Sunday, December 23, 2007

Good news, except in some newsrooms

This Blog will be taking the holidays off. The post about Kansas, and how that state is compromising the integrity of an entire national database of foster care statistics will appear when the Blog resumes on January 2. (In the meantime, I’ve updated NCCPR’s Press Release on the issue).

But before pausing for the holidays, one note about a holiday tradition: the story about coping with holiday depression – you know, the story that talks about how suicides increase during the holiday season.

Except they don’t.

The Los Angeles Times reports on a review of 32 studies of the link between the holiday season and suicides. Here’s the link: Suicides go down, perhaps by as much as 40 percent.

What does this have to do with child welfare? Only this. Like so many “facts” and statistics that appear in stories about child abuse and foster care, the claim that the holiday season leads to more suicide was “too good to check.”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot

Correction: This post states that the Kansas child welfare agency licenses the state's foster homes and institutions. In fact, that is done by another state agency.

There is a land where a child can be interned in an institution for more than a week, cut off even from all communication with family for three days, and yet be an un-person to the bureaucrats who run the state child welfare agency. It is a place where holding a child in foster care for a week can be labeled a way to prevent foster care.

As I wrote last week, it isn’t Oz. It’s Kansas.

In fact, the system in Kansas sounds less like something that sprang from the pen of L. Frank Baum and more like a creation of Lewis Carroll, with an assist from Charles Dickens, Rod Serling and, especially, George Orwell.

The consequences for the state’s vulnerable children are deadly serious.

Like most states, Kansas requires that, when a child is torn from her or his parents based solely on the authority of the child welfare agency or law enforcement, there must be a court hearing within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. But in the state’s largest county, Sedgwick, which includes Wichita, authorities somehow were interpreting 72 to mean 144 – in other words, six days. And since you can’t go six days without hitting a weekend, children really were being interned – mostly in an institution – for eight days before any court ever heard the case. And here’s where it gets a bit Dickensian: The institution in question, the Wichita Children’s Home, actually has a policy of barring all communication between a child and his family for the first three days. Even an accused criminal gets one phone call, innocent children in Sedgwick County do not.

When the legislature “clarified” the law and told Sedgwick County it had to start behaving like every other county, judges and the District Attorney’s office, which effectively represents the child welfare agency in these cases, threw a fit. Their reasons offer a rare x-ray of the soul of a child welfare system. It’s not pretty.

For starters, the Assistant District Attorney in charge of child abuse cases in the county, Ron Paschal, argued that children needed to be held in foster care for eight days in order to prevent foster care. No, really. You see, by holding the child for eight days, he said, workers had time to investigate the case and find an alternative to foster care – like sending the child home or placing the child, informally, with relatives.

There are just two problems with this:

● First, if 80 percent of the children can go home or to grandma’s house within eight days, odds are very few of them ever needed to be torn from everyone they know and love, hauled off to an institution and interned there for a week in the first place – an enormously traumatic experience, particularly for young children.

● Second, (although this one would seem to be obvious): you do not prevent foster care by placing a child in foster care. You prevent foster care by not placing a child in foster care.

Authorities in Sedgwick County explain away this one in a way Orwell surely would have appreciated: Those first eight days in an institution are not foster care, they say. They’re “protective custody”! So they don’t count! (If you find this hard to believe, that’s understandable. Check out NCCPR’s Kansas Report for full citations). And what makes it “protective custody”? Simple. A police officer engaged in the physical act of removing the child, so law enforcement, not the child welfare agency, supposedly has “custody.”

Both Sedgwick County and state officials cling to this rationalization even though it is the child welfare agency that often asks law enforcement to remove the child, the child welfare agency that licenses the places the children go, the child welfare agency that oversees the investigation, the child welfare agency that recommends what to do next and – perhaps most important – the child welfare agency that foots the bill. The child welfare agency reimburse the Wichita Children’s Home.

In fact, this kind of placement – ripping a child away from everyone she knows and loves, sometimes in the middle of the night, based solely on a caseworker’s judgment - is supposed to be limited to emergencies; situations where a child would suffer immediate harm if this were not done. The reason for that is obvious. If the threat of harm is not immediate, there is time to remove the threat instead of the children, or at least time to go to a judge.

So if there really is such an emergency, there should be no need for eight days to “investigate” whether the child needed to be taken at all. Instead of taking children this way only in genuine emergencies, the policy in Sedgwick County, Kansas boils down to take-the-child-first-ask-questions-later. So it’s no wonder that 80 percent of the children could go home or to a relative within a week.

