Saturday, May 30, 2009

A truce in Michigan’s war against grandparents

Give the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that calls itself Children's Rights credit – because this time they deserve it. The Detroit News reports that DHS is revising a policy that could have forced thousands of foster children now in kinship care out of the homes of their grandparents and other relatives. And that couldn't have happened without CR agreeing to it.

As discussed previously on this Blog and in our first report on Michigan child welfare, the consent decree between CR and DHS originally required that all relatives providing kinship care become formally licensed. That meant complying with ten single-spaced pages of requirements, most of them unrelated to health or safety. Indeed, as we noted at the time, the home in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother probably could not have met all the licensing requirements. The licensing rule was retroactive, raising the specter of thousands of children being kicked out of the homes of loving grandparents.

Now that won't happen.

There are lots of reasons for the change, including the fact that NCCPR has been raising hell about the problem for months. Of course DHS and CR will deny that this had anything to do with the change. Indeed, DHS already is saying it's not a change, it's a clarification. That's fine. They can call it a kangaroo for all I care – just as long as the change – er, clarification - means the children can stay with their grandparents.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Task Force co-chair tells foster children: Just keep on waiting

After NCCPR released its first report on Michigan child welfare, some people complained about the report's "tone." It was too angry, they said. The language was "inflammatory."

I make no apologies for that. But when I went to Michigan to release our second report on Michigan child welfare, I did tell some of the journalists I met with the reason for that tone and that language. It's the same story I often tell when speaking to groups of professionals in the child welfare field; a story I started telling after the most brilliant advocate I know in any field told me: "You've got to tell them why you're so angry."

And, as it happens, thanks to a smug comment by one C. Patrick Babcock, co-chair of the Michigan Child Welfare Improvement Task Force, in The Detroit News today, the story now has a postscript of sorts:

For most of my professional life, I was either a journalist or a professor of journalism. I covered my first child welfare story in 1976, while I was still a journalism student.

I interviewed a college student who was, at the time, 21. By the time she was nine years old, she had been in nine different foster homes. She told me she survived by keeping the rage inside, "unlike my five brothers who've been in every jail in New York State."

This is some more of what she said:

When you spend your life going from place to place and knowing you're not going to be in any place for very long, you learn not to reach out, not to care, not to feel.

My bitterness is not that I went through what I did, my bitterness is that I don't think it should have had to happen. There was no reason why my family's life should have been destroyed.

After speaking to this woman for two-and-a-half hours, I reached a couple of conclusions:

-- First, I was very glad I'd chosen journalism as a career.

-- Second, I knew I would keep coming back to the story.

As I did keep coming back to the story, I kept finding that the facts on the ground were not matching what the most widely-quoted so-called "experts" were saying. When the dichotomy became too much to bear, I wrote a book on the topic, Wounded Innocents. Ultimately, that led me into advocacy.

As I said, that interview with a former foster child was in 1976. Sixteen years later, I was working in that same city, and I took part in a panel discussion of foster care. Also on the panel was a representative of one of those big, "respected" private agencies with blue-chip boards of directors that lives on per diem payments for keeping children in foster care a major player in that region's "foster care-industrial complex." He was going on, as they always do, about how supposedly children are taken from their families only as a last resort, and never for even a day longer than necessary.

But, he said, maybe after another generation, they would consider changing the financial incentives under which they operate.

After another generation.

Nothing that had happened to that young woman, that former foster child, and all who came after really mattered to him at all.

Why am I angry?

Because now it's another 17 years, and if anything, it's even more likely that children will suffer as that former foster child did especially in states like Michigan.

All of which brings me to Mr. Babcock. From 1987 to 1991, he ran the Michigan Department of Social Services. (That's what the agency was called before it was renamed the Family Independence Agency, which is what it was called before it was renamed the Department of Human Services.) Judging by the agency's record at that time, apparently, he did a good job. But that was a long time ago.

Much more recently, Babcock co-chaired the giant Task Force that studied Michigan child welfare at the behest of DHS director Ismael Ahmed. For months, Ahmed pretended he would care about what the task force recommended. But when the Task Force said spend more on prevention and family preservation and work to stop taking away so many children, Ahmed promptly rushed out and did the opposite.

