Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After the Times, the backlash?

There is a downside for any child welfare agency that winds up the subject of a big newspaper story talking about how much the agency has improved by working to keep families together. Such stories have the unintended consequence of painting a target on the agency's back.

As is discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog, the Florida Department of Children and Families was the subject of such a story in The New York Times. The story even noted the independent evaluation which found solid evidence that the reduction in entries into care was accompanied by improvements in child safety.

But mere facts have never stopped the kind of backlash that happens whenever family preservation starts to gain this kind of traction.

You don't change the way child welfare has been done for 150 years without making enemies. There are plenty of people who think of the days when Kathleen Kearney ran DCF as the good old days. That was when she so terrified the agency into taking away more children that, as one administrator at the time put it: "I don't dare say the word 'reunification' in her presence." The fact that this endangered many more children, destroyed countless lives, and collapsed the entire system has not dampened this nostalgia.

Some have a vested interest – they run agencies that stay in business by providing foster care or residential treatment. Others are simply true believers in the take-the-child-and-run approach who aren't about to be confused by pesky things like data.

To paraphrase a former colleague at the Albany Times-Union writing, long ago, about a faction out of power in that city, think of the enemies of reform as kind of a Kearney DCF-in-exile.

You'll hear from them as soon as the next high profile tragedy takes place.

Unfortunately, there's no "if" about such tragedies, only a "when" – because no system, even the very best in the country, stops all of them. And while Florida is much improved, it still has a long way to go.

So when the next tragedy captures everyone's attention, that Kearney DCF-in-exile will come out of the woodwork, fingers wagging to say "See? See? DCF is doing too much to preserve families! The pendulum has swung too far!" (I was a reporter for 19 years, but even then I never understood why nothing could hypnotize some of my colleagues faster than a metaphorical swinging pendulum). In fact, the best child welfare systems in the country still take children at a lower rate than the statewide average in Florida – so the alleged pendulum still hasn't swung far enough.

The backlash will start when the first tragedy occurs. If there happen to be, say, three in a relatively short period then that, of course is "proof" of a "pattern." Then it's a "series" or even a "spate." (You would think, by now, people running child welfare systems would make sure to keep the tragedies evenly spaced, so no one would claim there's any kind of trend.)

The Kearney DCF-in-exile is counting on being able to exploit such tragedies. They're counting on the state's reporters either having very short memories or all taking buyouts before the next tragedy so it's reported by people with no "institutional memory."

Here's what they want everyone to forget:

There were more tragedies when the take-the-child-and-run approach dominated Florida child welfare. As noted in the previous post to this Blog, Marcia Lowry of the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" got her facts wrong about child abuse fatalities in Florida. The first year that entries into foster care in Florida significantly declined also was the first year deaths of children "known to the system" declined. (I've also said often before that fatalities are not a very good measure – but as long as they are the measure of choice for media, and people like Lowry, I'm not going to unilaterally disarm.)

A crucial side benefit of Florida's waiver from federal funding rules is the fact, noted above, that it joins the ranks of the few states that undergo regular systematic, meaningful independent evaluation. As the Times story notes, that evaluation showed that the standard measure of safety, reabuse of children left in their own homes, is improving.

The formula for exploiting the first tragedy after a "things-are-improving-thanks-to-family-preservation" story has worked quite well at setting back reforms elsewhere, notably in New York City. My guess is it won't take long to see if Florida does better.

MONDAY ON THE NCCPR CHILD WELFARE BLOG: See why NCCPR is "The Prius of Child Advocacy"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The waiver that saved Florida (and could have saved Michigan had they been smart enough to accept it)

There are people in child welfare who thought Florida would never change. They despaired of ever persuading officials at the state's Department of Children and Families that their fanatical embrace of a take-the-child-and-run approach in 1999 would lead only to disaster – which, of course, it did.

But now, Florida has changed. And now The New York Times has documented that change. The story shows how a state once synonymous with child welfare failure has begun a transformation, by emphasizing safe, proven programs to keep families together. And it shows how one change in particular made everything else possible – a change with profound implications for federal child welfare policy.

There are a lot of reasons Florida changed. NCCPR's four comprehensive reports, three rate-of-removal indexes comparing regions within the state and eight trips to Florida to meet with reporters (for the record, almost always in the summer) had more than a little to do with it. We wore away resistance to solutions that work, but that go against "gut instinct." By approaching media, not government, we helped break the monopoly in the marketplace of ideas held by the state's "child savers," to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves.

The case for family preservation is so strong that it can win any free competition in that marketplace; the problem is getting those ideas heard. In contrast, the take-the-child-and-run approach is a bit like almost anything made by Microsoft; nobody really likes the product, but people keep buying it because everybody else is buying it or they don't know something else is readily available.

Our give 'em hell advocacy from the outside strengthened the hand of reformers on the inside. And when Charlie Crist became governor and his first DCF Secretary, Bob Butterworth, decided it was time to listen to new ideas, the reformers were ready.

