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