No problem, says Babcock. Asked by The Detroit News about the fact that Ahmed seemed to be moving in the opposite direction from what his Task Force recommended, Babcock replied: "We always knew it would be a long-term process."

In other words: After another generation…

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Another award finalist, another slap at Michigan

It's not that the judges of the prestigious Innovations in American Government awards at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government were thinking: "Lets really send a message to the regressive child welfare leadership in Michigan that they're getting it all wrong," - it just happened to work out that way. Two of the sixteen finalists for the awards, and two of three in the child welfare category, are a direct repudiation of the Michigan approach, with its heavy reliance on the worst form of care, institutionalization.

As such, the naming of these finalists is a humiliating rebuke to Ismael Ahmed, the current director of Michigan's Department of Human Services and someone who, if his budget is any indication, seems to view his job as giving the institutional care providers – Michigan's foster care-industrial complex – pretty much whatever they want. (The award nominations don't exactly make Ahmed's boss, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, look too good either.)

On Friday, I discussed the nomination of the reformed child welfare system in Maine – which was transformed largely by the director of their child welfare agency James Beougher, who was recruited from Michigan when his efforts to do the same were thwarted.

Another finalist is Wraparound Milwaukee, a program that has cut institutional placements in that community by 90 percent. Wraparound Milwaukee is the living, breathing refutation of every argument made by Michigan's foster care-industrial complex; it is the proof that all the claims that there is no alternative but to institutionalize so many children are nonsense. That's why Wraparound Milwaukee is one of the programs featured in NCCPR's second report on Michigan child welfare, called Tapeworm in the System, which will be released in Lansing this week.

The story of this program was told best by the Westchester Journal News, which has done some of the nation's best reporting on this topic. That's because, for historical reasons, Westchester County, New York, may be the residential treatment capital of America. So the newspaper sent two reporters to Milwaukee. Here's what they found:

[Wraparound] cut the number of Milwaukee children in RTCs by 90 percent, dramatically shortened their stays, reunited hundreds of families, reduced the incidence of crime and saved millions of dollars in treatment costs. It became a national model for treating emotionally disturbed children, offering a more effective and economical means of helping youngsters without the traditional reliance on costly and controversial institutions. …

"Wraparound Milwaukee demonstrates that the seemingly impossible can be made possible: Children's care can be seamlessly integrated. The services given to children not only work, in terms of better clinical results, reduced delinquency, and fewer hospitalizations, but the services are also cost-effective," the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health said in October. "Imagine the nationwide impact on our juvenile justice system if this program were implemented in every community."

"Residential treatment has had the luxury of basically being the sole tool out there for a very high-risk population, and they've convinced people that the only way to be safe is to have them locked up," said Stephen Gilbertson, clinical program coordinator for Wraparound Milwaukee. "We've shown that's simply not true. We've taken extremely high-risk kids and shown they can live successfully in the community."

Institutions have long argued that their role is crucial because most of the children have no stable homes. But Wraparound advocates say institutions have been too quick to write off families; Wraparound seeks out families and finds ways to make them work.

Of course, Milwaukee's institutions didn't simply accept all this. On the contrary, they fought it every step of the way.

"I remember meeting with groups of people and folks saying, 'Let's get some reports out that show they (Wraparound) are going to start hurting kids now,'" said Cathy Connolly, president of St. Charles Youth & Family Services, which operates Milwaukee's largest institution. "Well, nobody could ever bring the reports to the meetings, 'cause there were none that existed that said we were doing anything all that great. We didn't really have any solid anything that demonstrated we were able to fix kids."

Connolly and her colleagues lobbied fiercely for the status quo. She was remarkably candid about the reason:

"There were a couple big fears. … The first was, 'How are we going to financially sustain ourselves?' "

Eventually, however, Connolly's agency embraced the new approach:

"I think, looking back on it now, what we're doing for kids today is far more helpful."

Meanwhile, as noted previously on this Blog, Ismael Ahmed is slashing funding for prevention and family preservation, and proposing big rate increases for institutions.

