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.