Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Now, a “pledge break” …

    Or at least this Blog's equivalent of those times when public television stations ask for donations; though I hope this won't be quite as annoying.

    The new issue of Youth Today has an article about how hard it can be for outspoken advocacy organizations to get and stay funded. It helps explain why we can't do it with foundation support alone. So if you like what you see here and on our website, and want to see more accomplishments like those we describe here, please consider making a donation through Network for Good.

    On the other hand, if you're one of those who only stops by to see what that @#$%^ Wexler is saying now, there are many other organizations that will be glad to receive your donation!

    Also: I'm delaying the post about Cleveland I'd planned for tomorrow. Instead, tomorrow's post to this Blog notes the confluence of two events, one of which is April Fools' Day.

End of pledge break. No tote bags, I'm afraid, but at least it was short.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Covering foster care in LA: The case of the selective sidebar


Yesterday's Los Angeles Times story, apparently some kind of half-hearted effort to add context to the paper's child welfare coverage was accompanied by a sidebar apparently designed to reinforce the "master narrative" of Times reporting – that the only fatal mistake the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services makes is leaving children with dangerous parents.

Called "A timeline of death" a better title would have been "A highly-selective timeline of death." Because a quick check of NCCPR's own archive of child welfare news coverage turned up these cases, which the Times left out:

1999: Four-month-old Garnet Peels is placed with a foster mother who allows her brother – a narcoleptic – to drive the boy in his SUV. The infant was not in a car seat. He died when the foster mother's brother drove the SUV into a pole.

1999: Gilbreania Wallace is taken from her grandmother when the pipes in their rented house burst, flooding the basement and making the home a health hazard. Instead of helping them find another place to live, DCFS places Gilbreania in foster care. She dies there, allegedly killed by her foster mother. (DCFS, which would spend nothing to move the family offered $5,000 for the funeral). Just as in the case of Viola Vanclief more than a decade later (making it the one death of a foster child too recent for the sidebar to ignore), Gilbreania's foster mother has previous complaints against her, and the home is overseen by a private agency with a troubled history – the same agency that oversaw the case of Garnet Peels.

2001: Two-year-old Jasmine Garcia dies of what police call "catastrophic injury to her head." Jasmine was placed in a foster home overseen by another private agency – and there had been warnings to DCFS about alleged abuse of other children in the home. The foster parents are charged, but one foster parent is acquitted and charges against the other are dropped.

2003: Dakota Prince, age 5, and Nehemiah Prince, age 3, are taken from their mother because of what the DCFS deputy director at the time calls "just an inability to provide adequate care." They are placed with a foster mother who was under the supervision of still another private agency. The foster mother can afford the best – including a Cadillac Escalade SUV. But one day she forgets that she'd left Dakota and Nehemiah in the Escalade in 100 degree heat where, a deputy district attorney says, "they cooked inside the car and died." The foster mother is convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

There is nothing in the Times chronology to indicate why it only goes back to 1998 – seemingly an arbitrary choice. But perhaps it's because that avoids including another case, the particularly searing story of Jonathan Reid, taken needlessly from his mother only to die in foster care in 1997. You can read all about that case in this 2002 story - by Garrett Therolf, the Times reporter who now wants us to forget all about such cases, or at least write them off as aberrations, as he crusades to keep more children in the system that killed Jonathan - and Dakota, and Nehemiah, and Garnet, and Gilbreania, and how many others?

And for another example of the kind of story Los Angeles Times systematically avoids, check out today's lead story in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Monday, March 29, 2010

LA Times foster care coverage: The case of the misleading lead

Talk about blowing the lead. The first 12 words in yesterday's feeble attempt by the Los Angeles Times to add some context to its child welfare coverage are grossly misleading, and possibly flat wrong. Those 12 words are: "As deaths among abused and neglected children have mounted in recent months…"

But the story offers no evidence of any such thing.

Rather, once again, the Los Angeles Times is repeating the New York Times fallacy: confusing an increase in media attention to child abuse deaths with an actual increase in deaths. And, amazingly, given the misleading lead, later in the story, the Times essentially admits as much.

According to yesterday's story, there have been about 35 deaths of children "known to the system" since January, 2008. That would be an average of one such tragedy every 23 days. There may have been an increase of three deaths in 2009 compared with 2008 – but the figures for both years are below the figure for 1998, when more children were taken from their homes, and vastly more were in foster care on any given day.

If there is any evidence that this rate has increased "in recent months" – whatever "recent months" means, the story does not provide it. Indeed, if the two such deaths that have been the subject of Times stories in 2010 are the only such cases, then the rate has declined. And either way, it tells us absolutely nothing about whether the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is doing a better or a worse job of keeping children safe.

When you are talking about an average of roughly 18 deaths a year among children "known to the system" in a city with 3.2 million children and a child welfare agency with thousands of workers, it should be obvious that the fatality number alone can rise and fall due to random chance, and trying to judge whether an agency is getting better or worse based on that number is idiotic. (It also helps explain that major new study which found that investigating more cases and taking more children does nothing to curb fatalities, while focusing on prevention and ameliorating poverty does.)


Indeed, much farther down in the story the Times finally hints at the real story – and contradicts the lead. According to this part of the story:

Under [DCFS Director Trish] Ploehn, a 30-year department veteran, the agency's failings have come to light more readily than in the past, largely because of a state law that opened previously confidential records. Before the law took effect in 2008, virtually all information about children's deaths from abuse or neglect was kept from public view, ostensibly to protect the privacy of victims and their families. Reports about horrific cases leaked out sporadically.

In other words, as far as anyone can tall, the deaths haven't mounted, the Los Angeles Times has simply decided to pay attention.

Still absent from Times coverage are two salient facts: Even people with no love of family preservation, like Deanne Tilton Durfee, probably America's most quoted "expert" on child abuse fatalities, who, according to the competing Los Angeles Daily News "agreed the increase in deaths [in 2009 compared to 2008] is not a 'significant increase in the larger spectrum of things.'" And, for those who absolutely insist on using this measure, as noted above, such deaths actually are down from 1998 decade ago – a time when DCFS was taking away more children.

Garrett Therolf, the lead reporter on the Times stories, claims that the way deaths are measured has changed since 1998. But he actually made that claim not in the Times but in the excellent Blog, which he apparently contacted to object to something they'd written. He's done the same with this Blog – utterly oblivious to the irony in his constant demands that everyone else tell his side of the story, even as he systematically omits those who favor family preservation from his own reporting. Why hasn't he raised the issue of comparing rates of child abuse deaths in the Times itself? Perhaps because then he'd have to mention the fact that, by at least one measure, deaths have declined. And then he'd have to deal with whole issue of whether you can evaluate DCFS based on fatalities. And then the whole house of cards on which the Times coverage has been built collapses.


That blackout of family preservation advocates continued yesterday, as the story, apparently meant to be some kind of overall assessment of DCFS Director Trish Ploehn's performance, left out anyone from DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children, the grassroots group arguing that DCFS isn't doing enough to keep families together. (That group turned up only when Therolf apparently thought he was writing family preservation's obituary in Los Angeles.)

Yesterday's whole story reads like tokenism – the story to point to when people say the Times coverage lacked any context. Do it once, get it out of the way, and then back to business as usual.

