Thursday, January 28, 2010

Foster care is abusive, so let’s have more of it! – “Children’s rights” and the power of doublethink

I had one of those Jon Stewart moments last week – one of those moments when someone says something that is either so outlandish or so obvious or simply such a contradiction of everything else that person says or does that it demands a quick, strong response.

Example: Martha Coakley is asked if she is being too passive in her U.S. Senate campaign.

Coakley: "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?"

Stewart: "Let me see if I can field that one for you: YES!!!"

My Jon Stewart moment occurred as I read an example of the kind of journalism that should remind us of why we still need newspapers: A searing account in the Philadelphia Daily News of how that city's Department of Human Services destroyed a family in almost every possible way. A key issue was the abuse the children suffered in foster care.

But it wasn't the DHS comments that really got to me – I'm used to the kind of b.s. one gets from child welfare agencies. No, the problem came when the reporter turned for expertise to Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR). And the problem isn't that what she said is wrong – the problem is that what she said is right.

Here's what she said:

"I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not."

Marcia's "sample" of foster children is not random. But her comment is remarkably similar to one made by a former foster child on the PBS series Frontline:

I know that there are good foster families out there, o.k.? But I also know that every foster kid that I have ever talked to, including myself, have been abused in foster homes. And I'm talking physically, emotionally and sexually.

And since several studies indicate that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes (often not including cases of foster children abusing each other) and many foster children go through at least three foster homes, it makes perfect sense that Marcia would see exactly what she says she sees.

So what's the problem?

CR is the group whose Michigan settlement could have led to a mass expulsion of children from the homes of their grandparents and other relatives into foster care with strangers – had CR and the state not been pressured by NCCPR and others to back off.

CR is the group that has so far failed to go back into court to challenge Michigan's cuts in safe, proven programs to keep families together. Cuts that have been made to fund rate increases for residential treatment centers and a foster care worker hiring binge.

CR is the group that is fighting a law in Tennessee that would ever so slightly balance the terrible incentives to take children from their homes.

CR is the group that negotiated an agreement with the Wisconsin child welfare agency to hire a top consultant to study the terrible problems in the Milwaukee County system – but with instructions to the consultant to ignore Milwaukee's high rate of child removal.

CR is the group whose settlements all over the country typically include almost nothing to encourage reunification of families and even less to discourage the wrongful removal of children in the first place.

So look again at what Marcia told the Philadelphia Daily News:

"I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not."

When Marcia Lowry says something like that about foster care, one obvious question leaps to mind: THEN – WHY – DO – YOU – KEEP – PUSHING – POLICIES – TO – PUT – MORE – CHILDREN – IN – IT?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Foster care and Family preservation: Decoding CWLA’s priorities

One of the problems with the whole child welfare debate is that everyone says pretty much the same thing – but we all mean different things by it. For example, everyone says "foster care should be a last resort." Have you ever heard anyone say "foster care should be a first resort"?

Yet clearly, last resort must mean something different in Illinois, which takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the nation, - even as independent court monitors say that system has improved child safety – than it means in Nebraska, which year after year, takes children at one of the highest rates, a rate nearly five times the rate in Illinois. Either Nebraska is a cesspool of depravity, with vastly more child abuse than most of the rest of the nation, or their rhetoric about "last resort" is empty.

Similarly, there's the matter of "prevention." Have you ever heard anyone say: "Boy, am I against prevention – if there's one thing I hate, it's prevention." Yet efforts at prevention, and the very definition of the term vary enormously.

So when the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America, puts out a press release announcing its "Top 5 Child Welfare Challenges and Opportunities" you really have to read between the lines to understand it.

Allow me to translate:

WHEN CWLA SAYS: 1. Passing health care reform— This landmark legislation will strengthen the safety net for vulnerable children and youth and their families. Both House and Senate versions of the legislation will ensure that more children have access to quality health care. Both versions will support innovative home visiting programs. However, the House version has stronger, more concise language that protects the use of therapeutic foster care—which serves children with more severe special needs—under Medicaid. Either version will be a win for America's most vulnerable children.

IT REALLY MEANS: Never mind the most important part of the bill, actually providing health insurance so families are less likely to lose their children because of poverty in general or "medical neglect" in particular; we're salivating at the prospect of a giant expansion of home visiting and more reimbursement for some kinds of foster care.

THE CONTEXT: Though important questions have been raised about some of the home visiting language in some versions of the health care reform bill, the kind of home visiting proposed in this bill really is a good idea – particularly since the program is purely voluntary. But let's not kid ourselves about CWLA's primary interest.

WHEN CWLA SAYS: 2. Holding a White House Conference on Children and Youth— President Theodore Roosevelt held the first such conference in 1909. For decades, the conference brought together experts and stakeholders, resulting in significant actions that improved child welfare. No such conference has been held since 1970. Today's vulnerable economic times makes reestablishing the White House Conference a priority. Bipartisan bills are moving through Congress right now to authorize the conference.

IT REALLY MEANS: We've got to show our members we're getting something for their dues money – and think of the great photo ops with the President!

THE CONTEXT: If there is one field that is overconferenced it's child welfare. I don't know why, maybe it's because foundations seem so fond of funding conferences, or maybe it just beats actually doing something. The last thing the field needs is still another conference at which all the same people say what they say at all the other conferences. However, I actually hope CWLA gets this one. All the time and effort that goes into planning and holding and then bragging about the conference is time that otherwise might have gone into doing actual harm.

WHEN CWLA SAYS: 3. Shrinking the system— If the Fostering Connections Act continues to be implemented and funded and if the health care bill becomes law, fundamental changes are possible in how vulnerable children are treated, creating a real opportunity to sizably shrink the foster care system.

IT REALLY MEANS: By shrinking we really mean expanding, since a key feature of the Fostering Connections law is extending foster care from age 18 to 21 – a bonanza for foster care agencies. The other key feature, subsidized guardianships, will indeed allow more children to leave the system, into the custody of grandparents and other relatives. But these usually are children already living with relatives in kinship care, and our big private agencies, paid for each day they oversee a placement, generally do little or no kinship care. Since there is absolutely nothing in this law to promote reducing entries into care in the first place, there's nothing threatening to our member agencies' interests.

THE CONTEXT: The guardianship provision in this law is, in fact, a good one. Even extending foster care to 21 is the lesser evil when the alternative is kicking children to the streets at age 18. But what does it tell us that the most extensive change in federal child welfare law in more than a decade did nothing, absolutely nothing, to truly shrink the system?

