Monday, February 1, 2010

Child welfare’s version of accountability in foster care: Give us more money and go away!

It's been nearly two decades since a notorious case in which a child protective services caseworker allegedly told several families: "I have the power of God."

It's frightening if he said it. What's more frightening is: It's true. CPS workers do have the power of God. Their powers are the envy of law enforcement – witness the recent case in Florida in which Sheriff's deputies who wanted to trample on the Fourth Amendment pretended to be CPS workers. They can enter any home based on no more than an anonymous phone call. (Even in states that technically require a warrant, the workers are never turned down when they ask for one.) They can remove children entirely on their own authority, and hold them in foster care indefinitely.

Yes, judges eventually must approve, but generally that happens at hearings where families have no effective legal representation and the standard of proof is no higher than that used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender. So it's no wonder judges in these cases are far more likely to wield rubber-stamps than gavels.

In most states it all happens at secret trials. All the records are secret too. And ask anyone in CPS to account for any of this and the answer almost always is the same: It's all confidential, but trust us, we know best, and it's all in the best interests of the child.

Child welfare agencies may be more secret than the CIA. As a result, none of the checks and balances that are traditional in American democracy really applies.


But we're not alone in raising the issue of accountability in CPS. It turns out the Child Welfare League of America, the giant trade association for public and private child welfare agencies, also has deep concerns about accountability in child welfare: They think there's just too darn much of it! That was the theme of a presentation at their recent conference. Here's the program description in its entirety:

The Many Watch the Few Serve the Many: An Examination of Oversight and Review in the Child Welfare System. This workshop will examine five groups of watchers who oversee child welfare services and will suggest that they should be able to demonstrate that their activities contribute directly to the achievement of system goals. The repetitive reviews of individual cases by court appointed special advocates, guardians ad litem, foster care administrative case reviewers, citizen review boards, internal reviewers, and ad hoc committees, in addition to the press and courts, consume scarce agency and worker time and dollars. Except for the court, reviewers are not routinely measured on the level of permanency, safety, or well-being their actions directly ensure. The concern is not that public agencies spending public dollars and discharging a public mandate do not warrant oversights- the issue is the number, intensity, duplication, method, and intent of each review process.

One of the presenters is a social work professor. The other was formerly with CWLA and now is with Casey Family Programs, a multi-billion dollar foundation that projects an image of being a lot more progressive than this presentation would suggest. (Someone from CFP may well be reading this right now – they spent more than 51 hours on this Blog and in 2009; so at least they know where to look for good ideas).

Apparently the presenters have been taking the child welfare community on a tour of their whine cellar for some time. There's a power-point presentation that dates to 2008 and a journal article from 2007. (I can't link to it, since it's not available online unless you buy the entire issue of the publication in which it appears – the distribution of the article is as arrogant as its point of view – but here's a link to the abstract.)

The journal article and what amounts to the authors' roadshow is worth analyzing at length because I believe their attitude typifies the mentality that permeates most of America's child welfare agencies. One indication of that is how popular it seems to be in the field. It appears that the power point has been forwarded in the child welfare community like a chain letter, to enthusiastic reviews. And, of course, it was showcased at CWLA's conference. So I'm going to take a lot of space in this post to take a close look at the article and its implications.


The authors' complaint essentially boils down to the same one you'd hear from a filmmaker whose alleged masterpiece debuted to lousy reviews: It's soooooo much easier to be a critic than an artist like me! I'll bet those damn critics could never write a 10-second commercial, much less an entire film!

Both the filmmakers and the CPS workers have a point. Being a CPS worker is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable, and so is running a child welfare agency. It is indeed a far harder job than critiquing their work. That's why, though I've often opposed hiring more CPS workers (preferring to see the money go into programs to keep children out of the system) I usually favor giving the workers already on the job pay raises and better working conditions – and strongly support their right to bargain for both collectively (unlike some child welfare agency administrators who praise workers in the abstract but can't go ten minutes without complaining about "the unions.")

But that fact that the job is so difficult will never turn the child welfare equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space into Citizen Kane. The fact that critics have easier jobs doesn't mean they're wrong when they suggest that the entire script should be rewritten. And it doesn't mean the answer is to make a supremely unaccountable system even less accountable to anyone.


One irony here is that, in some respects, the authors have a point. They criticize Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Well, I'll take second place to no one in criticizing this well-intended outfit that does enormous harm to children. They criticize guardians ad litem – lawyers appointed to advocate for what the lawyer thinks is in the child's best interests. I've argued that this is the wrong role for GALs. The authors criticize foster care review boards. Last month, I compared a report from one such board to the Borg on Star Trek. They're upset about news coverage of child welfare. That's a common theme on this blog. And, though it's not mentioned in the article and power point presentation, they've been used to rally opposition to creating child welfare ombudsman offices – and I don't think much of most such offices either.

So we're agreed, right? Uh, no.

