Thursday, April 29, 2010

If you’re reading this, you’re in good company

There probably will be fewer posts to this Blog for the next couple of weeks, so this seemed like a good time to step back and let regular readers know who else is here.

Odds are, right about now, someone from a state or local government, a major media organization, a big university, and/or a child advocacy organization with a vastly bigger budget than NCCPR's is reading this Blog. It says a lot about how influential NCCPR has become that just about every major player in child welfare checks in here, some of them remarkably often.

    They don't all like what they read, of course. But if NCCPR weren't so influential, all these organizations wouldn't need to be reading our material.

    People at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services read this blog, and our website, regularly. Same with both houses of Congress, and the Government Accountability Office. We've gotten hits from at least two-thirds of state governments, and some of them check in here twice a week or more. State court offices have been here, as has the National Conference of State Legislatures. And so have government agencies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Japan, China and other nations.

Journalists from The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times (they've been here a lot lately), USA Today, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, ProPublica, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, NPR and the BBC, along with scores of other news organizations, have been here to read our take on child welfare issues.

Students and/or faculty from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and hundreds of other colleges and universities around the world have learned from this Blog and from our website.

The Child Welfare League of America visits here, and so do many state trade associations for public and private child welfare agencies. The Children's Defense Fund has been here and so has the Chapin Hall Center for Children, Child Trends, Prevent Child Abuse America, the American Humane Association, the National CASA Association, and the National District Attorneys Association. Casey Family Programs, which spent 51 hours on this site in 2009, has come back often this year as well. So has Casey Family Services, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Jim Casey Youth Opportunities. And the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights checks this Blog, like clockwork, almost every working day.

Most important, all that influence has led to concrete accomplishment. Click here for some examples. And you can see what some journalists and reform-minded child welfare professionals say about us by clicking here.

I mention all this now for another reason: We need the help of what public television would call "viewers like you." (Yes, this is another Blog equivalent of a "pledge break".)

For more than ten years, NCCPR has relied almost exclusively on foundation funding. But that alone is no longer enough. We need help from all those who feel we've made an important contribution to the child welfare debate, and who want to see more accomplishments like those examples you can find by clicking the link above.

If you can help, please click this link to make a donation via Network for Good.

We can't send you a tote bag. But we can use every donation to continue the fight for safer children and stronger families.

UPDATED, JULY 16, 2010: When real children become human teddy bears

In still another community, a foster-care panic is being fueled by the head of the local parking place shelter. So this seemed like a good time to repost excerpts from an item originally posted to this Blog in 2006. This version is slightly revised and updated - and see the newest update at the end of the Post:

They may be the second most sacred cow in all of child welfare, and no wonder. Donors love them. They can get a plaque on the wall for giving money or furniture or, if they're really rich, donating a whole building. The volunteers love them. They can turn real flesh-and-blood human beings into human teddy bears who exist for the volunteers' gratification and convenience, even as they convince themselves they're helping children. When they get bored with their human teddy bears, they simply hand them back to the shift staff.

In short, they're good for everyone but the children.

They are "shelters" - those first-stop parking place institutions in many communities where children are deposited for a few days or a week or a month or, often, longer, to be examined and "assessed" by "trained staff" in order to prepare them for exactly what they would have gotten without the shelters – usually a succession of foster homes.

Shelters are exercises in adult self-indulgence and adult self-delusion. As with any form of orphanage, and that's really what shelters are, a whole rationalization industry has grown up around them.

"How can you call us an institution?" the people who work at the local shelter say. "We have 'cottages' and they're so pretty. We even have a cutesy name. We're so homelike."

Whenever somebody says his or her institution is homelike, I think of the stuff I sometimes put on bread when I'm trying to lose weight. It may be called "buttery spread" or "buttery light" but it always tastes like liquid plastic. I can tell the difference between buttery light and butter. And children know the difference between "homelike" and home.

"Our shelter provides 'stability'" the operators will say, so children don't move from foster home to foster home. But it's the people in a child's life that create stability, not the bricks and mortar. A child in a shelter endures a multiple placement whenever the shift changes. She endures multiple placement when the weekend workers replace the weekday workers. And she endures multiple placement when the volunteer who seemed so interested in her last week has something better to do to this week and doesn't show up. …

The parking place industry will come back with claims that they can "assess" children and "stabilize" them, so that they can find the right foster home for the child when he or she leaves.

That was the theory in Connecticut, when they set up a network of such shelters in 1995, in the wake of a foster-care panic that led to a huge increase in the number of children taken from their parents.

But a comprehensive study of the shelters by Yale University and the Connecticut child welfare agency itself found that wasn't true either.