And even as tokenism, it's not very good. Because totally absent is any guidance for readers to allow them to determine if, in fact the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has made children safer over the past decade and whether it is likely to do so in the future. How are readers supposed to know? The implication is that you know by counting the number of deaths. But what if that number rises this year, just because the EMTs who might have saved lives in a couple of cases went to the wrong house or got stuck in traffic? What if it falls because someone shot at a child – and missed? What if it changes because deaths that one year are considered accidental the next year are considered "neglect" – or vice versa? That gives some idea of how absurd it is to try to use deaths of children known-to-the-system as a measure. Better measures exist – the Times simply hasn't discussed them, much less committed, in advance, to actually using them.

Still, the story did serve one useful purpose: It included a lot about how the county Board of Supervisors loves to preen and posture about these cases, and pronounce itself shocked – shocked! – by things it had every reason to know about all along.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ahead this week on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog:

    More about Los Angeles this week, starting tomorrow (Monday) with an analysis of today's feeble attempt by the Los Angeles Times to add some context to its coverage. It's the Case of the Misleading Lead.

    Then on Tuesday: The Case of the Selective Sidebar: A look at some of the tragedies systematically left off the list that ran in the Times today.

    Still, it could be worse. When it comes to a grossly-misleading out-of-context war against family preservation, it's hard to top the editorial page at the Cleveland Plain Dealer - a newspaper which failed to learn from some brilliant reporting – by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Actually, the Times could learn from that earlier Plain Dealer reporting, too. That story later this week.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

LA’s feeble steps to curb abuse in foster care: Two big cities do it better

So, now that a Los Angeles County child has died in a foster home overseen by a private agency with a poor track record, the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is likely to terminate its contact with said agency and move the 216 children now placed in that agency's foster homes. There's just one problem:

Where will they put the children?

In California, private Foster Family Agencies, or FFAs, were created precisely because county child welfare agencies weren't able to find enough foster homes on their own. So, presumably, these 216 children now will be dumped on some of the other 59 FFAs in Los Angeles County. Perhaps they'll wind up with good agencies, perhaps not. But odds are we won't know until it's too late. Because Los Angeles County has no mechanism to monitor FFAs to see if they're any good or not.

That should come as no surprise. When you take away too many children you wind up begging for beds, and beggars can't be choosers. The standards for foster parents go down and the reasons to ignore warning signs about abuse go up.

So now the county Board of Supervisors (the B.S.) is doing what it does best: preen and posture. They're promising to reconstitute a previously-disbanded "investigations unit" to actually keep track of instances of abuse in foster care and terminate contracts when, as a Los Angeles Times story puts it, "problems pile up." In other words, real, live foster children become the equivalent of canaries in a coal mine. When enough of them are hurt, then you terminate the contract.


Two other big cities have a better approach.

In New York City almost all foster care has been subcontracted to private agencies since, oh, about 1857. And for almost all of those 150+ years since, most of them did a lousy job. It was only in the last decade or so that the City's public child welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) got serious about monitoring quality at these agencies, and getting rid of the poor performers. The city now has a sophisticated system of inspections and grading, and issues regular, public report cards. Several agencies have been closed.

The report cards measure more than whether foster children survived the experience. They look at the full spectrum of issues relevant to quality of care, including maintaining contact with birth parents, services to families, health care, education and, when children really can't be reunited, moving toward adoption. Although the agencies themselves claim to be pleased, (which is not a good sign – if they're too happy, the standards are too low) a recent article in a journal, the New York Nonprofit Press, revealed enough grumbling to indicate the system is a step toward real accountability. And an expert I consulted who is a longtime leader in reform efforts in New York and cares a great deal about keeping families together also says it's a good system.

The state-run system in Illinois also totally revamped its relationship with private agencies as part of its comprehensive child welfare reform efforts. Independent court-appointed monitors have found that the Illinois reforms improved child safety. In fact, it worked so well that one of the key architects of that reform was brought to L.A. as a consultant – and then ignored.

An important part of the reforms in both cities are other changes which revamp financial incentives for private agencies. In New York and Chicago, they can't just warehouse children in foster care day after day and watch the per diem payments roll in.

Why could New York City and Illinois do what L.A. can't? Simple. They stopped taking away so many children.


Los Angeles can't really control its FFAs because in Los Angeles it's a "seller's market" – as long as Los Angeles is desperate for beds for all those children it's taking needlessly, it can't afford to shut down substandard FFAs. (And the reverse actually could become a problem as well: If DCFS starts shutting down FFAs solely based on whether a case they oversee makes the front page, you could wind up closing down a good one, and leaving in business a bad one, where the children are hurt but don't actually die.)

The rate of child removal in Los Angeles County is 30 percent higher than the rate in New York City, double the statewide rate in Illinois and quadruple the rate in metropolitan Chicago. By keeping entries into foster care lower than the rate in Los Angeles, these places improved their bargaining position with private agencies.

The New York accomplishments do need an asterisk of sorts. The Commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, deserves a lot of credit for putting the accountability measures in place and sticking with them. But his increasingly-regressive approach to many other child welfare issues, an approach that contributed to a surge in entries into care – though still not nearly as bad as in L.A. – risks putting these measures in jeopardy.

So if what passes for leadership in Los Angeles County is serious about preventing more foster care tragedies, they might want to try looking at what Chicago and New York are doing – and actually paying attention this time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

UPDATED, MARCH 24: CR wins: More children will be shoveled into foster care in Tennessee

See update at the end of this post

It's no less disappointing for the fact that it's no surprise: The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" is crowing about having bullied the Tennessee Legislature into repealing a law that would have ever-so-slightly counterbalanced the enormous incentives for needless foster care. Details on the law, and CR's crusade to get rid of it, are in this previous post to this blog.

CR moved against this law even though the group's own Executive Director, Marcia Lowry, recently told the Philadelphia Daily News:

"I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not."

Now, thanks to Marcia and her colleagues, the odds of that happening to even more children in Tennessee have just gone up. And so have the odds of another case like this. That is how the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights defines "children's rights."

UPDATE: MARCH 24: CR’s double standards are showing again. Now they’re out with a press release using the horrors endured by two foster children as leverage in their lawsuit in Oklahoma. Two days ago, they gloated about using the settlement they won in Tennessee as leverage to win repeal of a law that would reduce the odds of children enduring such horrors in that state.

Michigan DHS goes soft on child abuse (when it’s in foster care)


One of the more alarming sections of the report by the independent monitor of the Michigan child welfare consent decree is the section on abuse in foster care, especially abuse in the institutions so beloved by Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Ismael Ahmed and his "leadership" team.

When it comes to how many foster children are being abused in Michigan and who is abusing them, DHS doesn't know, and doesn't seem to care. DHS uses what can best be described as a Keystone Kops approach to policing maltreatment in substitute care.

The consent decree DHS signed includes a series of commitments to change that. The report found that, time and time again, DHS failed to keep those commitments.

According to the monitor's report:

By the end of Period Two, DHS still did not know the extent of abuse or neglect in care in Michigan and had fallen behind in delivering on its commitments in the Agreement to define and address this critical issue.


There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the DHS computer system doesn't include some categories of abuse in substitute care – so for years, DHS has been blithely underreporting the real figure. In addition, although DHS can determine that a particular child was abused, apparently the database that tells them that is not linked to the database that tells them which of these children are in substitute care. Brilliant.

The problem is even worse when it comes to investigating abuse in institutions. While child protective services (CPS) investigates abuse in foster homes, when the abuse is in institutions it's investigated by the Bureau of Child and Adult Licensing (BCAL). Leaving aside the question of whether licensing inspectors even know how to investigate child abuse, DHS does not actually allow BCAL inspectors to make a determination. Rather, BCAL is supposed to forward its findings to CPS – which is supposed to make the actual decision (apparently based solely on the paperwork). The trouble is, DHS couldn't prove to the monitor that the information from BCAL even was passed on to CPS.