WHEN CWLA SAYS: 4. Aging out gracefully— Historically, youth leaving the foster care system due to adulthood were instantly left with few connections and resources, placing them at higher risk for unemployment, health issues, welfare dependency, incarceration, and homelessness. Spurred by greater awareness and the Fostering Connections Act, foster youth are receiving more attention and resources, ensuring better long-term outcomes.

IT REALLY MEANS: We're fine with helping foster children age out – it means more money to the agencies that were paid to hold them in foster care in the first place, since they'll probably get the contracts for the various services that will be provided.

THE CONTEXT: The best way to solve the problem of children aging out is to stop so many from ever aging in. But notice there is barely a word about that on CWLA's agenda.

WHEN CWLA SAYS: 5. Focusing on disproportionality— Children of color are significantly overrepresented in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Research indicates poverty as a contributing factor compounded by the fact that those in poverty have greater difficulty accessing important services. The Fostering Connections Act provided funding for more kinship placements and more focus on child welfare training and recruiting, both of which will have a discernable impact on the issue. However, further success will come from putting more focus on preventing children from entering care.

IT REALLY MEANS: Let's take something simple - children of color are far more likely to be in foster care because the racism that permeates society doesn't stop at the child welfare agency door - and make it as complicated as possible so we can avoid facing up to the racism part. We can hold lots and lots of conferences about it, too! And there it is at the very end, half a sentence about reducing entries into care. What more do you want?

THE CONTEXT: That doesn't mean the bias is conscious; by and large it's not, and by and large, CPS workers really want to help children. But give those workers otherwise identical hypothetical cases and they are more likely to describe the child as "at risk" if the family is described as Black. Citations for this and other studies are in our Issue Paper on child welfare and race. And see also the Michigan Race Equity Review for a superb analysis of these issues.

My favorite part of this one, though, is when CWLA says, in effect: It's not race, it's poverty! For decades, the child welfare establishment has told us, over and over again, that they never, ever take away children because of poverty. If the long-overdue debate about racism in child welfare accomplishes nothing else, at least it's gotten CWLA and the rest of the foster care-industrial complex to acknowledge the class bias that permeates child welfare.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Desperately seeking delinking: How CWLA wants to scarf up more money for foster care


As people from child welfare agencies swarm over Capitol Hill today, odds are a lot of them will be talking about delinking. As I said yesterday, the Child Welfare League of America, and the rest of what I have come to call the "foster care-industrial complex" craves delinking the way Homer Simpson craves donuts, and both are bad for children. It's one of the issues discussed in NCCPR's new briefing paper on child welfare finance. The full paper is available on our website. Here's an excerpt:

So, what is delinking?

It all goes back to when a foster child's case is eligible for federal reimbursement under a program called Title IV-E. That reimbursement runs anywhere from 56 cents to 83 cents on the dollar, a huge federal subsidy for foster care. The same subsidy is available for adoption. As a result, in 2010 the federal government is expected to spend $4.7 billion on foster care and another $2.46 billion on adoption – more than ten times what it will spend on prevention and family preservation. The only brake on this fast-flowing open-spigot of foster care and adoption money involves the determination of eligibility.

Before 1996, eligibility was linked to whether the birth parents were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But in 1996, Congress ended AFDC. The link, however, remained. So today, for a child's case to be eligible for federal reimbursement, the child's birth parents need to be so poor that they would have qualified for AFDC by the standards in place in 1996.

It says an enormous amount about the extent to which child welfare systems target the poor that, in spite of the fact that the income limits have not been adjusted for inflation since 1996, about half of all foster care cases are eligible for this very generous federal reimbursement.

But because of that inflation, in theory, the proportion of cases eligible for federal reimbursement should decline ever so slightly every year, to the point where, in somewhere between 50 and 100 years, the federal government would be out of the foster care financing business. (In fact, as states get more aggressive about verifying eligibility, that may offset some of this decline).

Dealing with this "eligibility lookback" is time consuming, and it is cumbersome. It's a bizarre way to put a brake on the otherwise unlimited "entitlement" to foster care funding. But it's the only brake we've got.

If the only brake on a runaway train is a clumsy contraption that only Rube Goldberg could love, it's still better than no brake at all.

Removing the brake is known as "delinking" – since the link between foster care eligibility and AFDC would be broken.

Of course the foster care-industrial complex wants the brake removed. For them, it would be a bonanza. Suddenly, federal aid for foster care would double. Indeed, they crave delinking so much that they would be willing to settle for an alternative: Eliminate the link but cut the amount reimbursed for each case. That way, the change initially would be cost-neutral, though in future years it would cost far more than leaving the link in place.

The propaganda for delinking has been disheartening even by foster care industrial complex standards. CWLA repeatedly presents the issue this way:

The impact of this lack of support is felt by tens of thousands of children who have experienced abuse and neglect but do not qualify for federal assistance because of this outdated eligibility requirement.

The implication, of course, is that if a case is not eligible for federal reimbursement somehow the specific children in that case are getting less help than other children. Who knows - there might even be people from CWLA member agencies on Capitol Hill right now either misleading people on purpose with this line, or who actually believe the implication themselves.

Any such implication is flat wrong.

All foster children placed in licensed foster homes receive exactly the same benefits and services regardless of the case's eligibility for federal reimbursement. Those benefits and services may not be very good, but they are equal. And all licensed foster parents receive the same reimbursement for a IV-E-eligible child as for a non-eligible child. Such equal treatment is required for the state to get its IV-E money.

The camel's nose already is in the tent

At one time, I thought straight delinking, with its huge price tag couldn't happen. But tragically for children, it's already begun.

Just as Title IV-E provides a huge open-ended entitlement for foster care, it also includes another huge, (though not as huge) open-ended entitlement for adoption.

As noted previously on this blog, In 2008, the foster care-industrial complex managed to get a clause into new legislation, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, that phases out the "link" for adoption subsidies.

In another words, they shoved into this law what ultimately will be at least a $2.46 billion annual windfall for adoption, and the public and private agencies that place children in adoptive homes. The law includes absolutely nothing for prevention or family preservation.

Given the state of the federal budget, every dollar spent elsewhere is one dollar less that can be used for prevention or family preservation. And this provision of the fostering connections act creates still another financial incentive for child welfare agencies to prefer adoption of foster children to reuniting them with birth parents.

