Sunday, November 29, 2009

Florida foster care: Hype and innuendo mark the start of the backlash against reform


Right after The New York Times
ran a story praising reforms by the Florida Department of Children and Families that emphasized keeping families together, I predicted a backlash. I wrote that:

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.

I referred to those who want to see the reforms fail as a "Kearney DCF-in-exile."

Apparently, The Miami Herald has jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon. In a huge, front-page article today based almost entirely on horror stories, an article that distorts both the actual data and the context, the Herald charges that Florida is endangering children by doing what every state does: screening out some of the calls phoned to the state's child abuse hotline. The Herald is wrong.

What the Herald knew – but did not tell readers – is that:

● For most of the past decade, Florida screened out calls to the hotline at a lower rate than the national average.

● Right now, Florida is rejecting proportionately fewer calls than it turned away in 2005 and 2006, before it reformed to emphasize family preservation.

● Florida's former policy of failing to screen out enough calls so endangered children that even the nation's foremost advocate of a take-the-child-and-run approach, Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania, said Florida needed to screen out more calls.

The story also ignores the big picture: Measure after measure, including an independent outside evaluation shows that children in Florida are safer in the years since DCF abandoned the take-the-child-and-run approach and started doing more to keep families together.

But you won't find any of that information in the Herald's account. Instead you'll find what the worst child welfare reporting always uses as the ultimate crutch: Horror stories. And out-of-context horror stories about things DCF actually has done were not enough for the Herald. The story went on to attack DCF for off-the-wall ideas that have been discussed but never implemented – with no plans to do so.


The most absurd single comment in the article has to be the one from Howard Talenfeld who chairs a group that calls itself Florida's Children First, a group that typically takes positions that can best be described as "Kearney-lite." Said Talenfeld: `Hot-line calls are cries for help on behalf of a child. Any call that is screened out is a cry that falls on deaf ears.''

In fact, hotline calls can be all sorts of things. Sometimes they are, indeed, cries for help, sometimes they are well-meaning errors, sometimes they are mandated reporters covering their rears, and sometimes they are acts of harassment by vindictive ex-spouses, or neighbors, or anyone else with a grudge. That's why no child welfare system can operate effectively without screening calls to the hotline. Workers would be inundated with false allegations and trivial cases, leaving them no time to find children in real danger. And, of course, huge numbers of additional children would be traumatized by needless investigations and stripsearches.

But, of course a family preservation advocate like me would be expected to say something like that. You would not expect to hear that from America's foremost proponent of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, someone who has said only 20 to 30 percent of the children taken away should ever go home, someone beloved by Kathleen Kearney, who constantly consulted him (and almost no one else) on child welfare policy - the aforementioned Richard Gelles. But not only did he say it, he said it specifically about Florida, after he was commissioned to write a report about the Florida hotline, released in 2001:

"The hotline is supposed to be a gate," Gelles said. "They've got the gate rusted, stuck open." As a result, he said, cases pile up, creating a backlog of uncompleted investigations. "I equate that to the game of playing Russian roulette. It's just a matter of time before some child in the backlog pool is really badly injured."

Of course, now, even though Florida is screening calls at just about the rate he suggested, Gelles might change his mind and agree with the Herald. But someone who is fanatical about taking away children calling for less screening is no surprise, someone like that warning about too little screening, however, merits attention. In fact, what Florida, and every similar state needs is not less screening but better screening, and that should be the target of any effort to further reform the hotline.


In 2000, when Gelles studied the hotline, there was virtually no screening at all at the hotline, only about six percent of calls were screened out, according to data Florida reported to the federal government. Gelles said it should have been at least 35 percent. (The data DCF reported to the federal government, and discussed in this post, through 2005, mistakenly include both child and adult protective services cases, but since there are relatively few adult cases, that should not affect the percentages too much. Data from 2006 on do not include this error.)

In 2002 and 2003, Florida's rate of screening out calls approached the national average, then the state fell back below that average again in 2004. It was actually in 2005 and 2006 that Florida started screening out cases at a rate above the national average. That was back in what the Kearney DCF-in-exile still viewed as the good old days, when Florida still was taking away huge numbers of children. In State Fiscal Year 2007, the year reform really began in Florida, screening out of calls fell back to the national average, and the next year only 27.8 percent of all reports were screened out. In SFY 2009 the proportion of calls screened out rose to 40.2 percent – close to what probably will be the national average, when those data become available. It's also a figure not much higher than that recommended by Gelles, an extreme advocate of child-removal – and a lower figure than 2005 or 2006.

For details, see the table at the end of this post.

But even that figure underestimates the number of cases for which DCF reaches out in some way to families that have been reported. One of the other targets of a cheap shot from the Herald is a new practice of making "prevention referrals" – offers of help – in response to some calls. In the past, most of these calls would have been screened out with no outreach at all. So not only is DCF screening in just about as many calls as the national average, it's also doing some outreach, however limited, to a proportion of the calls it screens out.


The Herald gets around all this by taking the numbers out of context. The Herald compares only four months in 2009 to the same months the year before. But as we've seen, 2008 was the aberration – a year in which exceptionally few reports were screened out. The Herald further distorts the data by using numbers without percentages. One would expect more cases to be investigated in 2008 than 2009 because more people called the hotline to report alleged child abuse in 2008 than 2009 – something else the Herald leaves out.

But, unfortunately for the state's vulnerable children, no one who reads the Herald story is likely to care about any of this.