On the contrary, the children who went through the shelters tended to have worse outcomes than those who didn't. The only thing she shelters were good at was wasting huge sums of money. (As usual, in child welfare, the worse the option for children, the more it costs).

Of course, as soon as the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) saw the results of the study they commissioned they shut the shelters down.

Just kidding.

In child welfare, research is no match for political clout and adult self-indulgence. Take away our human teddy bears? Never! As the Hartford Courant put it in this story, available in the paper's paid archive:

"Three years after a study that showed short-term group homes for first-time foster children are a costly failure, the state Department of Children and Families is still funneling hundreds of children through the facilities each year."

But that doesn't mean DCF didn't take action. The agency used to have the study up on its own website. But after the Courant story came out, DCF removed the link. (I have a copy of the study, which I'd be glad to send to anyone who wants it).

The final rationalization is the one in which the shelter operators admit shelters are a lousy option but, you see, there simply is no alternative. There just aren't enough foster homes, they say.

That's the constant claim in Arizona, where a foster-care panic increased the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year by 40 percent in just two years. That created an artificial "shortage" of foster homes -- and a baby boom at the shelters. (For details, see our report on Arizona child welfare.)

And all through the panic, who could be counted on for an inflammatory quote encouraging the needless removal of children? The executive director of a big regional shelter, the same shelter operator who kept insisting that it was a shame to have to rely on shelters – but there was no other alternative.

And even with the panic, that shelter had room for some dubious cases. A Christmas-themed puff piece about the shelter in an Arizona newspaper in 2004 focused on two cases:

In case #1, a mother has to give up her child because she is homeless.

In case #2, a grandmother has to surrender her children because she "couldn't take the kids herself because of health problems." Then, after the children are separated from their grandmother, they are torn away from each other. The shelter insists it's for their own good. In fact, it was almost certainly for the shelter's convenience. The shelter's own website reveals that children are segregated by age. That's understandable. It's dangerous to mix age groups in an institution.

With everything we know about what works and what doesn't work for children in the 21st Century there is only one word for institutionalizing a child because his mother is homeless or his grandmother is ill: Barbaric.

When I mentioned this in an op ed column in that same newspaper, a shelter supporter replied by citing another reason she felt the shelter was essential: To warehouse children taken from battered mothers solely because those mothers had been beaten. That is, of course, one of the worst things you can do to a child even when you don't compound the trauma of removal by institutionalizing him …

One hundred years of research is nearly unanimous: Institutionalization is inherently harmful. And the younger the child, the greater the harm. No one who writes puff pieces about shelters would argue that shift workers and volunteers dispensing indiscriminate pseudo-love to any child who walks in the door are a substitute for their love for their own children. It's no substitute for somebody else's child either – and the children know it. That's why institutionalization does them so much harm.

And better child welfare systems know it as well.

In Alabama, the system has been rebuilt to emphasize keeping children out of foster care in the first place, and an independent court monitor found that the reforms improved child safety. It happened as a result of a suit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (co-counsel for plaintiffs is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors).

The lawsuit led to a consent decree that puts strict limits on shelters. The following is from Making Child Welfare Work, The Bazelon Center's book about the consent decree:

Because it is so traumatic to uproot a child, an important goal of [the Consent Decree] is to have the child's first placement be the only placement … To minimize moves, the decree outlaws the use of shelter care except under unusual circumstances. Workers are not permitted to park a child in a shelter while they look for a more permanent placement, unless the child can receive the full range of necessary services while in the shelter and 'it is likely that the [child's] stay in foster care will not extend beyond his/her stay in the shelter.' [Emphasis in original]. What this meant was that counties had to develop a sufficiently large and flexible array of [placements] so they could place children directly…to the setting determined as most appropriate for meeting the child's needs.

How can Alabama do it? By taking fewer children needlessly they have more options for children who really need to be taken from their homes – without turning those children into human teddy bears.

UPDATE: JULY 16, 2010: Another state is showing enormous success in curbing the use of shelters: New Jersey is successfully implementing a consent decree that is, if anything, even more far reaching in curbing shelters than Alabana's. It bans placement of children under age 13 in shelters, period. And it’s succeeding. During the entire second half of 2009, in the entire State of New Jersey, one child under age 13 was placed in a shelter. Not one percent – one child.

It’s possible because, like Alabama, New Jersey significantly cut the number of children taken away in the first place. And, as in Alabama, an independent court monitor confirms that the decline in removals has been accompanied by a dramatic improvement in child safety.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Yes, Los Angeles, there IS a foster care panic


The number of children taken from their families in Los Angeles County has soared in the wake of news coverage of high-profile tragedies.

