Sunday, January 20, 2008

Return of the Queen of Hearts*

Walk for a moment in the shoes of a CPS worker in a major American city. Here is all you know:

You have a report from a school social worker concerned about truancy because a 16-year-old girl has not been in school for several weeks. She says the mother won’t let the 16-year-old return to school because she fears the child will run away, and, mom says, the teenager is hanging out with the wrong crowd. Mom won’t let the social worker in and won’t let the teenager talk to her. The social worker characterizes this as “holding [the 16-year-old] hostage in the home.”

When you get to the home no one answers, so you leave a note asking the mother to call. That happens on Friday, April 27, 2007.

The following Monday, April 30, the school social worker herself returns to the home and speaks again to the mother. She calls police and says she thinks the mother has mental health problems. She thinks the children are “abused and neglected,” something she did not say before. The basis for this claim apparently was the truancy and the fact that the children and home don’t look clean.

When a police officer arrives that same day, he is not allowed in either. But he does speak to the mother and he sees all four children. He finds the children “well and healthy.” Mom claims she’s homeschooling the children. The officer sees the books mom says she is using, and tells her what procedures she needs to follow.

When you get there, once again, no one comes to the door.

What do you do?

Remember, the police officer saw no evidence of abuse or neglect. Yes, Mom wouldn’t let him in without a warrant, but in America, that is her right, and, indeed, many good parents would be wary about exposing their children to the trauma of a child abuse investigation. The school social worker suspects mental illness – but she’s also the one who characterized not sending a child to school because of fears of running away and hanging around with the wrong crowd as the equivalent of holding the daughter hostage – something also apparently contradicted by the police.

If you happen to be psychic, and know that the mother is named Banita Jacks, of you know what will be discovered months later; if you know that Banita Jacks may have been in the midst of a descent into madness after her boyfriend, father to two of her children, died; if you know that the children will be killed and their bodies left to rot in the home, if you know that the mother will be arrested and allegedly claim she thought the children were possessed by demons – if you know all that, then, presumably you drop everything and find a way to get into that home.

But if you are simply a typical caseworker in Washington, D.C.– juggling many other cases - then you move on to all those other cases that, on the surface, look far worse than a homeschooler with “well and healthy” children.

Yes, the case I’ve described is the same one you may well have been reading about; the one in which politicians have been racing to outdo each other in scapegoating frontline workers, the one in which, by telescoping incidents that happened over many months and leaving the impression that workers knew about all of them, it sounded as though caseworkers knew far more than they actually did.

And because the Mayor of Washington D.C., Adrian Fenty, has proven far more interested in making himself look good than in actually trying to improve the child welfare agency, he’s almost certainly set off a foster-care panic.

The mayor rushed to fire six people at the D.C. child welfare agency. Although we don’t even know who they are, commentators across the city have been cheering him on, assuming that he must have made the right decision. In fact, it appears that his deliberation amounted to little more than the equivalent of shouting “Off with their heads!” as he summarily fired anyone who came anywhere near the case.

While it certainly was not his intent, his actions have put the vulnerable children of Washington D.C. in more danger today than they were in yesterday. And his actions virtually guarantee that the D.C. child welfare system will be worse tomorrow than it is today.

Self-indulgence at children’s expense

The horror, the sadness, the revulsion we all feel after a case like this make all of us want to lash out at someone, at anyone. That might ease our pain, but it will only increase the chances that more children will suffer in the future. That’s why the Mayor’s embrace of the Queen of Hearts* School of Personnel Management is so damaging. We all owe the District’s children more than so self-indulgent a response.

Right now, every hotline operator, every worker, every supervisor in the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) is terrified of having the next case like the case of Banita Jacks on her or his caseload. So you can be sure they’re taking away more children for less reason than they were two weeks ago. Not only will that cause enormous harm to all the children needlessly taken, it also will actually increase the chances of another tragedy involving a child abuse death.