So there is a very real, very frightening prospect that all the talk of reforming child welfare financing not only won't increase funding for prevention and family preservation, it could result in nothing more than delinking – in other words, nothing more than another $4.7 billion per year, at least, for the foster care-industrial complex, and a greater incentive than ever for agencies to take the child and run.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Foster care or family preservation: You get what you pay for

Today NCCPR releases its briefing paper on financing child welfare. That way, if anyone planning to go to Capitol Hill on behalf of the Child Welfare League of America tomorrow wants to know the side of the story CWLA will never tell, it's readily available on our website here. And if anyone in government or elsewhere who's only heard CWLA's spin on these issues wants to know the rest of the story, it's available to them as well.

Here's an excerpt:

Understanding the issue requires a journey into a wonkish world filled with terms like "delinking" and "eligibility lookback." It's worth the trip, because the stakes are so high.

To understand those stakes, consider what a single mother in the Bronx named Rose Mary Grant had to do every week for months, just to see her then-11-year-old son, Issa, as described in a keenly-observed story in the Westchester County, N.Y. Journal-News (which, unfortunately is not available on the Journal-News website):

"Starting from her brick apartment tower, Rose walks a block to Gun Hill Road, takes the 28 bus to the subway station, catches the 5 train to Harlem, makes her way down 125th Street, boards the Metro-North train to Dobbs Ferry, and rides a shuttle … At each step, she places two metal crutches ahead of her and swings forward on two prosthetic legs."

The journey would have been worth it, had there been something worthwhile for Issa at the end of the line. But there wasn't. Issa was trapped in a "residential treatment center" a form of "care" that does little or no good, and was utterly unnecessary for Issa.

Issa was not paranoid, he was not schizophrenic, and he was not delusional. The only label pinned on him was Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Sometimes, at home, he was seriously out-of-control. But his handicapped, impoverished single mother couldn't do what middle-class and wealthy families do: find a good psychiatrist and hire home health aides.

She couldn't do that because the federal government does almost nothing to help pay for such alternatives. But, in many cases, the federal government will gladly reimburse states between 56 and 83 cents for every one of the 86,000-or-more dollars per year it costs to keep children like Issa in an "RTC."

Issa finally did get home, and the RTC where he was housed is reforming its own practices to help more children in their home communities.

But the reason Issa couldn't be cared for in his own home by his own mother for so long is rooted in the way the federal government helps states and localities finance child welfare.

Foster care is funded by the federal government as an open-ended entitlement. It's known as Title IV-E. For every eligible child (and I'll get back to eligibility in tomorrow's post to this Blog) the states are reimbursed for anywhere from 56 percent to 83 percent of the cost of warehousing that child in a foster home, a group home, or an institution. (The percentage for each state is the same as whatever that state gets for Medicaid, which, in turn, is linked to the average income of state residents.) Aid for adoption subsidies also is an entitlement under the same program.

The only funding stream even partially reserved for prevention and family preservation, known as Title IV-B, is not an entitlement; and it is strictly limited.

The result, in Federal Fiscal Year 2010 the federal government is expected to spend, via Title IV-E, $4.7 billion to hold children in foster care and another $2.46 billion to subsidize adoptions. It will spend, at most, $660 million to help to keep children out of foster care through Title IV-B. The real figure is even lower because some money in the "prevention" funding stream can be spent on foster care and adoption.

This means that while safe proven alternatives to foster care cost less in total dollars, it sometimes can cost a state or locality less to throw a child into foster care.

So while this does not mean, as some have alleged that "government makes money on foster care" it does mean that there is a huge, perverse incentive to use foster care instead of better alternatives.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Congress takes on the bad financial incentives in foster care – and makes them worse

It is well known that, thanks to decades of poor policy at the federal level, the financial incentives in child welfare are atrocious. For every eligible child a state or local government throws into foster care, (and the cases of about half of America's foster children are eligible) the federal government will pay more than half the tab – sometimes way more than half the tab. The same is true for adoption subsidies. There is nothing close for safe, proven programs to keep children out of foster care.

As a result, this year, for every dollar the federal government spends on prevention and family preservation, it will spend more than $10 on foster care and adoption – and that's a conservative estimate.

As a result, while it is not true, as some have claimed, that government makes money on foster care, it is true that though family preservation costs less in total dollars, it sometimes costs less for a state or local government to throw a child into foster care.

All of which means one should always worry about what will happen to children on days like this coming Tuesday, when "child savers" – to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves – swarm over the U.S. Capitol as part of the annual "advocacy day" for the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America. The "advocacy day" is part of CWLA's Annual Conference, highlights of which include a presentation on why supposedly there is too much accountability to the public in child welfare and an entire "track" of panels on how the people who run residential treatment centers, which are largely worthless, can save their dying industry.

CWLA has led the opposition to real reform of child welfare finance, and if CWLA gets what it wants most, those incentives will become far, far worse.

NCCPR will discuss all of this in detail in a new briefing paper on child welfare finance. We'll be releasing it on our website,, Monday.

For now, though, I want to highlight what Congress already has done lately to make things worse. It's happened twice since 2008.

One change may have happened almost by accident. States are reimbursed for foster care at the same rate they receive for Medicaid. When the economic stimulus bill raised reimbursement for Medicaid, reimbursement for foster care automatically went up as well – so the incentive to use foster care instead of alternatives actually got worse. Before the stimulus, the federal government reimbursed from 50 cents to 77 cents of every dollar spent to hold an eligible child in foster care. Now, thanks to the stimulus bill, its 56 to 83 cents on the dollar. The same is true of adoption subsidies.


But the other change was intentional. In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. CWLA and the rest of what I have come to call the "foster care -industrial complex" hasn't been able to stop gushing about this for the past year. And no wonder: it increases money in all sorts of categories, without providing so much as one additional penny for efforts to keep children out of foster care.

Some of the provisions of this law actually do some good, and only one does real harm. But the harm is huge. It's in a provision that's gone by almost unnoticed:

One way the "Increasing Adoptions Act" may increase adoptions is by providing still another huge incentive to pursue them at the expense of reunifying families.

The incentives to push adoption over reunification, financial and otherwise, already are enormous. Everyone in child welfare, from the frontline worker to the agency chief, knows that the only time a child welfare agency gets good press is when it gets those adoption numbers up – and no one looks too closely at how it was done. It also is the principal means of psychic satisfaction for people in the field – witness the fact that while everyone claims the system's primary goal for children is reunification, the only option that is celebrated each year in most of the country is adoption. That is clear from all those annual "Adoption Day" events, each of which generates another favorable story in the local paper.