Because nothing is more boring than a bunch of numbers – and nothing is more riveting than horror stories about allegedly unprotected children.

Everyone, even Richard Gelles, believes you have to have some screening. But once you do that you are guaranteed to have tragedies – some children will be harassed by traumatic interrogations and needless stripsearches, or worse, needlessly thrown into foster care. Other children in real danger will be missed because their cases will be screened out. You screen anyway because you endanger far more children if you don't screen.

But, of course, only one kind of tragedy was the focus of the Herald's "reporting."

If the Herald summaries are accurate – and I no longer take that as a given, particularly since the Herald is wrong about the one case, later in the story, where detailed information is available – then these were indeed tragic errors at the hotline – the same kind of tragic errors that are made in every child welfare system, and the same kind that you can bet were made in Florida even back in 2000, when almost nothing was screened out. But rather than give any sense of how common these errors are, the story moves immediately from three horror stories to a heart-of-the-hype paragraph that says:

"These decisions and thousands more are the result of a little known – but potentially dangerous – practice …" [emphasis added], a reference to the alleged increase in screening. That deft bit of weasel wording leaves the impression that all the cases screened out are like the horror stories. There is not a shred of evidence for that in the story. Instead, there's more innuendo: The story declares that "Among the callers being turned away: school counselors, grandparents, circuit court judges, hospital social workers, day care workers and juvenile justice staffers." The implication of course is that these are experts who couldn't possibly be wrong. Buried far deeper in the story is a comment from DCF Secretary George Sheldon that some of these same categories of mandated reporters have complained about having to phone in cases they knew were nonsense because they feared penalties if they didn't.

There was a time when, in fact, the hotline was barred from screening out anything from a mandated reporter – 2000, when the Legislature passed the notorious "Kayla McKean law." That was when the gate was "stuck open" – with all the horrors that followed.

The one tragic case where we have more to go on than the Herald's word for it concerns the death of two-year-old Bryce Barros. That was the subject of a Herald story in July that essentially previewed today's - complete with the same loaded language and innuendo. But for that story, the Herald also posted a number of source documents on its website, and those documents undercut the paper's own conclusions, something I will discuss in detail in a future post.


But horror stories about actual bad decisions were not enough for the Herald. They also mention what the story calls a "report" listing options for future policy changes involving screening. The actual report is not on the Herald website, so I can't tell what kind of a "report" it is. It sounds like a bunch of suggestions from people invited to come up with all sorts of ideas, no matter how off-the-wall.

And at least one of them certainly qualified. It allegedly suggested narrowing the definition of "lack of supervision" to the point where it could require, literally, a smoking gun. Under this proposal, which never went anywhere, a three-year-old playing with a loaded gun while adults watched would not be "lack of supervision" if the gun didn't go off. Idiotic? Of course. But I guarantee you that if every numbskull idea that was ever bandied about at a newspaper story meeting were made public, with the implication that they'd actually happen – nobody would ever trust their local newspaper again.

To make absolutely sure this long-form-editorial-disguised-as-a-news-story had its intended effect, the sourcing deck was stacked. All the outside "experts" and "child advocates" were suitably shocked and appalled at all the things that shocked and appalled The Herald (one was neutral, allowed to mention briefly that Florida was not out of line with the rest of the nation). Those left to defend the reforms were those people trust least: officials at DCF.


There is, in fact, a problem with screening at child abuse hotlines, in Florida and most other states: There isn't enough of it. This is clear from what happens, nationwide, to all those calls that are screened in for investigation: nationwide, 61 percent of those reports turn out to be false, all the trauma of investigation inflicted on all those children was for nothing. (In Florida about half of reports are false, in part because Florida has three categories instead of the usual two.) Of course, just as with the initial screen-in/screen out decision, sometimes workers will wrongly declare a case unfounded. But the only major study I know of found that workers are two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate a report they investigate than to wrongly declare one unfounded. All that wheel-spinning only steals more time from finding children in real danger. And that's probably one reason why, when Florida screened out even fewer reports than it does now, and took far more children, deaths of children known-to-the-system kept going up.

And that's why the lack of context in today's story in the Herald is so dangerous for children. It is likely to promote not better screening, but less screening. That means more false allegations investigated, more children traumatized – and less time for workers to find children in real danger; exactly the conditions that caused so much harm to children when Kearney was in charge.

The only acceptable goal for hotline errors is the same as the only acceptable goal for child abuse deaths: Zero. But we must seek those goals knowing that our reach always will exceed our grasp, and knowing that the wrong "fixes" will only make everything worse. So while the Herald story shows what everyone already knew – that every screening system needs improvement, that means helping the people at the hotline to make better decisions, not going back to leaving the gate stuck open. And it means remembering the same lesson every doctor is supposed to be taught in medical school: First, do no harm.

Talenfeld's absurd comment notwithstanding, there always will be screening in child welfare. The choice is not between screening and no screening, rather the choice is between rational screening, in which hotline personnel are trained to make better decisions, or irrational screening – in which the gate is stuck open again, cases cascade down upon workers and the case that gets "screened out" is whichever one happens to be on the bottom of the pile at the end of an overwhelmed worker's day.


Three months ago on this Blog I wrote that John Mattingly, Commissioner of New York City Administration for Children's Services was the only reform-minded leader of a big child welfare system who was still around when the backlash against his own reforms hit. I said that no one else in the country could have handled it better – but Mattingly himself could have done better than he did. He caved too much.

