Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paying the price for Michigan’s adoption obsession

    Perhaps it wasn't the best timing.

    I'm beginning work on what will be at least one report on child welfare in Michigan for release early next year, and it so happened that the very day reporters fanned out across that state to do their feature stories on Michigan Adoption Day was the day I sat down to reread scores of newspaper stories about the horrible death of Ricky Holland. What was shocking, even on second reading, was the extent to which the fanaticism for adoption-at-all-costs which has permeated child welfare practice in Michigan for so many years created an almost willful blindness to the danger awaiting Ricky.

    There is no question that Ricky's birth mother, Casey Jo Caswell, had problems – two in particular: chronic poverty and a tendency to hook up with the wrong kind of man; with the second problem probably closely related to the first. But there is no allegation that Ricky's birth mother ever abused him. None. In fact, it was Caswell herself who loved Ricky so much that she didn't want the boy to have to live in an environment of poverty and instability. So she sought out the only alternative she could think of: She asked the Michigan child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services, to take him, just until she could get on her feet and get housing and a job.

    In a civilized society, the child welfare agency would have said: "No. We don't tear apart families just because they're poor. We take away the poverty, not the child. We'll help you with housing and help you find a job. We'll help you become independent enough to avoid depending on lousy men." Perhaps that wouldn't have worked. But it's what a civilized society would try first – and if it had been tried, Ricky Holland might be alive today.

    But, of course, it doesn't work that way; certainly not in Michigan. And once you "surrender" your child to a government child welfare agency, the agency decides when you are fit to get the child back. (Yeah, yeah, I know the party line from the agencies: A judge makes that decision. But judges almost never turn down child welfare agencies.) In the case of Ricky Holland, who was only three when he was surrendered and was white, making him easy to adopt, the decision was that his mother would never get him back.

    After all, the Michigan Department of Human Services thought it had found the perfect home for Ricky – Tim and Lisa Holland – white, middle class, with a big house in the suburbs. Not only did DHS overlook one warning sign after another, the caseworker assigned to the Hollands even set up a personal baby pipeline for them – moving to confiscate every other child of Casey's at birth, and promptly deliver those children to the Hollands. In each case, of course, the placement had the potential to help Michigan collect a bounty of $4,000 to $8,000 under the federal so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. (The maximum bounty is now $12,000 to $13,000). And in each case, the adoption helped give Michigan DHS numbers to brag about in those Adoption Day feature stories.

    In fact, the pipeline didn't stop until the Hollands wanted it to stop. We know that thanks to one reporter who truly saw Casey Jo Caswell as a three-dimensional human being, and thought her story was worth telling early on: Karen Bouffard of the Detroit News. In her story, "The boy who had no chance," available from the News' paid archive, Bouffard writes:

Caswell said ... the state social worker, never counseled her on continuing her education or job training. She says she didn't get any offers of housing assistance. In arguing to sever Caswell's parental rights, the caseworker said she didn't offer housing assistance because, since Ricky was in foster care, Caswell didn't qualify for such help.

Caswell also says she was not counseled about obtaining birth control, or to stop having babies. "The only thing she ever said to me was after (her last baby) was born," Caswell said. "She told me, 'You have to stop having babies because the Hollands don't want any more.' " [Emphasis added].

    But here's where the story moves from typical child welfare agency class bias to jaw dropping willful blindness:

    One reason the Ricky Holland story got so much attention is that it had a classic element: the fake "disappearance." You know how it works: The parents – whether birth, foster or adoptive – claim their child has disappeared; they go on television to plead for his return, a massive search follows - In the Holland case, there even was a segment of America's Most Wanted - but all the while the parents know exactly where the child is – or rather the child's body. The truth was, Lisa, who had made Ricky's life a living Hell for years, ended it with blows to the boy's head from a hammer. The boy lingered, semi-conscious for a week. Then Tim Holland stuffed the body – or perhaps the still-alive little boy – into trash bags and dumped him in a pond.

    But here's the part that really makes you wonder just how out-of-hand adoption fanaticism has gotten in Michigan. Ricky "disappeared" on July 2, 2005. Even as police suspicion of the Hollands grew, DHS made no move to take Ricky's siblings from the Hollands even temporarily, as they almost certainly would have done in the case of impoverished Black birth parents under similar circumstances. But even if one can buy that decision, get this: During this same time period, with Ricky still missing, DHS actually went ahead and finalized the adoption of Ricky's youngest sibling, who was living in the Holland home as a foster child.

    It's amazing what the combination of everyday class bias, plus the prospect of bounty money for the agency and lots and lots of good press will do. And just think: Had Ricky disappeared in November instead of July, the adoption of his brother by the Hollands might even have been finalized on Michigan Adoption Day.