There's also a significant financial incentive. Since 1998, under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, child welfare agencies receive a bounty; now $4,000 to $12,000, and sometimes more, for every foster child adoption over a baseline number. There is, of course, no such payment when a child is returned to her or his own parents.


In 2008, Congress further stacked the deck. Remember how I said that all that money for foster care and adoption is given for every case in which a child is eligible, and about half the cases are eligible? In cases involving adoption, the Fostering Connections Act phases in the other half. it eliminates a link to an old funding formula that was the one and only brake on this open-ended entitlement.

That's known as "delinking." Perhaps you've heard about it. It's hard to be anywhere near anyone from CWLA and not hear about it. CWLA is desperate for delinking, not just for adoption, but also for foster care. CWLA craves delinking the way Homer Simpson craves donuts.

But while the current link (discussed in detail in our briefing paper Monday) is a cumbersome and clumsy brake on the current open-ended entitlement for foster care, it's the only brake we've got. It would be crazy to remove this brake from the runaway train of unlimited foster care funding without something better to replace it.

Unfortunately, the brake already is coming off for adoption funds.

The implications are profound.

For starters, this change ultimately will funnel at least an extra $2.46 billion per year into adoption. That money is going to have to come from somewhere, and given the current state of the federal deficit, every new dollar for foster care and adoption is one less potential dollar for prevention and family preservation.

Though the law requires that the savings states gain from this new federal aid be spent on child welfare, that doesn't mean it has to go to prevention and family preservation. So those savings are far more likely to be plowed into hiring more child abuse investigators, more foster care, and big raises in rates for group homes and institutions – further worsening the imbalance in child welfare funding.

But that isn't even the worst of it. Because this new money for adoption also creates a terrible new incentive:

Consider the hypothetical case of Tommy, an eight-year-old who's been in foster care for a year because a caseworker didn't like the conditions in the tiny apartment where Tommy was living with his parents. Tommy's case did not meet the eligibility requirements for federal aid.

That means the state or local child welfare agency is picking up the entire tab for foster care. (Don't feel too sorry for the agency. Remember, they're already getting a huge subsidy for half their cases, and, contrary to what CWLA likes to imply, those funds are spread equally among all cases, including Tommy's.)

Similarly, if the agency returns Tommy home, the federal government will provide almost no help paying for any services Tommy and his parents might need to remain together.

But, once the new law is fully in effect, the federal government will pay between 56 and 83 cents out of every dollar spent on an adoption subsidy for Tommy's adoptive parents.

So while reunification may be in Tommy's best interests, the caseworker's need for psychic satisfaction, her boss' need for good press and, most important, the lure of more money for the child welfare agency, all push the decision toward adoption.

But that's just the start. The real prize for CWLA is attaining delinking for foster care – that would pour at least another $4.7 billion per year into foster care, and make the incentive to use foster care instead of family preservation even worse. (CWLA is willing to settle for reducing the payment per case in exchange for this delinking – but that's almost as bad.)

So there is every reason to fear for the fate of vulnerable, impoverished children while people from CWLA's member agencies are swarming Capitol Hill. Because when it comes to real reform of child welfare finance, the track record of Congress in recent years is frightening.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Foster care in Nebraska: We are the Board! Resistance is futile!

Mary Callahan is a foster parent from Maine who got fed up with the fact that almost every child the state placed with her never needed to be taken from his or her birth parents. That's why her book is called Memoirs of a Babystealer. Her activism helped transform the Maine system into a national leader in keeping children safe by keeping families together. One of her commentaries is on our website.

Callahan has a term for how most child welfare systems work. They put a family under a microscope, judge anything and everything they do, and then lie in wait, for as long as it takes for a parent to slip up. Callahan calls it the "'gotcha' moment."

But I'd never encountered a state where this was the officially-recommended course of action – until I read the latest Annual Report of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board. Although such boards exist in many states, in no other state does their influence come close to that wielded by the board in Nebraska. In part, that's because the Board's longtime director has long been the Godsource for the state's media – that one person or organization guaranteed a quote in every child welfare story, the one whose declarations are viewed as Holy Writ. A scandal over alleged violations of the federal Hatch Act, which led to the director's suspension, has not changed that status.

After reading this report, it's no longer a mystery why Nebraska harms so many children by needlessly tearing apart families and holding children in foster care at higher rates than almost any other state.

As is so often the case with people in child welfare, the members of the board care deeply about children. They have the best of intentions. But the board is totally out-of-touch with best practice in child welfare, and clueless concerning what really works to keep children safe. Its report reads like a manual for getting to "gotcha." As I pointed out in a recent op ed commentary in the Lincoln Journal-Star:

In a state that takes children at one of the highest rates in the nation, the Review Board says removal decisions are correct at least 98 percent of the time. So either all those other states that take proportionately fewer children (and that's almost every state, including those with strong records for keeping children safe) don't know what they're doing, or the Review Board is blind to Nebraska's rampant needless destruction of families.

Even the Review Board had to concede that in 22 percent of cases, the state failed to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify families after the child was removed, when it should have done so. So the real figure must be far higher.

When children really can't stay safely in their own homes, the best option is kinship care with a relative. Study after study has shown these kinship care placements to be better – and safer – for children than what should properly be called "stranger care." But even though Nebraska uses kinship care at a rate below the national average, nearly every comment about kinship care in the Review Board report frets about the state doing too much of it.

In contrast, the board loves the worst form of "care," institutionalization. Even though Nebraska institutionalizes children at a rate well above the national average, the review board calls for even more of it, instead of demanding far better alternatives such as Wraparound programs. Indeed, in a state where the Safe Haven debacle dramatized the urgent need for programs like Wraparound, the word Wraparound does not even appear in the report.

Worst of all is the angry, hectoring, patronizing tone the report takes toward families.

Most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither sadists nor brutes. Often, their poverty is confused with neglect. (For details, see NCCPR's Issue Papers). Other times there are serious, real problems, but problems that can be fixed with a helping hand.

The reason to extend that hand is not for the sake of the parents, but for their children. Multiple studies document the inherent trauma of being thrown into foster care, they're discussed on our website in The NCCPR Evidence Base. Indeed, several landmark studies show that in typical cases, children fare better when left in their own homes than even comparably-maltreated children fare in foster care.