And what kind of a case would warrant traumatizing a child this way. Let Ron Paschal, the deputy district attorney, tell you. Here’s what he told the Kansas Health Institute news service:

Let's say police come upon a two-year-old child at night, wandering the streets. They do some investigating and they find out the child had been left with a six-year-old. Now, maybe the children were unsupervised because mom was passed out drunk or maybe she's working two jobs, doing everything she can to make ends meet - she didn't have anybody she could leave the kids with.
If she's working, it may be that she needs (public) assistance or some parenting classes or some other form of support. Maybe the child can stay with an aunt or uncle or a grandparent while all this is being worked out? If they can, that child may not need to be in foster care.

In other words, the deputy district attorney in charge of child abuse cases in Sedgwick County, Kansas is justifying the internment of children for more than a week – and returning them afterwards not necessarily to their own homes, but sometimes to relatives – solely because of their mother’s poverty.

In fact, faced with this kind of case, a well-functioning child welfare agency would not remove a child from the home for even one minute. Rather, the caseworker would wait in the home until the mother got home from work. Then the agency would send a babysitter into the home. Or the agency could provide a one-time payment of “flex funds” to the mother to arrange for a sitter until after-hours day care could be arranged.

It is incomprehensible why, under these circumstance, Paschal would call first for institutionalizing a child for more than a week and then placing the child 24-hours-a-day with grandparents instead of simply asking those grandparents to baby-sit.

Not that holding a hearing in a timely manner would help much. According to the same news story:

When these investigations don't come together in three days, judges are expected to choose between the uncertainty of a sending a child home and the safety of foster care. "It's a no-brainer," [Juvenile Court Judge Jim] Burgess said. "You go with safety."

Leaving aside the fact that the story makes the classic mistake of assuming foster care is safe and all risk lies in returning the child home, the judge’s interpretation raises questions about whether it is consistent with state law. That law requires probable cause to support a belief there are certain specified grounds to keep the child in foster care. It does not say “hold onto the child while we figure out if there’s actually a problem.”

But then, Paschal himself says the 72-hour hearings are a sham – in all those other counties, that is. In that same news story:

Paschal said he doubted that other judicial districts' hearings are truly held within 72 hours of a child entering police custody. "A lot of times what happens is, yeah, they'll have a hearing and the judge will say [to the parents], 'You want a hearing? OK, here, let's schedule a hearing. When can you be here?'" he said.
"That's not really a hearing" Paschal said. "It's certainly not the way it is in Sedgwick County. When we have a hearing, the evidence is presented, there will be witnesses, and you will have the opportunity to cross-examine your accusers.”

How, exactly, this cross-examination can be effective when the parent’s court-appointed lawyer typically just met her minutes before the hearing, Paschal doesn’t say.

But then, it is almost as if Paschal realizes he may have gone a bit too far. If after all, 72-hour hearings are a sham, and if Sedgwick County must now hold its hearings in 72 hours, then…

So Paschal quickly clarifies matters. Referring to the fact that he believes Sedgwick hearings are not a sham, he says:

"That's the way it was when we had 144 hours and that's the way it is now," he said.

So now, Paschal is saying that all those other counties don’t provide a real hearing in 72 hours – but Sedgwick does. In that case, what’s the problem with holding the hearings in 72 hours? He explains:

"The only difference is the social worker doesn't have as much time to come up with an alternative" to foster care.

But, of course, the child already is in foster care.

It’s not just Sedgwick County that’s playing games. The State child welfare agency is using a similar dodge to grossly underreport the number of children taken from parents every year, undermining the integrity of the entire national data-gathering process. That story next week.

But you would think in Kansas they’d remember: For most children most of the time, there’s no place like home.

P.S. An ombudsman takes on the virtual lynch mob

On November 19, I wrote about how newspaper publishers help poison the climate for civil debate by giving hate-mongers a forum, and the ability to hide behind anonymity. Yesterday, the ombudsman for the Miami Herald weighed in on the topic in a very good column.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's not Oz, it's Kansas

One of the great fictions of child welfare is the one in which child welfare agencies deny that they ever take children away at all. “We don’t do that,” they piously proclaim, only a judge can order a child removed from the home.”

Since this Blog generally adheres to the style rules of a family newspaper, we can only call this nonsense.

In every state, child protective services caseworkers have the power to remove a child from any home they want at any time they want, if not at the snap of the fingers, then at least at the push of a “speed dial” button to call the police to do it for them. They don’t have to give notice to the family, they don’t have to go to court for a hearing – they don’t even have to call the judge on the phone.

Precisely because this is such a drastic action, with no real due process, it’s supposed to occur only in an emergency – a situation where a child is in immediate danger. The reason for this should be obvious: If the danger isn’t immediate, there is time to remove the danger instead of the child or at least to hear all sides first. That’s the theory. In fact, an emergency is anything the caseworker thinks it is, and emergency removal power routinely is abused.

Precisely because this is such a drastic action, most states require a court hearing within 24, 48 or 72 hours (usually excluding weekends or holidays). Even the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, which has never been a big booster of family preservation, says it is best practice to allow no more than 72 hours to pass before the hearing.

