Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mayor Fenty wins the “Arrogance Bowl”

I used to think Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty couldn't accomplish anything in child welfare. I was mistaken. This week, Fenty managed something I thought was impossible: He managed to "out-arrogant" the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights." Indeed, were there a Super Bowl for arrogance, I'd always bet on Adrian Fenty.

    A quick recap:

CR has a longstanding consent decree in Washington. For many years, the decree was ignored, to the point where the system became the first in the nation taken over by a federal court. But under the administration of former Mayor Anthony Williams the District's Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) earned its way out of receivership. It continued to make improvements –agonizingly slow improvements but improvements nonetheless.

Then along came Fenty. First he ignored warnings of serious problems ahead, warnings from the independent monitor named to oversee compliance with the consent decree. Then he plunged the agency into chaos with his demagogic response to child abuse tragedies. (For details see the press release and other materials issued by NCCPR at a news conference earlier this month.) Fenty's latest party line is that he deserves enormous credit for allegedly improving the agency. But to the extent that there has been any recent improvement it consists solely of undoing the damage he did in the first place. Thus, Fenty repeatedly cites eliminating a backlog of uncompleted investigations. But it was Fenty who caused the backlog.

And all along, some of us feared that the backlog was eliminated at the expense of CFSA's other responsibilities, including its most important, core responsibilities to children.

New data show that is exactly what happened.

The data come from the independent monitor, and they compare CFSA performance in April and November 2008.

In roughly half of the categories monitored, CFSA either was unable to provide data to show if performance improved, provided data the monitor believes are inaccurate, or actually performed more poorly in November than in April.

Areas where performance declined were among the most important, including:

Percentage of cases where caseworkers made monthly visits to families receiving in-home services.

Percentage of cases in which workers met with parents as often as they should.

Percentage of children forced to move from home to home more than once.

Percentage of children able to visit their own siblings at least twice a month.

In many cases the declines were small – but you don't reward an agency for going in the wrong direction (and I'll get to the reward Fenty is seeking below).

Even where there were improvements, often they weren't anything to brag about.

Nothing is more important to getting a separated family back together again than regular visits between parents and children. CFSA is supposed to be able to ensure that such visits take place weekly in at least 85 percent of cases. (Weekly, in fact, isn't nearly enough, especially since visits tend to be short and supervised – it's a bare minimum the agency must meet). But in April, CFSA managed this in only 33 percent of cases. Yes, it improved in November – to all of 36 percent.

That means that if CFSA were able to maintain this same rate of improvement – and who knows if that even could be done – CFSA would be in compliance with minimum requirements for visits - in about 9.3 years.

So the whole Fenty argument - look how wonderful we are, we eliminated the backlog – is a sham. Not only was it stunningly arrogant on its face, the "accomplishment" was achieved at the expense of children already trapped in the system.

Yet it is based on this claim and one other that Fenty has outdone even the Fenty standard for arrogance.

As The Washington Post reported this morning, Fenty wants out of the consent decree completely.

The District was supposed to come up with the latest in a series of reform plans this week and get approval from the monitor. The monitor didn't think the plan was good enough. So, in violation of the terms of its agreement with CR, Fenty simply marched into court and asked that his plan be approved anyway. He also is demanding, again unilaterally, an exit plan to be released from the consent decree with which he has failed to comply. CR says it will seek to hold the District in contempt of court.

Fenty bases his demand on two arguments: The first is the one about undoing the damage he did in the first place. The other is to cite progress over the past eight years. In other words, Fenty is saying that because his reckless response to child abuse tragedies didn't undo everything CFSA accomplished before Fenty became mayor, Fenty should be trusted to run the agency without court supervision.

    Fenty goes on to accuse CR of trying to "micromanage" CFSA. It could be a potent charge, since CR is known for trying to do that sort of thing. But not this time.

    First of all, it's not CR that said the latest plan wasn't good enough, it was the court monitor.

