Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let them eat focus groups!

Perhaps it all started with the Pew Commission on Children in Foster care, which should properly have been called the Pew Commission on Promotion of the Pew Commission, in which the Pew Charitable Trusts seemed to view the plight of foster children as little more than an opportunity to advertise its brand. (This was the subject of several posts to this Blog, but before it moved to Blogspot). Fortunately, a few months ago, Pew decided to declare victory and get out, accomplishing little, but embodying Stephen Colbert's adage: "If at first you don't succeed, redefine what you did as success."

In any event, one early tipoff to the problems with that Commission was how it treated various key parties to the child welfare process. There was a foster parent on the commission. There was an adoptive parent on the commission. There was a former foster child on the commission. Birth parents were relegated to a focus group.

Now that kind of tokenism seems to be all the rage. The recent "needs assessment" in Michigan had exhaustive consultation with people who run the system and work in the system, and one focus group for birth parents. There were six of them, from just one county. And in a system permeated with racial bias, all of the birth parents were white.

The latest example comes from New York City, where the City Limits e-mail Weekly reports that the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) is in the final stages of preparing a new study of barriers to achieving permanence for children. The absurdities abound.

For starters, it's absurd to think that after 150 years we really don't know why children languish in foster care.

Contrast this bureaucratic approach with how they faced the identical problem in Georgia. As is recounted in the Annual Report of Casey Family Programs, Georgia's child welfare agency called in a few experts from CFP, they sat down around a big table hashing out each and every case for as long as it took – and they got the job done.

Speaking about Anthony, a child reunified with his family through this process, an assistant commissioner of Georgia's child welfare agency declared:

We didn't form a Blue Ribbon Committee or rely on a university study or wait for the Legislature to get involved. And thank goodness we didn't, because Anthony still would be in foster care right now if we had.

That's the antithesis of the bureaucratic mindset at CR. But the waste of time may be the least of the problems with the New York project. Even worse:

It would be hard to find a more regressive force in child welfare in New York or nationwide than CR. Their last big report on New York City child welfare stacked the statistical deck by simply ignoring any years in which the data didn't fit their preconceived notions. And across the country, untold numbers of children have been denied permanence because of a take-the-child-and-run mentality that CR has encouraged. (See our various posts on Michigan and a section of our second report on Michigan child welfare, called The Children Wronged by Children's Rights for chapter and verse.)

Although it would be hard to find a more regressive force in New York, it's not impossible: A key partner with CR is the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which has the wonderfully- appropriate acronym COFCCA. This consortium of the city's enormously-powerful private foster care providers is what the late columnist Jack Newfield would call "the permanent government" of New York child welfare. Mayors and child welfare agency commissioners come go, but COFCCA is always there, its member agencies run by boards of directors that often are a who's who of the city's business, civic and religious elite. For decades they have been the key obstacle to real reform in New York City for one obvious reason: They're paid for every day they hold a child in foster care. Only recently has the city's Administration for Children's Services taken the first tentative steps toward changing those incentives.

Another full partner in this project is ACS itself. But it was just three months ago that ACS Commissioner John Mattingly disappointed a lot of us by throwing cold water on one of the most promising avenues for permanence, subsidized guardianship. The federal government now will help pay the cost of this kind of permanence, which is close to adoption but allows, for example, a grandmother to become guardian to her granddaughter without having to push to terminate her own daughter's parental rights. It looks like New York, which long has lagged behind on kinship care issues, is going to refuse to take part because it doesn't want to put up half the cost. But Mattingly went further, arguing in an e-mail to a New York City think tank that

Those of us who have been in the field long enough know that most times, relatives will adopt if reunification is not a live option, if the agency supports them in their decision, and if it will achieve permanence for the child. In sum, kinship guardianship can be the best option for a small percentage of children, but the State of New York needs to be careful to craft regulations for its use that will continue the emphasis on adoption for most children who cannot return home.

In other words: If we strong arm grandma (by say, saying if you don't do it, we'll transfer your grandchild into the home of strangers), she'll go to court and push to terminate mom's parental rights. While that may make the adoption numbers look good, it's not necessarily best for the grandchildren. Furthermore, the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) points out that in Illinois, a national leader in subsidized guardianship, formal adoptions actually increased after guardianship was added to the menu of options. For another example of a smarter perspective on this issue, see the response from Generations United in Youth Today.

The latest story from Rise, the outstanding magazine written by and for parents who have lost their children to child welfare systems, provides a good reminder that day-to-day casework at ACS has yet to reach the rarified levels suggested by Mattingly's comment.

And even Michigan (Michigan!) has proven more receptive to subsidized guardianship, with their child welfare agency noting the special concerns in the African American and Native American communities about terminating a relative's parental rights.

So if ACS continues to oppose subsidized guardianship as a partner in this new project, who'll speak up for the grandparents?

While City Limits seemed amazed that ACS and CR were working together, in fact, it's just one more indication of how far ACS has moved backwards from just four years ago, when it was in the forefront of reform. (And that retreat from reform has prompted me to take a small step I've never felt the need to take before concerning a once-progressive child welfare agency – something I expect to discuss in a future post to this Blog.)

The last full partner is the Juvenile Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society; they provide "law guardians" for children in child welfare cases.

So the group that encourages taking away more children, the agency that takes the children, the private agencies that hold the children and the lawyers who represent the children all get a place at the table. And what do the birth parents get? A focus group.

This in a city which probably has the best-developed infrastructure of advocacy for birth parents in the nation. Excellent grassroots advocacy organizations include CWOP, People United for Children and Concerned Citizens for Family Preservation. There are three institutional providers of defense counsel for birth parents (an initiative which, to its credit, ACS supports), the Center for Family Representation, The Bronx Defenders and South Brooklyn Legal Services. Yet none of these groups is a partner in this project.

As is so often the case, everyone else involved in a child's fate is a full partner, the parents are reduced to supplicants. So when Commissioner Mattingly says "We should be able, at the end of this, to stand up together and say: These are issues we are all concerned about ... here's how we are going to work together to make the numbers look different" the people left out when everyone else is standing together" have every reason to view that as more threat than promise.