    In any event, I've reread almost all the clips. Now I'm going through the many previous reports issued about child welfare in Michigan, and finding a fair amount that apparently was overlooked when those reports were issued. I'm reminded of things I first learned when I was a reporter: Just how much people will admit to when, apparently, they think it's for a document no one will read. Or what happens when a stray fact in an old report is linked to a news story. For instance: Is it possible that some of Michigan's child welfare agencies actually urged the State Legislature to adopt policies that break federal law? More on that in future posts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There goes the judge

    Some updates to Sunday night's post concerning National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day (a.k.a. National Adoption Day):

    First, New Jersey will again be celebrating reunification this year – one of the very few child welfare systems to do so.

    Second, in yesterday's Blog, I took issue with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, for placing far more emphasis on adoption than on reunification. I noted that this essay by a trial court judge, Kenneth Tacoma, condemning the consequences of Michigan's adoption fanaticism, and in particular legislation known as the "Binsfield laws," named for a former lieutenant governor, seemed to give Corrigan some second thoughts, but did not change her overall stance. A spokeswoman for Corrigan writes that she "would like you to know that she and Judge Tacoma worked together on legislation, which passed earlier this year, to address the issues [Judge Tacoma] pointed out in his article."

Actually, that legislation, which makes only minimal changes, is what I had in mind by second thoughts. As the Detroit Free Press reported when Corrigan and Tacoma first presented these changes:

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and a critic of Michigan's child protection system, called the proposals "small steps in the right direction. It is the first public acknowledgment that the Binsfeld laws were a horrible mistake," Wexler said. "But even these revisions don't address the worst legacy of Binsfeld: The take-the-child-and-run mentality, which still dominates Michigan child welfare, causing the state to take thousands of children from their homes needlessly every year, often in cases where family poverty is confused with neglect."

    Justice Corrigan also showed priorities I would argue are disappointing during a meeting of an 80-member task force studying Michigan child welfare. Corrigan is a member of the Task Force.

I attended an all-day meeting of the Task Force in Detroit on November 17 because I knew that arrangements had been made for one group largely left off the task force itself – birth parents – to speak to the group. I had the privilege of meeting some of the birth parents as they were preparing their presentation beforehand. Some tears were shed as more than 20 parents whose children had been taken from them worked up the courage to face what amounts to the power elite of Michigan child welfare. Afterwards, several members of the task force said they were deeply moved, and the Free Press ran a story about the presentations.

    But Corrigan, who had been there earlier and would return later, missed it. Her spokeswoman explained that she had to return to her office to deal with "pressing court business" - preparing for the Supreme Court's weekly conference at which cases are discussed and decided.

    But Justice Corrigan was back at the Task Force that afternoon, in time to chastise a task force committee, harshly and at length, for putting forward a recommendation that would require a little more work from the courts at a time when their budget is being cut. (Given that this is Michigan, however, odds are everyone's budget is going to be cut.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day

    How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: What we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence. But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, that urgent need for permanence for children, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want – children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day, or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost everyone in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why is there no national reunification day? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1? Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

    The answer is obvious: It's not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies –taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire, where a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

    The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few – very few – other communities followed suit. New York City has done it for the past few years (though their effort is somewhat tarnished by other recent statements and actions undercutting their own recent reforms). New Jersey has done it at least once, and the Miami region of the Florida Department of Children and Families did it recently and plans more such events. There probably are one or two others I haven't heard about. But that's it.

    In comparison, there are hundreds of Adoption Day events.

    But it's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader, was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "age out" of foster care each year with no home at all has soared 41 percent since 1998.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Indeed, even Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Nowhere is the adoption-at-all-costs mentality more deeply-ingrained than in Michigan.

For that, we can thank a number of politicians, most recently Maura Corrigan, Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. When she was Chief Justice one of her first moves was to create a task force on adoption – not a task force on permanence – a task force on adoption. But her pride and joy has been creating more Adoption Day celebrations than any other state. Thanks to Justice Corrigan's crusade, the website of the Michigan Supreme Court – the state's chief "impartial" arbiter of termination cases - is slathered in promotional material for adoption – without so much as a single word on behalf of reunification.

In theory it is possible for one or more justices of this court to give a speech touting adoption in the morning, preside at an adoption luncheon at noon – and hear an appeal of a termination of parental rights that afternoon.

One can only imagine how much courage it took, therefore, for a lowly trial court judge to point out the harm Michigan's adoption mania has done to children. In a scathing essay, Judge Kenneth Tacoma exposed the giant surge in legal orphans and the sharp rise in children "aging out" of Michigan foster care. Wisely, the judge targeted not Corrigan, but earlier fanatical efforts to promote adoption-at-all-costs in Michigan as well as the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, the law that pays those bounties for finalized adoptions. The article prompted even Corrigan to have some second thoughts – but not enough to prompt her to push for, say, a "reunification day" in Michigan courts, or to turn her adoption crusade into a permanence crusade.