Now, it looks like he won't be so lonely. Right now hotline workers with copies of today's Herald at their desks are going to be scared to screen out anything, politicians already are jockeying for position – the governor is in a primary for an open U.S. Senate seat next year - legislators are going to have a field day – and I'll bet the Herald will fan the flames with one of those phony "react" stories, the kind that begin: "Responding to revelations in The Miami Herald that call screening at Florida's child abuse hotline endangers children, state lawmakers called for…"

And the buck will stop at the desk of Secretary Sheldon.

Whatever state lawmakers "call for" Sheldon probably shouldn't do it, since they'll probably call for things that will endanger more children. There should be no changes in current guidelines, no backing down from the fact that screening calls rationally makes children safer – and no new blue-ribbon commission or equivalent. To make sure the message goes out, loud and clear, that the errors go in all directions and errors in any direction can be equally harmful, any review of cases to see if they have been wrongly screened out should be accompanied by a review of an equal number of cases that may have been wrongly screened in. There should be a focus on helping frontline workers do a better job, call by call. The message to the frontlines has to be: We will help you to do your job better, but don't be afraid to exercise your best professional judgment.



1999 28.2 39.6

2000 6.3 37.9

2001 25.9 32.5

2002 36.9 32.9

2003 36.7 32.1

2004 27.8 37.3

2005 42.0 37.9

2006 53.2 38.3

2007 34.1 38.3

2008 27.8 37.5

2009 40.2 n/a

This chart was updated on April 3, 2010 to add the national average data for 2008.

Sources: 1999-2005, Florida and 1999-2008, national average: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, annual Child Maltreatment reports, available online at

2006-2009, Florida: Florida Department of Children and Families

Due to a mistake by DCF in reporting its data to the federal government, the figures through 2005 actually represent a combined percentage of child and adult protective services reports, but there are relatively few adult reports, so that is unlikely to change the percentages much. Data through 2005 also are by federal fiscal year (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30) data for 2006 through 2009 are for the state fiscal year (July 1 through June 30).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Prolonging foster care: The study CASA doesn’t want you to see


Several years ago, the National CASA association commissioned a study in order to tell the world how wonderful the Court-Appointed Special Advocate program is. This is the program in which well-meaning people who are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and have lots of time on their hands go into overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately minority homes to render judgment on the parents and tell judges if those parents ever should get their children back.

But the results of the study were not exactly what the folks at CASA expected.

●The study found that CASA's only real accomplishments were to prolong the time children languished in foster care and reduce the chance that the child will be placed with relatives.

●The study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA's all-purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.)

●The study also found that when a CASA is assigned to a child who is Black, the CASA spends, on average, significantly less time on the case. (The study also found that CASAs don't spend as much time on cases in general as the organization's p.r. might lead one to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and only 2.67 hours per month on cases involving Black children.)

In some cases, as we reported previously on this Blog, the racism can be far more flagrant.

A columnist for the trade journal Youth Today aptly summed up the findings this way:

"The more rigorous evaluation … not only challenged the effectiveness of the court volunteers' services, but suggested that they spend little time on cases, particularly those of black children, and are associated with more removals from the home and fewer efforts to reunite children with parents or relatives."

None of this should come as a surprise – the problems are built into the CASA model. Who has time to spend even 4.3 hours a month on a case? Certainly not a poor person holding down two jobs. So it's no wonder CASA programs sometimes are pet projects of the local Junior League and the demographics of CASAs tend to be different from the demographics of the families they judge.

Indeed, in a cover story about the report (available on their website by subscription) Youth Today found that CASA's approach to spinning the study "can border on duplicity"

And now, it seems, that approach includes making sure as few people as possible actually see the report. It's always been hard to find on CASA's website. There used to be two such sites, and the study was buried deep in the one geared to CASAs themselves, not the general public. But when I checked again earlier this month, I found that the two websites had been merged – and the study seems to have disappeared. As far as I can tell, only a brief, self-serving summary remains. (If anyone can find the full report on the site, please let me know and I'll be glad to post the link.)

I'm just glad I downloaded the full report before it was too late. Since it no longer seems to be available on CASA's website, I've posted it on ours.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

UPDATED, NOV. 20: Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2009

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared a year ago. Since the event is annual, perhaps the post should be as well.  And now it's updated again - see the brief note at the end of the post.

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations this Saturday. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times last year, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why is there no National Reunification Day? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1? Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

    The answer is obvious: It's not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

    The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few – very few – other communities followed suit. New York City has done it for the past few years (though their effort is tarnished by other statements and actions undercutting their own reforms). New Jersey has done it at least twice, and the Miami region of the Florida Department of Children and Families is doing it regularly. There probably are one or two others I haven't heard about. But that's it.

    In comparison, there are hundreds of Adoption Day events.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "age out" of foster care each year with no home at all has soared 41 percent since 1998.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.


Nowhere is the adoption-at-all-costs mentality more deeply-ingrained than in Michigan.

For that, we can thank a number of politicians, most recently Maura Corrigan, Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. When she was Chief Justice one of her first moves was to create a task force on adoption – not a task force on permanence – a task force on adoption. But her pride and joy has been creating more Adoption Day celebrations than any other state. Thanks to Justice Corrigan's crusade, the website of the Michigan Supreme Court – the state's chief "impartial" arbiter of termination cases - is slathered in promotional material for adoption – without a word on behalf of reunification.

