Sunday, March 1, 2009

The wrong choice for HHS

    There already are indications that child welfare simply isn't on President Obama's radar. The first is the fact that, essentially by accident, he included a provision in the stimulus bill that actually worsens the financial incentives in child welfare – increasing the incentive for using foster care instead of safe, proven alternatives. (See: Stimulating more foster care? Feb. 3).

    And now, the President has nominated to run the Department of Health and Human Services someone who now runs the state that may well be the child removal capital of America – and someone with a breathtaking tolerance for intellectual dishonesty – Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

    Depending on your point of view, Kansas either has exploited a loophole in federal regulations or is simply violating those regulations in a way which allows the state to avoid reporting to the federal government a huge number of cases in which children are thrown into foster care. Were these "off-the-books" placements counted, Kansas might well have the highest rate of child removal in the country. Details are in NCCPR's report on Kansas child welfare and in these previous posts to the Blog: Turning foster children into unpersons , What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot,  It's not Oz, it's Kansas. 
   This is even more alarming in light of a new report which suggests that, across the country, there are hundreds of thousands of children in placements that are, by any common-sense definition foster care, but who are not counted as foster children by states or the federal government. (There will be details on this in a future post to this Blog.) The report reveals an urgent need to standardize, and rigorously enforce, definitions of placement and entries into care – in other words, exactly what Kathleen Sebelius refused to do in Kansas. 
   But fudging the figures was only the beginning.
    Then came the scandal over comments by Sebelius' appointee to run Kansas' own equivalent of HHS, the state Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services. SRS Secretary Don Jordan told family advocates that his caseworkers in Wichita were being bullied by the local D.A.'s office into hyping the reports they wrote about families, in order to make it easier to justify taking children from their homes. When word got out, Jordan said he didn't mean a word of it. He was just – and this is his word – "pandering" to the advocates. Details, again, are in NCCPR's Kansas Report and in these Blog posts: "They lie, they lie, they AWFULLY lie"
and Don Jordan tries to un-ring the bell.

    So we know that Jordan made a blatantly false statement – we just don't know which one. And what did the Governor do about it? Absolutely nothing.

    And it could get worse. Youth Today reports that one of the candidates on the short list to run the part of HHS responsible most directly for child welfare, the Administration for Children and Families is Anne Holton, a former juvenile court judge and wife of Virginia Governor and Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine.

    Holton's record is not all bad. She persuaded the legislature to change financial incentives for counties – which run child welfare here in Virginia – to discourage use of group homes and institutions. But Holton's idea of child welfare reform is to conduct a "listening tour" across the state, systematically reaching out to every constituency – except birth parents, to whom she simply would not deign to listen. She persuaded the state to throw away tens of millions of dollars that could have been used to keep families together on a giant, needless pay raise for foster parents. She appears to view "permanence" solely in terms of adoption and her apparent interest in due process for families is nil. For details, see NCCPR's Report on Virginia child welfare.

Of course, like so many of my fellow liberals, in the larger sphere of "children's issues" both Sebelius and Holton probably would do fine. Sebelius will, of course, be pushing health care reform and other initiatives to curb poverty and anything that curbs poverty curbs the needless destruction of families. So even a Sebelius-Holton regime probably would be better than its predecessors.

But as is so often the case, they share that great liberal blindspot – supporting a legal and policy scheme of infringements on the rights of children to live in their own homes that would make John Ashcroft blush. In short, both Sebelius and Holton make the traditional liberal exception to "living our values" – they cast those values aside as soon as anyone whispers the words "child abuse" in their ears.

    So when it comes to the specifics of child welfare policy, a Sebelius – Holton team would be a dream team for special interests like the Child Welfare League of America – but not for children at risk of being torn from everyone they know and love.