Then Butterworth did something revolutionary: He ordered his agency to stop stonewalling. Under Butterworth and his successor, George Sheldon, DCF has become the most open, accountable child welfare agency in America. (O.K., that's a really low bar, but even by non-child welfare standards, DCF has been pretty impressive. It's done everything the law allows to be open, and interpreted every ambiguity in favor of openness.) Among other things, that bought DCF time to begin to show substantive improvement.

But credit for what may have been the most important single change – because it made all the others possible – actually goes to Crist's predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush. Now, let me be clear: There is probably no political leader in America who did more to screw up a child welfare system than Jeb Bush. He and his appointees made one appalling decision after another. But the one and only thing Bush got right allowed Crist and his leaders at DCF to undo all the things Bush got wrong.

But, let the Times explain it:

While the focus on preserving families has taken hold in several states, here it has been backed by a federal waiver that allows the state to use foster care financing for prevention and mental health, an approach that advocates of the program hope will become standard nationwide.

Like an addict who finally realizes the destructiveness of his addiction and vows to quit, Florida agreed to give up its addiction to endless dollars for foster care. Florida relinquished the open-ended entitlement to federal aid for part of the cost of foster care for every eligible child. This is the system that, nationwide, has led to the federal government spending at least nine times more on foster care than on alternatives.

But Florida DCF agreed to accept this money as a flat grant. In exchange they were allowed to spend this money – more than $140 million per year - on safe, proven alternatives to foster care, instead of only on foster care itself.

It was a bold move. Had Florida been unable to control needless removal of children, it would have had to pay for all of those additional placements itself. (Indeed, the existence of the entitlement is one of the main reasons states don't control their addiction to foster care.) But when, as happened in Florida, these alternatives, which cost less in the first place, also led to reductions in foster care, the waiver let Florida keep the savings and plow that money into more help for families.

But the advantages don't end there. The waiver includes what is known in government jargon as a "maintenance of effort" provision. In other words, DCF can't just use the flexible federal funds to replace state funds. In fact, if Florida cuts state spending too much, it loses all the federal money. So even though Florida is among the states worst hit by the recession and even though there was enormous temptation to enact Michigan-style slash-and-burn child welfare budget cuts, the Legislature backed off, rather than lose all that federal aid.

Why mention Michigan in particular? Because, as I've mentioned so often before on this Blog, Michigan initially accepted the same waiver and then, at the last minute, someone in that state's child welfare agency turned it down. (Isn't it time someone in Michigan media tried to find out who made that idiotic decision and whether he or she still has any influence over child welfare in that state?)

So, the waiver saves children from the horrors of needless foster care, it improves child safety (as documented in an independent evaluation) and it saves money. Who could be against that?

Pretty much the entire American child welfare establishment, actually.

Of course, Marcia Lowry, supreme leader of the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) has problems with the Florida reform effort. For her it's a four-way threat:

It relies on preventing foster care instead of hopeless efforts to "fix" it while shoveling more children into it.

It's flexible instead of bureaucratic – the antithesis of the CR approach.

It was accomplished without decades of litigation caused by one of Marcia's micromanaging lawsuits. Indeed, Marcia tried to bring a class-action suit in Florida – joining one that originally had been brought by a very good Florida lawyer – and it got tossed out of court. (The fact that, in some jurisdictions, even Marcia's lawsuits can be better than nothing tells us only how bad some systems are.)

And it's got to be embarrassing that the waiver included that maintenance of effort provision, while Marcia's consent decree in Michigan doesn't have one, leaving that state free to slash funding for prevention and family preservation.

But none of that excuses getting figures, dates and context wrong, which she managed to do in the Times. She cited an increase in Florida child abuse deaths, as the Times put it, "in recent years."

She neglected to mention that:

As the Times story explains, much of the most recent increase was a result of a radical change in what the state's Child Fatality Review Committee considers neglect instead of an accident (something NCCPR pointed out on this Blog at the time). Indeed, the state's Fatality Review Committee itself attributed the "increase" in deaths to changes in reporting. It's on Page 1 of this report from the committee.

There is nothing recent about child abuse deaths increasing in Florida. All through the years that the take-the-child-and-run mentality dominated Florida child welfare, child abuse deaths, and in particular deaths of children "known to the system," increased.

In contrast, everything changed when reform started to take hold. The first year in nearly a decade in which entries into foster care in Florida significantly declined – 2007 – also was the first year in nearly a decade that such deaths actually decreased.

[UPDATE: JAN. 12, 2010: In 2008, the number of such deaths increased again, to about their 2006 level. So, in spite of the recession, and the ongoing pressure to broaden the definition of a child abuse fatality, deaths of children known-to-the-system were no worse than before the waiver - a remarkable accomplishment if one is inclined to measure safety based on fatalities.]

More important, since, as NCCPR has stressed repeatedly, fatalities are among the worst ways to measure overall safety, (and we'll gladly stop using that measure, just as soon as the media and people like Marcia agree to stop as well) that independent evaluation found that a far better measure of safety, reabuse of children, had been cut in half.

