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.