In theory it is possible for one or more justices of this court to give a speech touting adoption in the morning, preside at an adoption luncheon at noon – and hear an appeal of a termination of parental rights that afternoon.

In contrast, when birth parents addressed a task force of which she was a prominent member, Corrigan decided she was too busy to stay and listen to them.

One can only imagine how much courage it took, therefore, for a lowly trial court judge to point out the harm Michigan's adoption mania has done to children. In a scathing essay, Judge Kenneth Tacoma exposed the giant surge in legal orphans and the sharp rise in children "aging out" of Michigan foster care. Wisely, the judge targeted not Corrigan, but earlier fanatical efforts to promote adoption-at-all-costs in Michigan as well as the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, the law that pays those bounties for finalized adoptions. The article prompted even Corrigan to have some second thoughts – but not enough to prompt her to push for, say, a "reunification day" in Michigan courts, or to turn her adoption crusade into a permanence crusade.

(Actually, I got a sense of how much courage it took, and how hard it is to maintain, when I singled out Tacoma and his essay for praise in NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare. Tacoma felt compelled to write an op ed column declaring that some minor tweaking of state law had made everything just fine now. It hasn't.)

Not even the tragedy of Ricky Holland could get Corrigan to bring balance to her adoption crusade. Ricky Holland was taken from a birth mother who might have been able to care for him had she gotten the right kind of help. He was placed with well-to-do adoptive parents. The adoptive mother tortured him, and ultimately murdered him. This was one of those cases with more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade. Throughout the process, the Michigan Department of Human Services ignored one blatant warning sign after another. Even during the time after Ricky Holland had disappeared but his body had not yet been found, during the time police already strongly suspected the Hollands of murdering Ricky, DHS gave the Hollands final approval to adopt another foster child in their care.

Such behavior is to be expected in a system that lavishly rewards pushing adoption, and frowns on anything that would interfere with getting those adoption numbers up. (At least the Michigan press paid attention when Ricky died. When Timothy Boss was adopted to death years earlier, it barely got a mention.)

Most Michigan counties celebrate adoption day Tuesday. Perhaps this year, somewhere in that state, a reporter will ask a tougher question than "How's the sheet cake?"

They didn't last year.

            It doesn’t look like they’ll be asking this year either.  A particularly gloppy story is in the Lansing State Journal today.  Not only are there no tough questions, the story does not mention that the particular judge they quote is so fanatical about tearing apart families that even the Michigan Supreme Court can’t stomach it.  This year alone, in scathing decisions, they reversed her twice. 

In one of those cases the court agreed with a dissenting appellate court opinion which found that this judge seemed almost obsessed with a father’s poverty as a reason to take away his children forever.  In the other case, the Supreme Court found one due process violation after another – and Justice Corrigan, to her credit, was particularly appalled.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alexis Hutchinson, foster care and the perils of “deployment”

    By now the story of U.S. Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson has made it all the way up the media food chain. Ordered to Afghanistan, she initially planned to leave her infant son with her mother. But her mother already had three sick relatives to care for and found she couldn't cope with an infant as well.

Hutchinson's lawyer said the Army's response was, in effect: Too bad. You're going to Afghanistan, and if you can't find anything else, your son is going to foster care. So Hutchinson didn't show up for deployment. She was arrested and, for two days, the boy was in foster care. He's now reportedly with his grandmother for the time being.

    This is not the first case raising similar issues. But it may be the first since the explosion in social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. And that may explain how, in about 72 hours, the story made it from the alternative Inter Press Service, which first broke it, to the Associated Press, to more than 400 news outlets around the world.

    It is encouraging to read how many people understand how enormously harmful it is to an infant to throw him into foster care under such circumstances. (I particularly like the tweet from someone who suggested the Army have a "take your child to war" day.) People get that mom did not brutalize this child or starve him or torture him; she simply didn't have someone to take care of him.

    But the only thing unusual about this case is the fact that this single mom's job was about to be moved to Afghanistan. There are, in fact, thousands of children of civilian parents trapped in foster care when their parents didn't abuse them or neglect them either. Many of these parents, mostly single mothers – have what amounts to the same problem as Spec. Hutchinson.

    These are the mothers who are told: "We don't care if your child is sick, show up for work or you're fired." Mom knows if she's fired, she won't be able to pay the rent. She'll be homeless and child protective services can take the child because of lack of housing. So mom shows up for work. Someone calls child protective services. The child is taken away on a "lack of supervision" charge.

    Indeed, in many communities, "lack of supervision" is the single largest category for "substantiated" allegations of maltreatment. Sometimes, of course, that's entirely the parent's fault – maybe she left a child home alone to party, or do drugs, or all those other stereotypes that leap to mind about parents who lose their children to foster care.

But often, it's a mother whose child was sick, or who couldn't afford child care, or who couldn't get such care because she works odd hours. They may be mothers like Lillian Lucas-Dixon, whose story was discussed in previous posts to this Blog. Her seven-year-old son was held in foster care for months because she had to leave him home alone for an hour to get to her job before an adult sibling could get there to babysit. "My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son?" Lucas-Dixon, told the New York Daily News.

Typically, we hear about "lack of supervision" cases only when the worst happens, and only rarely are the stories told with the sensitivity shown in this New York Times story.

    So I hope those who understand how wrong it was to subject Spec. Hutchinson's infant son to foster care for even two days will think about how many thousands of other children are trapped in foster care right now, while their mothers are "deployed" to their jobs here at home.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Tennessee foster care suit: It’s 10pm. Do you know who your plaintiffs are?

Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera have several things in common.

All of them are very young. Andrew is 23 months old, Kenneth is two years old, Nancy is 4, Donna is 5 and Kiera is 6.

All of them were torn from their families "on or about November 6, 2009" based solely on the word of a caseworker who told a judge they were in danger. None of their parents had a chance to defend themselves or fight for their children first. In all cases, the allegation against the parents is "neglect."

All of them are from Anderson County, Tennessee, a county with a total child population of only about 16,000.

And, though, of course, they don't know it, all of them are suing the State of Tennessee.

Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera are the "supplemental named plaintiffs" in the lawsuit brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" as it attempts to block a state law that ever-so-slightly counterbalances the enormous incentives to needlessly tear apart families. (The law is discussed in detail in previous posts to this Blog.)

There is nothing unusual about having children as "named plaintiffs." Depending on what you want to change it can be difficult to sue a child welfare system without them (though in the many other such suits I've read, at least some of the young people were old enough to understand what was going on.) And in this particular case, the first time CR tried to sue over this law, using the children it already had as plaintiffs in a longstanding settlement against the Tennessee system, the judge effectively said they couldn't use the same plaintiffs this time; they'd have to find new ones.

Of course the children didn't make the decision to sue the State of Tennessee themselves. That was done by someone deemed capable of representing their "best interests" – known as their "next friend." For four of the five children in this suit their "next friend" is their guardian ad litem, a lawyer named to argue for whatever the lawyer thinks is in their "best interests," for the fifth, the decision was made by the child's CASA (which figures).

But how could they possibly know that joining this particular suit was in the children's best interests? And how could CR?

Normally, the stories of named plaintiffs are carefully researched. Then, at least, the lawyers can be confident in their own minds that the relief they seek will help these particular children. And, of course, the stories of the named plaintiffs usually are a key part of persuading the judge. Lawyers look for the most horrible examples of whatever injustice it is they are suing about. So if the issue is, say, abuse in foster care, the named plaintiffs will have endured prolonged, horrifying abuse, outlined in detail when the lawyers file their complaint. In Oklahoma, for example, CR just released a 163-page report on the horrors that befell the named plaintiffs in their class-action suit in that state.

But in the Tennessee case, according to CRs Complaint, the only thing we know is that these children were taken from their homes based on the word of a caseworker, and that decision was promptly rubber-stamped by a judge whose record indicates a fanaticism about child removal. (Remember, Anderson County is the one where children are taken from their parents at a rate four to five times the state average, which would make it a contender for Child Removal Capital of America.) And there certainly wasn't much time for investigating the cases or getting to know the children. Having been taken away "on or about November 6, 2009" they were already named plaintiffs by November 9, when the Complaint was filed.

So now, with no indication that CR's lawyers have ever met their new "clients" and with no indication if they even know whether these children ever should have been removed at all, CR is using these children to increase the odds that their time in foster care will be prolonged.

CR would argue that they're just trying to free the judge from any extraneous considerations, like money. But CR is remarkably inconsistent about that. Children taken from their homes routinely are placed with private agencies that are paid for every day they hold those children in foster care. Yet I know of no instance in which CR ever has sued to stop those kinds of financial incentives. So the real effect if CR wins, using these children as their named plaintiffs, would be to make sure that any and all "external" incentives, personal, political and financial, push judges in only one direction – taking away the children and stashing them in foster care for a long, long time.

It's possible, of course, that foster care might be the best thing that's ever happened to Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera. Maybe they really were in imminent danger and there was no other alternative but to remove them without so much as giving their parents a hearing; maybe their removal and continued placement in foster care will save their lives. But the odds are very much against that. Research tells us that If, indeed, foster care is prolonged, chances are only one of these five children will do well as a young adult. The odds are at least one, probably two of them will be abused in foster care itself. The odds that they will get in trouble with the law and be unable to hold a job and the odds that Nancy, Donna, and Kiera will become pregnant as teenagers are greater than had they been left in their own homes.

So at a minimum, didn't the lawyers at CR have an obligation to find out all about Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera before using them to seek a change in state law that would increase the odds that they will stay in foster care? Didn't they have an obligation to find out if that change would be best for these specific children before suing in their names?

If, in fact, CR wins its lawsuit and if these children wind up better off in foster care, they should know that CR's lawyers helped keep them there so they can thank them. But if CR wins and foster care turns out to be a disaster, as it so often does, then Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera should know that among those who share responsibility are some lawyers from New York City who probably never knew them and probably knew little about them when they turned them into "named plaintiffs."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Foster care in New York City: One shocking, shameful stat


The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) has a new report out about foster care in New York City. Considering who wrote it, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been; something I'll discuss in a future post. But one statistic the report unearths is so shocking, and such a damning indictment of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, that it demands special attention.

    It concerns guardianships – a form of permanence that is particularly valuable when a child is placed in kinship care with a relative. Often grandma may be ready, willing and able to raise a grandchild as her own – but she doesn't want to go to court to terminate her own daughter's parental rights. With guardianship, she doesn't have to do that, the child still attains a measure of permanence almost as complete as with adoption, and the family gets the child welfare agency out of their lives.

    But if grandma was a formally-licensed foster parent, she could not get the same payments once she became a guardian, unless the state or locality chose to fund it. That's because the federal government would not chip in, the way it does with adoption subsidies. Some states decided that guardianship was such a good option they would pick up the tab for what became known as "subsidized guardianships." Others, notably Illinois, obtained waivers allowing federal funds to be used for them. That's one of the things that propelled Illinois into the forefront of what are, relatively speaking, reformed child welfare systems.