And it gets worse. According to the monitor's report:

A review of a sample of BCAL special investigation reports raised serious concerns about the treatment of youth in some placements with the responses focused almost exclusively on institutional remedies – examples include: the firing of a staff person, the need for additional training, or flaws in personnel screening practices or staff coverage ratios - with little reference to the needs of the child or children involved. [Emphasis added.]


Then there's the vital issue of the misuse and overuse of "restraints" and "seclusion" – nice euphemisms for solitary confinement and God knows what else.

The settlement requires that DHS ensure that the institutions report every use of seclusion and restraint to a "Quality Assurance" unit. But DHS didn't do it, and hasn't even tried to do it. DHS hasn't even started gathering information. According to the monitor's report:

This is particularly concerning because the monitoring team's review of BCAL special investigations identified multiple issues with restraints, many of which identified the need for improved restraint training and adherence to policy.

The consent decree also includes a requirement that DHS consider how often an institution abuses the children confined there when deciding whether to renew the institution's license. Yes, I'm serious. It took a consent decree to force DHS even to consider this.

But DHS broke its word. According to the report:

The monitoring team … read a sample of the available re-licensing reports from Period Two. The monitoring team found no documentation in any of those reports that DHS had, as DHS committed it would in the Agreement, taken into "due consideration" the history (or absence of history) of any substantiations [of maltreatment] or corporal punishment that occurred at any of those facilities or contract agencies. … There appears to be no place on the standard re-licensure reporting form for the necessary and critical consideration of the history of maltreatment and corporal punishment.

DHS also promised to implement a "two-strikes-you're-out" policy against institutions that covered up abuse by failing to report it to DHS. But DHS didn't to that either.


And finally, there is the matter of creating special "Maltreatment in Care Investigation Units," starting in the state's five largest counties. In a press release issued the day before the monitor's report came out, DHS bragged about getting these units off the ground. DHS neglected to mention that they botched the planning and screwed up the implementation of these units. Again, from the report:

When the plan was provided to the monitoring team, it incorporated poor data that severely undercounted allegations of maltreatment in care. In relying on this data, DHS allocated too few staff to these units. The plan lacked information on training; analysis of the challenges inherent in investigations in institutional settings; clarity about reporting lines; and information on tracking, especially with regard to corrective action plans.

(Other than that, however, it was just fine.)

All of this can be found in the monitor's report on pages 61 through 67. Reading through it, it's hard to escape the impression that top management at DHS is more interested in protecting their friends who run private agencies than in protecting children.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: An inconvenient death

Did Viola Vanclief pay the price of panic?
If all one knew about child welfare was what one read on the news pages of the Los Angeles Times, one would think that only birth parents or other relatives kill children, and it's all because the county Department of Children and Family Services supposedly has been bending over backwards to keep families together.

That's been the "master narrative" – to use the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor William Woo's wonderful phrase – that guided Times coverage for most of last year and into this year. A master narrative it not something handed down from above. It's not some kind of media conspiracy. (As a former editor of mine liked to say, "there are no media conspiracies; we're not that well organized.")
Rather, the master narrative is simply the preconceived notions reporters bring with them to a story.

 The best reporters guard against being trapped by a master narrative. They constantly question their own assumptions.

One might think that if anything finally might have prompted Times reporters to question their master narrative it would be the tragic death of two-year-old Viola Vanclief. She died in a foster home overseen by a private agency with a long history of problems. The foster parents are under investigation. The foster mother says it was an accident. The police say it was a homicide. And in a story about the death on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times says the equivalent of "move along, move along. Nothin' to see here." A follow-up story today displayed the standard double-standard in child welfare coverage based on where the child dies. I'll get to that below. But let's start with Tuesday's story.

It was written in a way that seems intended to mislead people into thinking that in no way does this case call into question the Times' master narrative, and it's still really birth parents we need to fear. According to the story:

The death comes as [DCFS Director Trish] Ploehn's department is facing scrutiny in the deaths of children under its watch. All but two of the more than 30 cases to come to light in the last two years have involved children killed while in the custody of their own parents

The identical paragraph appears in the follow-up story. Odds are it will become cut-and-paste boilerplate in almost every Times story about this case.

But the reason for that ratio of fatalities is not because foster care is safer, but simply because far fewer children live in foster care than in their own homes.

One could just as easily have said that the rate of child abuse deaths in Los Angeles foster care is nearly ten times the rate in the general population. That would have been equally misleading – for a reason for which we all should be grateful: the number of child abuse fatalities and, especially, fatalities in foster care, is low enough to fluctuate enormously due to random chance. For example, had Viola Vanclief escaped with her life – or if it turns out the death really was an accident – the rate of child abuse deaths in foster care over the past two years suddenly is cut in half.

It is entirely fair to point out, however, that several studies have found the overall rate of abuse in foster care to be alarmingly high, far higher than in the general population, with abuse in at least one in four or one in three foster homes - and probably more. The rate of abuse in institutions is even worse. (For details and citations, see NCCPR Issue Paper #1).


But the Times chose to spin the story in a way that swings the focus back to dangerous birth parents, setting up a follow-up story which focuses only on the need for better screening and background checks and tougher licensing standards.

It's the standard double-standard in typical child welfare coverage: Deaths at the hands of birth parents are blamed on a systemic bias toward family preservation, deaths in foster care are written off as aberrations, fixable with some changes in regulations. When newspapers break this pattern, as they did in Maine after the death of Logan Marr and in Missouri after the death of Dominic James, a funny thing happens: child welfare systems actually improve.

But unlike the newspapers in Maine and Missouri, the Times makes no mention of the possibility that the misuse and overuse of foster care itself could have contributed to this death.

The Times coverage also ignores an even more disturbing question: Was Viola Vanclief a victim of a foster care panic set off, in part, by the response to earlier Times stories?

We don't know. But that's never stopped a newspaper from making the points it wants to make by using some variation of "raises questions," so I see no reason for it to stop this Blog.

The first question is whether Viola Vanclief ever needed to be placed in foster care.

The follow-up story reports a series of allegations about Vanclief's birth mother and a series of claims about everything DCFS did to help. If all those allegations and claims are true, than the placement was justified. The problem is, the Times doesn't make clear that these are only allegations and claims – rather the Times uses the phrase "investigators determined," which gives the information in the case files obtained by the Times more credibility than it deserves.

In fact, it is possible that intensive mental health services might have allowed Viola's mother to care for her safely – we don't know that, but it's possible. It's also unlikely that DCFS ever offered that kind of help.

But framing the issue without even considering that the case file might be wrong is crucial to maintaining the standard double-standard; in the public mind, it takes the issue of family preservation off the table, because the issue is framed in terms of, as the Times story puts it "one high-risk home to another."

The follow-up story also mentions that Viola had an adult sister living in Ohio. The story does not explore whether DCFS considered placing Viola with her sister before turning to strangers.


The second question is whether there is, in fact, a foster-care panic. Although the number of children in foster care in Los Angeles County each month is available on the public DCFS website, the number of entries into care – that is, the number of children actually taken away from their parents over the course of a month – is available only on a private, internal site. Ploehn promised to provide me with these figures when she contacted NCCPR on Feb. 5. But she never did. The Times apparently doesn't want to know. So on Tuesday, NCCPR filed a California Public Records Act request in an attempt to obtain these data.