Marcia also objects to even setting goals for reducing the number of children in foster care. Yet Marcia's own lawsuit settlements don't just set numerical goals, they demand that child welfare systems meet specific target numbers for almost everything they do. She seems especially keen on adoption quotas. In other words, it's o.k. to set a goal for how many children you will sever from their families forever – and demand that a child welfare system meet it - but not o.k. to set a target for how many children you can return to their own parents.

But while Marcia objects to the whole reform effort, the waiver has many more enemies.

A few years ago the (George) Bush administration tried to change federal law to allow – not require, just allow – any state to fund child welfare the way Florida is funding it. The plan was strictly voluntary.

But, of course, if every state had the option to do this, then every state could reduce needless foster care the way Florida has done it. And that would be a huge problem for big, powerful private agencies that make their living warehousing children in foster care. It also would be a problem for public child welfare agency bureaucrats (like that one in Michigan) who'd have to explain why they had so little confidence in their own ability to avoid needless foster care that they were turning down the best chance in decades to fix their systems.

And who represents both groups? The Child Welfare League of America, of course.

So they were a major part of a successful campaign of fear and smear against flexible funding. "Block grant! Block grant!" they screamed (a term which, to liberals, is as scary as "death tax" is to conservatives, and, in this case every bit as misleading).

They were joined by groups like Every Child Matters and the Children's Defense Fund. At one point, CDF actually claimed that this voluntary plan would "dismantle foster care." (Did I mention that the plan was voluntary? What part of "voluntary" don't my fellow liberals understand?) CDF never even tried to back up the claim. But I am aware of no journalist ever demanding that CDF justify its patently-absurd claim, or calling them out for failing to do so.

Unfortunately, the opposition has the ear of the Obama Administration. My fellow liberals tend to be as deferential to the "foster care-industrial complex" as conservatives tend to be to the military-industrial complex.

The opponents have the politics. All Florida has is success. So it may be a long time before other states are offered the chance to do what Florida has done.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The caption says it all

On Monday, I'll post a detailed blog about the excellent story in today's New York Times about child welfare reform in Florida. But the caption under the photo that accompanies the story says it all. It reads: "Sylvia Kimble, 46, of Jacksonville, with some of the six grandchildren she is raising with financing that would otherwise have gone to foster care programs." [Emphasis added.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Michigan “Needs Assessment”: A rebuke to DHS and CR

As the previous post to this Blog explains, a requirement of the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) is a "Needs Assessment." As the name suggests this means lots of people spending lots of time creating one more document telling us what we already know: Michigan should be doing far more to keep families together.

The settlement calls for spending $4 million on needs found by the Needs Assessment. But in a true masterstroke of legal strategy, CR managed to forget to include anything in its settlement that would stop DHS from cutting ten times more than they now are required to add. Brilliant. So What DHS giveth with one hand, DHS taketh ten-fold with the other.

As for what the document actually tells us:

The Needs Assessment is a 221-page rebuke of the shortsighted approach of both DHS and CR.

Everything the assessment says Michigan's vulnerable children need more of, DHS is providing less of. The list of what Michigan's vulnerable children need and the list of children's services budget cuts are nearly identical.

And that is not because of the state budget crisis. The biggest fraud in Michigan right now is the notion that the cuts in safe proven programs to keep families together are needed to balance the budget. On the contrary, the money saved from these cuts is going into more money for institutionalization and a wasteful hiring binge.

For that, the blame rests both with Ismael Ahmed's apparent obsession with giving private agencies that warehouse children in "residential treatment" whatever they want (that's why he's so beloved by these agencies) and with CR, which allowed that giant loophole in the settlement mentioned above.

Though the spirit of the settlement and its legally binding guiding principles (not to mention common sense) make clear that DHS was not supposed to fund the settlement by cutting other help to vulnerable children, the settlement has no explicit provision saying this. So DHS has plowed through that loophole. DHS is using slash-and-burn budget cuts for prevention and family preservation to finance rate increases for residential treatment and a foster care worker hiring binge.

And the hiring binge is not actually required by the settlement. The settlement requires a reduction in caseloads – it doesn't say this has to be done by hiring child abuse investigators and foster care workers. Caseloads would be far more likely to go down if DHS put more money into the very programs it now is cutting. As it stands now, all those new workers are likely to chase down all the new cases of children needlessly removed from their homes because of the budget cuts, leaving Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.

And I'm not the only one saying this. Look at what the Needs Assessment itself says about how to reduce caseloads (Page 23):

The settlement agreement assumes that Michigan's system reform efforts … will decrease the number of children entering the foster care system. The reduced entries will result from improvements in intake services, prevention services and in-home preservation services. These efforts will also decrease the caseload ratio for public and private agency workers, permitting MDHS to reduce caseloads to the specified levels." [Emphasis added].

The most important part of the Needs Assessment

What may be most important about the needs assessment is what's *not* in its recommendations:

There is no call for more "residential treatment" or other institutional care of children.

There is no call for big rate increases for providers of institutional care.

On the contrary, the Needs Assessment specifically cites the harm of institutionalization (Page 69) and examples of better alternatives (Pages 114, 115) – in other words, exactly what NCCPR said in our second report on Michigan child welfare.