    And now, federal law has been changed and the feds will pay as much for guardianship subsidies as they do for adoption subsidies. In addition, even unsubsidized guardianship can be a viable option for relatives who are not formally licensed as foster parents and so never got foster care subsidies in the first place.

    But some states won't opt in, because, even with the federal government helping, they don't want to pay the state or local share. Among those states is New York. But that's not only because of money, it's also because someone who once was among the most progressive leaders in child welfare, the commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, is falling farther and farther behind best practice in the field. As I wrote on this Blog in August:

Mattingly [argued] 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….

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.

    Well, now it turns out that Mattingly has backed up his words with inaction. The CR report found that in all of Fiscal Year 2008, in one of the largest child welfare systems in the United States not one single foster child – not one – was placed in the guardianship of a relative. Fewer than two percent of New York City foster children even have "discharge to relative" as their primary permanency goal. Apparently ACS would rather let them languish in foster care until they can strong arm grandma into an adoption.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CR’s new push for more foster care in Tennessee

The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" is back in federal court in Tennessee. Once again, CR is trying to ensure that nothing gives the judge in Anderson County, whose fanaticism about child removal may be unexceeded anywhere in America, even a moment's pause about tearing apart family after family.

    As is discussed previously on this Blog, CR is challenging a law that says if counties tear apart families at more than triple the state average they are free to keep right on doing so – but they have to pick up the tab for the foster care. The only county actually affected is Anderson, which removes children at a rate either four times or five times the state average, depending on which source you believe. Either way, that might make Anderson County a candidate, along with a few others, for Child Removal Capital of America.

    In theory, CR is simply arguing that judges must continue to make their decisions in their current pristine, pure state, uncontaminated by even a passing thought about money or anything else besides "the merits." If anyone needs still another reason to open these hearings to press and public, the fact that CR is trying to pass of this Disney version as reality is a very good one.

    If that really were how juvenile courts operate, there would be no foster-care panics, no surges in removals after a high-profile case made headlines. Judges would simply admonish caseworkers not to be influenced by the fear of landing on the front page, refuse to rubber-stamp all those additional removals and that would be that. If decisions were made purely "on the merits," there would be no enormous variation in rates of removal, not just among counties but among states, to the point where children in one state are torn apart at rates five times higher than another. And were decisions made only "on the merits," it would not be possible to track the rise and fall of the foster care population throughout the 20th Century, as Prof. Leroy Pelton does in his seminal book For Reasons of Poverty, (Praeger, 1989) to one factor above all others: changes in federal financial incentives.

    Incentive after incentive after incentive, personal, political – and financial – push child welfare agencies to take-the-child-and-run. These same incentives push courts to rubber-stamp those decisions and, sometimes, even demand removal when a child welfare agency wants, say, in-home supervision.

The way to counter these incentives is not to pretend they don't exist, but to push back, with incentives to curb removals, so the incentives cancel each other out and decisions really can be made on the merits. (Of course that also would require that impoverished birth families have high-quality legal counsel, so they can balance the presentations by child welfare agencies, but one never hears about that from CR.)

    Tennessee's new law provides what can best be called one tiny counter-incentive. And that is the one and only incentive CR chooses to fight – in Tennessee or anywhere else.

    All over America, private agencies are paid for every day they hold a child in foster care. If they do what they are supposed to do – return the child safely home or, when that truly is not possible, get the child adopted, the money stops. The pernicious impact of these incentives was documented at least as far back as 1975, in a brilliant series by the New York Daily News.

    But I know of no case in which CR has gone to court to try to change these incentives. On the contrary, when New York City first tried to change them, in 1995, CR went to court and successfully stopped the change. (Now, the City is making some tentative steps toward changing those incentives again.) In perhaps the ultimate irony, CR just today released a study reportedly whining about how children languish in foster care too long in New York City. Perhaps had CR targeted the financial incentives to hold them there, back when the Daily News first exposed them, things might be different now. (CR didn't exist as a separate entity back then, but its founder, Marcia Lowry, was doing much the same work, affiliated at the time with the New York Civil Liberties Union.)

    So clearly CR isn't against all financial incentives – those that prolong foster care are just fine.


    CR's "supplemental complaint" to the court is filled with quotes from various state officials and state documents which CR seems to consider damning. In fact, they show precisely why the Tennessee law is needed.

CR quotes the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, Voila Miller, on a provision of the original bill that would have let the state bill counties if they took children at more than double the state average, instead of triple, as in the final law. Had that passed, and if counties did not change their ways, Miller estimated it might have reimbursed the state a total of $7.5 million. Said Miller:

The way we track commitment rates in Tennessee and most states is the number of children per thousand that come into the custody of the state. In Tennessee we have an average and most states, I mean, most counties rock right around that average of somewhere between three and four kids per thousand, we have a few counties in this state that commit at 16, 20 per thousand. That is significant overcommitment of children. Children are coming into state custody who should not. Now, we have been addressing this problem aggressively and we've made a lot of progress, and as I said, I want to work with those counties in making sure those kids can stay safely in their home. I don't ever want to collect a nickel of that 7.5 million dollars, I want to reduce that commitment level. [Emphasis added.]