    The monitor is a neutral arbiter who determines if terms of a settlement, agreed to by both sides, are being met. She is analogous not a prosecutor or a defense attorney, but to a judge.

Assuming you have a good monitor, the monitor's views should have greater weight than either plaintiffs or the District.

    And few people in child welfare are more knowledgeable, more respected – and more reasonable – than Judy Meltzer, the court monitor overseeing this case. Her reports have been rigorous – and measured.

    So it is, in every sense of the word, contemptible, for Fenty to throw a tantrum and simply refuse to implement reform plans to get CFSA where successive D.C. administrations have pledged it will go.

    As for that micromanaging charge, the only example Fenty could come up with is a claim that the monitor and CR want to approve the selection of a new permanent director for CFSA. I don't know if that's true – but I certainly hope so. The only hope for CFSA is getting a director with enough backbone to stand up to Fenty. And whatever else you may call this, it is certainly not micromanaging. Choosing the leader of the agency is the ultimate broad-scope, big picture decision.

    D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles told the Post that "It's important for everyone to realize we are not a bunch of washed-up government servants that need to be monitored."

    Actually, when it comes to child welfare, Fenty and Nickles need more than monitoring. They need adult supervision.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

X-ray of an agency’s soul

If you only read one "study" this year, make it the one on racial bias in Michigan child welfare just released by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. It was the topic of a good story in The Detroit News. But this time, even a good news story just isn't enough. It's worth reading every word, particularly the words from page 12 through page 40.

In more than 30 years of following child welfare, I have read hundreds of reports and studies. I've never read one more compelling than this one. It reads more like good investigative reporting than a dry recitation of statistics, with actual case histories interwoven throughout. And it certainly doesn't apply only to Michigan.

This report is a less a study than an X-ray of a child welfare agency's soul; in this case the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) – and the picture is ugly. It tells us, in vivid, compelling detail, that every impoverished African American child in Michigan is in danger of needlessly being torn from everyone loving and familiar by a child welfare system that is arbitrary, capricious and cruel. (And things aren't much better for impoverished white children.)

How many children were taken in the first place because of things like, say, a mother lacking a stove, or a mother getting upset the day after police raided her home and ordered her to lie on the ground while her child was taken? (See the report itself for details on such cases).

How many children have been taken because agencies legally required, and paid by Michigan taxpayers to provide in-home services, simply refuse to do so because they don't want to go into poor neighborhoods? And why does DHS keep letting them get away with it?

How many children have been taken when a Team Decisionmaking meeting, meant to be a way to help a family stay together, was turned into a subterfuge designed to lure a family to a DHS office so a child could be taken on the spot – again, something DHS actually tried to do in one of the cases documented in this stunning report.

Not only does all this do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, it also wastes time and resources that should be devoted to finding children in real danger.

But sometimes, it's the little things that reveal the most. The report offers up one particularly telling detail. It's about how a Black parent and a white parent can say the same thing about alleged drug abuse, but the statement is characterized differently in case records, simply by changing one key word.  Quoting directly from the report:

"In several case files of African American families, workers described a parent as 'DENIES history of substance abuse.' The case file contained no documentation of any past or current substance abuse problem. In case files of Caucasian families with similar documentation, workers described a parent as having 'NO history of substance abuse.' [Emphasis added]. 

In other words, under otherwise identical circumstances, the white parent is taken at her word, the Black parent is not.

Among other key revelations in the new study:

Structured Decision Making, which now plagues systems around the country, (it may well be the cause of a spike in needless removals in Los Angeles County, for example) was pioneered in Michigan. But it turns out that the Structured Decision Making checklists used to determine risk and decide if a child should be torn from everyone loving and familiar are permeated with racial bias. While SDM has a veneer or objectivity, many of the determinations workers are asked to make are highly subjective.