I wonder if there is an award for resisting innovation in American government?

Friday, May 22, 2009

An award nomination for Maine, a slap in the face for Michigan

Six years ago, the child welfare system in the state of Maine was in a state of chaos. Things were so bad that the PBS series Frontline actually used the Maine system as a microcosm for everything wrong with child welfare.

Today the system has improved so much that it is a finalist for a prestigious Innovations in American Government award from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The transformation in Maine is among only 16 finalists out of more than 600 entries.

The state has dramatically reduced the number of children taken from their parents and significantly increased the proportion of those taken who are placed with relatives. But perhaps their most remarkable achievement is cutting by two-thirds the number of children trapped in the worst form of care of all, institutionalization. It's all been done without compromising safety, earning the support of the state's independent child welfare ombudsman.

A lot of people deserve credit for the transformation, but none more than the director of Maine's child welfare agency, James Beougher.

Oh, wait. Actually there are some others who deserve to share the credit: The collection of regressive, obstructionist private agencies in Michigan who, year after year, block every attempt at meaningful reform in that state. These enormously powerful agencies constitute the state's foster care-industrial complex, or, to use a term first coined by legendary newspaper columnist Jack Newfield – the "permanent government" of Michigan child welfare. The agencies in the foster care-industrial complex are paid for every day they warehouse children in their institutions. Nothing is more important to these agencies than keeping those per diems rolling in. Oh they won't admit that, not even to themselves. They've got an elaborate set of rationalizations for their hugely expensive largely worthless institutions, and they've suckered a fair number of people, apparently including Michigan Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed, into believing them.

Jim Beougher used to work in Michigan. He'd successfully reduced institutional placements in several counties. But when he tried to do it statewide as director of child and family services for Michigan DHS, he was thwarted by the intractable politics of Michigan child welfare. But while Michigan didn't want change, Maine, and in particular, Maine's governor, John Baldacci, did. So the Baldacci Administration brought Beougher to Maine, where he led that state's reform effort.

Beougher is not alone. In NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare, there is a section called The Michigan Child Welfare Brain Drain, which tells the stories of other Michigan child welfare leaders who brought reform to other places after being thwarted in Michigan.

Not that it's been easy in Maine. There's a foster care-industrial complex in Maine, too. But with the strong backing of the governor, and with the state's major newspapers unwilling to take the claims of the private agencies at face value, the reform effort has survived attempts to beat it back.

So the vulnerable children of Maine owe quite a debt of gratitude to the private child welfare agencies of Michigan. The vulnerable children of Michigan could be forgiven for not feeling quite as grateful.

But the story doesn't end there. Another of the finalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards also is, in effect, a direct slap in the face to the regressive Michigan way of doing business in child welfare. That story Monday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One viewer sees through the “Safe Families” hype

With the CBS Evening News the latest to jump on the bandwagon of offering up gushy stories about "Safe Families" - the so-called alternative to foster care that is, in fact, foster care – the comments section of the CBS News website was dominated by the usual anonymous ranting, bigotry and general nuttiness – except for one comment that cut through all the b.s. surrounding Safe Families. One viewer saw what almost all the reporters who've been fawning over this program missed. Unfortunately, I don't know who posted it; like almost all such posts, this one is anonymous, identified only by the screen name Krymarh. But I can reprint what Krymarh wrote – exactly as she or he wrote it:

During the second World war Jewish family were separating from their children for the sake of children survival. The Nazis were set to kill them all. And now in the richest and, so far, peaceful country the best solution to the economic crises it to give up your children to charitable Christians for the sake of survival. Millions of homes taken by banks stay empty. Parents cannot buy children shoes, there are sleeping in subways. Instead of buying shoes and providing decent shelter for families with children "Good people" solve the state problem and offer their solution, they take children to their Christians homes. What country is that? What country allows that to happen? Charity starts with courage of thoughts. Courage of social changes. But as long as this is acceptable and cherished solutions, any real change in hearts and minds is impossible.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The long, long learning curve of Dr. Perri Klass

It was 20 years ago that I first encountered the writing of Perri Klass, M.D. At the time, she was doing her residency at Boston Children's Hospital and I was researching my book, Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Klass wrote about how tough it was on her when her husband brought her own three-year-old into the E.R. with a cigarette burn. The child ran into the cigarette while running in a restaurant. She described how tough it was on her to be interrogated, but concluded that it was not only justified but commendable, and everyone should be glad to put up with the same treatment.

