Sunday, April 27, 2008

Updated April 28: The road to agency-made sociopathy

Finally, there’s a story from a national newspaper, The New York Times, that said as much about the dangers of where the children from the YFZ Ranch are going as about the dangers of where they’re coming from.

That’s a start. But the story also revealed something more disturbing: the extent to which the adults who are pushing these children around and shunting them from place to place – or acquiescing in it - are practically drowning themselves in self-delusion to avoid facing up to the harm they’re doing to hundreds of children.

About a third of the way in, the Times gives some sense of what the children are really in for:

[T]he Texas child welfare system, those experts and insiders say - underfinanced and understaffed in the best of times, dysfunctional in the worst - can do only so much to make the road easier.

A damning 2004 state report found that the system was overwhelmed with caseloads and staff turnover, that children with violent criminal records were being mixed in the general foster-care population, and that medically fragile children were often under served.

A study in 2006 by the Texas Department of Health Services said that more than half of all foster children ages 13 to 17 were being given psychotropic drugs to control behavior. And a dire shortage of foster home beds means that at least 500 foster children were forced to sleep one night or more in a state office building in 2007, according to a report last fall by a nonprofit legal group, Texas Appleseed, which advocates what it calls social and economic justice.

Some child welfare experts say the risks are great that Texas could fail the children of the sect, compounding and exacerbating whatever damage, if any, that they suffered in their lives before the raid. …

"We could have a situation where the cure is worse than the original problem," said Richard LaVallo, a lawyer in Austin who has represented children for 25 years. "I think that really categorizes what could happen if we don't do this right."

That may have been borne out, almost literally, by a story in the Salt Lake Tribune today. According to earlier news accounts, doctors and nurses who examined the children right after they were removed said the children were healthier than most. But since then, the Tribune reports today, nine of the children reportedly were hospitalized and some still may be in hospitals. According to the Deseret News, a foster care facility reported that one child is in intensive care. The Texas child welfare agency denies this.

While it’s good to see the Times call attention to just how awful Texas foster care really is, the self-delusion is apparent in that last paragraph.

On the one hand, it’s good to see a lawyer who “represents children” in these kinds of cases express any concern at all. For starters, it’s important to understand the role of such lawyers, typically called “law guardians” or guardians ad litem. Typically, they do not, in fact, represent children, not in terms of fighting for what the child wants. Rather they urge the judge to do whatever they think is best for the child. That almost always turns out to be whatever the child welfare agency says. Law guardians lack the time, the resources, and often the inclination to actually find things out for themselves. In at least one state, they actually had to be ordered to even see the children they supposedly represent. So they simply rubber-stamp the agency.

It says a lot about just how much harm is being done to children in this case that even the law guardians at least are starting to wring their hands.

But then the self-delusion kicks in, as seen in this sentence: “I think that really categorizes what could happen if we don’t do this right.”

The delusion is that is a way to “do this right.” There isn’t.

This story, and many others focus on the special problems that will make foster care even worse for the children of the YFZ ranch – the cultural issues and the exceptionally dismal state of Texas foster care.

But the hard fact of foster care life, the one everyone in Texas is so anxious to avoid, is that even if foster care were perfect and these were typical cases, foster care with strangers always means throwing children “in the middle of the pond in an alien world.” One of the central barbarities of child welfare is the fact that adults in the system regularly pay lip service to this very fact, and then proceed to do it to children 300,000 times every year anyway.

The inherent harm of foster care can be seen in the results from a study I’ve cited before, the one which found that foster children had twice the level of post-traumatic stress disorder of gulf war veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be doing well. This study actually posed the question: How much better would these rotten outcomes be if we made foster care virtually perfect, if we stopped compounding the inherent trauma of removal? The answer: 22.2 percentage points. In other words, if foster care were made as good as it could possibly be, it would churn out walking wounded only three times out of five instead of four.

So we need to start with an understanding of how dismal the prospects would be for children even in a hypothetical perfect foster care system before we can fully understand how bad things are likely to be for these children. All the harms mentioned in the Times story – the incredible culture shock, the dismal state of Texas foster care – come on top of this wretched baseline.

And there are other harms the story didn’t have room to explain fully.

