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.