"Bear with us," Klass wrote at the time.

For decades, pediatricians missed child abuse; the children marched past, bruised or burned, and their parents' stories were accepted. Now we live in fear that someone will get by, that we will believe a story that shouldn't be believed. Be patient with us as we ask you these questions, and understand that we are bound, ethically, morally, and now legally, to suspect everyone. It may seem harsh and unfair that you are not immediately and obviously cleared, but it would be much worse if we gave in to our instincts and promptly cleared all parents who seemed ''like us.'' It would be more than unfair; it would be dangerous. We all know too much now; our innocence is gone. We are trying, if you will pardon a corny turn of phrase, to protect the innocent.

It's not that Dr. Klass was unaware of racial and class bias in child welfare – it's just that she saw it solely in terms of doctors not being tough enough on most rich white people; whereas they were exactly tough enough on her.

Easy for her to say.

She, her husband and, most important, their son, were allowed to go home that night, and that was the end of it.

As it happens, at about the same time, in the same hospital, another mother, Geraldine Churchwell, said there was no need for her child to be institutionalized at a residential treatment center. She was not accused of abusing or neglecting her daughter, and there certainly was nothing so flagrantly suspicious as a cigarette burn. No, Churchwell's child simply had asthma. The child's allergist said Churchwell took superb care of her daughter. And she had a comprehensive alternative treatment plan of her own. But she also was poor and Black. So Dr. Klass' hospital strong-armed her: Institutionalize the child or we'll call Child Protective Services.

Of course I compared the two cases, and the two outcomes, in my book.

In the years since, I don't know what happened to Geraldine Churchwell. Perri Klass, however, would go on to write several books, fiction and non-fiction, and innumerable essays for the Times. The latest essay from Dr. Klass turned up Tuesday. Once again, child abuse was the theme. This time Dr. Klass was celebrating how much more doctors supposedly know about how to detect it, and the fact that "child abuse pediatrics" is about to become an official medical specialty – complete with board certification.

But most important, we learn in this new essay that the story she told 20 years ago has a sequel. Klass writes:

[T]he incident [with the cigarette burn] made enough of an impression on my colleagues that a year or so later, when the same child came back with a broken femur at age 4, an attending doctor said to me, with the harsh humor of the emergency room: "I don't know, Perri. First cigarette burns, now a major fracture— doesn't look so good for you." (I knew enough to be theoretically glad that abuse was on his mind; on the other hand, 20 years later, I haven't forgotten or forgiven the remark.)

Pooooooooor Perri. She had to endure an unkind remark. Try, Dr. Klass, please, just try to imagine where your son would be now had you been poor and Black, and your son had turned up in the E.R. with a cigarette burn one year and a major fracture the next. Almost certainly the child would have been detained at the hospital and thrown into foster care for a year or more. And if you had the wrong attitude, Dr. Klass, if you'd gotten too angry, and protested your innocence too much, odds are you'd have no child at all today, your parental rights having been terminated.

But if the past 20 years have made the good doctor more reflective, it doesn't show. Does she regret the atmosphere of paranoia she helped to spread? Does she regret all the harm done to innocent children whose lives were destroyed by needless foster care in the name of "protecting the innocent"? Does she regret the maltreatment inflicted on children taken from safe homes only to be abused in foster care? Nope. On the contrary, her conclusion now is almost identical to the one 20 years ago. She writes:

[I]t's an emotionally difficult diagnosis for a pediatrician to contemplate, especially when it concerns a family you feel you know well. And all too often, it is a diagnosis we fail to consider in families that don't match our mental profiles of abusers.

