Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Foster care and family preservation: The waiver that may yet save Los Angeles


There is a key number that determines how serious a state or locality is about keeping families together. It's the same number that lets us know if a community is experiencing a foster-care panic. – a spike in removals of children that usually follows poorly-reported news coverage of child abuse deaths.

It's not the most important number in child welfare – the most important are those numbers that attempt to measure child safety. But if you're trying to figure out if a child welfare system really is working to keep families together, then you need to know the number of "entries into care" - children taken from their parents over the course of given time period.

For measuring family preservation this number is far more important than the "snapshot number" which tells you only how many children are in foster care on any given day. That number can rise or fall for all sorts of reasons unrelated to efforts to keep children from being taken away in the first place.

Not only do you need the entries figure for the time when you suspect there may be a panic going on, you also need the figure for the same time period the year before, and, ideally, several years before, in order to do a fair comparison.

But when it comes to telling the people of Los Angeles this number, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services seem to be playing a game of "don't ask, don't tell."

Journalists at the Times don't want to focus on wrongful removal in the midst of what has become a campaign against family preservation, albeit a non-ideologically motivated one, so they don't ask. (The Times reporters will deny this, to which I say: Prove it. Report on any panic that may be out there, tell the stories you've been ignoring for all these months, and add the context that is missing from the horror stories your editors have been putting on the front page. Do that on a regular basis and I'll gladly revise my opinion and apologize.)

DCFS doesn't want to acknowledge any foster-care panic, so they don't tell.

Although DCFS Director Trish Ploehn said she would provide me with those data when she called NCCPR last week, I haven't received them yet. Ploehn claimed, however, that any panic was largely confined to the month of August, 2009, after which, she says, entries gradually settled back to their previous level.

That level still is too high – well above the rate in other large metropolitan areas. But that still would be a considerable achievement. It's not unusual for panics to last for a year or more. The foster- care panic in Florida lasted seven years. The one in Arizona started in 2003, and there's no end in sight.


What makes Los Angeles different? Simple. There is a huge change in incentives.

In most cases, when stories like those the Times have been running appear month after month, all of the incentives encourage panic.

There are personal incentives for the workers – they're more likely to keep their jobs, and stay off the front page, if they adopt a take-the-child-and-run approach. There are political incentives for the agency and elected officials, who look like they're "cracking down on child abuse" if they take more children. And there are financial incentives from the federal government, which will reimburse the states anywhere from 56 to 83 cents on the dollar for every eligible child they place in foster care – and roughly half of all foster care cases are eligible.

In Los Angeles, the personal and political incentives are still there. But the financial incentives are pushing against panic instead of in favor. If there is a foster-care panic in Los Angeles, the federal government won't help pay for it. And that's the first time that's ever happened anywhere in America.

That's because Los Angeles has a waiver, much like the one that has helped Florida transform what once was one of the nation's worst child welfare systems.

Under the waiver, Los Angeles agreed to accept its foster care money as a flat grant, in exchange for the flexibility to use the funds on safe, proven alternatives to foster care, instead of just foster care. That also means, however, that if DCFS caves into the Times crusade, takes even more children needlessly, and the foster care population soars, Los Angeles County will have to pick up the tab itself. (Details on how all this works are in NCCPR's Briefing Paper on child welfare finance.)

And that's one of the major reasons this form of funding is such an improvement over the open-ended entitlement for foster care.

By creating a system in which the various incentives come closer to cancelling each other out, rather than all pushing toward a take-the-child-and-run approach, the waiver makes it more likely that decisions will be made based on what is safest for each child, and not based on the fact that taking away the child lets everyone cover their asses and avoid being pilloried in the local newspaper, while the federal government helps pick up the tab.

Los Angeles has not done as well as Florida. The county got a later start and was not as bold in moving the money. The county also was hampered by moves at the state level, a problem the state-run system in Florida doesn't have. Because of the late start, there is no independent evaluation of the Los Angeles waiver available yet, unlike Florida where two such evaluations have found that the waiver improved child safety. But such an evaluation is due in a few months, and there are some promising signs of success.

If the waiver can curb a foster care panic, that will be huge evidence of its value. It would mean that the waiver helped to:

  • reduce the number of children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love leaving them at severe risk of lifelong emotional scars.
  • reduce the number of children placed at risk of abuse in foster care itself.
  • reduce the number of cases of wrongful removal overwhelming caseworkers, so they have more time to spot children in real danger who really should be taken from their homes.


If you live in Los Angeles and you never even knew this waiver existed, much less its potential benefits, you must be getting all your child welfare news from The Los Angeles Times. While the competing Los Angeles Daily News has been all over the waiver story, the Times barely mentioned the waiver until recently, and then only to attack it.

The waiver turns up in stories in December which portray family reunification as a terrible gamble with children's lives – complete with horror stories of children who died after reunification. Over and over reunification (made possible in part by the waiver) is described as "risky."

And the cheap shots are continuing. Recent stories describe the waiver as a "wager" – in keeping with a theme in Times coverage of child welfare: the false assumption that family preservation equals risky, while foster care supposedly equals safe.

But for the overwhelming majority of children, the ones whose stories somehow don't get into the Times, it's the other way around. Foster care almost always is the riskier choice, both in terms of emotional trauma, and even the risk of actual abuse.

It's child welfare systems in most of the rest of the country that wager with children's lives – and they keep betting against the children.

  • They bet against children when they put protecting themselves ahead of protecting children, by tearing apart families in order to avoid winding up on the front page of the local paper.
  • They bet against children when they take them from parents whose only crime is poverty.
  • They bet against children when they put children at a one in three – or greater – risk of abuse whenever they place a child in a foster home.
  • They bet against children when they throw children into a system that, according to one landmark study, churns out walking wounded four times out of five.

What Florida, and Los Angeles, have done with their waivers is try to shift the odds in favor of children.

In that regard the only wager Los Angeles has lost so far is when officials tried to beat a very different set of odds.


In some ways, what the Times reporters have been doing is understandable. A new law gave them access to a huge amount of information about fatality cases and near-fatality cases, while DCFS still can hide all its other mistakes behind "confidentiality."

So Times reporters have spent months steeped in the details of the most horrible cases. No one who has spent week after week reading autopsy reports and other files about innocent children who died at the hands of their brutal, sadistic parents could turn around and approach this new effort to keep families together without a profound visceral distaste and an enormous sense of foreboding. The fact that these cases bear no resemblance to what caseworkers typically see is truth – you know it in your head. The immersion in horror that the Times reporters have undergone replaces truth with what Stephen Colbert calls Truthiness – you know that in your gut.

That helps explain the errors in Times stories, and the refusal to provide readers the information they need to make up their own minds, but it doesn't excuse those mistakes, not when the one thing we know about foster-care panics is that they usually are followed by increases in child abuse deaths.

Those who supported the Los Angeles waiver bet that truth would win out over truthiness. So far, they're losing that wager.