Not even the tragedy of Ricky Holland could do that. Ricky Holland was taken from a birth mother who might have been able to care for him had she gotten the right kind of help. He was placed with well-to-do adoptive parents. The adoptive mother tortured him, and ultimately murdered him. This was one of those cases with more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade. Throughout the process, the Michigan child welfare agency ignored one blatant warning sign after another. We don't know why. But such behavior is to be expected in a system that lavishly rewards pushing adoption, and frowns on anything that would interfere with getting those adoption numbers up. (At least the Michigan press paid attention when Ricky died. When Timothy Boss was adopted to death years earlier, it barely got a mention.)

Most Michigan counties celebrate adoption day Tuesday. Perhaps this time, somewhere in that state, a reporter will ask a tougher question than "How's the sheet cake?"

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nebraska cops out

    In a disappointing, but unsurprising move, the Nebraska Legislature has voted to limit the state's "safe haven" law to infants 30 days old or younger – and do absolutely nothing about the underlying problem, desperate families with no place to turn. Well, not absolutely nothing: they've also resorted to the all-purpose government cop out, a special committee to study the issue.

    In fairness, that's not entirely the Legislature's fault. The governor called the legislature into special session in a way which largely tied its hands. This is the same governor who has shown unwavering support for Todd Landry, the head of the state child welfare agency and a man who is to the safe haven crisis as former FEMA director Michael Brown was to Hurricane Katrina. To their credit, a number of legislators have made clear they are appalled by Brownie – sorry, Landry's – handling of the whole mess.

    Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times did a very good story about the larger issues, including a close look at another case that Landry, presumably, would say was a non-emergency, and the man from Boys Town quoted in the Grand Island paper a few days ago, would say could be solved by going to a student intern. See what you think. It's also one of the few stories to note that Nebraska is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to throwing children into foster care.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The fable of Fenty

    Once upon a time there was a foster child.

    Like so many foster children, he was bounced from one home to another, never finding anyone to really love and nurture him.

    Worse, almost every one of his foster parents neglected him. They didn't starve him. On the contrary, they fed him and fed him and fed him – but it was all junk food. There was no nutrition. The boy grew so fat he could barely move.    

    At one point, there was some hope for the boy. He was taken in by a guardian who slowly made him healthier. When the guardianship ended, he finally was placed in a pretty good foster home where he continued to improve, but he still was very sick.

    But then that foster parent left, and the boy fell into the hands of one of the worst foster parents of all. This foster parent just didn't care about the boy. In fact, he seemed to care about nobody but himself. So he simply went back to neglecting the boy. Then, one day, the boy broke his foster parent's most prized possession – the boy shattered his foster parent's mirror. So the foster parent flew into a rage and broke both the boy's arms and legs.

    Hauled into court, months later, the foster father was unrepentant. On the contrary, he was bragging: "Well, yes, I broke the boy's arms and legs – but after that I took him to the hospital. I made sure the arms and legs were put into casts! And look – now he's almost healed! Soon he'll be just like he was before I broke all his limbs. So aren't I wonderful?"

    The fable is inspired, of course, by a press release put out by the administration of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in advance of a court hearing on the status of the District's Child and Family Services Agency in complying with a recent court agreement. But almost everything in that agreement involves undoing the damage to the agency that Fenty himself did by his grandstanding after the Banita Jacks case threatened to make him look bad.

    For instance, the press release brags about reducing – not eliminating – a giant backlog of cases. But it was Fenty's grandstanding that caused the backlog. Similarly, the press release brags about hiring new caseworkers – to replace the ones who quit in droves after Fenty scapegoated anyone who came anywhere near the Jacks case.

    CFSA may well spend proportionately more than any child welfare agency in the country, but throws a lot of the money away on needless substitute care and institutionalization. Full compliance with the latest court agreement will do little more than leave CFSA back where it was at the end of the administration of former mayor Anthony Williams, which built on slow, steady improvements made when the agency was in receivership.

    But I suppose I really shouldn't try to write a fable. Because, as the press release makes clear, no one can craft a fairy tale like Adrian Fenty.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Heartless in the heartland

    And I thought Todd Landry, the guy who runs the child welfare agency in Nebraska, was bad. But even Landry pales compared to Dave Reed who works for a Boys Town shelter in Grand Island.

    Virtually every expert in the Grand Island area understood that, for almost every parent using the state's "safe haven" law, that parent was acting out of desperation. But not the man from Boys Town, whose every quote in this story from the Grand Island Independent oozed with sanctimony.

    "I don't know if there is a gap in services. That implies, if we have more of the right kind of services, everything would be fine, I don't know if that is true," Reed told the newspaper.

    Well, I know one way to find out. Try providing more of the right kind of services.

    Reed continues: "We have a lot of great services in Nebraska. You can call and get help in Nebraska. Sometimes, it just takes a while."

