Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fixing foster care in LA: Paging Dr. Sanders

Trish Ploehn, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, is in danger of becoming the Martha Coakley of child welfare. Her bungling threatens to undermine reform not only in Los Angeles but all over the country.

That became clear when Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten weighed in today concerning Ploehn's outrageous decision to withhold information about child abuse fatalities. As has been typical of the opinion writing at the Times on these issues recently, Rutten's column was thoughtful, reasonable and restrained. (The cheap shots and other excesses actually have come from what are labeled news stories.)

Almost all of the column dealt with Ploehn's stonewalling, so I found myself in complete agreement with seven of its eight paragraphs. But in the penultimate paragraph, Rutten veered off course, albeit understandably, given the stonewalling. He wrote:

This factual vacuum is preventing a review of whether the county acted wisely over the last few years when it allowed the child welfare department to reduce the number of youngsters removed from their families and placed in foster care by about 60% to around 19,900. At least some of the supervisors and their aides are concerned that social workers are being discouraged from moving imperiled children to the safety of foster care because spending fewer federal and state block grant dollars on that service frees the money for use in programs more highly favored by the Department of Children and Family Services' hierarchy.

On those points, Rutten is mistaken. In fact:

The start of the reduction in foster care predated the changes in how foster care is funded in Los Angeles by at least seven years.

While the number of children in foster care on any given day has been declining (until the recent foster-care panic set off by the Times news stories may have ended the decline) the number of children taken away over the course of a year increased every year from 2004 through 2007 – and, as has been discussed often before on this blog, the entry number is the one to watch to know if a community is serious about keeping families together.

Los Angeles still takes away children at a higher rate than most other metropolitan areas.

In Los Angeles, caseworkers no longer decide whether to remove a child from the home - a computer does it. I'm not kidding. And the computer relies on a system called Structured Decision Making (SDM), which has been found to be permeated with racial bias, something discussed in this excellent study by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. As we note in our material on Los Angeles child welfare, SDM, as used in Los Angeles, amounts to computerized racial profiling.

There is no guarantee of "the safety of foster care" – not even close. Not when study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of all foster homes.

When the records finally become public – and either by media pressure, legal action, or leak, they will, they will tell us nothing about the overall safety of Los Angeles County children who have come to the attention of DCFS. That is for a reason for which we all can be grateful: though each is the worst kind of tragedy, in a county with 3.2 million children, the number of fatalities easily can rise or fall due to random chance. But don't take my word for it, even the Queen of Child Fatality Review, LA-based Deanne Tilton Durfee, said as much, to the competing Los Angeles Daily News.

As for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, or the B.S., as this gang of five should properly be called, it is the worst governing body in American child welfare. If they are, in fact, concerned about anything besides getting their names in the paper, they haven't shown it.


But when a child welfare agency stonewalls, speculation will fill the information gap, and those who want to undermine reform are only too glad to whisper in the ears of journalists. If a columnist who does not specialize in child welfare is not hearing the rest of the story, that's Trish Ploehn's fault, not his.

In this case, the speculation is particularly dangerous. As regular readers of this blog know, Los Angeles is operating under a waiver from federal funding rules. It's worked brilliantly in Florida, and, even in Los Angeles, it's had modest success. But if the master narrative around the country becomes "blame the waiver for fatalities" – and there are plenty in child welfare whom, I suspect, are gleeful at that prospect, then it kills any chance of this approach spreading, and may even endanger renewal of the existing waivers.

So, what can be done about it? Simply firing Trish Ploehn won't be enough. The odds of the B.S. finding someone any better to replace her are slim – in no small measure because few people are going to want to work for a Board of Supervisors with such a long, dismal track record of politicizing child welfare. But it might be possible to bring in someone for a fixed term, say a year, to let in some fresh air and begin turning things around.

My first choice would be Bob Butterworth, who did such a brilliant job leading the turnaround of child welfare in Florida. He has a great grasp of child welfare, he has the political skills, and his signature initiative in Florida was candor - he pulled the state child welfare agency out of its bunker. But I can't imagine why he'd want the job even were it offered.

But there's someone else who might have more reason to step in: David Sanders, Ph.D. Sanders was Ploehn's immediate predecessor. He is the only DCFS director in recent years to leave the job voluntarily, and the only one who could cope with the B.S. He initiated the waiver that's now under fire, so he has a strong interest in seeing that it works.

He also made some mistakes. Entries into care increased during his tenure, and he's the one who brought in Structured Decision Making. But the fact that he pushed for the waiver suggests he saw the problems and was moving to deal with them, when he left to become Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs, the multi-billion dollar foundation that loves fancy titles and spent more than 51 hours on this Blog and NCCPR's website last year.

A few years ago CFP essentially vacuumed up many of the best and the brightest in child welfare around the country (and when they ran out of good people who would accept their offers, they started scraping the middle of the barrel, too.) It's time that Casey gave something back, by "lending" Sanders to Los Angeles to help fix the mess that Trish Ploehn did so much to create.