But let's assume, for the moment, that DCFS was absolutely right to take Viola Vanclief from her birth parents. Let's further assume that, unlike just about everyplace else in the country, Los Angeles County really did resist a foster-care panic – and that's not out of the question, thanks to their child welfare funding waiver.

That doesn't change the fact that, even before the Times turned up the heat, Los Angeles County was taking away children at a higher rate than most big cities. And it doesn't change the fact that in most years since 2004, entries into care increased.

For all their faults, child welfare agencies don't like placing children in substandard foster care. And California counties generally don't like subcontracting to private agencies, (known in that state as Foster Family Agencies,or FFAs) at all – because it costs more than when the county does the job itself.

So why does it keep happening?


When you take away too many children, you wind up begging for places to put them. Beggars can't be choosers. So even if the removal was justified and there is no foster care panic, DCFS' failure to curb wrongful removal probably played a role in this tragedy. Even if Viola really should have been taken away, the good foster home she deserved probably was being used by some other child who could have remained safely in his or her own home.

States and counties that don't take too many children don't have to lower standards for foster parents.
Similarly, the Times treats as a mystery the fact that there were so many investigations of alleged abuse by the foster mother of her foster children that never were substantiated (while an earlier allegation, involving one of the foster mother's own children was). In fact, the reason is probably the same reason why official figures for abuse in foster care are so much lower than the numbers found by independent studies: Overloaded agencies don't want to lose foster homes, and they don't want to look bad; after all, when they investigate abuse in foster care they are, in effect, investigating themselves. So there is a strong incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.


The coverage of Viola Vanclief's death is not the only indication of the Times' master narrative at work. Another is how the Times covered events throughout the county earlier this month designed to celebrate successful family reunification: It didn't.

The Los Angeles Daily News did a story. So did KPCC Public radio. So did the Long Beach Press Telegram. But at the Los Angeles Times, family reunification is only news when it goes wrong.

One could argue of course that, precisely because successful family reunification is the norm, it's not newsworthy – like all those planes that don't crash. But people know that air travel is the safest form of transportation. They don't know that keeping families together is the safest answer in child welfare for the overwhelming majority of children. Since they don't know it, that makes stories about the success of family reunification newsworthy.

Just not at the L.A. Times.


So what comes next? Watch the letters to the editor column. Inevitably, there'll be a letter concluding that the only answer is to go back to the orphanage. After all, if you spend a year smearing efforts to keep families together, and then a child dies in foster care, what's left? Indeed, the one "expert" whose voice lead reporter Garrett Therolf regularly allows into his stories, precisely because she won't challenge his master narrative, seems to have some nostalgia for them.

In fact, this is, by far, the worst option. And nowhere is that more obvious than Los Angeles, once home to one of the most hideous child warehouses in America, the notorious MacLaren Children's Center.

The book I wrote about child welfare 20 years ago, Wounded Innocents, begins at MacLaren. This was a place so awful it actually has a self-help group for survivors. Say whatever you want about former DCFS Director David Sanders, but if the only thing he accomplished was closing that hellhole, that alone makes his tenure a success.

The letter writer will specify that she or he doesn't mean places like that, rather she or he wants good orphanages – as though wishing for this magically will make it so. But, of course, any orphanages will be regulated by the same agency that licensed Viola Vanclief's foster parents.

More important, institutionalization is inherently so harmful that there is no such thing as a good orphanage. And orphanages make almost impossible the best alternative for children who truly are not safe in their own homes: adoption. For details, see our Issue Paper on orphanages and our review of the research on residential treatment centers, which is what orphanages generally call themselves today.

If people had a chance to read about what really works in child welfare, they wouldn't even be considering orphanages. Maybe someday, the Los Angeles Times will give them that chance.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CR tries to undermine foster care reform in Georgia


Several years ago, the Georgia child welfare system, which never was very good, was plunged into chaos by a foster-care panic. It was the usual scenario: high-profile child abuse deaths and bad leadership at the child welfare agency, with one extra element: The state's first "Child Advocate," Dee Simms – who pushed long and hard for taking away more children – encouraged the panic at every turn. For details, see our report on Georgia child welfare, a report which may have contributed to Simms' departure.

Fortunately, state leaders wised up and the state Department of Family and Children's Services (DFCS) began a long, slow reform process.

The result: a reduction in entries into foster care accompanied by significant improvements in child safety, based on the standard measure used by the federal government: reabuse of children within a specified time frame.

One of the strategies: Differential response, a practice in use across the country, by which less serious allegations are diverted from the formal CPS system. Differential response (or alternative response, as it also sometimes is called) is best practice in child welfare. A recent report by the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice found that study after study of differential response concluded that it does not compromise safety.

Earlier this year, even Florida's Child Abuse Death Review Committee, a group that is independent of the state child welfare agency and chaired by someone who, in the past, has been fanatical about pushing for child removal, concluded that Florida's pilot differential response program improved child safety.

Safer kids, less disruption of families. Who could be against that? The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," apparently. They've put out an inflammatory press release claiming that Georgia "may" be "endangering" thousands of children by using an approach to differential response, called "diversion" – instead of forcing the children into foster care.


CR has gone to court to begin a process that appears designed to shovel ever more children into foster care – even though the independent monitor overseeing CR's own consent decree in Atlanta says the big child safety problem is abuse in foster care itself.

Right now CR is simply seeking further information – information the monitors refuse to help them get. I fear CR will misuse whatever information they get. I think they'll hype it, sensationalize it and take it out of context.

They should get it anyway.

NCCPR believes that almost every record maintained by a child welfare agency should be a public record, and there can be no exceptions based on our, or anyone else's, belief that someone will take the information out of context. Rather, the solution is to provide the missing context, as loudly and vigorously as possible.


Just two months ago, the monitors for CR's Atlanta settlement issued their latest report. It was scathing in its assessment of abuse – not in diversion cases, but in foster care. Indeed, CR's Associate Director, Ira Lustbader declared that

We are extremely concerned that children in the Atlanta foster care system are simply not safe, and that DFCS is not doing enough to provide the necessary safety net for the vulnerable youth whose lives and well-being depend on it. If DFCS fails to address this problem quickly, we are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to protect these kids from further harm.

But now, less than two months later, the action CR is taking appears designed to force more children into the very system CR itself says is unsafe.


Ignoring the monitor for its own decree, CR has chosen to rely instead on a selective reading of a series of reports from OCA.

One of those reports, by far the most inflammatory, came from Simms. But the others come from her successor, former Juvenile Court Judge Tom Rawlings. And those reports, while flawed, deserve respect. There are some sound recommendations, and the tone is a huge break from Simms' hype and finger-wagging. Rawlings even acknowledged the foster care panic, and the harm it did.

But even Rawlings' reports rely heavily on horror stories – instances called to his attention in which a case should not have been diverted and tragedy followed. That doesn't tell us how prevalent the problem is, or how often the problem is the opposite: children in cases that should have been diverted instead subjected to traumatic investigations and needless foster care.

And only when pressed by DFCS did Rawlings fully acknowledge the very real improvements in child safety under the DCFS reforms. Not only is reabuse down in cases formally opened by DFCS, the reabuse rate is the same in diversion cases.

In addition, Georgia still "substantiates" child abuse cases at a rate roughly equal to the national average. So what this really tells us is that "diversion" actually is doing more to widen the net of intervention into families than to narrow it. The data suggest that far more of the diversion cases would have gotten nothing under the old system than would have gotten a full-scale investigation.