And no wonder she feels that way. After all, the children of Perri Klass, M.D., including the one with the cigarette burn and the broken femur by age four, never had to endure even one minute of foster care.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Everything wrong with “Safe Families” in one “model” case

The previous post to this Blog discussed a program called "Safe Families." Touted as an "alternative" to foster care, Safe Families has been the subject of lots of gushy news stories in the last few weeks – with only The New York Times finding room for any dissent. The most recent story aired on WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago. As with all the others, it began with a case study – a desperate parent who was "saved" by the program, and offers a glowing testimonial.

But this case actually reveals everything wrong with the program. It reveals the extent to which the program really is another form of foster care, and even falls short of the very few model foster care programs out there.

According to the story:

Araina was in her early twenties, with three very young sons. Separated from her husband, who she says didn't pay child support, she couldn't keep her low-paying job at a sandwich shop because she couldn't afford child care. Araina was so desperate she called the state Department of Children and Family Services. "I said, 'Hey, you know, is there a thing, anything, I can do? Can you take my children temporarily until I can get on my feet, get a job and get situated?'" she recalled. The case worker urged Araina not turn her children over to the state because it might be hard to get them back. But there was another solution called Safe Families.

But what did Safe Families do? With all the energy and brain power and resources behind the program, did it find a way for Araina to get child care, without her having to surrender her children?


Did it get her a good pro-bono lawyer so she could start collecting that child support she was owed, so she'd never need to surrender her children?


The one thing they offered was exactly what foster care offered – albeit without making it nearly as hard to get the children back.

And the resemblance to typical foster care goes deep:

Typical foster care programs often split up siblings; imposing a huge additional trauma on the children. Model foster care programs keep siblings together. Safe Families put Araina's three children in three different homes.

Typical foster care programs place children far from their own neighborhoods, so they lose not only their parents but everyone they know and love; often they have to change schools. Model foster care programs keep children in their own neighborhoods. Safe Families placed at least one of Araina's children 40 miles away.

And while Safe Families tells news organizations parents can visit their children whenever they want (though, as is noted in the previous post to this Blog, the program's Handbook suggests that's not always the case), for Araina that would have meant any time she could have gotten to all those different homes, including the one 40 miles away.

The case, in which Araina "voluntarily" gives her children to the Safe Families families, also illustrates the true meaning of the term "voluntary" in child welfare.

The only case one can make for Safe Families is it's not as hard to get the kids out, once they're in. That's not good enough – and certainly not enough to earn it its current status of Child Welfare Media Darling of 2009.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sugar frosted foster care

There's a program based in Chicago and spreading rapidly around the country in which mentor families help poor families who are stressed to the breaking point. The program claims the mentor families may help with everything from food, to helping find housing, to resume writing and getting a car. Families who were helped are offering up testimonials in a remarkable burst of news coverage – the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Indianapolis Star, the Chicago Tribune, the CBS-owned station in Chicago, and a huge spread in The New York Times, all in under six weeks. A case even could be made that this program may have saved some of the children from spending years in foster care.

Who in the world could be against something like this?

Actually, I could.

Because the price the families have to pay to gain access to all this largess is too high. It's the same price poor families almost always are forced to pay when they get desperate; the price that's been imposed on them by the middle class and the wealthy for more than a century: Sure, we'll help you – just as long as you hand over the kids first.

In one of those Orwellian twists of language that pervade child welfare, the program, known as Safe Families, repeatedly is described as an alternative to foster care. In the most technical, legal sense that's true. But by any real-world definition, and, especially from the perspective of the children, Safe Families is foster care.

Safe Families is intended to help families that are poor and desperate but are not yet in the crosshairs of child protective services. As The Indianapolis Star put it: "Typically the state will not step in to help children until they are facing abuse or neglect. Safe Families hopes to get there before things become that bad."

Safe Families recruits its families largely through churches. They agree to take in a poor person's children, again as the Star put it, "until the adults sort out their problems." Unlike foster parents, the families who take in the children receive no compensation.

The program's founder emphasizes that, unlike government-run foster care, this program is voluntary. Children are taken in because the birth parents choose to have them taken in. But when you're poor and desperate, nothing is really voluntary. If the only options are: Live in your car, or with an abusive husband or boyfriend until CPS comes and takes away the children or give them up yourself without government interference, the latter is the less bad option. But why are there no other options? (And, as will be seen in tomorrow's blog, Safe Families has taken in children where the underlying problems were not nearly that bad, and could have been solved more easily.)