Furthermore, the "risk factors" are self-reinforcing. In other words, a child is rated at higher risk if there have been previous reports of maltreatment. But, precisely because of poverty – and racial bias – poor Black families are more likely to be subjects of such reports.

And if that's not bad enough, the reviewers found that caseworkers often simply got their facts wrong – and then used this erroneous information to increase the alleged "risk" to the child.

In other families, a case deliberately is mislabeled "high risk" because it's the only way to get "services" to the family. That, however, may simply mean the family gets the wrong "help" – counseling instead of, say, a rent subsidy. And then, they may come under suspicion over and over for years, because now they're listed in Michigan's Central Registry of alleged child abusers.

Team Decisionmaking, a technique that is supposed to be used to try to keep families together, often is misused. The meetings are dominated by "service providers" the families get little or no say and good alternatives to placement are ignored. Caseworkers fail to tell families their rights at these meetings, and fail to tell them they are allowed to bring relatives, friends and other informal supports. Parents – and older children – were talked at instead of talked to, sometimes not even accorded the dignity of being addressed by name, and when they did speak up, often they were ignored. Even when the meetings function properly they tend to be geared to determining the type of placement, instead of whether placement itself is necessary. And, as noted above and in the Detroit News story, in at least one case, DHS actually tried to use such a meeting as a subterfuge to lure a mother and infant to a DHS office to snatch away the infant. 

Poverty routinely is confused with neglect. Housing problems come up over and over. For instance: A Black mother loses her housing because her child has been removed. Then she can't get the child back because she doesn't have housing. (When the same thing happened to a white mother in the same community, she was able to get a housing voucher).

As noted above, in one case, a DHS welfare worker encouraged a mother to call the child protective services division for help in obtaining a stove. She didn't get a stove, she got a child abuse investigation. She then was told her child would be taken away if she didn't obtain the stove on her own. Similarly, families that make the mistake of calling DHS for help with heat during the winter, often end up with nothing but a cold house that now has a child abuse investigator at the front door.

Again, as noted above, big wealthy service providers based in the suburbs sometimes simply refuse to provide services in the neighborhoods where families live. This sometimes happens even with providers specifically contracted to provide in-home services – and DHS has done nothing about it.

Hotline workers screen in far too many cases that are not, in fact, cases of child maltreatment. (In addition to the harm this does to the families that are investigated, it's also overloading caseworkers, reducing the time they have to find children in real danger.) The hotline review process is biased – there are extra reviews when a call is screened out, but not when it's screened in.

Caseworker reports are permeated with misinformation – and then the people doing psychological evaluations rely on that misinformation. Worse, it appears some evaluators are simply cutting and pasting boilerplate assessments from one person's "psych eval" into another. In other words, (and this is my interpretation, not a direct quote from the report) a "psych eval" that was supposedly done on Ms. Smith winds up with a paragraph that might say something like "It is clear that Ms. Jones suffers from…" 

Echoing the false claims of Michigan's "foster care-industrial complex" workers, judges and especially lawyer guardian ad litems for children, repeatedly claimed it was better for children to be torn from everyone they know and love because then they'd get to live in wealthier neighborhoods and have better "cultural experiences." (And of course, then those service providers wouldn't have to go through the trouble of going from their suburban headquarters into the inner city.) The report called this
"Reminiscent of the 19th century child rescue ideology that led to the separation of tribal and immigrant children from their families and communities … The belief that African American children are better off away from their families and communities was seen in explicit statements by key policy makers and service providers."

But it should be no surprise that this kind of thinking permeates the frontlines of Michigan child welfare. The leader of a trade association for the state's enormously powerful private agencies said the same thing at a legislative hearing three years ago. The hearing, and why this kind of thinking is a huge problem for children, are discussed in this earlier post to the Blog.

Parents constantly are stigmatized and stereotyped; files are filled with insults, none of them justified by facts of the case. Parents – and children - are characterized negatively for conduct that is entirely justified – such as a becoming angry when a child is taken from them, or a child picking a fight with a classmate moments after being told that his rights to his parents have been terminated forever, and he can't see them anymore.