Nevertheless, Rawlings found real problems in the diversion process. Just because you call something "differential response" doesn't make it so. Rawlings found a lack of statewide standards. That's a common problem in Georgia child welfare. It's supposed to be state-run, but in fact it's less a statewide system than 159 county fiefdoms.

Georgia has contracted with an outside expert to design a statewide system based on best practice in other states. OCA should monitor the process and make sure it's implemented. That's a far better approach than the one taken by CR, where they seem intent on scaring Georgians away from a safe, proven alternative to needless foster care.


As I said, I believe DFCS is wrong to fight the request for information. According to CR, DFCS is arguing that the issue is beyond the scope of the consent decree. I don't know their basis for that argument, but my guess is they're claiming that the consent decree covers only children already in foster care. If that is DCFS' claim, I think I know where they got the idea: From CR, which for years claimed it couldn't litigate on behalf of children not already in foster care (a view they only recently seem to have changed).

Of course CR only made that claim when the issue was fighting to keep children out of foster care. Apparently, it's just fine to litigate on behalf of children not yet in foster care when you're fighting to put them in.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: DHS flunks ANOTHER exam

By now, it's well known that the monitor overseeing the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" issued a report that found huge problems at DHS – including illegal budget cuts, understating abuse in foster care and the mass expulsion of children from the homes of relatives.

But this isn't the only scathing report to surface about DHS.

Every few years, the federal government reviews the performance of every state through what is called a Child and Family Services Review. States tend to do badly. But, as The Detroit News reports today, the latest review for Michigan shows that, even compared to other states, Michigan's performance was dismal. There are seven key categories in the CFSR – and Michigan flunked every single one of them.

How much does this really mean? The CFSR methodology is dreadful, a fact NCCPR has pointed out repeatedly. So, were this the only indication of failure, it really wouldn't tell us much. But because the CFSR tracks so closely with the far more rigorous review by the monitor, it suggests that, in this case, even if only by chance, the CFSR is on the mark.

Think of it this way: The CFSR is like one of those simple, inexpensive screening tests a doctor can perform for some forms of cancer. They don't really tell you if you're sick, but they may tell you that a more rigorous test, like a biopsy, is needed. The monitor's report is the biopsy. Unfortunately, the monitor's report confirms the CFSR "diagnosis": The Michigan child welfare system is gravely ill – and it is having a malignant effect on some of the children it is supposed to help. It needs radical surgery.


Both documents highlight the same core problem: The devastating cuts in safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families. These cuts never had to happen. They were not caused primarily by the recession, but by the way DHS chose to meet the terms of the consent decree itself, and by DHS Director Ismael Ahmed's pandering to the state's powerful private child welfare agencies.

To cure the malignancy, DHS must reverse course. It must not only restore the cuts in prevention and family preservation, it must expand these programs, while doing its cutting in needless foster care and, especially, needless institutionalization of children. (Yes, DHS has begun to cut such placements, and that's commendable, but it's only a down payment on what it owes the children it has wronged.)

The monitor's report details the enormous harm caused by the cuts to prevention and family preservation – and makes clear that the cuts violate the consent decree, making them illegal. Unfortunately, CR, which is as hostile to real family preservation as DHS, isn't doing anything about it.

Similarly, the CFSR declares that

The State's low performance on the outcomes assessed by the CFSR may be attributed in part to State budget cuts that have had a negative impact on the ability of the State to provide services to children and families who come into contact with the child welfare system, particularly in-home service cases. [Emphasis added].

The CFSR singled out for praise the state's outstanding Intensive Family Preservation Services program, Families First, and its Family Reunification services program. But both programs were cut back to fund a foster care caseworker hiring binge and rate increases for residential treatment providers.

The CFSR goes on to conclude that, when it comes to services to families, Michigan actually has deteriorated since the previous federal evaluation in 2002. Among the findings:

There is a scarcity of key services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment services, which results in waiting lists for these services.

Many of these services are not available at all in some parts of the state.

The CFSR also found:

The State was not consistent in assessing and meeting the needs of children receiving in-home services, foster parents, mothers, and fathers.

The State did not make concerted efforts to involve children, mothers, and fathers in case planning in both the foster care and in-home services cases, although children in the foster care cases were more likely to be involved than children in the in-home services cases.

This new CFSR notes that when Michigan flunked its previous CFSR, one response was to expand an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation known as Family to Family.

But as NCCPR noted in our first report on Michigan child welfare last year, in 2008, DHS reduced the level of its participation in that program in Wayne and Macomb Counties.

And there was one more finding, which says a lot about the priorities of DHS. Once a child was in foster care, Michigan generally performed adequately at meeting the child's physical health needs. That was less likely to happen if DHS was helping a family while the child remained in the home. DHS had problems meeting children's mental health needs no matter where they were, but did worse when the children still were in their own homes.

In other words, parents have to lose their children to foster care before DHS will help those children get the health care they need.

When asked about this by The Detroit News, DHS showed that it still excels in two areas: cynicism and deceit. Among the "improvements" cited by DHS: Spending $4 million on prevention programs. What DHS didn't say, but the monitor's report reveals, is that this $4 million is not new money, it's money being shifted by cutting other prevention programs.


None of this is solely DHS's fault. CR pushed DHS in this dreadful direction when it negotiated a consent decree that does nothing to demand that DHS do more to keep families together. Instead, it allows DHS to lower caseloads through that foster care worker hiring binge – which it is financing through cuts in prevention and family preservation. The cuts also are going to finance rate increases for residential treatment centers.

So far CR hasn't lifted a finger to stop these cuts. It's been up to the monitor to point out that they violate the consent decree, while CR sits on its hands. At the same time, of course, CR demanded that mass expulsion of children from the homes of relatives in order to satisfy CR's bureaucratic obsession with licensing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The DHS horror show


When the first report of the independent monitor overseeing Michigan's child welfare consent decree was released six months ago, I wrote that "No Hollywood studio is ever going to buy the rights" to such a report.

But if such a studio were to try to make a movie based on the findings of the monitor's second report, released Tuesday, I know the genre in which it would fit: horror film.

The expulsion of hundreds of children from the homes of loving relatives in order to satisfy the licensing obsession of the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," described in previous posts, is only the worst of it. There's much more.

Indeed, the cruelty of what the Michigan Department of Human Services is doing to the state's vulnerable children is matched only by the agency's cynicism in violating the consent decree. This is particularly clear when it comes to the already minimal provisions in the decree involving services to keep families together.

The section of the monitor's report on prevention and family preservation describes a litany of deceit and broken promises.

The settlement required DHS to conduct a "needs assessment" and then provide $4 million in additional funds for those needs. The promise was broken.

The settlement required DHS at least to fight for children by seeking the funding it needed from the legislature. But DHS Director Ismael Ahmed and his staff refused even to ask the legislature for the money. The promise was broken.

The report raises the question of whether DHS lied to the Michigan Legislature. DHS claimed it did not need certain funds to comply with the consent decree, when there was overwhelming evidence that it did.

These were not just promises like the kind one makes in a political campaign. These are legally-binding commitments. The report makes clear that DHS has violated the consent decree. That means DHS has broken the law.

Unfortunately, since these broken promises involve prevention and family preservation, the group that brought the lawsuit, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," doesn't seem to care. In Connecticut, when a prevention program that includes middle-class families was threatened, CR rushed into court to try to save it – and told us so over and over again in press release after press release. But in Michigan, where the cuts affect only the usual child welfare agency clientele – overwhelmingly poor people - CR has sat on its hands. Now, at last, some lawyers from the group are going to sit down and talk things over with DHS for 30 days.

Big deal.