In news stories, officials with the program say the birth parents can visit whenever they want and take the children back whenever they want – though the fine print suggests it's a little more complicated. In Chicago and Milwaukee, parents must sign over legal guardianship of the children, and, in Chicago, the parents must provide five days written notice to take them back. That would be plenty of time for a Safe Family parent who doesn't think the birth parents are ready to, say, call CPS. And Safe Families staff are mandated reporters of child maltreatment. As for visiting, some Safe Families families are quite flexible. But they don't have to be. According to the program's handbook:

When visits are possible, Safe Families staff (and sometimes staff from other agencies) will seek to arrange visits on a weekly basis. ... It is up to the Safe Family whether they are willing to have the parent visit their child in the Safe Family home. If not, visits will likely occur at a neutral location.

That's as restrictive as many foster care programs, and more restrictive than a few model foster care programs. And the resemblance doesn't end there. Just like typical foster care, Safe Families sometimes splits apart siblings, a tremendous additional trauma for the children. And just like typical foster care Safe Families sometimes sends children far from their birth parents. Model foster care programs emphasizing keeping the children in the same neighborhood.

Perhaps most important, any parent contemplating using the program needs to know that at least ten percent of the children taken in by Safe Families parents don't come back. In comparison, one study of an Intensive Family Preservation Services program – which targets children in much more difficult cases, children who really have been maltreated and are on the verge of foster care placement - found that 93 percent of the children didn't have to be taken from their parents at all.

In addition, Safe Families achieved its track record almost entirely in Chicago; the other locations are just getting started. As it happens, there probably is no place in America where CPS shows more restraint about taking away children than Chicago. The mentality is very different in Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

After I raised some concerns in the Times story (the only news organization in which the reporter thought including another side of the story might be a good idea), the program's founder, David Anderson, got in touch. He said they've almost never had to call a CPS hotline on a family and, of the ten percent of children who don't return, about half are cases in which the birth parents voluntarily decided that the Safe Family parents should have permanent guardianship. But here again the issue is the definition of voluntary. Sadly, there are any number of times when impoverished birth parents see how much more a substitute family can provide for a child materially, and so persuade themselves that the children would be "better off" in the middle-class home.

As I've noted before on this Blog, When I wrote my book on child welfare, Wounded Innocents, (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995) nearly 20 years ago I cited an Orlando Sentinel story about a mother in Florida who desperately loved her two children, four-year-old Lisa and two-year-old Amanda, but was homeless. Fearing that the state would take them away, she "voluntarily" surrendered them, to the state, at first temporarily. "She figured giving the kids up for temporary custody was her best chance of keeping them," the Sentinel reported.

"Lisa and Amanda's mother visited them at the church day care facility every day. By fall she was talking to a church worker about giving the girls up for adoption. Because she thought that "was going to be better for them than anything she could ever give to them. She did love the girls. If she could give them up, they could be taken care of, sent to college," the worker said. … The girls said their mother "'had water in her eyes' when she said goodbye. The mother left a necklace - a chain with a big heart and two little ones - behind as a remembrance. She told Lisa to tell Amanda that she loved her. And she left."

That, too, was "voluntary."

But let's grant everything Anderson says: Let's assume birth parents really can see their children whenever they want and get them back whenever they want. And let's assume the odds of losing a child to CPS this way are so slim it's really nothing to worry about. Let's even assume the odds of losing a child to CPS actually are greater for families that don't get help, because eventually they'll deteriorate, CPS will take their children, and then it will be much harder to get them back. There's still a huge problem with Safe Families: No child should have to give up her or his parents – for months, weeks or even days, just because those parents are poor.

Why force families to pay that price for help? The answer is in the first sentence of the Safe Families handbook. It refers not to preserving families but to "rescue" of children. That tells you that the mentality behind this program is the same child rescue mentality that has caused so many problems in child welfare from its inception. Similarly, the handbook is permeated with the pejorative term "biological parent" - a term that conjures up images of someone no more important to a child than a test tube. The term "birth parent" is value neutral. To his credit, Anderson has agreed to change the language in the handbook on both counts, and to remove the five-day written notice requirement for Illinois parents when they want their children back. He says it was never enforced.

