Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nauseous or nauseating?

The single most important comment about the current crisis in Washington, D.C. child welfare came at a public hearing yesterday. Actually, it might be the most important comment about any child welfare system. It came from Judith Meltzer, the monitor appointed by a federal court to oversee a consent decree concerning child welfare in the District. Here's what she said:

"The District of Columbia will never have enough child protective services investigators if the only response to an overwhelmed family is a call to the Hotline and the removal or threatened removal of a child from his or her family."

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty should read that quote first thing every morning. So should every governor in states where child welfare is state run. So should every county executive where counties are in charge. And so should every leader of a child welfare system.

Meltzer also presented data at the hearing which make clear that the impact of the foster-care panic caused by the mayor in the wake of the discovery of the deaths of four children in January is even worse than I'd thought. What should scare the heck out of everyone is Table 1 in her written testimony, which looks at a few of what might best be called "canary in the mineshaft" indicators - things that are absolutely basic, easy to quantify, and vital to keeping children safe. Performance on these indicators hasn't just declined, it's plummeted.

So it should come as no surprise that still another child has died in a case "known to the system" in Washington.

But all we've seen in response is more posturing; particularly from the chair of the relevant committee of the D.C. Council, Tommy Wells, who said: "I feel like throwing up."

I know the feeling. But here's what makes me feel like throwing up: Self-indulgent, chest-thumping, grandstanding politicians who at best were AWOL as the D.C. Child and Family Services Administration descended into chaos and at worst threw gasoline on the fires of foster care panic.

Wells also called the latest tragedy (actually second-to-latest, this was before he knew about the case revealed late yesterday) "unfortunately a predictable result" of the current crisis.

No kidding. But if it's so predictable, why didn't Wells do anything to stop it?

Where was he before the bodies of the children of Banita Jacks were discovered in January, when he received report after report from the court monitor about the huge problems at CFSA – including those that required immediate action?

And where was he afterwards, when the entirely-predictable foster care panic began?

-- Why didn't he call on the mayor to reassure mandated reporters that, while they should call the hotline when they have reasonable cause to suspect maltreatment, they should not call in anything and everything just to protect themselves from censure, dismissal or prosecution?

-- Why didn't he call on the mayor to have CFSA create a rational system for screening calls to the hotline – one in which operators politely ask careful, open-ended questions. According to an annual federal survey, nationwide, more than 38 percent of all calls are screened out – even though typically the criteria for screening out a call are, in fact, far too strict. In D.C. ten only ten percent of calls are screened out, and, by some accounts the figure is even lower. (The federal data are available here: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm06/table2_1.htm )

Yes, if you do this, you may miss some cases in which children are in real danger. But you miss more cases now, by inundating workers with so many cases that some files just sit on workers' desks. There will always be screening in child welfare. The choice isn't screening vs. no screening, the choice is rational screening vs. irrational screening.

--Why didn't Wells tell the mayor to wield his ax, as needed, after investigating carefully and drawing distinctions, instead of simply firing anyone who came anywhere near the Jacks case. That led to the surge in needless removal of children from homes that were safe or could have been made safe, even as it also led to leaving more children in danger. That, more than anything else, led to the current crisis; and Tommy Wells did nothing to stop it.

--And Wells is still copping out – saying he's lost confidence in CFSA Director Sharlynn Bobo as though somehow she is relevant. Bobo is a figurehead. Mayor Fenty makes the firing decisions, Mayor Fenty accelerated the panic. But clearly, for Wells, Fenty is untouchable.

Of course some might argue Fenty was right this time, because in the case of Isiah Garcia, the worker handling that case had been suspended two years earlier. That's possible. I've said from day one that I don't know if the workers in this case and the Jacks case deserved to be fired – but neither does the mayor.

On the other hand, according to a good story in The Washington Post, backlog was an issue when the worker was suspended in 2006 as well. It's also possible that the worker could have done good work in some other part of CFSA had she been transferred. Or she might have been able to do her job better had she gotten good supervision – instead of no supervision. And, of course, it is not a great idea to take a worker you already know can't keep up with a backlog and hand her 50 cases.

Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor, said the mayor "cannot wish this problem away." He can't threaten it away either. The only way this problem will be solved is if CFSA somehow can be made a Fenty-free zone.

But until that happens, even the monitor's own short-term recommendations won't work. (Her long-term ideas are excellent).

The short term ideas revolve around bringing in more people to investigate all the cases that have piled up. Transfer people from other parts of CFSA, bring in retired caseworkers, have supervisors and administrators investigate cases, raise pay for people willing to work for CFSA, and so on.

But as long as every worker is terrified of being "Fentied" - made a scapegoat and being fired if something goes wrong regardless of actual fault - then there will be no other response. All the new workers will be chasing ever more new cases and all you'll wind up with is the same lousy system, only bigger. (This is, in fact, pretty much what has happened in Texas, for example, over the past four years).

--Imagine how much more morale is going to plummet if you start forcing people in other jobs to do these investigations - and then fire them whenever something goes wrong, regardless of actual fault. You could ask for volunteers, of course, but you're not likely to get many when they know they're putting their careers on the line.

--As for offering more pay: How much more money would you need to be paid to play Russian Roulette with your job?

The new hiring and transferring and temporary assignments will work only if they are accompanied by two things:

--That rational method to screen calls to the hotline mentioned above.

--Some mechanism to insulate the department from the mayor's serial grandstanding.

That would require one of three things to happen, each admittedly highly unlikely:

--Sharlynn Bobo would have to stand up to her boss, the mayor at which point she would, of course be fired. Her replacement then would have to stand up to the mayor as well, until firing successive CFSA chiefs became politically untenable. (Think of Watergate and Nixon's "Saturday night massacre.")

--The court could order the mayor out of the hiring and firing process. That would require plaintiffs in the current court case governing Washington child welfare to go to court and ask the court to insulate hiring and firing from the mayor. Given that the suit was brought by Children's Rights – a group which seems to have no problem with foster-care panics - that's unlikely to happen.

--The mayor needs to figure out that he was wrong, apologize and promise to stay out of hiring and firing decisions at CFSA. That's probably least likely of all.

Actually there is a fourth possibility - and maybe the only hope. The public has to change its mind about the mayor's Queen of Hearts approach to management. The mayor has essentially acknowledged that he is playing to the crowd. If the mayor's constituents decide that, having seen what happened the first time, having seen it backfire, they're not going to be fooled again, if they make clear they know the difference between accountability and scapegoating, then the mayor is likely to back off.

I'd like the mayor to do the right thing because it's right; but I'd gladly settle for having him do the right thing because it's become popular.