Here's how the monitor's report explains what happened. (Wherever a section is in bold, the emphasis has been added by NCCPR.) According to the report:

The Agreement includes a set of necessary commitments to improve the Michigan child welfare system for children and families, many requiring additional investment.

But DHS decided it would rather spend additional funds on hiring more foster care workers and lavishing rate increases on the state's powerful private providers of institutional "care." So, even with children's futures, and possibly their lives, at stake, DHS played cynical shell games with state money.

The monitor's report notes that when the Governor ordered DHS to slash its budget, DHS chose to cut prevention and family preservation. According to the monitor:

Some of these eliminated services are identical to those that both DHS and Michigan State University have identified, as part of needs assessments in the Agreement … as critical – but scarce – for children and families involved with Michigan's child welfare system.

The State Budget Office and DHS did not ask the Legislature for funds to prevent these cuts in services to children and families involved with the child welfare system. These cuts are not consistent with DHS' pledge to build "additional services and placements" in the Agreement

Moreover, DHS committed in the Agreement that it would, at a minimum, request of the Michigan Legislature "state funds and any federal/special fund authorization sufficient to effect the provisions and outcome measures set forth in this Agreement in connection with any budget, funding, or allocation request to the executive or legislative branches of State government." However, during Period Two, DHS and the State Budget Office did not advance to the Michigan Legislature a request for funds or spending authorization to fully replace the significant cuts in services to children and families that the administration implemented in FY2009 or to fully fund the commitments in the Agreement.

In June 2009, the State Budget Director submitted to the Michigan Legislature a revised FY2010 funding recommendation for DHS that eliminated slightly more than $20 million and 197 child welfare staff positions originally requested to implement the Agreement. DHS indicated these positions were no longer necessary to satisfy its commitments in the Agreement due to reductions in the overall caseload managed by DHS. However … DHS did not meet several of its caseload commitments in Period Two, standards which are only the starting point in a multi-year process of reducing caseloads from excessive to appropriate levels.

As for the "needs assessment," it led the monitor to call for spending $1.5 million more on housing for children aging out of foster care, $1.5 million to support youth "stepping down" from residential care, and $1 million in new family preservation services. And how did DHS "comply" with its legal duty? According to the monitor:

DHS advised the monitoring team that it will divert $4 million in existing family preservation funds, beginning in Period Three, to fund this expansion. Although DHS is not responsible for implementing this expansion of services until Period Three, the monitoring team observes that a diversion of pre-existing resources to fund services is not consistent with the Agreement or the underlying Needs Assessment, and will closely assess funding sources for additional services in future periods.

I'll bet Ahmed and his pals in the private agencies were really proud of that one.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: CR shows it still doesn’t get it

The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights made clear it still doesn't understand that children's most fundamental right is the right NOT to be taken needlessly from everyone they know and love, when there are better, safer alternatives.

Their press release yesterday in response to the report of the independent monitor overseeing the group's consent decree with the Michigan Department of Human Services focuses almost exclusively on the "back end" failings of DHS. They condemn DHS for failing to get more kids adopted – which is the only form of permanence CR really cares about – and for letting too many children "age out" of foster care with no permanence at all. And they condemn high caseloads.

Those are real failings. But those are the only failings CR highlights. There is only vague, mushy rhetoric about the budget cuts that further crippled the state's already weak efforts at prevention and family preservation. Indeed, the words "prevention" and "family preservation" don't appear in the press release at all. And there is no mention of what the report itself makes clear: The cuts violate the consent decree - which makes them illegal. Contrast this with Connecticut, where CR went into court to try to save one, and only one, kind of prevention program – a program that deals with one of the few instances in which the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle-class.

And, of course, there is no mention at all of the mass expulsion of children from kinship care homes – presumably because it was CR's licensing obsession that caused it in the first place.

Check out the generally smart take on the monitor's report from the trade journal Youth Today (though I disagree with their view that the cuts are only due to the recession – in fact, the cuts are being used to fund a foster care caseworker hiring binge to meet terms of this very settlement, and to give rate increases to residential treatment centers.) Also, in Youth Today: A story about how Florida is succeeding by using the same waiver from federal funding rules that Michigan turned down.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The war against grandparents is on again - and hundreds of children are casualties



The cruelty, the bureaucratic myopia, the stupidity, and the greed are almost unimaginable.

In a senseless quest to force grandparents and other relatives to comply with page after page of hypertechnical licensing rules, nearly 1,800 Michigan children have been thrown out of the homes of those grandparents and other relatives in the year ending September 30, 2009.

That's the single most important revelation among the litany of failures disclosed today in a report released by the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR).

Other revelations include confirmation that the state's cuts in funding for prevention and family preservation violate the consent decree (see pages 37 to 40) and the fact that DHS has grossly understated the true extent of abuse in foster care, especially in residential treatment centers – and shows little interest in doing anything about the abuse it does find (see pages 61 to 67).

Court monitors also function as mediators. Their job is to encourage and cajole, so they try to see the glass as half full and use very moderate language. That only makes the findings even more frightening. Especially when it comes to that single biggest revelation – the mass expulsion of children from kinship care.


In its discussion of this issue on pages 78 through 82, the monitor's report doesn't say where the 1,794 children expelled from the homes of relatives went. Some actually may have benefitted – if DHS sent them back to their own parents. But for many of the rest, DHS and CR have added another senseless trauma to their lives.

Everyone in child welfare knows that one of the worst things you can do to a child, after the initial trauma of removal from their parents, is to compound that trauma by moving that child from foster home to foster home. Everyone knows that the trauma is worse if the child is placed with strangers instead of relatives.

As the monitor's report itself puts it:

Children who are removed from their families are at risk of an array of adverse impacts when they are placed in foster care. At times, siblings are split, parental visitation is difficult, children are placed outside of their neighborhoods, and educational stability is compromised. Common sense dictates and research demonstrates that outcomes are better for children who are placed with relatives. Siblings are kept together more frequently; placement stability is better; children remain more often in their schools and neighborhoods; and children visit more frequently with their parents, an important indicator of successful reunification.

But now it's clear that neither DHS nor CR gives a damn about that. On the part of CR the problem is a bureaucratic mindset that understands children only as numbers, not flesh-and-blood human beings, a mindset that values "drawing down" federal money more than love. The people at CR are like the clerk you least want to see when you finally make it to the front of the line at the DMV. At DHS, it reflects pure greed – nothing matters except squeezing more money out of the federal government, to help offset foster care costs.

The number of children forced to move an extra time by this war against grandparents - nearly 1,800 - equals 11 percent of the children in all forms of Michigan foster care on any given day. An extra move forced on up to 11 percent of all foster children in a single year - just to satisfy CR's bureaucratic obsession with licensing.

The monitor's report does not indicate what happened to these 1,800 children. For some of them, this may, in fact, be good news. I hope that some of them simply were returned to their own parents. But that would raise more questions: If a licensing inspector could see that the children could be safely back with their own parents, why couldn't these children's regular caseworker figure it out? How many of these children never needed to be taken in the first place?

And what about the rest of the nearly 1,800 children? Were they placed with other relatives – and, if so, will some of them have to be moved again when the licensing inspector knocks at the door of their new home? Or did they all wind up placed with strangers – placements which the monitor's report itself notes generally are worse for children than placements with relatives.

There is no end in sight. Unless DHS changes course (for what would be the third time on this issue) thousands more children are likely to be kicked out of the homes of loving relatives. The Monitor's report indicates that the proportion of children initially placed with relatives remains about the same. That suggests an endless cycle of churning, as children are placed with grandparents and other relatives, only to have many of them kicked out again when those grandparents can't fulfill all licensing requirements.

