Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Michigan: When the mask slips

 This post originally appeared on this blog on April 30, 2006; before the Blog moved to Blogspot and became searchable. I'm posting it again, with some minor updating, because I've learned a little more about the events described, but I want to recap those events before I add an update in a future post:
Every once in awhile, the mask slips, and a state or locality's child welfare establishment reveals its ugly side.  In Michigan the racial and class bias, and the naked self-interest, that permeate child welfare came out into the open at a public hearing this week.
According to an AP story, a parade of officials from private foster care agencies effectively made the case that children should be torn away from their parents, and everyone else they know, forever, just because those families are poor.  They claimed the children are simply better off among middle class strangers than with their own impoverished families.
No, they didn't quite say take children just because they're poor, and they didn't quite say never let them go home.  But that is the only logical conclusion if one is to believe the arguments they offered for opposing the Family to Family program, which seeks to reduce the number of children taken from their parents and place those who must be taken with friends and relatives in their own neighborhoods.  (Family to Family is an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also helps to fund NCCPR. The Casey Foundation does not fund NCCPR's 2008 work in Michigan).
The basic argument the private agencies presented is that children are better off in foster care with total strangers in a swank suburb than with grandma or grandpa, an aunt and uncle, or a trusted friend in their own neighborhood.  That's because there is less crime and there are better schools in the suburbs.
But if that argument applies to children whose poverty has been confused with neglect so child protective services stepped in, why doesn't it also apply to every other impoverished child?  Why should "neglected" children be the only ones to gain benefits from suburban schools that are said to be so enormous they outweigh the love of a family?  Why not just confiscate all impoverished children? And if, in fact, these benefits are so huge, then it's hard to see how these same private agencies can really mean it when they say, with straight faces, "we really do try our best to reunify these families whenever possible."  After all, why would they want to pursue such reunification when that would doom the children to returning to a poor neighborhood?
In case the problems in suggesting that material comfort and even good schools are more important than love aren't obvious, consider:
--We've been doing it the way the agencies want for 150 years.  The very first foster care program, Charles Loring Brace's 19th Century "orphan trains" were based on precisely the theory that the Michigan agency chiefs offered the legislature: The dreadful influences of poor big-city neighborhoods can only be overcome by shipping the children of the immigrant poor off to farms in the south and Midwest.  Only it didn't work too well.  Many of the children were not orphans at all; they were taken from parents for the same reason children are taken today: The parents – typically Catholic immigrants -- were poor and despised. Many of the children wound up treated little better than slaves. 
-- It doesn't work well now, either – does it?  The system of taking impoverished children from everyone loving and familiar and throwing them in with middle-class strangers is the system we have now.  And, according to a recent comprehensive study of foster care "alumni" here's what that's given us:
--Alumni with twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans.
--Alumni who report that one-third of them were abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.  (In contrast, the rate of abuse in kinship homes is lower than in what should be called "stranger care.")
--Alumni of whom it could be said that only 20 percent were "doing well."  (NCCPR's full analysis of this study, and the URL for the study itself, are available here: )
One of the main reasons foster care is such a failure is the emotional devastation to a child when he loses not just mom and dad but also his aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, friends, neighbors, teachers and classmates.  For a young enough child it's an experience akin to a kidnapping.  And in many cases, the odds are excellent that as soon as the child gets used to his new surroundings, she or he will be forced to move again, compounding the trauma.  What good is a "better" school if a child has to keep moving from one such school to another?
And why in the world do the private child welfare agencies of Michigan insist children are better off by continuing to throw them into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five?
--In contrast, consider the record of Family to Family.  According to the wire service story the chairman of the legislative committee "wants to see more data about [Family to Family's] effectiveness."
He could start here: with a comprehensive outside evaluation of the program done by the University of North Carolina.  That evaluation found that  "[F]ewer children entered out of home care and those who had to be removed from their homes were placed in less restrictive forms of care."
Here are some of the other highlights:
While conventional foster parent "recruiting campaigns" are failing all over the country, Family to Family sites often succeed in recruiting foster parents in the children's own neighborhoods.  And instead of the hostility that often characterizes relationships between birth parents and foster parents, many foster parents embraced the Family to Family approach of working with and mentoring birth parents.
In addition:
-- With more foster families available, fewer children had to be institutionalized.
-- Increased use of relatives as foster parents also opened up a new option for permanency, as more relatives agreed to be permanent guardians of children who could not be reunited with their birth parents.
-- At most sites, there was a significant reduction in the number of placements children had to endure.  At one site, the number of children in care between one and two years who endured three or more placements was cut by more than 25 percent.  In another county, it was cut by more than 50 percent. 
-- Perhaps most significant: Because Family to Family succeeded in keeping more children safely in their own homes, the children who were removed had more serious problems.  Nevertheless, there was no increase in the "recidivism" rate – the number of children returned home who re-enter care – at any Family to Family site.  And in some sites, the recidivism rate went down.
That indicates that all of the other improvements in children's lives were accomplished while making children safer.
If legislators, or anyone else, want still more information about the benefits of placing children with relatives instead of strangers – including the fact that such placements tend to be safer - - they can check out the report from the University of Illinois Children and Family Research Center available here:

The Michigan agencies' case is built on a foundation of false stereotypes, both about the birth parents who lose their children to foster care and the neighborhoods those parents live in.  They counted on the legislators to conjure up a picture of sadistic brutes who beat, torture and rape their children.  But such cases make up only a tiny fraction of workers' caseloads.  As is documented in detail in NCCPR's Issue Papers, far more common are cases in which a family's poverty is confused with neglect.
As for the neighborhoods, the portrait from the agencies is what one might expect not from people who genuinely care about what's best for children, but rather from someone whose only source of information is local television news, with its endless parade of crime scenes and "perp walks."
But – and it shouldn't really be necessary to point this out – even in the most crime-plagued neighborhood, most people don't commit crimes.  Even in neighborhoods where drug dealers congregate on the corner, most parents are doing everything they can to keep their children away from that corner.  Even the poorest communities have neighborhood associations, community-based social service agencies and churches that can form the foundation for helping child protective services keep children safe without forcing them to leave everyone they know and love.  The problem is, child protective services agencies have often been clueless about what these groups are and where to find them, and the community groups have been too suspicious, often with good reason, to work with CPS.

Bridging these barriers is what initiatives like Family to Family are all about.
Of course, it would be wonderful if poor children could stay with their birth parents, be surrounded by supportive extended family and neighbors and live in upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods if they so chose.  If the Michigan Legislature would like to initiate a program to build more affordable housing in the suburbs, I think that would be a great idea.
But it is obscene to suggest that the only way a poor child should get to go to a "good" school is by trading in his family for the privilege.
This isn't really about the children at all.  This is about agencies that typically are paid for every day they hold a child in foster care.  If Family to Family proceeds, they'll get fewer children – because more of them will remain safely in their own homes.  Family to Family also is about reducing the use of group homes and institutions – again, threatening the survival of these agencies, which rake in huge per diem payments for warehousing children.
In addition, private agencies typically oversee a far lower percentage of kinship care homes than stranger-care homes; in other words, when it comes to kin care, the private agencies get a smaller piece of the action.

What happened at that hearing in Michigan is more evidence that the biggest addiction problem in child welfare is not substance-abusing parents, though that problem is serious and real.  The biggest addiction problem in child welfare is great big, prestigious, mainstream private child welfare agencies with blue chip boards of directors that are addicted to their per diem payments for holding children in foster care.
And they are putting their addiction ahead of the children. 

More in a future post.