CASAs and GALs are not, in fact, "watchers" – to use the authors' obnoxious, patronizing term, at all. They don't critique the CPS investigation. Rather, in theory at least, they do their own and tell the judge what they think she or he should do. My big problem with both is their tendency to rubber-stamp CPS when CPS recommends removal or holding children in foster care. They seem to save the fighting for when CPS wants to return a child home.

And my problem with the media usually isn't their unwillingness to report "the good news." Yes, that can be a problem in those rare cases where a system really has improved and reporters don't want to write about it for fear of looking stupid the next time something goes wrong. But the bigger problems are reporting good news that isn't necessarily good – like all those treacly adoption day stories, or those day-in-the-life-of-a-caseworker stories (child welfare's equivalent of the National Model Worker stories one would find in newspapers in Mao's China), and worse, the tendency to fail to report the bad news about wrongful removal and misuse and overuse of foster care.

And it says a lot about the authors that they fail to say even a word about how it might be hard to report accurately about an agency when the agency itself keeps everything secret.


The authors go on to attack forms of accountability that, in fact, have better track records. One of them is what I have come to call OBRCs or Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commissions. They're usually formed after some high-profile child welfare tragedy. Yes, many of them are worthless – though, ironically, the ones that are worth the least are those that echo the arrogance of the authors of this study, and suggest that everything would be fine if the agency just hired lots more caseworkers. In other cases, the recommendations are good but they are ignored by the people who have the actual power – the child welfare agencies themselves. And in still other cases they do some good.

An OBRC in Philadelphia has helped a little bit in a place with one of the highest rates of removal of any big city. And while the journal article specifically criticizes all the OBRCs that have come and gone in New York City, one of them, created as a result of a class-action lawsuit settlement, was hugely successful.

The members of the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel for New York City, as it was called, persuaded the head of the child welfare agency to reverse course, embrace family preservation and end a foster-care panic he'd helped to start. The sad irony is that a member of that panel now runs the New York City system and has led a retreat from reform, but the New York City system still is far better than it would have been had the panel not been created.

The authors also appear unhappy with another form of accountability that has a mixed track record - class-action lawsuits. These are not mentioned in the article, but they do show up as a bullet point in the power point presentation.

Some such lawsuits do indeed go on forever and accomplish nothing. Generally that means the suit was brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) with no one else stepping in to help them craft their settlements. But Illinois and Alabama have been transformed into, relatively speaking, national models, in part, thanks to these lawsuits. (A member of NCCPR's Board of Directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the Alabama suit, brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.)

In New Jersey and, as noted above, New York City, even CR's suits have contributed to real improvement, thanks to a helping hand from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (which should not be confused with Casey Family Programs).


The entire exercise drips with condescension. In the power point that even extends to the illustrations, in which the general public is displayed by a furious, and apparently quite irrational, man, literally tearing his hair out. And the dominant tone of the journal article is one of whininess, as illustrated by the question the authors pose over and over: Why aren't the "watchers" held accountable when people don't pay attention to them?

I would have thought that would be obvious. With the exception of the courts, whom the authors grudgingly concede have an oversight role, thanks to that pesky U.S. Constitution, pretty much the only thing the real watchers can do is give advice.

The same arrogance that pervades the article itself helps explain why OBRC recommendations are ignored and class-action lawsuit settlements can drag on forever as plaintiffs try to get child welfare agencies to abide by them. For example, in the mid-1990s, the head of the Alabama human services agency set about systematically trying to undermine the Alabama consent decree. If the authors' theory is to be taken seriously, somehow this was the fault of the people who brought and won the lawsuit.

But it gets worse. The authors actually encourage the smug, sanguine attitude that permeates some child welfare agencies – and frustrates many good frontline workers. Consider this truly appalling passage:

While administrative reviewers may offer useful amendments to the case plan, the reviewer is not held accountable for recommending that the worker secure housing when it is not readily available in the community or for ordering drug treatment when there is a long waiting list. Only the worker must attempt to secure scare resources, not only for this family, but also for every family and child in his/her caseload.

First of all, this quote comes in a section on administrative review – meaning a review almost entirely within the child welfare agency itself, not those darned outside "watchers." But even if it did come from the outside, so what? Fighting to get families what they need is supposed to be the very heart and soul of social work. The good social worker (or caseworker since, much to the authors' distress, they don't all have social work degrees) is the one who constantly is pushing the envelope, trying to scrounge up the funds for a security deposit so children don't lose their parents because of poor housing conditions or improvising a child care plan to avoid taking children on a lack of supervision charge and so on. They're also the ones raising hell with their bosses when such help isn't available, and demanding that politicians do their jobs and provide these kinds of resources. That's why their job really is much harder than that of the watchers. But it's still the job of the watchers to give those workers either a pat on the back or a kick a little lower, as needed, to make it happen. In other words, the reason "only the worker must attempt to secure scarce resources…" etc. is because it's her job.

It works in other fields. For example, when the federal government first set emissions standards for cars, the technology did not exist to meet the standards. Asking the auto companies nicely would not have changed that. But when the "watchers" in Congress said: "You have to do it, now go find a way" they found a way.