The requirement to make "reasonable efforts" to keep families together when it is safe to do so is routinely ignored. Parents' lawyers don't even raise the issue – and one judicial officer said that's because raising reasonable efforts is "a losing argument." Worse, in a bit of irony worthy of Kafka, judges are now deeming the mere existence of a Team Decisionmaking meeting sufficient to meet the "reasonable efforts" requirement. (This is especially disturbing in light of the fact that the whole phony rationale for Michigan's so-called Binsfeld Laws, draconinan state legislation that out-ASFAs ASFA, and the enormous harm they've done, was that DHS supposedly was fanatical about "reasonable efforts." It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now).

Many in DHS have no clue what really is required in law and regulation. The problem is so pervasive that the report authors coined a term for it: "Policy mythology." For example, there is a widespread belief that if a parent has lost one child to termination of parental rights – even if, say, a mother voluntarily gave up a child for adoption decades before, all future children must be confiscated at birth and termination of parental rights petitions filed. It's not true – but workers routinely act on this myth. (The reality, that the law encourages this pernicious practice, is bad enough.)

The investigators found that DHS workers at every level were deep in denial about all of this. Some simply refused to believe the data with which they were confronted. Others responded with Stephen Colbert-like platitudes about how they, personally are "color blind" and "everyone is the same to me."

Of course, when Colbert says it, it's satire.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Odds are, there are many more like Juan

    The previous post to this Blog tells the story of Juan, a little boy taken from a wonderful mother and now trapped in foster care, only because mom had to leave him home alone after school in order to keep her job as a subway station attendant.

    Recently-released data suggest that there may be many more like him. In FY 2008, New York City's Administration for Children's Services took 7,401 children from their families, that's a five percent increase over the previous fiscal year – and a 51 percent increase over FY 2005, the last fiscal year before the giant surge in removals that followed the death of Nixzmary Brown. ACS' excuse for this always has been that reports alleging maltreatment also increased. But reports increased by only 15 percent since 2005; and they barely increased at all in FY 2008.

    Key safety indicators remain significantly worse than they were before ACS started taking away so many more children.

    The number of entries into care still is better than before the reforms begun in New York nearly a decade ago. And in some areas, notably reducing the number of children trapped in group homes and institutions, ACS still is making progress. But the overall trend is disappointing   

Details on the data are in the newest edition of NCCPR's report on New York City, updated this morning. The report, first published three years ago, is called "Don't Turn Back." But if things don't change in New York soon, perhaps the title will have to change to "Stop Turning Back."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How the dominoes fall

    The first domino: There is a New York Times reporter who seems to believe everything she reads from the Manhattan Institute, an extremist "neocon" think tank that dominated New York City during the Giuliani Administration (where they did as much good for the children of New York as neocons have done for the children of Baghdad). This reporter takes the child abuse deaths that, tragically, occur in a huge city like New York every couple of weeks, and falsely labels them a "series." (It was a series, she would later say, "but not statistically.")

    The second domino: The same reporter starts blaming all the deaths in this non-existent series on efforts by the city to keep families together.

    The third domino: The particularly horrific case of Nixzmary Brown, occurring after the Times reporter already had begun her neocon crusade, dominates news coverage in every New York City daily. The tabloids play it straight in their news pages, but the Times, on the news side, (and the Daily News and the Post editorial pages) rush to scapegoat keeping families together.

    The fourth domino: The Administration for Children's Services, instead of fighting for its own reforms, panders to the neocons; feeding a little red meat to the News editorial board by claiming its own caseworkers were doing too much to keep families together, and letting the Times reporter watch a meeting where they get tough with caseworkers who aren't tough enough on families.

    The fifth domino: The message goes out from everyone from the Mayor on down, that every New Yorker should rush to report every suspicion, no matter how preposterous, to the state child abuse hotline. The pressure is particularly intense on schools.