There is no call for a giant hiring binge of child abuse investigators and foster care workers.

So why is DHS spending more money on all of these things while cutting the very programs the Needs Assessment says are really needed?

Are caseloads really excessive?

A key premise of the hiring binge is that it's needed to lower excessive caseloads. But the chart on Page 56 shows that caseloads actually are surprisingly reasonable. These numbers would be suspect if they came from management; but they're estimates from a survey of caseworkers themselves. So that raises further questions about cutting prevention to hire more investigators and foster care workers.

Other Key Findings

A repeated theme is the urgent need for concrete services, particularly transportation and housing assistance, yet these services are among those least available. (Pages 14, 15, 21, 78, 84, 111, chart p. 113). The Assessment states flat out that time in placement often is extended needlessly for lack of this kind of help. (Page 14.)

The unappreciated shining star of Michigan child welfare, the Families First Intensive Family Preservation Services program, is praised repeatedly in almost every section of the needs assessment – seen as enormously beneficial not only for preventing separation of families in the first place but also for making reunification work and for preserving adoptive families. (Pages 10, 44, 82, other references.) Yet this program is being cut yet again by Ismael Ahmed.

On Page 41, the Needs Assessment lists seven vital programs for keeping families together. Most, if not all, have been cut repeatedly in the past and are or will be cut again in the two rounds of slash-and-burn budget cuts inflicted by Ahmed and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The Assessment devotes two-thirds of a page to listing all the things wrong with the settlement's former demand that all grandparents and other relatives providing kinship care be formally licensed (Page 86). And then, on Page 90, it says that unlicensed homes are absolutely essential in order to have enough places for children. Fortunately, partly as a result of pressure from NCCPR, CR and DHS backed off from their war against grandparents and changed that part of the settlement. But NCCPR and many others saw these problems right from the start – why didn't CR and DHS?

Page 75: Most families can't get the services they need.

Page 41: Workers admit to resorting to foster care in cases where children could remain home if the right kinds of help were available.

Page 116: There is a significant need for inpatient drug treatment programs in which parents can live with their children.

Page 62: The Needs Assessment notes what NCCPR reported in March: There are enormous, and disturbing, variations in rates of child removal in different Michigan counties.

Page 54: In the one focus group for birth parents, in Ingham County, which has one of the highest rates of removal in the state, every birth parent, no matter what the actual circumstances of her or his case, said he or she was asked to agree to termination of parental rights; an outrageous indication that the "Binsfeld mentality" – a legacy of a former lieutenant governor who trampled over the state's impoverished families in the name of adoption-at-all-costs (discussed in detail in NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare) - still is alive and well in Michigan.

None of the birth parents said they were involved in developing and implementing the "case plan" explaining what hoops they would have to jump through to get their children back.

Page 55: All of the birth parents said their case records contained inaccuracies.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Michigan update: Three tiny drops in a very large bucket

I know that after 33 years following child welfare, nothing should shock me – least of all cynicism and opportunism from the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) – but the level of hypocrisy in the press release they just put out here: is appalling.

If the cynicism isn't bad enough, how about the fact that they apparently think every Michigan advocate and every journalist following child welfare in the state is an idiot.

They've put out a press release bragging about the fact that, due to their lawsuit settlement, the state is going to have to spend all of $4 million more on programs to help families. (Actually, even that figure is high, some of the money will go to other programs that are worthy but don't involve family preservation.)

That is about one-tenth the amount that Michigan DHR director Ismael Ahmed cut from similar spending just in the emergency budget cuts for the current fiscal year. (He's proposed another round of cuts – just as bad – for next year. Details on the cuts are in this previous post.) Did CR think no one in Michigan would notice that the "new" spending is only one tenth of the cuts?

The cuts are not being used to close the state's budget deficit. Rather the cuts are being used to finance rate increases for residential treatment providers, and to pay for a foster care worker /child abuse investigator hiring binge that is entirely unnecessary. (There are much better ways to cut caseloads).

And CR enabled those very cuts, because its settlement includes no provision barring Michigan from cutting prevention and family preservation programs in order to pay for the settlement.

A little background:

The settlement called for a "Needs Assessment."

Over and over again, the Needs Assessment stresses the urgent need to spend more on family preservation.

The Needs Assessment, a comprehensive 225 page document, did not say there was any need for rate increases for residential treatment centers and other institutions. And it did not call for massive increases in child abuse investigator / foster care caseworker hiring. (In fact, on page 56, there is a chart that raises questions about whether caseloads really are excessive.)

The settlement requires DHS to spend only $4 million on some of all of the needs that have been assessed as genuinely needed.

The independent court monitor has recommended three categories of spending for this $4 million.

The process will be repeated next year.

But compared to what Ahmed already has cut and plans to cut next year, we're talking about three tiny drops in a very large bucket.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

“Children’s rights”: All tweet, no action?

The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) has taken to sending out "tweets" on Twitter that portray the organization as actually interested in keeping families together – something that is very much at odds with the group's record in many parts of the country. In the process, the organization's double standards are showing. And now they've made a promise on which they have yet to deliver.