    And how long, exactly, is a parent supposed to wait if their child is assaulting them and siblings and the assaults keep getting more violent? How long must they wait after the first suicide attempt – until the second one comes closer to succeeding?

    But wait, there's more!

    "Reed also disagreed that socio-economic status affects the availability of treatment, as [one expert] suggested. 'Service is available at every socio-economic level,' he said. "If people can't afford (counseling), there are interns and student counselors. Sometimes people need to get creative. If you get in a situation where you can't pay for someone to help you, it motivates you to find other ways to get help."
    Oh, o.k. then Mr. Reed. But why stop with mental illness? If, sometime in the next few years, you need brain surgery, you don't mind if we just let a first year med student do it, do you?

    And, by the way, in one "safe haven" case, the mother said she resorted to the law after first trying desperately, on her own, to get the child admitted to Boys Town. But, she says, Boys Town refused. "Boys Town was my one and only last hope," the mother said. "There was nothing else for me."

    Fortunately, the Man from Boys Town does not appear to be typical of professionals in Grand Island.

    According to the Grand Island Independent story:

"What I've seen with the preteens and teens coming through safe haven is not abuse and neglect on the parents' part but behavioral health issues going on," said Scott Dugan, president and chief executive officer of Mid-Plains Center for Behavioral Healthcare Services in Grand Island. Dugan said the "safe-haven problem" reflects a lack of behavioral and mental health services for children and the high costs of obtaining the services that are available.

"Even if parents have insurance, many carriers don't pay for mental health care," he said. Blaming the parents or caregivers for abandoning their children isn't the answer, he said, nor is it that simple. "These kids show problematic behaviors that require therapy," he said. "These parents are at the end of their rope. (Using safe haven) is the only option they see." …

"It goes back to money," said Anne Buettner of Grand Island, a private-practice family therapist for 30 years. "Even if therapy is $5 an hour, if you don't have money for gas, you don't go to therapy." Even in a best-case scenario, when a family can access therapy and behavioral health assistance, Allen said it's not always enough. "You look at the families that have dropped children off (under safe haven). I believe they've tried everything else," she said. "For a parent to drop a child off, things have to get so bad."

Meanwhile, Landry, the guy who used the parents' plight for a little sick humor not long ago, also is getting all sanctimonious again.

His latest tactic, and that of other family bashers in Nebraska: Suggest that the parents willfully are doing severe emotional damage to the children by the message sent when the children are "abandoned" at hospitals.

In one sense, he's got a point. It does, indeed send a terrible message and common sense suggests it can be enormously scarring. But Landry implies that parents don't care about that and are just doing this out of convenience. The evidence so far, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is that these parents have been left with only lousy choices, and the safe haven law was the least bad option they could find.

And, fortunately, at least some lawmakers are not buying the snake oil Landry is trying to sell. According to the Omaha World-Herald:

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha … said the safe haven law is not abandonment. "I have a hard time classifying what these parents, guardians and grandparents did as abandonment, if they had nowhere else to turn and if they stayed with the case," said Ashford. "To my mind, they were very, very concerned parents."

But what's worse about Landry's comments is the rank hypocrisy. When it comes to emotional harm, you know what ranks right up there with "abandonment"? Taking a child from everyone he knows and loves, by force of law, and throwing him into foster care when it's not necessary. Year after year the state with one of the worst records in the nation for that, sometimes the very worst record, is Nebraska.

And that means no one in a position of power in Nebraska – not Todd Landry, not the Governor, not the members of the Nebraska Legislature – none of them has a right to accuse anyone else of doing emotional harm to children. Because there is simply no greater perpetrator of emotional abuse in the State of Nebraska than the government of the State of Nebraska.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The right way vs. the Nebraska way

    The Nebraska Legislature is meeting this week to amend the state's safe haven law. Some legislators want to do it the right way: include provisions expanding help, particularly mental health services, for families so desperate that they feel their only option is to use the safe haven law. But the Governor and the speaker of the state's unicameral legislature prefer the Nebraska way: Kick the families in the teeth and sweep the problem under the rug.

    According to the Associated Press, in Nebraska, if lawmakers want to do more during a special session of the legislature than the governor asks it to, it takes a two-thirds vote – and even then, lawmakers still might need the governor's permission. The governor limited the special session to considering bills that would reduce the age of children for whom the safe-haven law would apply. So without that two-thirds vote, lawmakers can't lift a finger to actually help struggling families. It would have to wait until the regular session in January. The Speaker of the legislature says that's fine with him. And the head of the state child welfare agency, Todd Landry, (you remember, the one who thought the families' plight was a topic for sick humor) was on national television Saturday night once again rubbing salt into the families' wounds. This is all in keeping with Nebraska's record for being more hostile to vulnerable families than almost any other state, as evidenced by the fact that, year after year, it takes away more children, and holds more children in foster care, than almost any other.