    The sixth domino: When the city Department of Investigation issues an absurd report, generalizing about the overall quality of casework based on the eleven worst cases it could find, ACS does nothing to defend its workers, embraces the report, and rushes to waste scarce dollars hiring retired police officers, just as DOI told it to.

    The seventh domino: Every public message to frontline workers is the same: Take the child and run. You can take all the children you want and – while terrible things will happen to the children – your job is safe. But you'd better not have the next fatality on your caseload.

    The eighth domino: Just in case the message still hasn't gotten through, ACS announces a draconian new policy to confiscate at birth children born to parents who already have lost a child to foster care.

    The ninth domino: Workers do indeed get the message. The number of children taken from their parents, which was 4,800 in the year before the Times started pandering to the neocons, and ACS started giving in, reaches 7,000 per year.

    The tenth domino: All that time spent taking away all those children is stolen from children in real danger – deaths of children "known to the system" set a record. But the newspaper of record never puts that record in the newspaper.

    And when the dominoes come crashing down, the full weight of one of the largest child welfare agencies in the nation lands with full force on one little boy named Juan.

    Juan's mother, Lillian Lucas-Dixon, did not beat him, or torture him, or sell him on the streets for drugs. As the Daily News reports, her crime was working to raise her youngest child.

She needed to get to her job as a subway station attendant. So she'd leave Juan, age 7, home alone after school until his 23-year-old sister got off work and could get to their Co-op City apartment to watch Juan.

"My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son?" Lucas-Dixon, told the Daily News.

    Juan mentioned this in his notebook at school. Poor Juan had no way of knowing that every school employee is on notice that their jobs are on the line if they don't call in absolutely everything to the hotline. So the school did. And, of course, Juan knows nothing about the "get tough" message caseworkers have been hearing for three years now, which explains why, instead of helping Juan's mother find after school care, they simply opted to take the child and run.

    So now Juan is in a foster home of a total stranger, far from where he lived. And in a throwback to one of the most regressive practices of bad child welfare agencies, visits often are scheduled during his mother's working hours.

As to whatever happened to "Team Decisionmaking" – in which everyone is supposed to meet within 72 hours to work out solutions in cases far tougher than this one – we may never know. ACS refuses to comment on the case, even though New York is one of the rare states where, under circumstances like this, child welfare agencies generally are free to tell their side of the story.

    As to the mother who is raising Juan, the Daily News reports that:

Her oldest eight have graduated or are in college or the military. The ninth is in high school. …

Her older children, now ages 15 through 29, say they always received Christmas presents, went on vacations, participated in sports and arts programs and that their mother knew the administrators and teachers at each of their schools.

"She does for 10 of us what some parents do for one," said Princess, Lucas-Dixon's 20-year-old daughter, a student at Sullivan County Community College. "I just don't get it."
Lucas-Dixon brags that none of her kids have criminal records, were pregnant as teens or abused drugs. "If I was dumb enough to have a large family, I owe it to myself and the world to produce responsible citizens," she said.
    In fact, there are millions of children like Juan, left home alone every day in America by single parents, usually mothers, who have no other choice. But Juan was in the wrong place, New York City, at the wrong time, a time when every ACS worker is running scared.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The “evidence base” for kinship care is growing

    There is still another study out showing that, if you must place a child in foster care, it's far better to place that child with a relative than with strangers. This is the abstract:

The documented growth of kinship care has boldly thrust this topic into the forefront of child welfare practice. This study compares the permanency, safety, and stability outcomes for a matched group of children placed in kinship care and foster care. After controlling for demographic and placement characteristics, children in kinship care had significantly fewer placements than did children in foster care, and they were less likely to still be in care, have a new allegation of institutional abuse or neglect, be involved with the juvenile justice system, and achieve reunification. These findings call for a greater commitment by child welfare professionals, policy makers, and researchers to make kinship care a viable out-of-home placement option for children and families.