NCCPR recommends that all efforts to license relative placements be suspended until DHS can develop a common-sense policy for making exceptions to its draconian licensing regulations, and/or change the regulations themselves.


At issue is a clause in the consent decree that requires all relatives caring for children placed with them by DHS to meet exactly the same cumbersome, bureaucratic licensing requirements as those imposed on total strangers.

Licensing can, indeed, have benefits. It makes the placement potentially eligible for federal aid; and, in turn, DHS must reimburse licensed relatives at the same rates as strangers. And, of course, any foster home, licensed or not, should be required to meet minimum requirements for health and safety (though DHS also should be required to help relatives meet those requirements).

The problem is that Michigan's ten single-spaced pages of foster home licensing requirements are geared more to middle-class creature comforts than basic health and safety. They seem to assume that every foster parent owns her or his own home, with multiple requirements beyond the control of anyone at the mercy of a landlord. There are 41 separate requirements just for bedrooms and their contents, including minimum square footage and size and shape of the windows. There's also a requirement that every dwelling unit on a floor higher than the second have at least two means of egress. Because of that last one, as we've noted before, the apartment in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother probably could not have been licensed as a foster home in Michigan.

The problem, of course, is that since the overwhelming majority of children taken from their parents are poor, odds are their grandparents also are going to be poor. So they simply can't afford to meet some of these requirements in those ten single-spaced pages. As long as failing to meet some of the requirements doesn't harm children's health or safety, that shouldn't matter. But thanks to CR and DHS, it matters more than anything – it matters much more than love. And what matters most to CR and DHS is money.


It's not just the emotional trauma that makes the mass expulsion of children from grandparents' homes engineered by DHS and CR so unconscionable – though that is bad enough. Studies show that foster children are less likely to be abused and neglected in the homes of relatives than in stranger care – and less likely to be doped up on potent psychiatric drugs. So, except for those children who may have been returned to their own homes, there is a good chance that CR's licensing obsession actually is making children less safe.

Indeed, CR doesn't even pretend that its primary concern in demanding licensing is safety. Rather, its primary concern is getting the state access to those federal dollars.

As for DHS' motivation, that can be seen in how it chose to comply with this requirement. Instead of hiring 40 full-time licensing workers, they hired 80 "Child Welfare Funding Specialists" and had them work on licensing part time. So clearly, DHS, too, views licensing much more as a money issue than a safety issue.


In October, 2008 DHS issued guidance to frontline workers that virtually prohibited any exceptions to the get-licensed-or-lose-the-children policy. Then, in March, 2009, responding to the concerns of NCCPR and others about precisely this kind of harm to children, DHS commendably issued a memorandum giving caseworkers flexibility to issue waivers to relatives who didn't want to be licensed or couldn't meet all ten pages of requirements, as long as they met basic health and safety standards. But it appears that, in August, 2009, DHS reversed itself again and issued much stricter guidance – guidance that makes it impossible to issue a waiver to a home just because it's safe, healthy, and loving for a child. (See Page 81 of the monitor's report for a list of the requirements.)

While the consent decree is tough on grandparents, there is nothing in it to require DHS to do the obvious when a home can't fulfill all those requirements: Provide help to the relatives, including the necessary financial assistance, to meet the standards. Nor is there any requirement to do what some other states have done – streamline the licensing requirements for relatives and strangers alike, so they truly involve only genuine health and safety issues.

The group that does best in all this is the group that always seems to gain the most by turmoil in Michigan child welfare: the state's powerful private agencies. A footnote on Page 77 of the monitor's report states that the legislature handed out $2.5 million to those agencies to license 1,086 relative homes in FY 2008 and FY 2009. They actually licensed only about 70 percent of the homes – but, because they get partial payment for doing only part of the work, even when the work is unfinished, they spent 100 percent of the money.


What children need most are homes that are safe, healthy, and loving. But to the people at CR and DHS - the ultimate bureaucrats – none of that is nearly as important as the minimum square footage in the bedroom and the shape of the windows.

As we noted in our first report on Michigan child welfare, issued a year ago, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" doesn't know much about either children or rights. Because if you ask almost any child who is old enough, he'll tell you himself: If mom and dad can't take care of me, I have a right to be raised by grandma and grandpa.

More on what the monitor found in future posts.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Keeping your child out of foster care in Traverse City, Michigan: Ozzie and Harriet are safe; the rest of us? Not so much

The previous post to this blog discusses the ugly recent history of child welfare in Traverse City and surrounding Grand Traverse County, an affluent enclave in Michigan that sees relatively little poverty and has a Department of Human Services office that tends to confuse the poverty it sees with neglect. That helps explain why it takes away children at a rate that is double the state average, and more than triple the rate in metropolitan Detroit.

It also helps explain why Michigan DHS confiscated Shirley Vinson's child at birth and ultimately will almost certainly destroy her family. Her story is well-told in Northern Express, the alternative weekly in Traverse City.

I've often said that child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, routinely erring in all directions. The Vinson case is a good illustration.

Because the first thing to know about Ms. Vinson is that she, herself, should have been taken from her parents when she was growing up in Florida, much sooner than she was. Her parents were sadists and brutes. Odds are, the only reason hers was not one of those classic, headline-grabbing cases of a child left in her own home to die is the simple miracle that she survived.

She finally was placed in foster care at age 15, but by then she was too angry for her foster parents to handle by themselves. Instead of providing the foster parents with help, the state put Vinson in an institution. She survived that, too. But her very survival, and everything that happened afterwards, would be held against her by Grand Traverse DHS. And that's in spite of the second crucial thing to know about Ms. Vinson. She has never, ever been so much as accused of abusing or neglecting a child.


On the contrary, all her adult life, she has shown remarkable strength and resilience. Unlike her parents, she never has abused drugs. Her one mistake was making bad choices in men. But even then, she always put her children first. When a boyfriend abused her first child she fled with the child. When the boyfriend stalked her, she gave up her children for adoption. When she got pregnant again, her original plan was to give up this child as well. But with the help of a friend she got back on her feet, got a subsidized apartment and was able to live on her monthly disability check. She was taking parenting classes and working toward her GED. So she changed her mind.

Unfortunately, she'd already told one of Michigan's powerful private child welfare agencies that she wanted to give up her child. And the agency wasn't about to give up that rarest of commodities on the adoption market, a white infant who, they probably were convinced, would be so much "better off" with a middle-class family. So they reported Vinson to DHS. That's how it works in much of American child welfare: Step right up and take a poor person's child for your very own. (Indeed, Vinson's case bears a remarkable resemblance to a notorious case in Grand Rapids, discussed on Page 28 of NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare.)

In other states, the agency would have no grounds to report Vinson. She'd done absolutely nothing to even hint that she'd maltreat a child. But in Michigan, that doesn't matter. In Michigan, any mother who ever has lost parental rights for any reason, even voluntary surrender, automatically is subject to a child abuse investigation whenever she gives birth again. In theory, having lost parental rights before is not, in and of itself, supposed to be grounds for taking another child at birth. But, according to a landmark study of Michigan child welfare, many Michigan workers believe it is, and act accordingly. The study even has a term for it: "policy mythology."