It started July 1, when CR praised the Illinois Branch of the ACLU – which has a much more progressive consent decree than anything CR ever would come up with – for going to court to prevent draconian budget cuts to that state's child welfare programs. CR tweeted:

"Just saw that our friends at @aclu have convinced a judge to order Illinois not to cut critical child welfare services!"

The next day CR bragged about doing something similar itself – in Connecticut:

"Just posted more details about our efforts to save a vital pre-foster-care program in Connecticut on the CR Blog"

But of course this raised one obvious question: What about Michigan? There, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the director of the state's Department of Human Services, Ismael Ahmed, have initiated two rounds of slash-and-burn budget cuts, one proposed for next year, the other already in effect.

That's not because of the state's budget crisis. Rather, they're using the savings to fund big rate increases for powerful private agencies that institutionalize children, and to fund a child abuse investigator / foster care caseworker hiring binge – apparently the only option they could think of to meet the terms of CR's own Michigan lawsuit settlement.

In fact, all that hiring is not required to meet the settlement terms – the settlement calls for reducing caseloads, by and large it doesn't say how to do it. So Michigan could, in fact, reduce foster care caseloads by spending more on safe, proven programs to keep children out of foster care. But that is beyond the imagination of DHS or CR.

Even worse, CR neglected to include a "maintenance of effort" provision in its settlement. In other words, though the cuts clearly violate the spirit of the settlement and the statement of principles in the settlement, there is no explicit prohibition barring Michigan from funding the settlement by cutting other programs to help the same children. So Michigan went about slashing prevention and family preservation to fund increases in foster care and institutionalization – an apt reflection of both DHS' and CR's real priorities.

But with CR starting to claim it cares about family preservation in other states, we wondered…

NCCPR is on Twitter. So CR's professed interest in family preservation prompted us to tweet back:

"Group calling itself Children's Rights fights child welfare cuts in CT, but what about Michigan?"

In a two-tweet response to our pressure, CR replied:

"And we're really not happy to see Michigan -- where we're involved in a massive reform effort -- cutting prevention"

"We'll have more on the Michigan situation in the coming days/weeks. Stay tuned..."

Nearly three weeks later: Nothing.

No marching back into court to help Michigan children the way CR claims to be helping Connecticut children. No news conferences from the oh-so-PR-savvy CR in Detroit and Lansing denouncing budget cuts. Not even a press release expressing outrage.

In fact, as far as I can tell there hasn't been a peep – or a tweet – from CR.

This isn't the only time CR has failed to tweet and deliver.

Another tweet led readers to this excellent op ed column by Prof. Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Law School, concerning the appalling lack of adequate defense counsel for birth families. CR tweeted:

"shameful: Michigan family torn apart as a parent is denied access to legal representation."

Nice of them to say. But what about action? What's really shameful is the fact that the Michigan settlement doesn't have a word about improving legal representation for families caught in the child protective services web. As far as I know, neither does any CR settlement.

So once again CR is making its priorities clear.

As for CR's suggestion they actually might try to do something about the Michigan cuts: It's not as if there's a lot of time. The first round of budget cuts already has taken effect. So isn't it time for CR to show it's more than all tweet, no action?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Update: Escape from Nebraska!

In that case discussed in the previous post to this Blog: After a month trapped in the Nebraska foster care system, the children from Palo Alto, California are free.

As their father's lawyer put it: "The kids were flown back here on Friday, interviewed by child protective services and returned to their parents in a matter of minutes." And on Tuesday, the juvenile court case officially was dismissed. The family will have to go through counseling. A criminal case against the parents still is pending in Nebraska.

The daughter will be allowed to travel – with her family - to South Korea to receive her prize in an international art competition.

By the way, her painting is scheduled to remain on display at the Omaha Children's Museum until October. But if you're thinking of dropping in from out-of-state to see it, you might want to leave the kids at home.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nebraska: The speed trap of child welfare

There are communities across the country that are notorious for speed traps. The speed limit is set absurdly low and the local police lie in wait for cars with out-of-state plates. The unwary don't get to leave town without paying a very stiff fine.

Nebraska is a little like a giant speed trap. Only instead of levying a fine, they take away your children.

Consider the case of Suwen Wang, a physicist, and his wife, Charlotte Fu, a paralegal, from Palo Alto, California. On June 6, they were traveling through Nebraska with their 12-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son when some sibling rivalry apparently got out of hand. The result: The children wound up trapped in foster care for more than a month - and Nebraska authorities were all set to force the daughter to miss a once-in-lifetime opportunity to travel to Korea where her award-winning art will be exhibited as part of an international competition. Things only began to look up when the case got some news coverage.

The daughter was the North American winner of a children's painting contest sponsored by the United Nations. The painting was on display at the Omaha Children's Museum, and the proud parents flew the family out to see it. But on the way back to the airport, the 12-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother apparently started acting like, well, 12 and 13-year-olds, with the boy "needling his sister," according to the father's lawyer.