     The full study is available here.

    Not only does the study show that kinship care is far superior to what should be called stranger care, it also shows that unlicensed kinship care – the kind that the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" is trying to thwart in Michigan – is just as good as the licensed kind. For more on CR's war against grandparents, see Kinship Care and the making of a President.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two firsts for Florida

    For many years, Florida was synonymous with child welfare failure. That's not true anymore. The state has begun a remarkable turnaround, a fact made clear from two remarkable "firsts" in 2007.

    One of them has been known for some time. In 2007, for the first time in nearly a decade, there was a significant statewide decline in the number of children taken from their homes. It is likely that the number declined again in 2008.

    The other "first" just became public this week. In 2007, again for the first time in nearly a decade, the number of child maltreatment deaths of children previously "known to the system" in Florida declined. The number had risen from 26, the last year before the Florida foster-care panic, to 54 in 2005.

    Then in 2006, the chair of the state's Child Abuse Death Review Committee, Manatee County Sheriff's Department Major Connie Shingledecker, began putting pressure on local law enforcement and mandated reporters to call the state's child abuse hotline for all sorts of deaths that used to be considered accidents, notably drowning. (See Drowning in Misinformation Jan. 6, 2008.) So while the figures shot up still further in 2006, and, on the surface, that would further support my contention that foster-care panics endanger children, they're not really comparable to previous years. But 2007 can be compared to 2006 – and in 2007, deaths of children previously known to the Florida Department of Children and Families went down. (All of the committee reports are available here).

    The committee, however, doesn't seem to want you to know this. Previous Annual Reports included bar graphs showing the three-year trend in deaths "known to the system" – that was when the deaths were going up, supporting the take-the-child-and-run rhetoric that permeates these reports under Shingledecker's leadership. In contrast, the graph in the 2007 report includes the 2007 figure only.

    That figures. Manatee County, where Maj. Shingledecker is in charge of child abuse investigations, has lagged behind the rest of the state in changing course and abandoning the take-the-child-and-run approach that dominated Florida for so long. Indeed, in 2007, a child was more likely to be torn from his or her parents in Manatee County than any other region of the state except one. (For details, see NCCPR's Florida Rate-of-Removal Index.)

    Of course, I have often warned that one should not make too much of changes in child abuse fatalities, even in jurisdictions as huge as Florida where it might be possible to see some pattern in the numbers. So if the decline in fatalities were the only indication that Florida's change in course toward family preservation was paying off, then there would be reason to view it with extreme caution. But the decline in fatalities comes in addition to years of evidence from better measures – reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster-care recidivism – and by these measures, regions in Florida that take proportionately fewer children tend to do better than those which take more.

    The likely reason: As fewer children are taken, workers have more time to find, and rescue, the children in real danger.

    But Maj. Shingledecker continues to ignore the lessons from her own data. For instance, this year's report from her committee repeats a recommendation to create a special group the real purpose of which seems to be to intimidate the state's judges. The idea is that if a judge dared to disagree with the state Department of Children and Families, and allowed a child to stay in her or his own home – or did anything else less restrictive than DCF asked for – and then the child died, the committee would "review" the judge's decision.

In fact, the far bigger problem is judges routinely rubber-stamping DCF when the agency seeks to remove a child or keep that child out of the home. As a result, the child may bounce from foster home to foster home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone. The child might be abused, or even die, in foster care. Yet Maj. Shingledecker has no interest in setting up a committee to review those decisions.

So now that we have still more evidence that Florida is keeping children safer as it reduces entries into foster care, there is one recommendation for improving child safety that should take precedence over all others: Ignore those, like Maj. Shingledecker, who remain wedded to the failed policies of the past.

Friday, January 9, 2009

If you really want to control entitlements, Mr. President-Elect …

…I know a great place to start.

