Thursday, September 10, 2009

CR’s new low


There are all sorts of incentives that push everyone from frontline caseworkers to judges to take away more children. Those same incentives push child welfare agency chiefs and government officials to demand such action.

Some of those incentives are personal. Most caseworkers, judges, etc. are middle class. It is far easier for them to identify with middle-class foster and adoptive parents in sparkling suburban homes than with impoverished birth parents in cramped, messy apartments. It's easy to just assume the children would be "better off" with people like "us" instead of people like "them."

Some of those incentives are political. Though caseworkers often say they're "damned if we do and damned if we don't" in fact, in more than 30 years of following child welfare, I've never heard of a caseworker being fired, demoted, suspended, or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers if a child died or was seriously hurt in her or his own home. The same is true of judges, agency chiefs and pretty much everyone else who comes anywhere near child welfare.

You can take away huge numbers of children needlessly, subject perhaps one-third of them to abuse in foster care itself, destroy the psyches of many of the rest, and have them emerge years later, unable to love or trust anyone, and while the children will suffer terribly, the worker or the judge or the agency chief will endure no penalty. They might even be praised for it, gaining a laudatory nickname like "The Terminator" or "Cap'n Hook." When it comes to taking away children, you're only damned if you don't.

But the worst incentives are financial. No, governments don't "make money on foster care" as some have claimed. But while safe, proven alternatives to foster care cost less in total dollars, the huge amounts of money the federal government reimburses states for foster care can make it cost less for states to use foster care than to use those better alternatives. And private agencies, typically paid for every day they hold a child in foster care, do indeed make money on foster care. (For details, see NCCPR's Issue Paper on financial incentives.)

It's impossible to wring out all the lousy incentives; the best that can be done is to try to balance them – so they cancel each other out and leave parties free to make decisions on the merits.

One state has taken a tiny step in that direction – so, of course, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) – is trying to stop it.

The state is Tennessee, where apparently, in some counties, judges are so fanatical about child removal they're tearing apart large numbers of families even when the state child welfare agency itself doesn't want them to. So the state passed a law that offers one tiny check and balance. Once a county gets so bad that it is taking away children at a rate three times the state average (which, by the way also happens to be just about the national average), the county itself has to foot the bill for those additional placements.

How many counties is this likely to affect? Maybe one. According to The Tennessean, only one county placed children at a rate so obscenely above the national average in FY 2008, none in FY 2009.

But even the idea that somewhere, somehow a judge might pause and think more carefully before tearing apart a family is more than CR can stand. So they're seeking a temporary restraining order to block implementation of the law.

Their argument, of course, is that judges might be influenced by financial issues instead of "the best interests of the child." That might make sense in a world of pristine purity where there were not one incentive after another pushing for foster care even when it's against those best interests. What Tennessee does is try to balance the overwhelming pressure in one direction with a little pressure in the other; sort of like, oh, I don't know, balancing a scale.

CR also argues that children in counties where close to three times the state average number of children are being taken won't get the same "protection" as children in other counties because judges might hesitate to tear them from their parents. Wrong again. If a county is tearing apart children at a rate nearly triple the state average those children are less protected. They are less protected from having their poverty confused with neglect, less protected from abuse in foster care, and less protected from having their psyches destroyed by being bounced from foster home to foster home – just because the local judge is so fanatical he's tearing apart families even when the child welfare agency itself would rather he didn't. (Recall the landmark studies showing that, in typical cases, children placed in foster care usually fare worse even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.)

This law helps put those children on an equal footing with children in counties where judges are not such removal fanatics.

And finally, CR seems to have learned the lesson that when all else fails, they should cry meth. CR argues that the one county that once exceeded the 300 percent threshold also had the most seizures of meth labs. But CR does not say what proportion of children taken away came from those labs. Home meth labs themselves are a tiny part of the meth problem, however. And when the issue is addiction to meth, as opposed to making it oneself, meth is just as treatable as addiction to any other drug. Details are in NCCPR's publication, Epidemic of Hype.

There is no excuse for trying to stop one small step toward restoring balance and common sense in child welfare. And, saddest of all, there was a time when CR's founder and executive director, Marcia Lowry, understood that.

More than 20 years ago, Marcia brought to a Congressional hearing the lead plaintiff in one of her class-action lawsuits – a 12-year-old named Boyd, forced to endure five years in foster care just because his mother lacked adequate housing. At the time Marcia was crusading to enforce a 1980 law requiring "reasonable efforts" to keep families together.

''Boyd's mother had a difficulty, not a very serious difficulty, but it took her five years to get her children back,'' Marcia testified, according to a New York Times story. ''There was never any question of abuse with this family. These are children who are supposed to be protected by this very fine legislation. But reasonable efforts were not made in this case or in thousands of cases.''

And then the Times quoted Boyd: ''They took almost five years away from my life," he said, "and I'm only 12.''

Four recent studies have found that 30 percent of America's foster children are like Boyd - they could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing. But I have no doubt that, were a child like Boyd to show up at CR's offices today, their reaction would boil down to: "Go 'way kid, ya bother me."

In Tennessee, CR has just betrayed such children yet again.

This Blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks; barring extraordinary circumstances, I don't expect to be posting again until the week of Sept. 21. (Of course, I'd said that yesterday, too.)