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"