So Dad pulled over to the side of the road, and Mom got out to deal with the situation – not knowing that someone was watching from her front lawn. The witness told a local television station Mom hit the 13-year-old several times on the back. (Police reportedly said she hit him in the face, but the witness herself says otherwise.) Ms. Fu does not look like someone who could inflict much damage on a 13-year-old boy. The boy cursed at his mother, pushed her, and may have hit her - since, while the boy was entirely uninjured, mom was bleeding from a cut above her nose. At that point, Dad turned around from the front seat and allegedly hit the boy. Lawyers for the couple deny that either parent hit the children.

After 20 minutes, everyone apparently had calmed down enough for the family to resume the drive. But by then the witness had called the cops, and a Plattsmouth, Neb. Police officer pulled the family over.

Mom and dad were arrested and jailed for a weekend. The children's sentence has lasted a lot longer. As of July 9, they still were in foster care, though, thanks to the news coverage and the parents' middle-class status (which meant they could afford private attorneys), Nebraska made a deal to let Santa Clara County, California, authorities take over the case. (In California, individual counties run their own child welfare systems.) So the children probably will be released soon, if they're not back in California already. Were this family poor, odds are the children would be trapped in foster care for years.

Of course, things like this can, and do, happen anywhere. But they're more likely to happen in Nebraska, which, year after year, takes away children at one of the highest rates in the United States, by far. The Neanderthal state of child welfare in Nebraska was exposed to the nation during the state's Safe Haven debacle last year, when the then-head of the child welfare agency, Todd Landry, made jokes at the expense of desperate parents and otherwise belittled their problems.

Landry since has left, but his replacement, Todd Reckling, appears to be cut from the same cloth, blithely declaring that these things take time, even as the children were trapped thousands of miles from home.

In fact, as the Omaha World-Herald pointed out, when Nebraska was desperate to send out-of-state "safe haven" children home, they made it happen within days. Meanwhile, the parents even reported themselves to Santa Clara County child welfare authorities in the hope it would speed up the process.

Nebraska authorities also appear to be justifying their actions based on the fact that there has been one other incident involving the parents back in California. Mom and Dad got into a loud argument. Mom said she was leaving to stay in a hotel. Dad may, or may not, have grabbed her arm to restrain her. And he may, or may not, have gotten into a scuffle with police when they were called.

But this also is a family so well-known for their love of their children that more than a dozen friends flew thousands of miles to be with them at a court hearing in Nebraska and to protest outside the courthouse.

"This is an Orwellian nightmare," one friend, Larry Markosian, told the San Jose Mercury News. "Every family occasionally has difficulty raising kids, especially teenage boys. I don't know what happened. But we know they are a loving and kind family and we see no reason whatsoever to keep these kids in a foster home so far from the community they grew up in."
So yeah, it seems the folks in this family have tempers – like real, fallible human beings. A couple of times it may have gotten out-of-hand. Apparently, no one told them about the CPS-endorsed Oprah-fication of American family life. They hadn't heard that to be sure you stay out of trouble with CPS you should never, ever lose control and all differences are to be settled by saying "I'm not o.k. with that" and otherwise mumbling therapy-speak at each other.

Who knows? Maybe this family could use some of that "counseling" that CPS agencies always try to impose – though in this case it should be strictly voluntary. After all, it is possible to live together as a family with neither the phony harmony of therapy-speak nor ever raising a hand (as opposed to a voice) toward another in anger. The issue here, as almost always, is balance of harms. And one thing is clear: Whatever problems may have existed before, the Nebraska child welfare agency has made them worse by punishing the children with needless foster care.

"These kids are very much involved in the Palo Alto community, with Boy Scouts, art and Chinese lessons," Markosian, the family friend, told the Mercury News. "And they are being ripped away from not only their family but from their whole community."

He went on to read aloud from an e-mail sent by the 12-year-old girl to her parents: "Dear Mom and Dad," the e-mail said. "We love you a lot. Remember that. We know you're doing everything you can to bring us back home and we are very thankful. Love you a lot." The e-mail is signed with 10 exclamation points.
Part of the explanation for the behavior of Nebraska authorities is just bureaucratic inertia. Another part is the fanaticism about child removal that permeates the state. But there also is an undercurrent of racism running through the case.

Although the family are American citizens and the parents have lived in the United States for 17 years, the 12-year-old's "law guardian," who, in theory, is supposed to watch out for her "best interests," wanted to seize the family's passports – which would have made it impossible for the girl to go to South Korea for the award ceremony. (After all, what could be more suspicious, and pose more risk to a child, than an Asian-American family going to – Asia?) The law guardian reportedly explained that the art contest was irrelevant to the foster care case.

In addition, during visits, the family was forced to speak English, though they prefer Chinese – so the supervisors monitoring the visits could understand every word. I've seen no explanation concerning why the visits had to be monitored in the first place.

Such bias is certainly nothing new in Omaha. In 2002, authorities tore 10 Hmong children from their families after they confused marks left by a traditional Southeast Asian healing practice known as "coining" with child abuse. Even after the error was explained, authorities kept the children – until publicity and protest marches, which included one Asian youth singing "We Shall Overcome," won their freedom. I have two letters from the Omaha police chief proudly justifying the raids.