Like most of the nation, Washington D.C. is too small to be able to detect trends from child abuse fatalities, for a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is a terrible tragedy, there are few enough of them so the number can rise and fall due to random chance. But foster-care panics have swept through the few places large enough to detect such patterns. And, as is documented elsewhere on this Blog and all over this website, but especially in NCCPR’s Issue Papers, such panics have repeatedly been followed by increases in deaths of children “known to the system.”

And no wonder: With a foster care panic overloading workers, they have less time to make good decisions in any case. So they make more bad decisions in all directions. So more children wind up dead.

And I’m not the only one concerned about a foster-care panic. Washington D.C. is one of several child welfare systems operating under a consent decree as part of a class-action lawsuit, something I’ll discuss more in next week’s Blog. One of the few voices of reason in recent weeks has been the court-appointed monitor for the consent decree, Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. No one knows the D.C. system better. Meltzer’s taken no position on the Fenty firings. But in a part of her testimony at the obligatory City Council hearing (a part that went entirely unreported in the City’s media) Meltzer said:

In states across the nation, we have witnessed the negative fallout of public tragedies like this one, particularly in terms of the demoralization of the vast majority of workers who come to this work because they want to help people and who every day go above and beyond expectations. The work itself is difficult and emotionally charged, and we know all too well the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff in this field. We must be very careful that proper decisions to hold people accountable for performance do not have the unintended consequence of eroding the public’s confidence in the good work of many.

In addition, CFSA can expect an increase in calls to their hotline as the community is awakened to its responsibilities to notify others when they see families in trouble. In many systems, the fear that something is being missed typically results in increased and sometimes inappropriate decisions to remove children from their families. CFSA and the Family Court must expect these results and plan to respond appropriately – by having additional staff trained and available to appropriately handle all hotline calls and investigations and by being vigilant about their practice and decision making so that children who can be maintained at home safely are not unnecessarily removed.

So now, lets go back to that crucial moment when the CFSA caseworker knocked on the door of Banita Jacks and no one answered.

What else should the CFSA worker have done?

● Break down the door? That’s illegal in America.

● Get the police to break down the door? Still illegal.

● Get a search warrant and then break down the door? On what grounds? There’s no evidence of abuse or neglect – a school social worker’s peek-through-the-door assessment of cleanliness is not evidence. It’s not even clear the children are truant, since the children had been in charter schools and apparently, in Washington, D.C., there are few rules about removing children from charter schools and homeschooling them.

What the worker did do was return the next day, with a police officer. And then return the day after that on her own. Both times, again, no one answered the door. Then she turned the case over to CFSA’s Diligent Search Unit. More on that later.

What were the other cases like?

I keep asking the question about what the worker should have done, but I get very few answers, and, frankly, the answers I’ve gotten aren’t very good.

One answer I’ve heard is that the worker should have spent hours canvassing all the neighbors, and then trying to track down all of Ms. Jacks’ relatives.

Just one problem: We don’t know how many other cases this worker had and what those other cases involved.

What if the next item on her “to do” list was a mother who claimed her ex-husband was raping their daughter. What if the one after that was another school social worker calling about a child who came in that day covered with bruises? We don’t know if this is the case, of course – but neither does the Mayor. He told WWWT Radio he made his decision based solely on “the file” – apparently the written record for the Jacks case alone – and a recording of the school social worker’s call to the District’s child abuse hotline. Not only did he fail to speak to any of those he fired, he did not even examine the rest of their caseloads, much less their history with CFSA, something I’ll get back to below.

So while we don’t know what else this worker had to do, it’s hard to imagine a case which, on the surface, without benefit of hindsight, would seem less serious than a mother whose children looked “healthy and well” to a police officer but who, apparently, failed to file the right paperwork before homeschooling them.

It’s also been suggested that, based solely on the social worker’s call, the worker should have gotten a warrant or figured out some clever ruse to talk her way in, or even broken down the door.

The irony here is, that probably would have worked with someone who was sane. “Open the door or I’ll take away your kids!” generally works, even though it shouldn’t. And, in point of fact, judges are so prone to rubber-stamp child welfare agencies that it’s quite possible that had she asked for a warrant, a judge would have taken the usual Fourth-Amendment-be-damned attitude and issued one.