    To their credit, however, some Nebraska lawmakers are fed up with Landry's agency. According to an Omaha World-Herald story:

Several lawmakers criticized leaders of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, accusing HHS of soft-pedaling the severe psychological and behavioral problems involved in many of the cases. … Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha spoke her mind Friday. Howard, a longtime social worker who resigned from HHS to serve in the Legislature, blasted department leaders, saying they have portrayed the state's 35 safe haven cases as examples of bad parenting and mischievous children. Howard said many of the families who have used the safe haven law face severe crisis and in some cases are in danger. Howard and Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln said many of the 35 cases involved children with severe mental health problems.

Howard said department leaders have also given state senators bad information about how well HHS is identifying and serving at-risk children. "There's a lack of basic trust here — trust that you earn through honesty," Howard said. "It really troubles me when the director of the department paints a falsely rosy picture."

Before the safe-haven law passed, Howard, some of Howard's colleagues, and others, raised a series of objections to the entire safe-haven approach. As the World-Herald reported in another story:

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha … argued that the state should not condone babies being abandoned. If lawmakers really wanted to help infants and children, he said, they should fund prenatal care, food stamps and other services and work to change the stigma on pregnant, unmarried teenagers. Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln … was concerned about putting the babies in the state's foster care system. … Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln cited studies in states with safe haven laws showing that, after passage of the law, as many infants have been left to die as have been left in safe havens. [Sen. Howard] said the proposed safe haven procedures would undermine traditional adoption and child welfare practices. … Voices for Children and private adoption agencies argued that mothers should have counseling, fathers should be afforded rights and babies should someday be able to know their family medical history.

But with every other state already on the safe haven bandwagon, Nebraska ultimately followed suit – except that, as part of a weird compromise to get the bill passed, lawmakers didn't limit it to infants. The rest is recent history.

So now we'll see if the legislature caves in to the governor and Landry and their sweep-it-all-under-the-rug approach, leaving families to struggle in their desperation, or whether the lawmakers who understand the deeper problems will prevail. If they do perhaps, for once, the right way and the Nebraska way will be one and the same.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If you’re looking for our take on the Nebraska “safe haven” law…

Something odd happened this evening. On Monday, I was interviewed by an Associated Press reporter for a story about Nebraska's "safe haven" law. It is the laudable custom of AP to include at the end of stories links to the websites of organizations they cite. Apparently, an editor cut whatever quote or quotes the reporter used from my interview, but left the link to at the end of the story. The result was a surge in traffic to our website unlike anything since its inception. I very much appreciate AP's including the link, but since there is nothing on our main website about the "Safe Haven" law, a lot of people may be puzzled. However, anyone interested can find our take on the Nebraska law in previous Blog entries collected here.  Then scroll down past this post, which will appear again.

    My one regret would be if anyone clicked on the link in the hope of finding services as an alternative to the "safe haven" law. NCCPR is not a service provider and, unfortunately, is far too small to assist with individual cases. Some Nebraska lawmakers have gotten the message, however. During a special session of the Nebraska Legislature that begins tomorrow, they have promised to introduce legislation to improve services. Let's hope so – and let's hope the other 49 states, which have the same sorts of problems, but don't have a law that makes these problems visible, follow suit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

CASA: Deep in denial

The previous post to this Blog discusses a shockingly racist performance by a small-town mayor at a benefit for a local chapter of Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). It discusses how the CASA chapter reportedly knew what was planned in advance and had no problem with it. It discusses how the director of the CASA chapter gave the performance a rave review and didn't change her mind until it got bad press. Most important, it discussed how this is only the most obvious evidence that racial and class bias pervade the CASA model, despite the fact that both the organization and its volunteers almost always mean well and truly believe they are helping children.

The problems were confirmed by a revealing response I received from a CASA in Indiana (white, middle-class, and retired) defending the program. Once again, motivation is not the issue. It's clear the CASA tries, as she sees it, to make the world a better place. The issue is whether she's succeeding. Because, by the time I finished the e-mail, I could only feel sorry for any overwhelmed, impoverished parent who encounters this CASA and doesn't know that, if she wants to keep her children, she'd better say "how high?" when the CASA says "jump."

The CASA writes that "every child and every situation is different" and later: "There's no formula, rule, law or ideology that will fit every situation – only human caring and understanding." Lovely sentiments, and I'm sure the CASA sincerely believes she practices what she preaches.

But in between those comments, she also writes:

"CASA seems to be the counter-balance against a social service system hell-bent on keeping children with their very inadequate families--or putting them into a foster care system where their childhoods will be wasted while their parents 'get their acts together.'"

So in between telling me how she views each and every case individually, she declares the bias against families with which she approaches each and every case. She also writes:

"The local department of child services has a guiding policy of keeping children with the natural parents that is now stronger than the Ten Commandments is for followers of the Christian faith."

Either the CASA has a low opinion of Christians or she hasn't checked the facts.