In contrast, the approach suggested by the authors: - sit around and wait until everything every caseworker needs is handed to her on a silver platter - amounts to giving up without a fight.

The danger of the authors' passivity can be seen in a study of caseworkers in Milwaukee. The researchers found that a crucial problem in failing to keep families together was lack of housing. But the caseworkers had built up a wall of denial – refusing even to acknowledge that housing was a problem for the families. The authors said the caseworkers "may tend to ignore housing as a problem rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that they cannot help their clients with this important need."

If only there were some "watchers" goading those workers to see that to which they had willfully blinded themselves – and pressing them to find a way to "help their clients with this important need."


Later, one sees what this article really is about – the authors' feeling threatened that anyone or anything might undermine their absolute power.

Take for example this Disney version of how caseworkers and families would happily work together toward their shared goals if only the "watchers" weren't in the way:

Individual case review needs to be done by the worker, supervisor, and clinical team with the family and changes put in place immediately to affect the outcomes for children and families. Waiting for a scheduled review gives the impression that decision making can be postponed and that the worker should delay action pending input from the watcher.

In fact, the authors cite no citizen review board anywhere in the country that requires workers to wait before adjusting a case plan in cooperation with the family. But the notion that most workers are, in fact, meticulously poring over case plans and even thinking about adjusting them in cooperation with the family is laughable.

The authors' real fear is even clearer in this passage:

[Citizen Review Panel] teams do not, generally, have ongoing, consistent involvement with the family. The development of a trusting relationship between families and caseworkers may be undermined by family involvement in forums with unknown persons, particularly if those persons are overtly critical of the service plan and its implementation.

Translation: We don't want any outsiders telling families they might actually have some rights, and the useless cookie-cutter no-services "service plans" we force on them are, in fact, crap.

Not that the authors see no role at all for watchers – or anyone else outside the system itself. On the contrary, the authors take a moment to give to the rest of us our marching orders:

Child welfare agencies need advocates to engage in lobbying for essential supports such as expert case supervision, competitive salaries, professional level workers, and staff development designed to help workers apply best practices to vulnerable children and families.

Got that? Our one and only job is to get out there and advocate – but only for giving social workers more money and even more power.

If nothing else this article offers an unintended glimpse of just how frightening and how demoralizing it must be for a parent to have to sit across the table from people like this, knowing that if they do not behave with sufficient deference and humility at all times, their children might never see them again.


The authors want us to believe the only alternative to their approach to accountability – the "give us more money and go away" approach - is the present collection of watching mechanisms which in fact, range from sometimes effective (lawsuits) to the occasionally effective (OBRCs) to those that usually are effective only at making things even worse (CASA).

That ignores the central fact about accountability mechanisms in child welfare: They aren't really meant to promote accountability at all.

Things like citizen review boards and OBRCs are meant to give the impression of accountability without the reality. They are rather like those super-secret Congressional committees that supposedly exercise oversight over the CIA. Secret committees – sometimes with only a few members having access to classified information - are supposed to oversee secret agencies. Of course it doesn't work.

It's the same in child welfare. When the authors complain that no other agency is subject to so much review, the truth is, it's sham review. The child welfare agency almost always emerges with its near-absolute power intact, free to do whatever if wanted before the watchers did their watching. That's no accountability at all.

To the extent that child welfare agencies are treated differently from other agencies, it's only because they've conned us into thinking their obsession with secrecy is a way to help children instead of a way to cover up their own mistakes. As a result we wind up with jury-rigged alternatives to the transparency that's essential in a democracy.

When the authors say this leads to more paperwork without improving outcomes, often that's true. But the alternative to bad accountability is not no accountability – it's transparency. So I'd be glad to offer the authors of this journal article, and their accompanying no accountability roadshow a deal: I'd scrap every foster care review board, and OBRC and I'd gladly see CASA abolished and the role of GALs transformed in exchange for nothing more than transparency. (OK, I'd do the last two even without transparency, but you get the idea).

By transparency, I mean:

  • All court hearings are open.
  • Almost all records are open.
  • Agencies have the right to comment on individual cases.

(Details on all this are in our Due Process Agenda).

The problem in child welfare isn't that there are too many watchers, it's that there are too few – and most of those few can't tell the rest of us what they've seen. Real accountability, exactly the same accountability as exists for all other government agencies, means we all have to be the watchers.

Do we have a deal?

I didn't think so.

Especially since the biggest giveaway to the real agenda here – give us more money and go away – is the one form of so-called accountability that the authors actually like: It's the sham of "accreditation" a form of fake accountability created by CWLA itself, which I plan to discuss in the next post to this Blog.

The heart of the problem can be seen in that caseworker who allegedly said: "I have the power of God." To give a young, inexperienced worker the power of God, send her out on what she is convinced is a godly mission to rescue innocent children from the scum of the earth, knowing that there will be no penalty for removal and hell to pay if she leaves the child home and something goes wrong, and then expect her to exercise self-restraint is more than can be expected of most human beings. Rarely is the power of God accompanied by the wisdom of Solomon.