Yet instead of putting the children first and offering a helping hand, the Review Board puts its hatred of the parents first, and offers only a wagging finger – over and over and over again.

Yes, there are token references to prevention, and even one good example of a family caught in a no-win situation, but mostly, the board's vision of prevention is really surveillance, complete with an Orwellian suggestion that every new mother be assessed by hospital staff to see if she is a potential child abuser. Best practices like drug court and pre-hearing conferences are perverted into ways to crack down on families. Visits are viewed not as a chance to help children, who desperately need to see their parents, but to hover over the parents, writing down every word and gesture, awaiting that "gotcha moment."

Thirty-nine times, - an average of once every three pages - there are references to the need to assess parental "willingness" or parental "ability" or parental "appropriateness" or, most often of all, "parental compliance." Reading this report was a bit like watching one of those Star Trek episodes in which the conquering Borg order those they've subjugated to "Comply! Comply!"

Governors and legislators come and go, but the Foster Care Review Board is always there, wagging its finger. The director should be replaced, not just suspended; not because of the alleged political activity but because of the inadvertent, but very real harm the board has done to the state's vulnerable children. And replacing the director is not enough. The whole Board needs to be replaced and reconstituted, with a membership that includes a far wider range of perspectives about child welfare.

Otherwise, no matter how hard Nebraska may try to move its child welfare system into the 21st Century, the Foster Care Review Board will keep dragging it into the 19th.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Foster care, family preservation and financial incentives: The waiver that’s STILL saving Florida

A previous post to this Blog discusses the latest report from the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. The post notes that even this group has come to see how a pilot project for "differential response," which involves increasing screening of reports to the state's child abuse hotline, has made children safer.

But there's another new report out about Florida which tells far more about how children are faring. It's the latest independent evaluation of Florida's "Child First" waiver. As is discussed in detail in this previous post, the waiver allows Florida to take more than $140 million in federal money that, in other states, can be spent only on foster care and use it for safe, proven alternatives as well. The waiver played a key role in turning around what was once one of the nation's worst child welfare systems, a transformation that caught the attention of The New York Times.

Like the previous evaluation, the latest concludes that, as the waiver has helped Florida reduce entries into foster care, children have gotten safer.

But while child welfare continues to change for the better in Florida, there's been no improvement in the politics, in the state or nationally. Nationally, the odds that other states will get the same chance to do what Florida did remain slim, because the nation's foster care-industrial complex, the powerful private child welfare agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care, remains opposed. They are led by the trade association for such groups, and public agencies as well, the group with the Orwellian name, Child Welfare League of America. Details are in our previous post about the Florida waiver.

And in Florida, progress is hampered by the desire of some pols to play to their right-wing base, as illustrated by the case of Rifqa Bary, and the state's cruel – and stupid – refusal to let potential parents adopt if they are gay.

The report on the waiver also is one more reminder to people in Michigan of the kind of dismal leadership that has characterized their child welfare agency for so long. Michigan initially accepted the same waiver as Florida, then chickened out at the last minute. That happened on the watch of the former head of the state Department of Human Services, Marianne Udow. She had the right principles, but lacked the courage to back them up. Her successor, Ismael Ahmed, hasn't shown that he even has the principles. His behavior suggests that he believes his job is to pander to the state's powerful private agencies – the "permanent government" of Michigan child welfare.

So while the waiver helped Florida cushion the blow of recession, in Michigan, as is discussed in detail in our reports on Michigan child welfare, Ahmed imposed slash-and-burn budget cuts to prevention and family preservation in order to fund rate increases for largely worthless residential treatment centers and a foster care worker hiring binge.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Child abuse allegations and Tiger Woods: If only this one could have been screened out

The number of children victimized by false allegations of child abuse is staggering – more than two million per year. Of course the overwhelming majority of these child victims don't wind up taken from their parents, but there is plenty of trauma nonetheless when children are interrogated about the most personal aspects of their lives and, sometimes, stripsearched by caseworkers or medical personnel looking for bruises. (If the allegation is sexual abuse, the medical exam is likely to be a lot worse.)

Mostly, these false reports are well-intentioned blunders by people who sincerely suspected maltreatment. Or they may have had the suspicion planted in their heads by those incessant campaigns to report anyone and everyone for anything and everything based on the slightest suspicion. Or they may have read one of those idiotic lists of "symptoms" of child maltreatment, most of which also can be signs of any number of other things. Often the lists are so broad that there is hardly a child in America who couldn't be considered a possible victim of child abuse or neglect at some point.

The malicious false allegation of maltreatment is relatively rare. But it can be among the most devastating, since a malicious caller can make that call over and over and over again. And since hotlines tend to be far too reluctant to screen out calls that means the investigation, the interrogation, and the stripsearch may be repeated over and over and over again.


When this happens to the children who usually are victimized, children whose families are poor and powerless, few in authority seem to care. But now, something new has been added: Some children victimized by a false allegation who have a high profile – make that extremely high profile – celebrity father: Tiger Woods.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported yesterday that the child abuse allegation that brought the Florida Department of Children and Families to Woods' home last month not only was false, it may well have been a malicious call. So now, all of a sudden, the state senator who chairs the relevant committee is shocked – shocked! – that children sometimes are victimized by malicious false allegations.

"To use the resources of the state for some grand celebrity theater is completely unacceptable," Sen. Ronda Storms, told the Sun-Sentinel. "It robs children who are legitimately in danger."

She's right, of course.

Storms also told the Sun-Sentinel she fears that if whoever made the false report in this case can get away with it, it might encourage others.

Right again.

But instead of actually moving to do anything about the problem, all she did was write to DCF Secretary George Sheldon to demand that he do something about it – in this particular case.

Odds are there is very little Sheldon can do, in the Woods case and in most of the other cases of alleged malicious false reports, for one simple reason: The people making such reports don't have to leave their names. Not only is such anonymity permitted, it's often encouraged. Campaigns to get people to report their most feeble suspicions often include a reminder that "you can remain anonymous."


That needs to change. Here's how we discuss the issue in our Due Process Agenda:

Of all the sources of child abuse reports, anonymous reports consistently are the least reliable. They're almost always wrong. A study of every anonymous report received in the Bronx, New York, over a two year period found that only 12.4 percent met the incredibly low criteria for "substantiating" reports – and not one of those cases involved death or serious injury. The researchers found that "one case was indicated for 'diaper rash' one case for welfare fraud, and two cases because the apartment was 'dirty.'"