FACT: The state of Indiana takes away children at a rate above the national average and well above the rate in systems widely regarded as models.

FACT: The number of children taken from their parents in Indiana has increased almost every year since 1999.

FACT: The number of children taken from their parents in Indiana in 2007 is more than 60 percent higher than it was in 1999.

FACT: The number of children taken from their parents in Indiana reached a record high in 2007. And, according to a front page story in the Indianapolis Star that ran two days before the CASA sent her e-mail, it's likely to set a record again in 2008. (See, also the related editorial that ran in the Star on Wednesday.)

But here's the part of the e-mail that's truly worrisome. At the end of a long paragraph outlining her degrees and 37 years of experience, the CASA writes:

"I can safely and humbly say that there is no one I have ever known who is more familiar than I, on a personal and professional level, with the needs of children who live in families who struggle to rear them."

No one? Ever? In 37 years? I don't want to think about the version of this sentiment that isn't "humble."

But it's hard to blame one volunteer when the bias against families is so pervasive in CASA. Consider this statement from the website for the CASA program in Indiana's largest county:

"Our volunteers help ensure that the 5000 children whose cases we monitor each year are not returned to the very situations where the mistreatment occurred. We continue to work with the children until it is safe and appropriate for them to return home or until they become eligible for adoption."

The possibility that the child was taken in error, or solely because of a family's poverty, and that it is "safe and appropriate" to return that child home right now, is not even considered.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

UPDATED, NOV 10 2008 AND NOV. 8, 2009: A CASA chapter shows its true colors

Reader advisory: This post contains quotes that include some uses of vulgar slang. Reader discretion is advised.

There may be no more sacred cow in all of child welfare than the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. Under this program, volunteers are assigned to spend a few hours a month on one or two child welfare cases, talking to all parties and then telling the judge what the volunteer thinks would be best for the child.

I collected the gooey feature stories that turn up in almost every newspaper about CASA for a while, until I ran out of file space. In almost every one, the program is praised to the skies and all of its self-promotional material is accepted without question. And CASA itself loves to brag about how much influence the volunteers have over juvenile court judges when those judges decide if a child will be placed in foster care, whether a child will remain there, and where that child will go.

In fact, the CASA model creates enormous potential for bias. Who can be a CASA? Certainly not a poor person working two jobs, or someone who has to work seven days a week; they don't have the time. No, a CASA volunteer is most likely to have lots of time on his or her hands. And that means CASA volunteers are likely to be disproportionately affluent and disproportionately white (and, in fact, 90 percent of CASA volunteers are white). Children who enter the child welfare system, of course, are neither.

So, good intentions notwithstanding – and like almost everyone in child welfare, most CASA volunteers do, indeed, mean well – the potential for racial and class bias is obvious. So it should come as no surprise that the largest, most comprehensive study of CASA ever done – a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself - produced some truly alarming findings. I'll get to those below. But first, a case in point.

I first learned about this through a very brief item in the excellent trade journal Youth Today, after which I checked the local newspaper and a local news website.

The story is about the CASA chapter in Arkansas City, Kansas, about an hour from Wichita. Every year, their big annual fundraiser is the Men in Tights drag queen contest. No problem there. This year, the winner was the mayor of Arkansas City, Mel Kuhn. He won both the talent competition and the overall Miss CASA title. Still no problem, it's not as if they played favorites and gave him the prize just because he's the mayor.

The problem is the costume that won Mayor Kuhn the coveted Miss CASA title: He dressed up as a woman he named "Smellishis Poon." The "surname" is, in the words of the Arkansas City Traveler "graphic slang for a female private part." So is the name the mayor chose for his back up dancers. They were called the "Red Hot Puntangs." Oh, and one more thing: The mayor did his act made up in blackface.

The mayor initially defended his performance. "All this PC is b-------," the mayor/Miss CASA said. "We go around walking on eggshells all the time, we don't get anything done." But after a meeting with officials of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP, the Mayor/Miss CASA changed his mind and offered what sounds like a sincere apology.

From CASA, however, there has been only one of those non-apology apologies, with the executive director of the Arkansas City CASA program, who earlier gave the mayor's performance rave reviews, later telling The Wichita Eagle that "We're sorry that anyone was offended at this show."

But the Mayor/Miss CASA says the local CASA chapter knew exactly what he planned to do beforehand. According to the Traveler:

He said he ran everything he planned by CASA officials, and that the audience found it all hilarious. "I didn't spring anything on anybody, he said.

After the performance, the local CASA executive director, Linda Groth, did say she was "mortified" by the name the Mayor chose – after a reporter told her what "poon" meant. But other than that, she thought the performance was just fine. She told a local website, The News Cow, (because Arkansas City is in Cowley County, that's why):

"The part of his act I felt was excellent was the dancing. It was good dancing. The back-up singers were gorgeous and could probably back up any professional. It was a pretty professional little act. The audience loved it. The judges must have liked it. We may change some things. We may not. We certainly don't want to offend anybody."

