Sunday, March 16, 2008

A guarantee for Major Shingledecker

Readers of this blog may remember Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County, Fl. Sheriff’s Department. She chairs Florida’s Child Abuse Death Review Team – the bunch that wants to be sure and bring an extra dose of misery into the lives of almost every family that loses a child to an accident – and put the surviving siblings at grave risk of further trauma through foster care - by accusing those parents of neglect. (See “Drowning in Misinformation,” Jan. 6, for details)

So it’s no surprise that where Shingledecker runs the show, children are a lot more likely to be needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar than in places with more enlightened leadership.

Last week, we noted the progress being made in most of Florida in reducing such needless removal. Even Shingledecker’s county has made some progress. But if her county were its own separate region it would have the second worst rate of child removal in the state. The rate or removal in Manatee County is more than 50 percent above the national average.

Manatee is one of several Florida counties where the sheriff’s office, not the Department of Children and Families, makes the initial decision on removing a child. But that’s not the problem. The sheriff also is in charge of child abuse investigations in nearby Hillsborough County. But Hillsborough takes away children at a dramatically lower rate than Manatee – while doing better on key measures of child safety. Details are in NCCPR’s latest Florida Rate-of-Removal Index. No, the problem, good intentions notwithstanding, is the approach taken by Maj. Shingledecker.

That was clear when she tried to justify her actions in a story in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

For starters, the story raises questions about whom, exactly, Shingledecker is most interested in protecting:

Shingledecker says the agency and investigators there are liable if they leave a child in a home and something bad ultimately happens. "We come under the gun for, 'Why didn't we remove the child,'…”

More to the point, though Maj. Shingledecker undoubtedly means well, when it comes to the inherent harm of foster care, and the risk of abuse in foster care, it looks like Shingledecker doesn’t have a clue. According to the story, Shingledecker is willing to offer a deal, of sorts:

She says she is willing to leave more children in their homes -- as long as the social service interventions can "guarantee" the safety of the child to investigators.

Oh, is that all. Then how about holding yourself to a similar standard: You can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child you remove ever will turn out worse for the experience than had the child been left in his own home. You can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child ever will be abused in foster care on your watch. And you can keep your job, Major, if you can guarantee that no child ever will be harmed because the officer who should have spotted the problem was too busy dealing with a case where the child never needed to be taken in the first place.

Do we have a deal?

I didn’t think so. Because no sheriff or child welfare agency can guarantee that; any more than it can guarantee that every child it leaves in her or his own homes will never be abused – or have an accident.

But if you persist in remaining one of Florida’s last holdouts for a take the child and run approach, even as most of the rest of the state passes you by, there are some things I can guarantee:

--I guarantee that hundreds of children will be traumatized for life after being needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar and bouncing from foster home to foster home. One major study found that only one in five former foster children does well in later life. Another found foster children typically fared far worse even than comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.

--I guarantee that many children who could have remained safely in their own homes instead will be abused in foster care. Several studies reveal abuse in one in three foster homes and the record of institutions is worse.

--I guarantee that more children in real danger will be missed because your officers are so busy dealing with children needlessly taken away. That’s why, for all your talk about safety, areas taking proportionately fewer children, such as Hillsborough, do a better job keeping them safe.

There is a term for mindlessly throwing one child after another into a foster care system we know churns out walking wounded four times out of five: It’s called child abuse. Guaranteed.