President-elect Obama says he's going to take a long, hard look at federal spending on "entitlements" – programs for which spending is automatic, and spent on every American who fits eligibility criteria. Social Security and Medicare are classic examples of entitlements.

Entitlement spending takes up a large part of the budget, but usually such spending at least does some good. Things like Social Security and Medicare are expensive, worthwhile entitlements.

But there is at least one entitlement that actually does harm: That is the entitlement states get for throwing children into foster care. For every eligible child (slightly fewer than half of foster children nationwide are "eligible") the federal government picks up anywhere from 50 percent to 83 percent of the tab; it varies from state to state. But there is nothing like that for safe, proven alternatives to taking children from their parents. That's the key reason why federal spending on foster care vastly outstrips federal spending on better alternatives.

And there is a possibility that President-Elect Obama may inadvertently make this worse.

The amount that states get back for foster care is linked to the amount they get for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poorest Americans. So, for example, if State X is reimbursed 70 cents for every dollar spent on Medicaid. It also gets 70 cents back for every dollar spent on foster care for an "eligible" child. As the Medicaid rate rises or falls, the reimbursement for foster care (and also some adoption assistance) rises or falls with it.

Some child welfare groups expect that a new economic stimulus package will include an increase in this "match rate." So that state that was getting back 70 cents on the dollar might get back 75 cents or 80 cents on the dollar. Such an increase for Medicaid would be good. But if Congress does this, the reimbursement for foster care also will rise by the same amount, automatically, unless Congress acts to apply the increase to Medicaid only.

And that's exactly what the new President should ask Congress should do – apply any increase to Medicaid only. Then the additional dollars that would have gone to foster care should be directed instead to family preservation. It would be a tragedy if one of the new president's first acts actually increased the already huge financial incentive for states to take children needlessly from their homes.

But President Obama should not stop there. He should end the open-ended entitlement for foster care entirely. As things stand now, safe, proven alternatives to foster care cost less in total dollars, but throwing a child in foster care sometimes can cost a state less – because the federal government picks up so much of the tab. That is insane.

The way to restore sanity to the system is to estimate the amount that states would get under this system, and then give it to them as a flat grant, indexed to inflation. But instead of limiting the funds to foster care, let states use the money for alternatives as well.

Suddenly, billions of dollars previously available to states only for foster care also would be available for better options. Of course, it couldn't all go to alternatives – some children really need to be in foster care. But the flat grant should be structured so that, as foster care is reduced, the grant does not go down – the states get to keep the savings, as long as they plow the money into more help for families. That's the carrot. The stick is that states that experience foster-care panics, huge sudden surges in needless removal of children, will have to foot the entire bill for those panics. And that's the whole idea. States might be a little more reluctant to tear apart families needlessly if they had to pick up the entire tab.

This also would be a great chance for the new President to show that he means what he says about bipartisanship. Because this particular idea came from the Bush Administration. They proposed to offer it on a purely voluntary basis. But the foster care-industrial complex, the network of child welfare agencies with a huge vested interest in keeping children in foster care, and its dutiful allies, made sure that got nowhere. Instead, the administration offered a similar plan to some states and localities in the form of a "waiver" from federal regulations.

Only one state took them up on it: Florida. And it's made a huge difference.

The waiver is one of the key reasons that Florida, once a national symbol of child welfare failure, has begun a significant turnaround. In Florida alone, more than $100 million a year formerly restricted to foster care now is available for alternatives. And that's one reason why, in 2007, Florida saw its first significant decline in entries into care in nearly a decade. Now, with Florida hit particularly hard by the collapsing economy, the progress is in danger. But while the waiver won't completely make up for state cutbacks, it will help cushion the blow.

In California, where individual counties run child welfare, Los Angeles and Alameda Counties accepted waivers.