Anonymous reporting should be replaced by confidential reporting. If someone who may have a grudge or someone who simply may be clueless wants to claim that, say, a neighbor is abusing a child, that person should be required to give the hotline worker his or her name and phone number. That information still should be kept secret from the accused in almost all cases, but the hotline needs to know. That will immediately discourage false and trivial reports.

In cases of alleged malicious reports, the law should allow the accused to go to a judge and explain why he feels he is being harassed by false reports, and by whom. The judge should check the record and, if the accused is right, and if the judge is persuaded that the reports are an act of harassment, the name should be released to the accused, who should have the right to sue for damages.

Of course, the objection to banning anonymous reports, and the objection to any kind of serious screening mechanism, is that some anonymous calls may be legitimate.

That's true.

If you ban anonymous reports, some real cases might be missed – though anyone who is sincere and has genuine reason to suspect maltreatment should be comfortable with confidential reporting.

But more real cases are missed now by overloading the system with false reports – just as Sen. Storms suggests. There always will be screening in child welfare. The choice is not between screening and no screening. The choice is between rational screening and irrational screening. The more cases that cascade down upon investigators the less time they get for each one. So some get short shrift. It is far safer for children if cases are screened rationally by eliminating anonymous reports, rather than irrationally based on which file floats to the top of the pile on a caseworker's desk.

As the authors of the Bronx study put it, in recommending that anonymous reports be rejected: "The resources of child protective agencies are not limitless. The time and energy spent investigating false reports could better be given to more serious cases, and children may suffer less as a result."

So Sen. Storms, if you are serious about wanting to protect children from harassment, and maybe save some children's lives, by directing resources where they'll do the most good, you know what you have to do: Introduce legislation to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting.

I'm not holding my breath. It would take a great deal of political courage to introduce such legislation. But if she fails to act, I hope reporters will remember what she said. You know, the part about: "To use the resources of the state for some grand celebrity theater is completely unacceptable," the next time Ronda Storms holds a news conference in a state office building.


In the particular case of the Tiger Woods case, the Woods children also may be victims of bad timing. The call about their father came in less than a month after the Miami Herald ran those misleading stories about the hotline, suggesting, wrongly, that it was screening out too many cases. Those were the stories which included suggestions that DCF should investigate absolutely every report, no matter how absurd.

I don't know what actually was in the report concerning the Woods family. Perhaps the caller did, in fact, leave his or her name. Perhaps there was enough credible information to merit the investigation. Even if there wasn't, under current Florida law, if the caller alleged something that fits the legal definition of maltreatment, it must be screened in, even if the source was anonymous and could provide no basis for the allegations. But screening out a report about Tiger Woods would have been tough in any event in light of his high profile marital problems. It would have been even harder in the wake of the Herald's reporting.

But there also is some good news about Florida. That story tomorrow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Child abuse and foster care in Florida: A call for more screening – from a surprising source


In previous posts to this Blog I discussed the first shots fired in the backlash against child welfare reform in Florida – stories in The Miami Herald about the state's child abuse hotline that were rife with distortion and, sometimes, outright inaccuracy. The stories showcased those who actually believe no call at all, of any kind, no matter how preposterous, should be screened out at the hotline.

No state takes this approach for obvious reasons – it would drown caseworkers in so many false reports and trivial cases that entire systems would collapse. (They actually tried something close to this in Florida a few years ago, and that's exactly what happened.)

Now, another group in Florida, known in the past for being fanatical about ever more coercive intervention into families, the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee, has weighed in on the issue of screening.

They want more of it.

What impressed them is Florida's pilot of an approach that is catching on across the country known as "differential response" (sometimes also called "alternative response"). Just last month, the widely-respected Vera Institute of Justice found that study after study of differential response shows it is a successful approach that does not compromise safety.

There are a variety of ways of doing it – but they have one thing in common: It adds an additional level of screening.

In Florida, in the three pilot counties, when reports come in from the hotline, instead of automatically being assigned for a full-scale investigation, they get that extra level of screening. But let the Review Committee explain it:

After the Abuse Hotline accepted a report for response and sent it to the local county of jurisdiction, the child protective investigator completed an initial screening tool to determine whether or not the report met the criteria for a traditional investigation response or a family assessment response.

The traditional investigation pathway was mandated when the report alleged serious maltreatment, was of a criminal nature, or the allegations suggested a need for dependency proceedings. These traditional investigations always identified a victim and perpetrator while documenting maltreatment findings.

The family assessment pathway was selected when reports appeared to involve minimal safety threats and focused on the assessment of family's strengths, needs, and the identification of the underlying conditions or contributing factors that precipitated the family coming to the attention of the department.

That description, in an earlier draft, is not in the final report. But the committee's conclusion remains. According to the Review Committee's final report:

These systems models tend to lower the workload of child protective investigators by reducing the number of low risk reports that require a full blown investigation. This allows for child protective investigators to focus more time and attention to those reports that involve serious harm, criminal prosecution, or dependency action.

The primary objective was to develop successful engagement strategies with families for the purpose of facilitating voluntary assessments and service referrals. As a result, child safety was almost always enhanced; not compromised, because families generally disclose much more accurate information when they are successfully engaged. [Emphasis added].

As important as what was said is who said it. The Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee is chaired by Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff's Department. She's the one who thinks there is virtually no such thing as an accidental drowning of a child. She's the one whose region takes away children at one of the highest rates in Florida. She's the one who declared she wanted a guarantee any child her investigators left in their own homes would be safe.

With even Shingledecker's committee endorsing this new, additional form of screening, the "never screen anything" crowd looks even more foolish.

In fact, the only thing more amazing than the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee coming out for more screening would be if an organization as fanatical about child removal as, say the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas were to issue a report admitting that taking away more children does nothing to curb child abuse fatalities. Oh, wait. They did.

It seems second thoughts about take-the-child-and-run as a solution to every child welfare problem are spreading. And for America's vulnerable children, that's a good way to start the year.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Foster care in New Jersey: Talk about no good deed goes unpunished…

One day after a court-appointed monitor found that the New Jersey Department of Children and Families has made impressive progress in fixing the state's child welfare system, under terms of a consent decree with the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (see the previous post to this Blog), the state's incoming Governor, Chris Christie, had a letter hand-delivered to DCF Commissioner Kimberly Ricketts.

It was not a thank-you note.