But why is it that in America, for more than 100 years, almost every time people in child welfare come up with some "new" way to "help" poor families, especially poor minority families, it involves separating them from their children - and, more important, separating their children from them? Why should a child have to endure being taken from everyone she or he knows and loves - whether it's by CPS or a well-meaning volunteer - just because that child is poor? Why do we keep doing this to children? Why isn't the same energy and effort of these volunteers exerted to fix up poor people's homes, drive them to job interviews, bring them a home cooked meal, and yes, watch the children - not for days in someone else's home - but for the day or an evening in their own home? All these options still allow for all the good things about Safe Families - in particular the potential to build lasting bonds between the birth family and the helping family.

Anderson argues that Safe Families families do these things too – and more. Some Safe Families families take in the birth parents as well as the children. He argues that the substitute care is just one part of the program (but just happens to be the part on which every news organization fixates). But why not do all these other great things without the sugar frosted foster care? (Indeed, there actually is a program that does just that. It even has a similar name: Save the Families, and it was the subject of this very good story on NBC Nightly News last week.)

The reason Safe Families doesn't skip the substitute care is the same reason the substitute care is the part that's most attractive to all those reporters: It's the part that involves "child rescue" so it's the part that makes the helpers feel best.

There has, however, been one unquestioned benefit from Safe Families: The fact that this program has been able to recruit so many people to provide substitute care for no financial compensation at all is still more evidence that it's nuts for the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" to run all over the country demanding giant pay raises for foster parents so they can be reimbursed not just for basic expenses but for every movie ticket, theme park ride, even every teddy bear they buy for a foster child.

Yes, sugar frosted foster care beats the unsweetened variety. But as the better program, Save the Families, proves, there is no reason to limit poor children to these options.

Tomorrow: Everything wrong with "Safe Families" in one "model" case

Friday, May 8, 2009

Spitting in the face of your own “Task Force”

It's one thing to ignore your own Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission, as I've come to call the groups that are appointed whenever a child welfare agency wants to duck responsibility for its failings. It's another to practically spit in the faces of the people who served on it.

You'd think Ismael Ahmed, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, at least would have waited a decent interval before helping his boss the governor slash at least $19.8 million from funds for child abuse prevention, family preservation and basic help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty. Depending on how you count things like cuts in day care, employment training and public assistance, the figure could be as high as $40 million or more. There even are cuts of at least $1.2 million for adoption support services and help for young people who've been failed their entire lives by DHS and now are "aging out" of foster care. (Voices for Michigan's Children has a breakdown of the cuts here.)

Many of these programs repeatedly have been cut back in past years; indeed the state of Michigan largely bailed out of funding prevention and family preservation years ago. As is discussed in detail in our report on Michigan child welfare and previously on this Blog they are funded largely on the backs of poor people themselves, using surplus funds from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

The new cuts come in the form of an Executive Order issued by the governor to close a deficit for the current fiscal year. They come on top of at least $38 million in cuts proposed for next year, discussed in a previous post to this Blog. In each case, the Governor couldn't have thought it all up all by herself.

None of these cuts really is required by Michigan's budget crisis. All these cuts could be avoided simply by not giving two big rate increases next year to providers of largely-worthless "residential treatment" – the worst form of "care" for foster children, and by using the great gobs of money going to hire more child abuse investigators and foster care workers to fund prevention and family preservation instead.

You can get a small but revealing sense of the contempt the people at DHS feel for these programs by the fact that they can't even get all of the names right. Family Group Decision Making, a key component of real reform, is referred to in the Executive Order as "Family group discussion making."

This is, of course, precisely the opposite of what Ahmed's own "Child Welfare Improvement Task Force" recommended.

But it's the same pattern as next year's proposed budget: Anything that might provide permanence or security for vulnerable children takes a hit – while the big, powerful private providers do just fine.

