Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hey, big spender

(Most links in this Blog entry will take you summaries of news stories in the archive of The Hartford Courant. The Courant charges a fee for the full text).

You hear it all the time. The problems in our child welfare system would be fixed if we just spent more money. But those heartless politicians don't care about children because children don't vote, blah, blah, blah.

There is some truth to it, particularly in states like Texas and Arizona, which are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to child welfare spending. But similar claims are made all over the country, even in states that spend vastly more than the national average. Take Connecticut – please.

Connecticut has been failing to comply with a consent decree to fix its child welfare system for nearly 20 years. (Even if it did comply, it's one of those typically mediocre decrees entered into by the group that arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights so it wouldn't do all that much good.) Every few years there's a new scandal over mistreatment of children in one institution or another, or a judge finds that caseworkers lied to hold a child in foster care and on and on. The state routinely takes away children at a rate well above the rate in model systems.

And yet, Connecticut spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the nation.

Why the apparent contradiction? Because of where the state keeps putting the money. The great paradox of child welfare is that the worse an option is for children, the more it costs. Safe, proven alternatives to foster care cost less than foster homes which cost less than group homes which cost less than institutions. But Connecticut's Department of Children and Families seems to have a fetish about institutionalizing children. They love it! Their response to the first of two foster care panics caused by the state's disgraced former Governor, John Rowland, was to build a series of institutions, parking place shelters for children. And when The Hartford Courant reported that a major study, commissioned by DCF itself, found that the shelters were an expensive failure the agency responded swiftly: It yanked the study off its website.

Later, when pressure built to the point where the state promised to close some of its large institutions, DCF decided to replace them not with keeping children in their own homes or placing them in therapeutic foster homes, but rather with smaller institutions.

It's been the same with juvenile justice. In fact, a corruption scandal over construction of a hideous new juvenile jail forced Rowland out of the governor's office and into a jail cell of his own. (He's now served his time, making the ex-Conn. Governor an ex-con.)

The fanaticism for institutionalization, and for taking children, is so extreme that Connecticut is one of the states that diverts surplus funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) into child abuse investigations and foster care.

TANF is the replacement for Aid to Families with Dependent Children under welfare "reform." TANF funds are supposed to be used to help impoverished families become self-sufficient, by providing things like job training and child care.

But in 2006, the Courant reported, Connecticut diverted more than $100 million in TANF funds from low income child care into child abuse investigations and foster care. In other words, money that could have gone to help poor families find day care was diverted instead into investigating families on "lack of supervision" charges – when they couldn't afford day care.

The most recent scandal involves a state-run psychiatric hospital for children called Riverview. The issue is the use of physical "restraints" – a polite term for anything from grabbing an unruly child to tying him down to a bed with leather or Velcro straps to administering "fast acting medication."

According to the Courant, a report from the state's Child Advocate found that even as other institutions around the country are trying to reduce the use of restraints, at Riverview, their use has doubled in the past 18 months.

And how much does it cost to warehouse children, dope 'em up, and tie 'em down in the name of helping them? A mere $860,000 per child per year. But why stop there? Hold a child at Riverview for 14 months, and the cost will top $1 million. That's got to be some sort of record.

If all this were actually helping the children it would be worth every penny. But there's no evidence that Riverview is doing the children any good. The children would get far more help, at less cost, by using Wraparound programs to bring all the help the children need right into their own homes or foster homes. Heck, for $860,000-per-year-per-child, a psychiatrist and support team could move right in and live with the family.

I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But states like Connecticut give a bad name to those few places that use funds wisely and well. The bottom line is that if you spend very little on child welfare you are guaranteed to have a lousy system. But spending more doesn't guarantee a good one. States like Arizona and Texas need to spend more and spend smarter. Connecticut just needs to spend smarter.

That won't be easy. Not only has the state been plagued with years of leadership in its child welfare agency that's been mediocre or worse, it also has the usual chorus of grandstanding legislators – including one, State Sen. Edward Meyer, who promptly promised to call a hearing in response to the report on Riverview.

But Meyer has a track record of showing no interest in anything beyond grandstanding. He views "permanence" for children solely in terms of adoption. And he has displayed a remarkable double standard on the matter of institutions.

A year ago, DCF finally moved to close another abusive institution, Lake Grove. But there was no praise from Meyer – and no hearings on the abuses at Lake Grove. On the contrary, Meyer dismissed the problems there as "a few mistakes in pharmacological procedures and limited cases of abuse." It's probably just coincidence that Lake Grove was in Meyer's own district.

FOOTNOTE: We'll probably be learning a lot less about the problems at DCF in the future than we have in recent years. Some of the finest child welfare reporting in the country was done by Colin Poitras at the Courant. But a few months ago, like so many other journalists around the country, he resigned.