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…