    A Tennessee legislator explained that the provision was simply common sense. We're all more careful about spending our own money than someone else's:

[T]he policy consideration for this particular matter is to somewhat have our local governments be a little more judicious as to who they commit to state custody . . . . It makes people more responsible for their decisions, and when you're more responsible for your decisions you're going to be more careful with your decisions.

    Then CR quotes a memo from The Tennessee County Services Association, which it describes as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group." The memo said, in part:

The state average is 3.6 per 1,000 for children committed in the Dependent & Neglect and Unruly category. Anderson County's commitment rate is 17 per 1,000, some four times more than the state average. … The public policy implication is that in some cases juvenile judges are over-using their commitment authority and, thus, not offering alternatives to the family nor the child. [Emphasis added].


    Then CR quotes the child welfare agency's budget director, who says:

    Actually, this one reduction actually is the only one in our Department that actually is good for kids. Now, you as a county may say, well, no, this is affecting your county budget. Our goal with this is that we as a Department don't collect a dime from the county. And that would be what was in the best interest of kids. . . . It's about . . . leaving [kids] with their families. (Emphasis added. But the ellipses this time and in the quote below are from CR – one can only wonder what CR chose to leave out.)

    And finally, what CR seems to think is the ultimate "smoking gun": An e-mail from the child welfare agency's legislative director in which he says:

    Anderson county [sic] clearly understands that they have a huge problem on their hands – their judge … We have the support of the county commission to work with the judge to bring down unneeded commitments.

    As for the law itself, in its final version it requires the child welfare agency to initiate a "collaborative planning process" with counties when entries are double the state average. Counties must pay only when they exceed triple that average.

    So what CR seems to view as a veritable arsenal of "smoking guns" points only in the direction of an agency that finally decided to use financial incentives in a way that can bring significant benefits to children – by saving them from the enormous harm of needless foster care.

    As to how CR got back into court on this issue – that, too, is instructive. And I'll try to get to it in a future post.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Foster care hearings: “Sunshine is good for children”

Matthew Fraidin is Associate Professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Two years ago, he started a clinical program in which students represent exclusively birth families in child maltreatment cases – thereby doubling the total number of such programs across the country (the first is run by NCCPR's President, Prof. Martin Guggenheim, at New York University School of Law). His previous work has included representing both children and parents.

Below are excerpts from testimony Prof. Fraidin gave last week at a hearing of the D. C. Council, in which he calls for opening court hearings in these cases to the press and the public. The title for his testimony, "Sunshine is Good for Children" is a quote from the former Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, Judith Kaye, who ordered child maltreatment hearings opened in that state.

In my law students' cases, more than 60% -- that is 60% -- of the children taken from their families have been returned without ever being found abused or neglected. Yes, more than 60% of the children taken from their living rooms and schoolhouses, from their brothers and sisters and teachers and grandparents and friends – more than 60% of the children housed in foster care with strangers! – do not need to be there, by the government's own admission. They take the children, the Court rubber-stamps the removal, and only later, when my students find the information the agency missed, explain to the agency the information it distorted, and demonstrate that the child would be safest and healthiest in her own home, does the government agree – voluntarily! – to send the child home and dismiss its own case. Secret proceedings means that you can't meet the children whose lives are turned upside-down, perhaps never to be righted – for no reason.

You can't observe the rubber-stamp hearings. You can't watch a case worker hem and haw an explanation about why a distraught child hasn't been referred to a therapist, despite a court order directing the referral. You can't see a lawyer guessing at his client's position, rather than knowing it, because the lawyer hasn't met with the client since the previous court hearing. You can't sit in the back of a courtroom and shake your head in frustration and disgust at a judge who openly flouts the law, refusing to let a child live with her beloved aunt, simply because it is that judge's "personal policy" not to allow children to live with relatives unless [the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA), D.C.'s child welfare agency] agrees. You can't know what's going on, and you can't do anything about it.

Operating behind an impenetrable iron curtain that is anathema to American governance, the Family Court deprives children of the checks and balances they need for health, safety, and stability.

I am here to testify that sunshine is good for children.


The District of Columbia is out of step with a growing national trend by guarding the walls that, in turn, guard adults' secrets and their errors of commission and omission:

  • Judges say open courts are good for children: The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a public Resolution in 2005, attached to my testimony, supporting open courts. The National Child Abuse Coalition, the Council of State Court Administrators and the Conference of Chief Justices all agree that states should have discretion to open their courts. …
  • Seventeen states have opened child welfare proceedings …

  • No state that has moved to transparency has ever shut down again. Many states opened child welfare hearings on a "pilot project" basis, and none retreated to the darkness of secrecy.
  • Doubters are convinced:
    Even judges and children's advocates who initially were vigorously opposed to transparency become enthusiastic converts, convinced of the benefits to children. After Minnesota's courts had been open for a year, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted that "the greatest fear--that troubled children would be victimized and embarrassed by sensationalized new media coverage and community scorn--has yet to be realized."
  • Open court proceedings empower children: According to Minnesota Judge Heidi Schellhas, "Open child protection proceedings may…assist the psychological recovery of the abused children…'victims of abuse often carry their burden alone, in secret' and closed proceedings simply 'continue the notion that something shameful has happened, and that no one should be told.'"…
We cannot be sure adults are serving children unless we can see them. If adults' actions are hidden behind a wall, we are literally in the position of having to take the adults' word that they're doing their job. …


One of my former child clients, now dead by gunshot, asked his group home not to house him with a roommate because, he admitted, he was disliked by some of the other children and felt uncomfortable with them. The group home ignored him, as well as my similar request on his behalf. Another resident of the group home – also now-deceased by gunshot -- came in and stabbed my client in the shoulder with a screwdriver. Bad enough, but the agency then proposed to bring both boys to the CFSA offices to put them in a room together to "mediate the dispute." No one knew this went on – no one has ever known until you, now, some six or more years later.