Sadly, the hearings don’t do much good. On one side is a child welfare agency and/or its legal representative which has had 24 to 72 hours to prepare a case. On the other side is almost always an overwhelmed, impoverished birth parent who, if she has a lawyer at all, met him in the hallway five minutes before the hearing.

Presiding is a judge who knows that he can approve hundreds of needless removals and, while the children may suffer terribly, his career is safe. But return one child home and have something go wrong and that career may well be over.

So it’s no wonder that, at these hearings, judges are far more prone to wield rubber stamps than gavels.

But all that is an argument for making the hearings meaningful, not putting them off for even longer.

All of which brings us to Kansas, and, in particular, Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita. NCCPR released a report on Kansas child welfare last week. Kansas is one of the states that has a rule requiring that first hearing to be held within 72 hours. But Sedgwick County judges, and the county district attorney’s office, which essentially represents the state child welfare agency in these cases, somehow were “interpreting” 72 hours to mean 144 hours – six days. Since you can’t go six days without hitting a weekend, that really means that in Sedgwick County, caseworkers had a free shot at any child I the county with no hearing of any kind for eight days.

And most of these children were not even placed with a family. Instead they were placed – interned is really a better word – at what amounts to the local orphanage, the Wichita Children’s Home. To add an extra dollop of cruelty, while a common criminal gets “one phone call” children interned at WCH do not. The children are cut off from any and all contact with their families for the first 72 hours.

In 2006, the Kansas Legislature clarified state law, to make clear that Sedgwick County has to do what every other county manages to do – hold that first hearing within 72 hours.

The judges and the D.A.’s office threw a fit - they’re trying to get the legislature to give them back the additional days. But it was an enormously revealing fit.

By the time they were done making their case:

--A judge admitted rubber-stamping removals even when the child welfare agency hadn’t really made a case.

--The Deputy D.A. in charge of child abuse investigations effectively endorsed taking away children solely because of poverty.

--The Deputy D.A. admitted that the 72-hour hearings are a sham – except in Sedgwick County.

--And most remarkable of all: The Deputy D.A. estimated that of all the children taken from their parents without a hearing in 2006, 80 percent of them were returned home or placed informally with a relative before that first court hearing.

But, of course, if 80 percent of the children you take away can be returned home or placed informally within a week, odds are most of them never needed to be placed in the first place.

Of course, as far as the child welfare agency in Kansas is concerned – they weren’t. In Kansas, all children placed in foster care but sent home before the first court hearing are what George Orwell called “unpersons.” When it comes to the state’s official statistics, they don’t exist. The children also don’t exist in reports every state is required to submit to the federal government. Kansas either is violating federal regulations concerning reporting entries into foster care, or has come up with a clever, albeit reprehensible, scheme to evade those regulations. NCCPR has asked the federal Administration for Children and Families to determine which it is.

More on all of this next week.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

How "Dr. Sooze" distorts the nooze

Last week, I wrote about the harm done by child welfare “ombudsmen” or state Offices of Child Advocate. Because they are almost always created in the wake of deaths of children “known to the system” their primary mandate almost always is to focus on such cases. That inherently distorts the perspective of the office, leaving the impression that systems err in only one direction, leaving children in dangerous homes. The problem is compounded by the fact that the people named to head these offices often come to the job with exactly that preconceived notion.

Last week’s blog focused on one of the two exceptions: Kevin Ryan, New Jersey’s first Child Advocate. It talked about how his tough-minded reports focused on errors in all directions, and how that helped improve one of the nation’s most troubled child welfare agencies.

The New Jersey system was never very good, and a few years ago, under dreadful leadership dominated by a take-the-child-and-run mentality, it hit rock bottom. The number of children taken from their parents started to soar in 2001, engulfing workers and collapsing the system. That became all too apparent when the death of Faheem Williams was discovered in January, 2003. News coverage of that case set off a foster-care panic, making everything worse.

A class-action lawsuit settlement, and the naming of Ryan to run the child welfare agency, brought the first steps in the right direction – reduced entries into care and concrete evidence of improvements in child safety. The improvements were attested to in a report by the independent court-appointed monitor overseeing the settlement.

But those findings soon were overshadowed by the work of “Dr. Sooze.”

That’s how Dr. Susan Hodgson likes to be known. When Ryan went from watchdog over the child welfare system to top dog within that system, Hodgson was named the new “Child Advocate.”

Dr. Sooze is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse cases. In other words, she’s spent much of her life in settings where one sees the very worst cases, cases which bear no resemblance to a typical CPS worker’s load. It’s a background that easily can distort one’s impression of who gets caught up in the system and why, and that helps explain what happened next.

Dr. Sooze promptly abandoned the innovative approach of her predecessor. It was back to spewing out conventional reports filled with conventional wisdom about deaths of children “known to the system” – and nothing else.