Would the caller in this most recent case, who has refused to back up her claims by disclosing her name, have made the same call, had the family been white?

Meanwhile, authorities in Santa Clara County haven't acquitted themselves all that well either. They have not promised to return the children even after they obtain legal custody and they've come up with an absurd list of hoops the parents are going to have to jump through – something almost guaranteed to increase the stress in the family (though it's possible they did that to appease Nebraska.)

In general, though Santa Clara does a far better job than Nebraska, that's a mighty low bar. The county has one of the highest rates of removal in California, as is documented in NCCPR's California Rate-of-Removal Index. And, as former Mercury News columnist Peter Delevett documented, child welfare authorities in Santa Clara may not treat Mexicans any better than their counterparts in Omaha treat Asians.

Back in Nebraska, the child welfare agency justified what it did to these children by saying their staff followed procedures. But that, of course, is a big part of the problem: the procedures stink.

Then, at the hearing where the agreement with Santa Clara County was reached, an attorney for the Nebraska child welfare agency, Susan Buettner, declared: "The most important thing has been lost: This is a case that involved alleged child abuse,"

No, Ms. Buettner, that fact hasn't been lost at all. But it was your agency that did the abusing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A post in response to The Post

There is a whole subgenre of child welfare writing that might be called "the-adoption-failed-but-it-wasn't-my-fault lit." In it, white upper-middle-class adoptive parents write about their noble efforts to rescue a Black a child from foster care, about how terribly hard they tried to make it work and how, because everybody else failed, ultimately, they had to throw the child back. Such accounts usually engender enormous sympathy from readers. Since most of the readers also tend to be upper-middle-class, they have no problem sympathizing – no, make that empathizing – with one of their own.

A classic example turned up in the Washington Post "Parenting" blog yesterday. This is one of the Blogs that also criticized Gary Staton, the father who came under attack in a Nebraska Safe Haven case. (This is the Blog I mentioned in my previous post about the case where at least the criticism was civil.)

Yesterday, the Blog owner, Stacey Garfinkle, turned over the blog to Wendy Bilen Thorbjornsen, an adoptive mother who told the story of adopting a child from the D.C. foster care system, and then throwing the child out less than a year later. She was deluged with empathy. Her "guest blog" was preceded by a glowing endorsement from Ms. Garfinkle.

In fact, it would not be fair to pass judgment one way or another based only on the information in Thorbjornsen's blog. The real problem with the blog was the way the Thorbjornsen passed judgment on everyone else – especially any and all birth parents caught up in the D.C. child welfare system.

So I posted a response – which Ms. Garfinkle went out of her way to include in the blog's comments section despite its length. I'm also offering it here:

Suppose somebody were to read [Thorbjornsen's] column and, just hypothetically, conclude the following:

These are spoiled upper middle class white people who treated a flesh-and-blood human being like a BMW that was out of warranty, throwing her back when she turned out to have too many defects.

The more mom professes "love" for her adopted child, the more it's as she approaches the moment she throws the child away. She gave the daughter she loves less than a year to overcome everything in her past and, when the system finally offered intensive help, she wouldn't even try to use it.

Thousands of parents, birth, foster and adoptive, do a lot more for children who are harder to deal with. They try longer and they go to greater lengths.

Never mind sympathizing with the parents, how about some sympathy for the child, who now has endured the ultimate rejection and may never trust again.

Unfair? Actually, yes. I've just stereotyped people I've never met – let alone walked in their shoes. They tried to do something I wouldn't even attempt. At a minimum, we who haven't "been there" should suspend judgment of those who have.

So why be unfair on purpose?

I did it in the hope that the readers of a column that clearly is of the upper-middle-class, by the upper-middle-class and for the upper-middle-class finally might feel how much it hurts to be stereotyped, even by just one poster to a blog, even when everyone else is rallying around you.

Now try, just try, to imagine how much worse it is to be stereotyped over and over again just because you're poor, Black and caught up in DC Family Court. Imagine what it's like for those stereotypes to be so ingrained that they have cost thousands of children the chance to be raised in loving homes – the loving homes they were born in. Because that's exactly what you did, Ms. Thorbjornsen, when you wrote that the children whose fates are decided by that court:

"have largely been removed from unfit homes rife with abuse, neglect, abandonment, and myriad other social and emotional ills. These kids have encountered more of life's seamy side than many of us will over a lifetime."

In some cases that's exactly what happened; in many more it's not. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with "neglect" others fall between the extremes. Yet you saw fit to paint them all with the broadest of brushes based, apparently, on one case file (which only tells the agency's version of events) and some horror stories from the headlines.

Ms. Garfinkle also seems prone to some stereotyping, what with this column coming so quickly on the heels of the one about Gary Staton, the father in the Nebraska Safe Haven case.

So I challenge you, Ms. Garfinkle: Now that you've published Ms. Thorbjornsen's version of how the system works, publish the first-hand account of someone who actually saw what goes on in D.C. Family Court day after day, because he's one of the few allowed past the curtain of secrecy the system uses to cover up its blunders.