According to the Star-Ledger, the letter told Ricketts she'll be out of a job effective January 19 – with no replacement in sight. (Two other members of Gov. Jon Corzine's cabinet got the same letter.) According to the story:

"There's been outstanding leadership in this agency [DCF] over the last four years and leadership was critical to bringing about the reforms that were necessary to protect New Jersey's children," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights. "We don't know whether this decision is meant to send any signals. But there is a court order in effect, and we're very concerned about it.''

Well, at least Christie is "A uniter, not a divider." I find myself in complete agreement with Lowry.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Less foster care, more family preservation, safer children: Now it’s New Jersey’s turn


The story is familiar, but it looks like it's heading toward a happier ending than most.

New Jersey never had a good child welfare system. By the end of the 1990s it really stank; the leadership at the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and its then parent agency, the Department of Human Services, was among the worst in the country.

The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights sued. This was one of those cases where the system was so bad even a CR suit was bound to make it better. That's why we supported the suit even as the state's largest so-called child advocacy organization, and Godsource for the state's media, the Association for Children of New Jersey, opposed it.

DYFS fought the suit tooth and nail, until the death of a boy named Faheem Williams in 2003 caused such a furor that the state had to settle. The case also set off a foster-care panic in a state where entries into care already were soaring, thanks to the poor leadership mentioned above. By 2004, New Jersey was tearing apart 50 percent more families than it did four years before, and its rate of removal was way above the national average.

Then the state's children got two lucky breaks.

First, the settlement occurred during a brief period when CR was flirting with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, (which, for many years, helped to fund NCCPR). Casey helped to craft a far more innovative settlement than anything CR's ever thought of itself. In fact, it was so innovative that CR apparently had second thoughts and eventually hollowed out its original decree. But even the revised version was better than what CR usually produces.

By then, New Jersey already was benefitting from lucky break #2: a new Governor, Jon Corzine, had named Kevin Ryan to run the new Department of Children and Families (DCF. CR had demanded creation of the agency because there's nothing they love more than moving around boxes on a table of organization). Ryan had been the first director of the state's Office of Child Advocate – another response to the Faheem Williams case – and one of the very few people ever to make such an agency work for children instead of against them.

What the new consent decree didn't demand in the way of progressive reform, Ryan did. And there is every indication that his successor, Kimberly Ricketts, continues to move things in the right direction.

The latest such indication comes in the latest report from the independent monitor who oversees the consent decree, Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Past reports have been promising, but they focused largely on the prerequisites for better outcomes. This report asks: Are the outcomes really improving? The answer is a very strong yes.

This report proves that New Jersey can be added to the list of states that have made children safer by embracing family preservation. From 2006 through 2008, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year in New Jersey decreased by 25 percent. (That's not in the monitor's report, it's from federal data. The monitor can measure only what's in the consent decree, and you don't think a CR consent decree would care about that, do you?)

But here's what is in the report:

At the same time as entries into care were falling, the monitor's report shows significant improvement on key safety indicators – even though the consent decree imposes stricter requirements for one of these measures than the federal government. Both reabuse of children within 12 months (the federal indicator allows you to measure after only six) and the rate of foster care recidivism, the percent of children sent home from foster care who were removed again within a year,- have improved since the state started taking away fewer children.

Bottom line: Once again, the claim that child safety and family preservation are at odds has been proven false. Like so many other states that are turning around their child welfare systems, New Jersey is proving that you can't have child safety without family preservation.


There's also been remarkable progress in these areas:

Study after study has shown that, when children must be placed in substitute care, placement with a relative in kinship care is more stable, better for children's well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called "stranger care." But that didn't used to matter in New Jersey.

This is a state where the child welfare agency used to hate kinship care. One former Human Services Commissioner, Michele Guhl, actually said that helping relatives financially with kinship care "undermines the very foundation of the family." She felt grandma and grandpa should just do it all on their own. By that logic we should abolish Social Security and leave it to children to assume all the financial costs of caring for their parents in old age.

Now, the monitor's report finds that 35 percent of foster children are placed with relatives, well above the national average of about 25 percent, and on a par with the best systems in the country for kin care. And half the new foster homes licensed during the most recent period under review are homes of relatives.

While the least detrimental form of substitute care has increased, the worst form of care, group homes and institutions has declined. The proportion of children trapped in such places in New Jersey is now well below the national average.

They're also doing a lot less parking of children in shelters – a particularly awful option for young children. In the most recent period measured, DCF did this to only four children under the age of 13, and none under the age of 11. (All this will no doubt come as a shock to all those shelter and institution operators around the country who insist they are an absolute last resort and there is really, truly no other option for all those children they've been warehousing.)

New Jersey also is forcing far fewer children into out-of-state care. That number of children housed out-of-state is down from 327 in 2006 to 66 now, a drop of 80 percent,


As the report also points out, there is much that needs to be done, notably, in my view in the area of visits between parents and children. Visits are not a privilege for parents, they are a right for children. They cushion the blow of foster care, and they are the single biggest predictor of successful reunification. But children's right to visits is being violated in New Jersey at an alarming rate. Only 17 percent of foster children are seeing their parents even once a week. In addition, only 42 percent of families get a case plan within 30 days. The case plan is the list of hoops a family has to jump through. If there's no plan, they can't even start to jump – so the child's time in foster care is prolonged. And Family Team Meetings, a key reform strategy, are not occurring nearly often enough.

The need to do more also applies to New Jersey's efforts to spare children the enormous trauma of needless foster care. The rate of removal in New Jersey, once far above the national average, now is only slightly above that average. But systems that are recognized as, relatively speaking, national models take children at significantly lower rates. There's no reason New Jersey can't continue to improve as well.

Nonetheless, New Jersey is off to a very good start.


I've read a fair number of monitoring reports from several states over the years. I've never seen a state under a consent decree come so far so fast as New Jersey, as documented by this report. Just to give some idea:

I've often cited Alabama as a national leader in child welfare thanks to a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (An NCCPR board member was co-counsel for plaintiffs). In 2005, The New York Times
put the Alabama reforms on its front page. But it took about seven years to show real progress. In part that's because at least one new governor came into office determined to try to sabotage progress made to that point.

Illinois also is, relatively speaking, a national model. Nearly a decade ago, the Asbury Park Press (which once led New Jersey in child welfare coverage) did some excellent reporting pointing to Illinois as a possible model for New Jersey. But their consent decree was signed in 1989. They didn't start to show real progress for about 11 years.