● One of the major harms of foster care, one cited by virtually everyone in the field (even as they perpetuate it) is multiple placement; putting a child in one place only to pry him up and transplant him someplace else, again and again and again. Nearly 20 years ago, when I wrote a book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents, one of the leading researchers of the day told me that once an agency moves a child three times, odds are “you have an agency-made sociopath. This child will never trust an adult again.”

The Texas children already have been moved at least twice with at least one more move planned – and that’s before all the “normal” problems that lead to moving children from home to home kick in.

● The problems also are compounded when children are institutionalized. The Times deals with part of this:

Mr. LaVallo, among other experts, is critical of the state's decision to use large group shelters across Texas for the children, who range in age from infancy to 17. Traditional foster homes with real parental figures instead of shift workers and regimented institutional rules would be a better choice, those critics say.

State officials and some other child welfare experts say Texas was right to throw out the old best-practice playbook in this instance. Group shelters, they say, will allow the children to support and reinforce one another through the inevitable trauma of separation and transition. A traditional middle-class foster home, they say, would be even more of a shock to an F.L.D.S. child, especially because many such homes in Texas are run by religiously minded Baptists and Presbyterians.

Even if one buys the rationalizations for institutionalizing some children, (note, though that, as so often happens, what is most convenient for the agency also, supposedly, is “best” for the children) even Texas CPS officials claimed to understand that institutionalization would be terrible for the youngest children, and those children, at least, would get a home. But the Times reports that 22 children were sent to one of the worst types of placement of all, one of those parking place shelters, where shift workers tend to the children until they are shipped someplace else. And none of those children is older than six. (For more on shelters, see the Blarchive for August, 2006 and scroll to When Real Children Become Human Teddy Bears, Aug. 14, 2006).

Nor does it say much for Texas child welfare that one reason the children need to be institutionalized apparently is that CPS has no confidence in its own foster parents not to start indoctrinating the children. Makes you wonder what happens to all the other Texas foster children who don’t happen to have birth parents who are “religiously minded Baptists and Presbyterians.”

The issue of all those other Texas foster children illustrates a problem with one of the other key pillars in the temple of self-delusion constructed by Texas CPS and its supporters. Call it the “eyes of Texas” theory.

This was expressed in an op ed column by someone at one of the organizations most fanatical about a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. The sheer pomposity of his opening sentence should make anyone who cares about children shudder.

The author writes: “I spend my days fighting to save the lives of victims of child abuse, so I have a unique perspective on the turmoil of the past few weeks…”

Then comes his own bit of self-delusion:

I am very hopeful that the children of Eldorado will be well served this time because it is my experience that "what's watched, works." In other words, the cracks, or gaping chasms if you prefer, in our child protective systems will be closed because the whole world is watching.

There are a few problems with this. The first is all that inherent harm of foster care noted above. The second is the multiple placement. The third is that, under the noses of the whole world, CPS already has broken its promise not to institutionalize the youngest children in shelters.

But the biggest problem is this: Even if this guy is right and these children will suffer a little less because the eyes of Texas CPS are upon them, CPS in Texas doesn’t have many eyes. Any extra eyes on these children will be taken off other children who are not in the media spotlight. So the chances that those children will be abused in foster care and otherwise traumatized will only increase.

Nevertheless, you may be sure Texas CPS will continue to issue boilerplate statements about how the children are “adjusting well.” There might even be news stories in which volunteers at the shelters talk about how the little children rush up to hug them and won’t let go. That will be seen as “success” because neither the volunteers, nor the reporters, know that when a very young child rushes up to hug a total stranger and won’t let go, it’s actually a sign of very serious trauma caused by being taken from parents and then moved from placement to placement.

When all other forms of self-delusion fail, people will start talking about children’s “resilience” – as in, no matter what we do to them, somehow they’ll survive it. But even were that true, if a parent were to break a child’s arm and then say “It’s o.k. because we can put it in a cast and it will heal” that parent still would be a child abuser, and a particularly sadistic one at that.

How much more sadistic is it needlessly to harm more than 400 children, who could have remained safe by being kept off the ranch, but with their mothers, and then justify it to ourselves based on some theory of “resilience”?