Thursday, February 11, 2010

Accountability in foster care: The sham of “accreditation”

A previous post to this Blog discusses a panel at the recent conference of the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, concerning the problem of accountability in child welfare. Only the problem, according to CWLA and the presenters, is not that this system that wields vast power and operates in near total secrecy has too little accountability. Rather, say the presenters at the panel, there is too much accountability. They portray the people who toil in child welfare agencies, from caseworkers to agency chiefs, as child welfare's Gullivers, tied down by innumerable Lilliputian "watchers" to use their obnoxious term.

What they really want is summed up in the title of that earlier post: Give us more money and go away! The presenters also are authors of a "scholarly" article to the same effect. Only the abstract is available online.

And what gives away their no-accountability agenda is the one and only form of accountability they love: It's called "accreditation." And it's a sham.

Accreditation is a way for agencies to get an unearned seal of approval by keeping their paperwork in order - and then throw it in the face of critics, in order to prevent real change. That's why child welfare agencies – and people like the presenters at the CWLA panel - rush to embrace the idea whenever the alternative is real reform.

Indeed, it is quite possible, depending on the circumstances, for an agency to become fully "accredited" without the "accreditors" so much as laying eyes on one real live foster child.

And that should come as no surprise considering who invented the so-called Council on Accreditation: The Child Welfare League of America. Accreditation is simply the agencies running around giving each other pats on the back. It's self-policing and the self-policeman always is the laziest cop on the beat.


A few basics about accreditation:

· The accreditors don't inspect foster homes.

· The accreditors don't do surprise inspections of anything. Group homes and institutions get "no more than" a month's advance notice. (There were no inspections at all until a newspaper exposed this fact, something discussed in more detail below).

· They inspect group homes only if the agency seeking accreditation is running them directly. (So, if, for example, a state or private child welfare agency subcontracts all its foster care work to other agencies, it can be accredited without the accreditors ever meeting a foster child.)

· The accreditation process does nothing to examine whether a decision to remove a child in the first place is appropriate.

In short, the "Council on Accreditation" doesn't really accredit agencies at all. It accredits file cabinets.

Recently the State of Missouri won accreditation. The child welfare agency made a point of noting that the accreditors really did talk to foster families. What they did not say, until the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader asked, is that the foster children were handpicked by the agency itself. This is a bit like when the Red Cross interviews POWs while the prison guards watch. And it's not clear if the accreditors bothered to speak to birth parents at all.

As for the standards one has to meet to be accredited, mostly you meet them by hiring more social workers. No wonder the social workers who wrote the paper and conducted the anti-accountability presentation love it so. And the Council on Accreditation loves them right back – citing the authors in the very first in a list of "testimonials" on its website.

This mutual admiration society is all the more remarkable because the authors of the no-accountability article and presentation have a particular standard by which they claim to judge accountability mechanisms: Can those mechanisms prove they improve outcomes for children? Clearly, accreditation flunks this test.

For starters, a look around the country at the few systems that are generally considered "models" shows that one is, indeed, accredited. The rest are not.

But the reality behind accreditation is even worse:

I first learned about accreditation 11 years ago, from two superb former reporters, Debra Jasper then with the Cox-owned Dayton Daily News and Elliot Jaspin, then with Cox's Washington Bureau. They did a series of stories about a big private agency. Among the findings:

· Foster homes that were wretched.

· Group homes that were worse.

· The head of the agency had a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor - a foster child who had been in his care.

Oh, and one more thing: The agency was "accredited."

(I'm not naming the agency because this happened more than a decade ago, the director in question was fired, and there is no evidence that the agency failed to clean up its act.)

Even more revealing was what happened when Jasper and Jaspin took their findings directly to CWLA:

When they e-mailed their findings to CWLA's acting director, (who is not the current director) she should have said that such conditions would not be tolerated in a CWLA member agency. But she didn't. The Daily News describes what happened instead:

"After reading the series, Shirley Marcus Allen, the league's director, sent an e-mail to Joyce Johnson, the group's director of public relations, saying 'These are all horrible stories. I have no desire to talk to the reporters on this if I don't have to. Find something more positive for me to report on.' Although intended as an internal document, Allen sent the e-mail to the newspaper by mistake."

But what about a public agency? Would it have to meet high standards to gain accreditation? Apparently not.

On Monday, we'll go inside a fully-accredited state child welfare agency. It's ugly in there.