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.