Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In New York, the irony derby begins right now

Earlier this week I wrote about a draconian new confiscation-at-birth policy in New York City. Under the policy, any newborn whose siblings already are in foster care is almost certain to be taken from her or his parents. I wrote that a New York Times story about the policy

ends with a comment from one of the huge private agencies that dominate foster care in New York City and live off a steady supply of foster children:

Bill Baccaglini, executive director of New York Foundling, one of several dozen foster-care agencies that will help administer the new policy, said he was "willing to be the subject of a little criticism from the civil libertarians."

"This comes out of the best of intentions," he said. "Being on this side of the business I know if we make a mistake you could lose a life."

In one sense, he's right. ACS has been making precisely this kind of mistake for nearly two-and-a-half -years now, engaging in policy-by-horror-story, issuing one draconian policy or pronouncement after another. The number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year is up by 44 percent since the last fiscal year before Nixzmary Brown died. And deaths of children "known to the system" are up sharply – something the Times keeps forgetting to put in its stories.

Sadly, there's already been a reminder of just how foolish Baccaglini's comment was.

We don't yet know why six-year-old Taylor Webster was placed in foster care. We do know this: According to prosecutors, last Saturday, Taylor complained about a headache. His foster mother, a long-time home health aide, gave him children's Motrin. When that didn't work, prosecutors say, she gave Taylor a skin patch containing an enormously powerful narcotic, fentanyl. Fentanyl is described as more powerful than morphine; it's often used to ease the pain of terminal cancer patients, and only after other narcotics have been tried without success.

The next day, Taylor was dead. The foster mother has been charged with criminally-negligent homicide.

We also know that, at the time Taylor died, the city's Administration for Children's Services had three previous complaints about the foster mother. Two of them alleged excessive corporal punishment and one still was open when Taylor died. A law enforcement source told the New York Post the home was "squalid. You could barely move around." And we know that, in addition to Taylor, the foster mother had five birth children, at least one of them an adult, and two adopted children.

Of course, no news account, certainly not anything in the Times, has said that the death in foster care "comes at a time when entries into foster care are up 44 percent, and ACS has announced a draconian new policy to confiscate newborns who have siblings in foster care." And no Times story says Taylor's death "raises questions about the push to take away more children over the past two years."

But that's only the beginning of the ironies here. Unfortunately, the sadness over the fate of this little girl is not eased by the irony in so much of the response so far.

First up, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In the years since Nixzmary Brown died, the Mayor has handled things far better than most politicians. Compared to, say, the former mayor of Philadelphia and the current Mayor of Washington, D.C., Bloomberg has been a model of statesmanship. But that's not setting the bar all that high. And I suspect a lot of the worst decisions in recent years, including the new confiscation-at-birth policy, are responses to pressure from the Mayor's office - because I think the professionals at ACS know better. And the mayor certainly isn't immune from unintended irony. So here's his entry in the Irony Derby:

"There was no reason to go to court and try to remove the child. There's not any evidence that she deliberately tried to hurt the child, so it's a little bit different than other situations."

But it was just last week that ACS announced the new confiscation-at-birth policy. Almost every case, Almost every time. That means plenty of situations where there was less evidence than in the Taylor Webster case. And judging by news accounts concerning those previous allegations, there are plenty of children in foster care right now who were taken for less.

No, what really sets this case apart is an unwritten policy at ACS - and every other child welfare agency. It's the same double standard that allowed a little girl named Caprice Reid to be tortured to death in 1997, in a New York City foster home opened by one private agency after another shut it down as substandard. When investigating abuse in foster care, ACS is, in effect, investigating itself. So there is an enormous incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and write no evil in the case record. That's why academic studies repeatedly find vastly more abuse in foster care than turns up in official statistics. And, of course, the problem is compounded when a surge in removals of children forces agencies to be less choosy about where they are placed.

I'm not saying the mayor is necessarily wrong. We don't know yet if there was enough reason to do more, without benefit of hindsight. I'm only suggesting that there is a double standard at play.

But the Mayor is topped by Council Member Bill de Blasio, who chairs the relevant committee. Whenever there's a firestorm over child welfare, de Blasio rushes to pour on some rhetorical gasoline. He's one of the reasons removals of children have shot up, with all the disastrous consequences that followed.

Now de Blasio tells us that Taylor's death "proves that we have more work to do." No, no, Council Member de Blasio. Really. You've done more than enough already.

But de Blasio is topped by that comment noted above from Baccaglini, the one in which he justifies indiscriminate removal of children on grounds that "if we make a mistake you could lose a life."

But even Baccaglini doesn't win the Irony Derby. That honor goes to ACS, specifically the statement the agency issued after Taylor's death, concerning the surviving children in the home. Said ACS:

"We are working with police in this investigation and are ensuring the safety of the children in the home."