The University of the District of Columbia runs one of only two programs in the entire nation in which law students represent exclusively birth parents in cases alleging child maltreatment. Some great students, who themselves don't get the respect they deserve – they're from UDC after all – stand up for families who have been disrespected their entire lives.

One of those students spoke of his experiences during a news conference organized by my organization to mark the first anniversary of the discovery of the deaths of the Jacks children [a particularly horrific D.C. case]. If you're willing to have your preconceived notions challenged instead of reinforced, go here: and scroll down to page 11.

Then, how about letting your readers in on what you find?

In an e-mail Ms. Garfinkle said she will, indeed, take a look at what the student wrote.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Congratulations, World-Herald, you got your lynch mob

At the end of my post last week about Gary Staton, the Nebraska father who was the victim of a journalistic mugging by the Omaha World-Herald which read like something straight from Fox News, I wrote:

And, in the age of the internet, there is an extra reason to be extra careful about any story involving poor people having children. This is a particularly hot button for the virtual lynch mob – the despicable haters who fill the comment sections of newspaper websites under any story about poor people with vulgar demands for compulsory sterilization. The World-Herald does not post comments with its stories yet, but it's already started elsewhere, with one website calling Staton a "slimeball" and a "dirtbag." But then, that's essentially what the Omaha World-Herald did, with just a bit more subtlety.

Well, the mob has formed.

Fox News picked up the story with links to the World Herald coverage (although, as it turns out, other than repeating the grossly misleading aggregation of government benefits given over 17 years to this married two-parent family, the Fox story was a lot more "fair and balanced" than the one in the World-Herald.) And from there is spread quickly to the blogs.

At one site the comments were fairly civil, but at another, a very big, very mainstream site, there were more than 500 comments by last Friday, and if those I skimmed are any indication, each was more vile than the next. (You won't get the name of the site or a link here, since I have no intention of spreading the poison further.) The extent to which this issue brings the racists crawling out from under their rocks can be seen by the fact that at least one poster used the n-word - notwithstanding the fact that Staton is white.

In the internet age, in which almost anyone's location can be tracked down in minutes, even as the mob gets ever more frenzied, I'm sure anyone who wants to harass Mr. Staton directly will have no trouble finding him. And, no doubt stumbling across these comments will do wonders to help the children heal from the various traumas in their lives as they grow up.

As I said in the original post, the latest developments in the Staton case needed to be reported, but not in the way the World-Herald chose to do it.

As old media learns to cope with new media, here's a good rule of thumb: If you see the equivalent of a group of men wearing white hoods and sheets walking through the woods carrying a big wooden cross and cans of gasoline – don't strike a match.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

UPDATED JULY 2: Michigan and Illinois: The difference is leadership

An excellent story in The Detroit News Tuesday about cuts to youth services in Michigan includes this excuse from a spokesman for Michigan State Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop:

"I don't know where we're going to get the money," said Matt Marsden, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop. "It's not for not wanting to. It's just a matter of trying to reduce the budget enough to pay for it."
But that's, um, nonsense (there's a better word, but I try to maintain the same standards as a "family newspaper" on this blog). It's nonsense when it comes from Bishop, just as it is nonsense when it comes from the Governor's office.

In another excellent story, from Interlochen Public Radio, about the end of Michigan's Family Group Decision Making program, the head of the DHS office in Grand Traverse County (long one of the state's most regressive) says much the same thing.

But while some things are being cut to close a big budget deficit, that's not the reason for the cuts in prevention and family preservation. As is documented in detail in NCCPR's reports on Michigan child welfare, those cuts are being made to finance big rate increases for the powerful private agencies that institutionalize children - almost always needlessly – in Michigan. And the cuts are going to finance a child abuse investigator/foster care worker hiring binge most of which is not, in fact, required by Michigan's class action lawsuit settlement.

The settlement between Michigan and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," says caseloads need to be lower – but that's far more likely to happen if you spend more on prevention and family preservation programs that keep children out of the foster care system. As it stands now, odds are the new workers are going to be investigating all the new cases that result from the budget cuts, and shoving a lot more children into foster care, leaving Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.

Illinois also operates under a class-action settlement, and Illinois also faced draconian cuts in child welfare services. But the ACLU of Illinois, which brought that lawsuit, went back to court and won an order from a federal judge barring implementation of what have been called "doomsday" budget cuts. The head of the Illinois child welfare agency himself testified about the harm the cuts would do.

Compare that to Michigan where DHS director Ismael Ahmed is swinging the ax himself, and, as far as I can tell, CR has neither gone to court nor used its high powered PR machine to even speak out against the cuts. UPDATE, JULY 2: CR Just announced it is fighting similar cuts in Connecticut. So why the silence about Michigan?

What a difference leadership makes.

And speaking of leadership: The Michigan cuts certainly don't say much for the effectiveness of the state's giant Child Welfare Improvement Task Force and its get-along-go-along-let's-all-sing-kumbaya-with-Ismael-Ahmed approach to advocacy.

Perhaps if they'd been a little more, oh, I don't know – "inflammatory"?