And then she did something worse. She broke the previous record for an agency making vast generalizations based on minuscule, unrepresentative samples. The previous record-holder, New York City’s Department of Investigation, trashed the City child welfare agency based on the eleven worst cases it could find over a period of about six months. (See the August 13 entry on this Blog).

New Jersey OCA goes New York DOI one worse. It draws sweeping conclusions about the work of thousands of dedicated people in New Jersey’s child welfare agency based on the absurd notion that a grand total of three horror story cases, one of which dates back to 2004, can possibly tell us anything about the overall status of casework in 2007. The link to this report on the OCA website describes it as a report on “Global Issues.” The press release calls the issues “systemic.” But the report offers not a shred of evidence that the issues are either.

At least, unlike New York City’s DOI, OCA acknowledges on the first page that “from this review, it is impossible to know how widespread the errors are that were present in these cases…” but the report then goes on to generalize anyway.

And it’s the generalizations that are the problem.

On the one hand, the tone of the report is commendably measured and the specific recommendations largely meet the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy test: They’re mostly harmless. A few even are good.

But the biggest problem in this report is the problem that is inherent in how OCA, and its counterparts around the country, are structured. They are geared to examine fatalities and near fatalities. Inevitably, they leave the false impression that the child welfare agency errs in only one direction: leaving children in dangerous homes.

That impression is heightened when Dr. Sooze goes on to make broad, sweeping generalizations based on the three worst failures she can find. The distorted impression that leaves concerning where things stand in New Jersey child welfare, and what’s wrong with it, promptly overshadowed a far more objective, more nuanced – but still highly-critical – report from the court monitor.

Imagine what would happen were any of us judged the way Dr. Sooze judged the child welfare agency. Even the best doctors make mistakes. But what if a doctor’s entire career were judged solely by the three cases in which his or her diagnoses were farthest from the mark. Imagine if any of us walked into one of those annual “performance review” rituals only to be told that we would be judged only by our three worst screw-ups over the past 12 months.

Or to put it more cosmically, for those who believe in such things, suppose when its time to go to our eternal reward, we are judged solely on the basis of the three worst things we ever did in our entire lives. Were that to happen, I suspect most of us would be doomed to spend eternity trapped on one of the more odorous sections of the New Jersey Turnpike.

The issue here is not that Dr. Sooze’s methodology is unfair to the child welfare agency. Rather, it’s unfair to New Jersey’s children. The wrong methodology leads to the wrong diagnosis, and, as every doctor knows, if you get the diagnosis wrong, the patient is far less likely to recover. The New Jersey child welfare system is still in critical condition. To switch metaphors, the monitor’s report offered a road map for further reform, Dr. Sooze offered only a detour.

The detour is especially dangerous in light of one of the three cases that made up the so-called Global Issues report. In this case, the most critical of many tragic errors took place all the way back in 2004; when the system still was laboring under the foster-care panic set off by the death of Faheem Williams. If anything, this case was still one more illustration of how foster-care panics endanger children. But instead of pointing this out, the Global Issues report only increases the likelihood of another panic.

The only way to know the status of typical casework is either to be in a position like that of the court monitor, able to use a wide variety of means to see how the system typically operates, or to review a random sample of cases, using reviewers who either are objective or who are drawn from organizations with differing perspectives that balance each other. That’s exactly what Kevin Ryan did when he was child advocate, producing the Families Under Supervision report described in last week’s blog.

One look at the website of the current New Jersey Child Advocate suggests we’re not going to see anything better anytime soon.

One can see what has gone wrong at the New Jersey Office of Child Advocate just by looking at the agency’s website. Anyone who has seen the website evolve since “Dr. Sooze” took over will notice one thing immediately. The site, which used to be crisp and professional, is now cutesy and cloying. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is summed up by the following item that appeared in October under the heading “Dr. Sooze says:”

“Eating healthy will keep kids awake and aware throughout the school day. All children should be sure to start the day with a healthy breakfast and eat only snacks that help them grow up strong throughout the day.”

Now I just want to go on the record: I, too, favor children eating a good breakfast and healthy snacks. But so do 99 percent of New Jersey parents. They don’t need a smug reminder of the obvious. When it comes to the parents who are likely to be the subject of child welfare agency attention, what they need is help in getting the food.

I’ll bet almost every child taken into foster care was eligible for school lunch and school breakfast programs – precisely because those parents couldn’t afford to give them that “healthy breakfast.” So wouldn’t it be a lot more helpful if “Dr. Sooze” provided links to food pantry locations and to places where these parents could get help obtaining foodstamps? But no. There was only a link to another website full of things like “Halloween Candy Hints” and similar information.

It’s the difference between a mindset that emphasizes a helping hand and one that emphasizes a wagging finger, and a mindset that has some concept of what it means to be poor, and one that doesn't.