And those are the success stories. Plenty of systems operating under consent decrees still are failing, especially those operating under typical CR "McSettlements":

The system in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin stank when their class-action suit was settled in 2002. It still stinks.

Washington D.C. settled its case in 1993. It's still a mess, made worse as long as the agency is under the thumb of D.C.'s egomaniacal Mayor Adrian Fenty. The failures are documented in reports from the same monitor who oversees New Jersey's decree.

Connecticut settled in1989 – it, too, remains a mess.

And Michigan – don't get me started about Michigan. (Though that decree is much newer, it is a significantly inferior settlement to the one in New Jersey and the state is plagued with significantly inferior leadership).

So while this monitor's report on New Jersey documents only a start in the right direction – it's a very impressive start.


Of course the question is whether a new governor, Chris Christie, will make sure this progress continues. There is at least one precedent for doing the right thing:

When Marc Cherna was named to head the county-run child welfare system in metropolitan Pittsburgh, Republicans controlled county government. (He was hired away from DYFS, by the way.) When the Democrats took over, they replaced every agency chief except Cherna. I don't imagine anyone said it out loud, but my guess is that the feeling was that child welfare normally can only be trouble for a political leader, but in Pittsburgh the system was earning praise – so they didn't want to mess with it.

Perhaps Chris Christie will see similar value in keeping the improvement going.

Monday, January 4, 2010

REPOSTING: Family preservation and foster care: What does, and does NOT curb child abuse deaths


I'm reposting this one because the study it discusses is so important, and many people may have missed it over the holidays.

In Texas there is no one more fanatical about demanding that more children be taken from their parents than Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. CPPP is a group of my fellow liberals, often described as "advocating on behalf of low-income Texans" (which would be true if the one thing low income Texans crave above all else is to have their children taken away).

Like most child savers, the term McCown's 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, McCown has the best of intentions. But his advocacy has had a lot to do with two foster care panics in Texas, and the diversion of huge amounts of money (in a very stingy state) that could have been used for prevention and family preservation into more child abuse investigations and more foster care instead.

Of course, McCown was the head cheerleader when Texas CPS took away hundreds of children from the FLDS ranch last year. (For details on McCown's role in Texas child welfare, see these previous Blog posts and take a look at NCCPR's 2005 report on Texas child welfare, (do a word search for McCown). An e-mail exchange I had with him, included as an appendix, is particularly revealing.)

One reason McCown and CPPP have so much influence, even in a conservative state, is that, when it comes to child welfare, McCown is the Godsource for Texas media – that one person or organization quoted in every story and for whom all normal journalistic rules of skepticism and verification are null and void.

So it was quite a shock to see the new report CPPP just issued on child abuse fatalities – the good kind of shock. Because this excellent report, with profound implications for every state, is still more evidence that much of the McCown/CPPP message about child protective services for the past decade has been wrong.

The report deals with what does – and what does not – contribute to what appears to be a relatively high rate of child abuse deaths in Texas. The findings, particularly in the "does not" category, are stunning.

By comparing a series of factors to child abuse death rates among the states, the report concludes:

The rate at which people report child abuse, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.

The rate at which a state takes children from their parents, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more deaths.

The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation, which is said to be above average in Texas, (and the hot issue in Florida right now) does not contribute to fewer deaths.

In short, none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.

I'll get to what does make a difference in a moment. First, though – why don't the traditional CPS functions make a difference? The CPPP report doesn't say. But it's not that hard to figure out.


The number of children who die of child abuse in Texas is horrifying: 228 in 2007. In fact, even if the number were 1 it would be horrifying, since the only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities is zero. But there are nearly 6.8 million children in Texas. And of that total, more than 1.5 million are living below the poverty line. That is one gigantic haystack. Why in the world would anyone think that, say, doubling or tripling the number of families investigated or children removed would really help us find more of those 228 needles in time?

So everything we've ever heard from anyone, including CPPP, claiming or implying that hiring more investigators to take more children from more families will save children's lives – is flat wrong. So is every statement from a politician or a CPS agency chief urging us all to report our slightest, most absurd suspicions to a child protective hotline because "you just might save a life." And, of course, so is every Texas news story which starts with a heinous child abuse death and segues immediately to the OSMQ (Obligatory Scott McCown Quote) about the need to take away more children.

Yeah, I know. Some will say: But what about the needles CPS did find, in the sense that the children were "known to the system"? Although the CPPP analysis doesn't mention it, and there are no reliable systematic data, news accounts from around the country suggest that the percentage of child abuse deaths "known to the system" is pretty similar among states as well. So there is no evidence that any of the CPS-related factors contribute to an increase or decrease in those deaths either.

There is one exception: In the very few places large enough to detect a pattern, to the extent that there is any pattern at all, deaths tend to go up in the wake of a foster-care panic, a huge sudden surge in removals of children. And that, too, makes sense. When workers are inundated with a surge in false reports, trivial cases, and needless removals, they have less time to find any child in real danger – so more such cases are missed. When the haystack suddenly grows, it's even harder to find the needles.


So if what CPS does or doesn't do has nothing to do with rates of child abuse fatalities, what does cause the higher rate in Texas?

This is where the CPPP report also is useful in another respect: It provides more evidence that it is impossible to do an accurate comparison of child abuse fatality rates among the states, in other words more evidence that the notorious report from the group calling itself Every Child Matters, which purports to make such a comparison, isn't worth the glossy paper it's printed on.

The CPPP report shows that the allegedly higher rate of such deaths in Texas is due in part to the simple fact that Texas has a broader definition of a child abuse fatality than most states and a more thorough process of child abuse death review than most states.

CPPP goes on to conclude this means other states are undercounting child abuse deaths. It also can mean Texas is overcounting them. For example, as is clear from the experience of Florida, determining when a drowning is an accident and when it is neglect can be highly subjective. But this is CPPP we're talking about; I'm not expecting miracles.

The report also says there are some factors which suggest that at least part of the higher rate in Texas is real. Texas has certain factors which have been shown to contribute to higher rates of child abuse fatalities:

High rates of poverty

High rates of teen pregnancy

Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

Which means, of course, had Texas taken some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it spent to hire more investigators and otherwise make the system bigger and spent it instead on proven prevention programs and help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, fewer Texas children might be dead today.

Of course, Scott McCown himself didn't actually write CPPP's report. But I sure hope he reads it.