they can. This woman has been through a lot of stress. Why lay more on her ? She is trying to educate herself and provide better opportunities for herself and her children. … Send her a card, some encouragement. God's second commandment is that we Love each other.”

And then this, from “sunbird”

“Regina, bless you pay no attention to those who criticize without lending a hand. I, too, had my first child at the age of 15. I graduated from college with a degree in Engl Ed. and a smug attitude. I hated welfare moms so much, I became a Republican (Happiest time in my life being ignorant of world affairs). 16 years later, after moving to Florida, I became a single mom all over again. Yes, I repeated my mistake! No longer ignorant of the world, and experiencing my own struggles, I learned not to judge others. With one son in college and a very difficult toddler, I struggled without any taxpayer help. Then came the DCF caseworker to ‘help’ me. The child care she arranged kicked my son out, and the other help was denied because my 20,000-something income was too much. So the caseworker visited again and told me to clean my house -- the house I mortgaged with MY income -- or my son would go in foster care. I put a hitch on my car and moved back to Illinois instead where I work, perhaps ironically, as a public high school teacher.

“To all: Before you lecture anybody about poor choices, consider the options that were presented to them. And telling the mother of a disabled child to get a job is shameful. How many employers will allow her to take off for doctor's appointments? (Mine will, thanks to a strong Il. union). And shouldn’t our taxes pay to support those children with the parent they love and not some paid foster family? Regina, you are in our prayers.”

So for offering a momentary respite from the nonstop hate unleashed by America’s stingy newspaper publishers, thank you “stevensna,” and “MissMara” and “itmaiden” and “subird” – whoever you are.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

When child welfare systems go to pot

California has legalized the use of medical marijuana. One can obtain it with a prescription. But they don’t stock it at the local CVS. So co-ops have sprung up across the state. But while the state says it’s legal, the federal government says it’s not. So the Drug Enforcement Administration has been raiding the co-ops.

But they don’t stop with arresting the adults who run the stores and confiscating the marijuana. They make sure to phone the local child protective services agency to try to get them to confiscate the children.

In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, Ronnie Naulls was prescribed marijuana for chronic pain resulting from an auto accident in 2001. He opened a co-op so he and other patients would not have to drive long distances to obtain medical marijuana.

Naulls had always understood he could be raided, he understood his home might be trashed, he even understood he might face jail. But, he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, he never thought child protective services would take his children, ages 1, 3 and 5. "If I would have known my kids would be taken away, I never would have done this. I never thought this would happen."

Naulls’ lawyer, James Anthony, didn’t see it coming either. "I warn all my dispensary clients that the federal government will try to capture and imprison you, but it hadn't occurred to me that the government will also kidnap your children," Anthony told the online newsletter Drug War Chronicle. "It's just unbelievable, barbaric."

(Even Mr. Anthony doesn’t quite get it, however. Among the reasons he says CPS was out of line is because the Naulls family lives in “a nice middle-class home.” So if Mr. Naulls also were poor and the home was messy this would be o.k.?)

The children were trapped in foster care for five weeks. The first time the oldest child, the five-year-old, was allowed to speak to her father by phone she said: "Daddy, we're ready to come home now, we promise to be good."

Of course, just because DEA calls a child protective services agency doesn’t mean the agency has to be idiotic enough to traumatize innocent children in order to aid and abet the feds’ war on medical marijuana. But Mr. Naulls had the misfortune to live in Riverside County. As NCCPR’s California Rate of Removal Index shows, of all California’s larger counties none is more enamored of a take-the-child-and-run approach than Riverside. A high-profile death of a child “known to the system” almost certainly has made the county’s record even worse.

But even as caseworkers stage protests over unmanageable loads, somehow, Riverside County CPS found time to harass the Naulls family and traumatize the children. One can only wonder how much real maltreatment they missed while they were doing so.

And Riverside is not alone in this practice. One group advocating for medical marijuana patients told Drug War Chronicle they’ve gotten 30 or 40 calls about similar cases in the past couple of years “and those are just the people who call us.”

Given everything we know about how much harm needless foster care can do to children, one can only contemplate the actions of Riverside County CPS and wonder: What are these people smoking?