But only with hindsight could that be considered the right course of action. Those calling for such actions should think long and hard before suggesting we should live in such a society.

Even when it does not lead to removal from a home, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act. It can be enormously traumatic to a child; indeed, it can scar a child for life. That danger is increased if, as often happens, the investigation is accompanied by a stripsearch as a worker looks for bruises.

Before you force your way in and do that to a child, you need more than a social worker's guess about mental illness and the fact that a child has been truant. Yes, this time the guess was right. Many more times it will be wrong.

Worshipping at the altar of social work

Indeed, among the most alarming ideas to spring from this case is the notion that we should bow and scrape before the guesswork of anyone who happens to be – and this seems to be spoken with reverence and awe - a licensed social worker.

For starters, in this case it was a school social worker, who may or may not have had expertise in child abuse investigations. (And by the way, the investigator who didn’t break down the door was, herself, an MS-W; D.C. is one of the few systems to require this of all child abuse investigators.)

If anything, a licensed social worker should know better than to offer a diagnosis based on a quick conversation through what was probably a barely-opened doorway.

Second, psychology is as much art than science. I wouldn't trust a licensed psychiatrist to diagnose mental illness from a brief conversation in someone's doorway, let alone a licensed social worker. Indeed, you can be sure that somewhere there can be found a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker who would diagnose any of us as mentally ill – and another one who would contradict it. And that’s not hyperbole. A review of scores of studies on the psychiatric decision-making process concluded that we would do about as well if we tossed a coin. “There is good reason to believe that psychiatric judgments are not particularly reliable or valid, and that psychiatric diagnoses and predictions convey more erroneous than accurate information,” the researchers wrote.

Third, there is the little matter, overlooked in almost every news account, of the police officer contradicting the social worker.

Ah, but of course, say those who insist the firings were justified, we should always listen to the social worker – she’s the expert! What do cops know?

Funny thing: As was noted in this Blog on August 13, 2007, after the horrifying death of Nixzmary Brown in New York City, when caseworkers missed much more obvious warning signs, everybody said the solution is more cops, because they're more likely to know there's trouble in a home – so the New York City child welfare agency rushed out to hire retired cops.

The hindsight brigade

The hindsight brigade also is pointing out that the incident I’ve described so far was not the only warning in this case. Recall how the case was turned over to the Diligent Search Unit. Apparently they were not very diligent. After hearing that the family had moved to a county in Maryland they contacted the county. More than a month later, when that county reported being unable to find the Jacks family, CFSA did nothing.

Negligence this time? Maybe. Or maybe the Diligent Search Unit had so many cases that looked a lot more pressing than what looked at the time like no more than a truancy case involving a mother who did not fill out the right homeschooling forms that it gave those other cases priority. Once again, I don’t know. And, once again, neither does Mayor Fenty.

But there also was still another warning, before the two I’ve mentioned. This one goes all the way back to August 2006. Suffering from cancer, Jacks’ boyfriend left a hospital against doctors’ advice. A nurse suspected that he and/or Jacks might be abusing drugs. And the entire family was living in a van. When the nurse gave this information to a hotline operator he refused to accept the call – because the family had no fixed address.

This is the one absolutely unambiguous failure on the part of the child welfare agency. But if we’re going to use hindsight, that cuts both ways. A few months later the family apparently was o.k. They were living in their own rented home. The children were in school and had been seen by the D.C. Health Department.

In fact, if what is widely suspected, as reported by The Washington Post, is correct, even had CFSA accepted the call it is unlikely it would have changed anything. That’s because it appears that things did not start to go terribly wrong until the following February when the father died. That is when, if news accounts are correct, Banita Jacks began a descent into madness.

But Mayor Fenty’s response to all this was to take no care, and draw no distinctions. Like the Queen of Hearts, he effectively yelled “Off with their heads!” and swung his ax wildly, hitting, as a union representative put it “everyone who touched this case.”