Michigan, on the other hand, won't get that cushion. Michigan also accepted the waiver. The state Department of Human Services bragged about it publicly, and it was the subject of news accounts. Then, suddenly and mysteriously, with no public announcement, it was gone. At the very last minute, someone at DHS changed her or his mind, and the waiver was dead. It does not appear that the agency didn't even had the guts to explain who did it or why.

Michigan's fiscal cowardice leaves its children entirely at the mercy of an economy that probably is collapsing faster in the home state of the American auto industry than anywhere else.

But this is one time the federal government could offer a "bailout" that won't cost any money. All it has to do is end the foster care entitlement and require that the other 49 states do what only Florida and those two California counties had the guts to do on their own.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Britain, land of sunshine

    Long ago, when I was in journalism school, I was taught how fortunate American reporters are when they have to cover trials. Be glad you're not a reporter in Britain, we were told, where draconian laws keep the press out and bar reporters from publishing a fair proportion of what they manage to find out anyway.

    But in one sphere of justice, Britain is about to leap ahead of most of the United States. Starting in April, reporters will be allowed to cover Family Court proceedings, and accused parents will be allowed to talk about their cases, and provide documents. Journalists will not be allowed to name the families, however. That will leave Britain behind the 17 American states that allow reporters into these hearings – but ahead of all the rest.

    Of those states which have opened courts, not one has closed them again – even though courts often were opened at first as pilot projects or other experiments with "sunset" provisions. The courts have remained open because the Chicken Littles were wrong. None of the supposed harms to children predicted by critics actually happened, and over and over again, the critics became converts to openness. There are a variety of reasons for that, and they are discussed in detail in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda. See also the outstanding Pittsburgh Post Gazette series "Open Justice." And while opening courts has not worked miracles, it has improved the quality of justice in some systems, and brought justice to individual families in others.

    And yet, no matter how many times states succeed, every time the issue arises anew in the United States, the same critics – mostly people in the system who like wielding absolute power in secret – raise the same hypothetical scare scenarios.

    The opening of Britain's Family Courts was due in part to a concerted campaign by British newspapers, notably The Times of London. (In contrast, some American newspapers, normally so quick to wrap themselves in the First Amendment, have been surprisingly sanguine about this issue.)

    Among the stories told by The Times – to the limited extent allowed:

     A 17-year-old who approached the newspaper, wanting to tell his story. His sister had been taken, wrongly, before he was born. His mother was denied all chance to see her, then parental rights were terminated because the child had "bonded" with the foster mother. The boy almost was taken as well. But he couldn't say more because, as The Times reported,

"[H]e cannot be named until his 18th birthday and his social services referral sheet, which nearly separated him from his biological mother, cannot be published … {He] told The Times: "It's disgusting. It's my life and I want to talk about it, I want people to know so that maybe this sort of thing can be avoided in the future. It took me ages to get my court documents and even though they're mine, I can't make them public. Social services just get to cover things up and it's wrong."

    And then there's the case of the six-year-old who had a nosebleed. His father wiped his nose and took him to school. But his teacher noticed some dried blood. When the teacher asked what happened, the boy named his father and made a wiping motion. The father was exiled from the home for months. They were going to be reunited, but ultimately both the six-year-old and his younger brother were taken from both parents because, during supervised visits, the parents supposedly showed "inconsistent emotional warmth." (Yes, their system is just like ours.)

    Of course, the British child welfare establishment is no happier about the prospect of accountability than its American counterpart; they claim it's not a matter of secrecy, just privacy. But as Times columnist Camilla Cavendish, a reporter well aware that the errors go in all directions, wrote:

[I]f you are a parent wrongly accused of abusing your child, you do not want the kind of privacy which gags you from discussing your case. If you are a child tortured by a relative under the nose of the state, you do not want the kind of secrecy which protects professionals from scrutiny.

    In explaining his decision, Britain's Minister of Justice, Jack Straw, said that "Justice must be seen to be done."

    But I still think Judith Kaye, who recently retired as Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, put it best. Said Judge Kaye: "Sunshine is good for children."