It's unfortunate that anyone is upset. Kuhn wanted to put on a good show and worked hard, according to Groth. Other people saw the program but no one commented on his character's name.

As for the blackface, Groth told the Traveler she didn't think the mayor was trying to portray a different race: "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." (Readers can judge for themselves by having a look at the photos here and here. )

Groth went on to give the Mayor/Miss CASA another rave review, praising all the time Kuhn took to prepare and noting that "the judges and the audience in general seemed very impressed."

Most of the criticism has been directed at the mayor. But that misses the point. The real issue is this: How much harm is being done to impoverished children, especially minority children, by placing their fate in the hands of people who can watch a man dress up in blackface under the name of Smellishis Poon – and see no problem with any of it? What kind of child welfare system lets such astonishingly insensitive white people sit in judgment of overwhelmingly poor disproportionately black families? And where was the National CASA Association while all this is going on? I am aware of no condemnation of the Arkansas City chapter by the national group; certainly there is nothing on National CASA's website about it. Perhaps they don't know about it, though it happened a month ago.

UPDATE, NOV. 10: A p.r. person for National CASA contacted NCCPR this evening by e-mail to say that "Immediately after being made aware of the incident, National CASA contacted the local Arkansas City CASA program, which had sponsored the event. We also contacted the Kansas State CASA program, the office of Mayor Kuhn, and Kevin Myles, the President of the Wichita Branch of NAACP."

The p.r. person says National CASA's efforts led to a more formal apology from the the local chapter. He cited this wire service story, but the story is unclear as to whether the relevant "press release" came from National CASA or the local chapter. The local newspaper story on which the wire account is based makes clear that, after a conference call involving the NAACP, the local chapter and National CASA, the local chapter issued the press release containing the apology. If National CASA has issued its own formal public statement on this matter, I still haven't been able to find it.

None of this, of course, addresses the larger issue of how a CASA chapter could have allowed this performance in the first place, and the rave review the head of the CASA chapter gave the mayor's performance before she was contacted by the national organization.

CASA also got the Wichita NAACP to let them off the hook; another testament to CASA's sacred cow status. I hope the Wichita NAACP will take a closer look, starting with the study cited below:

It would be one thing if this were an isolated problem – a local chapter that had gone rogue. But the disturbing data from that national study I mentioned suggest that, again, good intentions notwithstanding, racial bias permeates CASA.

For starters, the study found that when a CASA is assigned to a child who is black, the CASA spends, on average, significantly less time on the case. (The study also found that CASAs don't spend as much time on cases in general as the organization's p.r. might lead one to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and only 2.67 hours per month on cases involving Black children).

Worse, the study found that CASA's only real accomplishments were to prolong the time children languished in foster care and reduce the chance that the child will be placed with relatives.

A Youth Today columnist aptly summed up the findings this way:

"The more rigorous evaluation … not only challenged the effectiveness of the court volunteers' services, but suggested that they spend little time on cases, particularly those of black children, and are associated with more removals from the home and fewer efforts to reunite children with parents or relatives."

Worse still, the study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA's all purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.)

If you doubt any of this, please go see the study for yourself on the National CASA website – if you can find it. [UPDATE, NOV 8, 2009: THE LINK IN THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE NO LONGER WORKS. LOOKS LIKE CASA HAS REMOVED THE FULL STUDY FROM ITS WEBSITE ENTIRELY. I'M SURE GLAD I DOWNLOADED BY OWN COPY.] Actually, I'd better give you the direct link, since it's not on the main website at all, instead it's buried on a second site which, while publicly accessible, appears to be primarily for CASAs themselves. One can certainly understand why they'd rather people not see it.

CASA did not exactly spread the word about this study when it was published. But Youth Today learned about it, and the result was one of the few clear-eyed assessments ever done of the program, an excellent front-page news story in the July/August, 2004 issue which was available on an affiliated website, but now, alas, is available only on their own site by subscription.

Among other things, the news story concluded that CASA's attempts to spin the study's findings "can border on duplicity."

I wonder how National CASA will spin the Miss CASA contest, and what that contest may say about the racial attitudes of CASA volunteers in Arkansas City? It'll be hard to top that line about "it was all really just tan." (See update above for CASAs response).

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

UPDATED NOV. 8: Kinship care and the making of a President

No matter who we voted for Tuesday, we all should be grateful for two things: First, let us be grateful that, when Barack Obama's mother decided she couldn't raise him for a while, no Child Protective Services agency ever got involved. And second, we should be glad that Marcia Lowry, founder and leader of the group that arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) was not suing the State of Hawaii from 1971 through 1979.