As of now, we don’t know who these people are. We don’t know how close any of them really were to the case. We don’t know what else was on their plates. And, perhaps most important, we don’t know their overall records. We don’t know if the six fired workers were lazy clockwatchers with long records of mediocrity or worse, or whether they were outstanding employees whose personnel files are filled with commendations for saving children’s lives. Perhaps it’s neither. Perhaps it’s some of each. We don’t know. And the Mayor almost certainly doesn’t know either.

As a result, the firings do nothing to enhance accountability. On the contrary, they enhance a CYA mentality. They tell workers that nothing they do, good or bad matters; all that matters is whether their name winds up in some way somehow connected to a high-profile fatality. Such arbitrary, capricious personnel management is the opposite of true accountability. And in the case of Mayor Fenty, it’s all laced with hypocrisy.

That story next week. Also next week, I’ll give the long answer to a question I’ve gotten a couple of times in the past couple of weeks: “Are you saying nothing can be done in cases like this?” Here’s the short answer: No, that’s not what I’m saying.

Meanwhile, as the cliché goes, it seems that in the Washington D.C. child welfare agency, the floggings will continue until morale improves.

In contrast, consider the approach taken by a gutsy child welfare administrator in Florida, first noted on this Blog last August and reprinted below. Then ask yourself: Where children are dependent on the child welfare agency to be safe, in which community are they likely to be safer?

*-I am indebted to the copy desk at The Washington Post for pointing out, when I submitted an op ed column on this incident, that my original choice of phrase “Red Queen school of management,” also used below, is incorrect. They are two different Lewis Carroll characters, and it’s the Queen of Hearts who yelled “Off with their heads!”

REPRINTED FROM: August 6, 2007

This is a story about class and courage at a child protective services agency – in Florida, no less.

It doesn’t begin well, of course. It begins the way many stories begin with the death of a child “known to the system” in Palm Beach County, Florida, last year. The case was ambiguous; not one of those where the file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. It’s clear the caseworker should have asked more questions. But there is nothing to indicate the worker’s supervisor, Michele Fuhrman, did anything wrong.

And Fuhrman, a 20-year veteran, was not your average supervisor. According to The Palm Beach Post:

DCF bosses regularly judged Fuhrman's work as outstanding. As an investigator, she routinely came to work at 6:30 a.m. to field calls and joined the rapid response team, which meant that she could be called in at any hour to investigate critical incidents of child abuse.
"Michele's honesty, caring attitude and excellent child safety assessment skills stand out the most," a supervisor wrote in 2002.
Over one 17-month period from 1999 to 2000, Fuhrman investigated 336 cases, many of them time-consuming and complex, according to her file. She volunteered to take the most difficult cases and often pitched in to help others with their own cases.

But child welfare agencies are firm believers in the Red Queen School of Management. And the aftermath of the death of a child “known to the system” is never complete without the Ritual Sacrifice of the Caseworker. So the Florida Department of Children and Families first demoted Fuhrman and then forced out of her job.

And there the story would have ended, if not for Alan Abramowitz. Abramowitz has become something of a trouble-shooter for DCF – and that makes him a very busy man in Florida’s now heavily-decentralized, heavily privatized child welfare system. He and the head of the privatized lead agency in Volusia and Flagler Counties, Ron Zychowski, played a key role in turning around that district. Then he led major changes in the Orlando area. About a month ago, he was sent to Palm Beach County as acting District Administrator there.

Some years ago, Abramowitz had been Deputy District Administrator in Palm Beach County. He knew Fuhrman and he knew her good work. So among his first acts as acting District Administrator: Offered Fuhrman her job back.

Fuhrman, in fact, had landed another, very good job. She was doing just fine. But she cared too much about the children to turn the offer down. So I don’t know which is more impressive: Abramowitz making the offer or Fuhrman, who had every reason to tell DCF exactly what it could do with its job, accepting.

Now, an injustice to one individual has been at least partially rectified. The children of Palm Beach County once again will benefit from Fuhrman’s experience, dedication and good judgment. And, for once, a child welfare agency is sending the right message to the frontlines: We’ll hold you accountable when it’s really your fault, but we’re not going to make you scapegoats.

A little class and a little courage can trump the Red Queen.