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.