I don't know what's worse – Ahmed's hypocrisy or the providers' obscene priorities.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The last FLDS child in foster care is NOT leaving foster care

News organization websites across Texas carried stories today that began much like this one:

"The last child remaining in state custody as a result of the state's raid last year on a West Texas ranch owned by a polygamist sect will soon leave foster care, state officials said today."

But none of the stories was true.

Yes, the daughter of FLDS member Barbara Jessop would be allowed to move in with a relative. But Texas CPS and the courts still are overseeing the case. They decide where the child will live, when she can be visited and whether she will return home. And that means she's still in foster care. It's just foster care with a relative, instead of foster care with a stranger. Placements with relatives almost always are a better option than "stranger care" – but it's still foster care.

States often try to fudge this. They'll describe kinship care as a way to "avoid foster care" or, in this case, possibly claim a child is "leaving foster care" when she simply is being transferred to a different kind of foster care. They do this so they can make the number of children they've taken from their families, and the number they're holding in foster care, look lower than it really is. But the federal government is clear on this: If a child is taken away at the behest of CPS and/or the courts, and can't return home without their permission, it's foster care.

This afternoon, I pointed this out in an e-mail to NCCPR's list of reporters who have been following the FLDS case. I got two strikingly different responses.

Brooke Adams of the Salt Lake Tribune, who has been beating the you-know-what out of the entire Texas press corps in its own backyard on the FLDS story from day one, sent a gracious note, and changed the wording of her story.

The reporter who wrote the lead quoted above, whom I won't name because there's no reason to single her out, sent a very different response. She wrote:

"[M]y blog item clearly says she is being placed with a relative and that the state will continue to monitor her progress, so I don't think that leaves any confusion about what is happening."

Right. It just creates confusion over whether the child is in foster care or not. And if, in fact, CPS claimed the child was "will soon leave foster care" then the story accepts what would be a blatant falsehood as fact.

Now, as journalistic crimes go, accepting as fact the claim that kinship care is not foster care is a misdemeanor. It wouldn't even be worth bringing up here except for the fact that the hyper-defensive response perfectly illustrates Edward R. Murrow's comment that "the press doesn't have a thin skin, it has no skin." I think that kind of defensiveness, more than the initial error, and the inability to "talk back" to a newspaper in any meaningful way most of the time, is one reason there is so much distrust of the news media.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spoiler alert: CPS survives the apocalypse!

I've been watching a BBC series called Survivors on DVD. It's not a reality show, it's a very good remake of a drama from the 1970s. This version hasn't aired in North America yet, so this really is a bit of a spoiler:
The plot deals with what would happen if a virus that appears to be the flu wipes out 99 percent of Earth's population – like that would ever happen. Survivors include a young man and an 11-year-old boy who form a father-son relationship.
In Episode 4, the one surviving bureaucrat in all of Britain decides the father figure is unfit, and tears them apart.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Florida wins, Michigan loses

Today's Tampa Tribune has a story about how recession-ravaged Florida is changing its mind about slashing child welfare spending.

The reason: The cuts could endanger a huge pot of federal money – Florida's "waiver" from federal funding rules, which allows more than $100 million a year in federal aid previously reserved for foster care to be spent on better options as well.

If Florida didn't have the waiver, it could have slashed and burned with impunity. So the waiver benefits Florida's vulnerable children two ways – by allowing money to be spent more wisely and by protecting them from the worst of the budget cutting. And, by the way, as has been discussed previously on this Blog, there's an independent evaluation of the waiver which shows that it has improved child safety.

Another state that could desperately use a break like this is Michigan. Oh, wait. Michigan actually got such a waiver at the same time as Florida - 2006. Michigan's Department of Human Services even bragged about it to reporters. There were nice news stories and everything. But then, at the very last minute, without telling anyone, Michigan DHS chickened out and sneaked away from the whole deal. Isn't it time to demand to know who made that asinine decision – and why?

And speaking of asinine, one of the big scare tactics used by groups like the Child Welfare League of America to oppose plans to make things like the Florida waiver the norm in federal child welfare spending is the claim that a flexible funding system makes it easier to cut overall funding for child welfare. Not only is that flat wrong, Florida now is proving that CWLA got it backwards.