In Grand Traverse County, DHS wrote off Shirley Vinson's remarkable strength, her resilience, and the fact that she always protected her own children. Instead, according to Northern Express,

one day after Vinson's baby was delivered by C-section, a DHS worker entered her hospital room and told her that if she did not immediately sign papers for adoption, the DHS would move to make the baby a state ward. Vinson's life of bad choices was this long, she said, and opened her arms wide, and she'd only gotten it right for this long, and narrowed her fingers to a few inches. Vinson has been in court ever since trying to get her baby back …

Odds are something else was at play as well. Few tenets of child welfare are more sacred than the "intergenerational cycle theory." Like much in child welfare there is a molehill of truth in it. Abused children are, indeed, more likely to become abusers. But contrary to the mountain of hype built upon this molehill, it is not true that every abused child is doomed to be an abuser. On the contrary, fully 70 to 80 percent of abused children break the so-called cycle – and Shirley Vinson already had proven herself to be among the 70 to 80 percent.

But given her background, her poverty, and the fact her infant was so eminently adoptable, confiscating the child at birth was irresistible.


But don't take my word for it. Listen to the person Northern Express found to defend the decision, former Grand Traverse DHS Director Mary Marois. According to Northern Express,

Marois said that area DHS workers have been intensively trained not to mistake poverty for neglect, as sometimes occurs in other counties. "The attitude of Grand Traverse/Leelanau is if the problem is money, then there's no problem. If you're thinking of removing kids because they don't have shelter, then we find a place for the family to live. If it's proper clothes, then let's get them clothes. So you would never remove kids because of a dirty house, unless it's a dangerous house with garbage and feces all over it. That would never happen in this community." said Marois.

How nice. Except that, during the same interview, in listing the reasons Shirley Vinson should lose her child forever, one of the first she mentions is "limited wages."

And almost all the others are issues that would be no problem at all if Vinson had money. As Northern Express explains:

When told of the case, Marois said there is more to parenting than having a safe apartment. Vinson has no spouse. Limited wages. No driver's license. A lower IQ. She has no family to support her and teach her how to parent. She subjected her toddler to scenes of violence and bouts of homelessness.

That last one is exceptionally cruel. What Marois means is that Vinson is a bad mother for, in effect, throwing her body into a boyfriend's fist in front of the child. In New York City it is illegal to take a child from a mother just because the mother has been beaten because it's so harmful to the child. But most of the country is not that advanced.

And while Marois dismisses the fact that Vinson now has safe housing, the fact that she couldn't do that in the past still counts against her. Of course, those "bouts of homelessness" must have had nothing to do with poverty, since Grand Traverse County never confuses poverty with neglect.

As for not having a family of her own to help, that's often a problem for poor people, particularly since they have no margin for error in their lives. But that's where programs like Michigan's pioneering Families First Intensive Family Preservation Services program and others are supposed to come in. They help weave the safety net that middle class families either already have – or can purchase. But, of course, these are the very programs Michigan is cutting in order to fund a foster care worker hiring binge and big increases for largely worthless residential treatment centers.

But there's more. Marois goes on to delineate what is required of any parent in order not to be deemed abusive or neglectful. She told Northern Express that, in the newspaper's words,

learning how to be a good parent isn't simple. It requires that a child watch for 18 years how a parent writes bills, handles conflicts, cooks dinners, schedules activities, and soothes tempers.

I wonder when DHS is going to send caseworkers into the mansions of Grosse Pointe to take away children of all the parents who are neglecting them by hiring people to pay the bills and do the cooking.

And I guess I'd better confess, too. Although the bills always were paid in my house when I was growing up, I can't actually say I remember seeing my parents write the checks and put them in the envelopes. Worse, as I pondered this grievous failing on the part of my parents, it occurred to me that I'm not sure my daughter, now about to graduate from college, ever saw me do it either.

Which means – oh, my God! – child maltreatment is intergenerational!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Traverse City, Michigan: Lots of foster care, and an extra dose of meanness

Most child welfare systems are lousy, but they're not all lousy in exactly the same way.

Statistically, the child welfare system in Michigan is not the worst. But in parts of Michigan there seems to be an extra level of sheer meanness in the way the system approaches families.

The attitude in some counties boils down to: "Not only will we take your children, we'll rub your nose in it. We'll make sure you know at every turn how inferior you are to us, and make your experience as degrading and humiliating as possible."

Perhaps it's because of the enormous power of the state's private agencies. They've effectively run the whole system for so long that I suspect it breeds a special kind of arrogance that trickles down to some county offices of the state's Department of Human Services. (Details on all this are in NCCPR's reports on Michigan child welfare.)

Not everywhere, of course. Just last week I heard about some heroic DHS caseworkers in Detroit who, when finally given just a little more in the way of resources themselves (thanks to the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy), were able to keep families together in the way they'd always wanted. There are a lot of caseworkers like that in Detroit, and all over the country.

I'm sure there are some in Traverse City and surrounding Grand Traverse County, as well. But apparently not very many. Grand Traverse County is an affluent enclave that sees relatively little poverty and has an ugly history of confusing that poverty with neglect.

Grand Traverse County is a place where people don't feel they have to hide their disgust with those less affluent than they.

Poor people often don't have cars and have enormous difficulty getting to the suburbs where many foster children are placed – especially when visits are scheduled during working hours and the birth parents also must keep their jobs to get their children back.

But in 2000, in a series of articles in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a local foster parent made clear she didn't give a damn. She said DHS needs to "not pamper the parents' requests so much" by doing things like moving visits to places that are easier for parents to reach.

The local lawyer guardian ad litem, who "represents" children in these cases (meaning she tells the judge what she thinks is best for the children, regardless of whether it's what the children themselves want) suggested to the Record-Eagle that parents should view having their children taken as almost like a vacation, a chance to,

straighten out their own lives without the pressure of caring for children as well. "Try not to look at it as the state trying to intervene in your family," she said. "The problems seem to arise when parents see it as an invasion."

As for the head of the local DHS office at the time, Bob Porter, his only concern was that Michigan's laws on termination of parental rights, already even more draconian than the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, didn't go far enough.

Why wait 12 months before demanding termination in almost every case? Why not make it six? Porter said. He said he wouldn't want his children waiting longer "while I decided whether I wanted to be a parent or not." (The Grand Traverse mentality is that DHS is always right, poor people simply choose to be poor and "neglect" their children, so if they can't get their children back it must be their own fault.)

Apparently, Porter hadn't noticed that in his region, in just the two years from the passage of those draconian laws to 2000, while adoptions had increased by ten percent, terminations of parental rights had shot up 49 percent. And the number of area children trapped in foster care on any given day had increased by one-third. But in Grand Traverse County, lording it over poor people was far more important than actually helping their children.

And not just at DHS. Those stories in the Record-Eagle were not an expose of these laws and attitudes – they were a celebration.

To this day, Grand Traverse DHS is "in denial" about all this. Confronted by Traverse City's alternative weekly, Northern Express, with the fact that the rate of child removal in Grand Traverse County is the third highest among counties large enough to measure, more than double the state average, the current DHS director for Grand Traverse County, Dawn McLaughlin, simply declared that the numbers couldn't be right – even though the numbers come from DHS itself.

Her predecessor, Mary Marois, had a different theory. She said the numbers might be right, but maybe it's because all children suspected of being abused in several counties are sent to a regional medical center in Traverse City. But this ignores the fact that it's the home county that decides whether those children will be removed, and the removal is counted as an entry from the home county. That probably explains why in metropolitan Detroit, which, I suspect has at least one regional medical center, the rate of removal still is one-third the rate in Grand Traverse County.

The whole Grand Traverse mentality helps explain what is happening right now to one mother and her infant, whose story was told in January by Northern Express. I'll discuss that story on this Blog tomorrow.