Same child: in addition to being stabbed, the child was victimized when his new roommate allowed other boys into the shared room. The other boys stole some of my child client's clothing. It was all he had, in two garbage bags and a battered suitcase. He'd been in foster care since he was nine years old, and had carted sneakers and clothing to the dozen or more homes he'd lived in. He was enraged by the theft, and broke some of the thief's property and kicked a hole in a wall. Arrested for the destruction of property, he was locked up overnight, for the first time ever, and charged as a juvenile. The CFSA worker was set to tell the delinquency judge that the child's best interests would be served by going to Oak Hill [D.C.'s juvenile jail] because it would "be therapeutic for him." I remonstrated with the worker in the courthouse hallway and burned up telephone lines for hours until I located a foster parent with an empty bed and persuaded CFSA that a foster home would be more appropriate for the child than Oak Hill.

Until now, no one has known about this.

No one has known until now that the boy became a loving, gentle, doting father. The baby's mother went off to finish her final semester of college, and the ward was the baby's only caretaker. No one has known that the adults working for CFSA refused to allow the young dad to live with his baby. CFSA had no teen-father placements, they said. They assigned him to programs and buildings that did not allow babies. So he "absconded" every night, meaning he went to his mother's home, or his mother-in-law's home, or to his grown sister, or to an aunt, or to a friend or anywhere he could keep his baby. Demerit after demerit after demerit from the adults at CFSA, harassing him, adding stress to an already-burdened life.

No one has ever known that the adults at CFSA later sought again and again to have this child's neglect case closed because he wasn't appreciative of the services they were offering.

No one has known until now, from this testimony, that when my child client became an adult and buckled under the stress and picked up minor adult criminal charges, the adult employees of CFSA and [the D.C. Office of Attorney General] OAG strenuously resisted my pleas and my client's to install an operating telephone in his residence. See, he was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet, and needed the telephone to be working to connect with the bracelet, so that he would not violate his conditions of release on the criminal charge. The adults working for CFSA and OAG said, again, that it would be better for the child to go to jail – the D.C. Jail, this time – than to reside in their care. So they refused to install the telephone to make sure he would be locked up. Then, they could close his case and get him off the rolls. Voila! Lower caseloads!

The postscript is, of course, my child client's death. CFSA finally having worn down the Family Court Magistrate Judge, the child's case was closed a few months before he turned 21. A bright, sensitive, sweet guy, he had lived in dozens of foster homes, group homes, with his mother and grandmother, with his sisters, and in at least one RTC, and had no ties to anyone but his wife and children. He had attended more than a dozen high schools without graduating. He had a marijuana habit, and maybe others, that seemed relatively low-level to me, but showed no signs of abating. He had been trying to hold down a job, and also had been stealing drug dealers' small stashes and selling those to support his two children.

He was shot at 1408 Girard Street on the day police were installing a crime camera around the corner. He made the paper for that. He made the paper again, though I'm the only one who knew it, because he wasn't identified, when Lafonte Lurie Carlton, his killer, was released a few years later from Oak Hill and killed again.

My child client would have wanted Carlton to be released, by the way. He knew children need lots of chances and lots of help. He also knew, painfully, that adults often fail children, even adults who mean well and certainly, adults who don't care or can't be bothered or who have other priorities. Would that dear child still be alive if the adults who hurt him and ignored him and despised him had been seen for what they'd done? Might they have straightened up a little and flown a little righter if they'd known that, like other adults, they could be held accountable for their actions?


It's ironic that teaching our children "responsibility" is a major tenet of parenting. We want children to grow up to understand that that their actions have consequences. While parents try to teach this value to their charges, the adults surrounding children in the foster care system are not responsible for what they do and don't do. In our secret system, adults don't have to live the value, to practice what they preach.

Yes, we must ensure that the right adults have the right information to help children. It is equally important, however, to make sure we don't give adults a blank check to go along with that power. We have to make sure they use their power to help children. We are all responsible and we all must watch: family, friends, neighbors, the press. No one can be healthy in the dark: sunshine is good for children.

Friday, November 6, 2009

FLDS and foster care: Texas’ brilliant idea

What a concept! Attack child abuse by going after the abuser instead of revictimizing the victim.

They've just done that in Texas. As the Associated Press reported last night, Raymond Jessop, a member of the FLDS, "was convicted of sexually assaulting an underage girl with whom he had a so-called spiritual marriage." He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Doing it this way has several advantages:

  • You don't turn children from so-called spiritual marriages into victims by tearing them away from their mothers, interning them in a kiddie-Gitmo and then sending them hundreds of miles away into institutions.
  • You don't revictimize the girl who was sexually assaulted by tearing her child from her – and quite possibly making her more loyal to the FLDS and more fearful of the outside world.
  • You don't do enormous emotional harm to hundreds of children who were not, in fact, abused by anyone at the FLDS compound.
  • Instead of exiling the victim and her children, you can put the abuser someplace where he can't possibly abuse another child – jail – for a long, long time.
If only Texas authorities had come up with this brilliant idea before they took more than 400 children from the compound in the first place.