    This was the time when Barack Obama was being raised by his grandmother who, so sadly, died Monday. Obama has said a great deal about how important Madelyn Payne Dunham was to him.  On Tuesday, Obama made history – and odds are that wouldn't have happened had he not spent eight years living with Dunham in what now we would call informal kinship care.

    But in those cases where, unlike Obama's, child protective services is involved, CR is trying to curb informal kinship care drastically. The group has decided that the magic bullet for foster care is licensing. So the group's latest crusade is trying to strong-arm states into requiring that every grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle or other relative who steps forward to care for a loved one whose parents are accused of maltreatment jumps through all the same hoops and meets all the same hypertechnical licensing requirements imposed on total strangers. With only limited exceptions, the CR rule would be: No license, no grandchild.

    One laboratory for this awful experiment is Michigan, where CR won a consent decree requiring that all grandparents be licensed or obtain a waiver or "variance" from licensing requirements in order to be allowed to take in relatives placed by the state child welfare agency.

    Of course there are certain bare minimum standards, directly related to health and safety, that every foster home should meet. But that's not what we're talking about here. Michigan's foster care licensing requirements run to ten single-spaced pages. They seem to assume that every foster parent owns her or his own home. Virtually everything under sections called "Maintenance," "Heat light and ventilation," "Flame and heat producing equipment," and "Bathrooms" would be out of the control of a renter. Are grandchildren going to be denied the right to live with grandparents because a landlord doesn't keep the bathroom hot water temperature under 120 degrees or put screens on every window?

There are 41 separate requirements just for bedrooms and their contents. There's also a requirement that every dwelling unit on a floor higher than the second have at least two means of egress. I don't know for sure, but odds are the 954-square-foot tenth floor apartment where Madelyn Payne Dunham raised her grandson wouldn't qualify.

In Michigan, grandparents like Dunham who want to take in a grandchild placed by the state child welfare agency must either move or obtain a waiver or variance. The consent decree has no language emphasizing that waivers and variances should be easy to get; and, given how bureaucracies work, odds are it's going to be a very difficult process, with workers fearful of making any exceptions lest they incur CRs wrath should something go wrong. And there's another problem: Especially in poor, minority communities where CPS agencies are viewed, often rightly, with suspicion, there are plenty of grandparents who simply are too scared to allow that agency to micromanage their lives.

Worse, these new requirements are retroactive. Grandparents who already are doing a wonderful job caring for their grandchildren, sometimes for many years, are going to have to get licensed. Michigan has a typically lousy child welfare system overall. But one area where the state shines is in placing an unusually large proportion of foster children with relatives. Now the state faces the very real prospect of a mass expulsion of children from the homes of loving grandparents.

On one level, when you look at all those regulations one at a time, many of them make sense. Odds are they were added, one by one, in response to one horror story or another. But, like so much else in child welfare, the licensing requirement for grandparents flunks the "balance of harms" test. Yes, it would be better if every apartment had two exits and the temperature of the hot water never reached 121 degrees. But that risk has to be balanced against the risks to children's emotional well-being – and, for that matter, physical safety – when they are deprived of the love of someone like Dunham and consigned to the care of total strangers instead.

These restrictions are particularly ironic in Michigan which has been rocked with one high-profile foster care death after another - Joshua Causey, Ricky Holland, Isaac Lethbridge, Allison Newman and now, in a case that just came to light Monday, Johnny Dragomir. These cases all have one thing in common: The children died in the licensed care of strangers. (In the latest case, there were no criminal charges, though a county medical examiner said the boy died of malnutrition).

Indeed, CRs primary justification for its war against grandparents isn't safety, it's money. Under federal regulations, unless a foster home is licensed, the state can't receive federal reimbursement for the case. And if it is licensed, the state must pay the grandparents as much as it does strangers, something most states don't do now. So CR would argue they're only trying to help.

That is in keeping with the way CR seems to see children: as numbers on a spreadsheet or files on a shelf. Those who see children as flesh-and-blood human beings, for whom the love of a grandparent is more important than meeting all 41 requirements for the bedroom in which they sleep, can think of other solutions – such as pressing to change the federal regulations or demanding that states simply reimburse grandparents the same way they reimburse strangers using state funds.

CRs licensing obsession makes so little sense that I have to wonder if deep down it's not motivated by the same suspicion of extended families that permeates less enlightened child welfare agencies – you know, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" and all that. In fact, the research is overwhelming that kinship care is not only more stable and better for children's well-being than what should properly be called "stranger care," it's also safer. Or, as one of the leading researchers in the field likes to put it: "Fortunately, trees have many branches."

So I hope making it easier for grandparents to take in their grandchildren is high on the agenda of the President-elect.

UPDATE, NOV. 8: From today's Detroit News, still another example of the "value" of licensing in Michigan.  In contrast, also from today's Detroit News, an example of the right way to deal with housing issues for grandparents raising their grandchildren.  Just pray that the family profiled gets to move to their new apartment before CR sics the licensing police on them.