Data obtained by NCCPR through a California Public Records Act request show that from August 1 through December 31 2009, the number of children thrown into foster care by the Department of Children and Family Services soared 16 percent over the same period in 2008. In contrast, until August, entries had declined by five percent compared with the same period in 2008, and the 2008 figure was down from 2007.

With DCFS workers terrified of landing on the front page if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles County have fallen victim to a classic foster-care panic. Our full report on the panic is available on our website.

The foster-care panic is even more tragic because 2008 had been the first year since 2003 in which DCFS did not take away more children than the year before. Now that progress has been reversed. The harm is compounded by the fact that, even before the panic, Los Angeles was taking away proportionately more children than most major metropolitan areas.


DCFS has sought to divert attention from the panic, first by denying it, and then by focusing on a very different number, the number of children in foster care on any given day. But that number can rise and fall for reasons unrelated to an agency's propensity to tear apart families in the first place. That's why the key number to watch to see if there is a foster-care panic is entries into care.


Those who falsely equate child removal with child safely may be pleased by these data; but their joy will come at the expense of the very children they say they want to protect. Foster-care panics make all children less safe.

The standard federal measure of safety, reabuse of children, has not improved even as entries into care have escalated.

There is no evidence that Los Angeles children are safer than children in Chicago or Miami, which take proportionately far fewer children, and where independent monitors have found that, as foster care rates have fallen, child safety has improved.

As removals declined, then increased again over the past decade, there has been no real change in the rate of deaths of children previously known to DCFS. (For the record, as entries escalated again in 2009, such deaths increased slightly, though the change was too small to blame on the panic.

That means all those additional children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, all those children bounced from foster home to foster home, emerging unable to love or trust anyone, all those children abused in foster care itself, where the rate of abuse is far higher than in the general population, and far higher than generally realized, are suffering for nothing.

Wrongful removal overloads caseworkers, making it even less likely that they will find children in real danger. That overload almost always is the real reason for the very tragedies that have made headlines – and started the panic. That's why foster care panics make all children less safe. And that's why nationwide, the only child welfare systems that really have improved safety are those that reformed to emphasize family preservation.

2008 was the year Los Angeles County finally began to turn the corner and start doing just that. The progress was continuing in 2009.

But then, starting at the end of July, 2009, the Los Angeles Times started ratcheting up its coverage of deaths of children known to the system.

The problem is not the fact that the deaths were covered – accusing critics of wanting less coverage is a straw man media who get this story wrong often use to deflect any criticism. On the contrary, the deaths deserved all the attention they got, and more. As has been noted repeatedly on this Blog, the failings of the Times revolve less around what was in the stories than what was left out.

The stories about these terrible tragedies became ever more explicit in falsely scapegoating efforts to keep families together.


Times reporters repeatedly engaged in what can best be called inference peddling. For example, Times stories repeatedly portrayed family preservation as a "risk." The stories referred to a waiver from federal funding restrictions that allows money normally reserved for foster care to be used for better alternatives as a "wager". (The waiver probably kept the panic from being even worse.) That left readers to infer that, however emotionally harmful to children, at least foster care was safe.

Any such inference would be wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that, for the overwhelming majority of children, family preservation is the safer option and it is the grave risks of foster care that make it a bad bet for most children.

When that point was reinforced by the tragic death of Viola Vanclief, who was killed in foster care, the Times distorted fatality data in order to reinforce its point. In fact, Viola Vanclief may have paid the ultimate price for foster-care panic.

The result of all this is entirely predictable. Indeed, as readers of this Blog know, we predicted it at a news conference in Los Angeles last August. (The material we released at that news conference is available here.) Caseworkers, terrified of being on the front page, rushed to tear apart families needlessly and removals soared, reversing a year-and-a-half of progress."

NCCPR's report includes a long list of vital information the Times has denied its readers, including the existence of the foster-care panic itself.

Not only did the Times refuse to report the panic, it refused even to find out whether it had occurred. So when DCFS Director Trish Ploehn failed to follow through on a promise to provide the data to NCCPR, we filed our own California Public Records Act to obtain these data. (And at that point, DCFS staff cooperated fully with the request).

The fault does not lie solely with the Times. As also has been noted often on this Blog, there has been a profound failure of leadership at DCFS and grandstanding by the County Board of Supervisors.

The Los Angeles County foster care panic of 2009 represents a failure both of political will and journalistic integrity.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When the war against child abuse backfires: An excellent story from AP

The story is about the dangers of "central registries" of alleged child abusers. They are little more than statewide databases of rumor and innuendo, and due process for the accused ranges from minimal to none.

Like so much else in the war against child abuse, central registries, as they are run today, backfire and harm the children they are intended to help.

For starters, children themselves can be listed as perpetrators. The lead plaintiff in a landmark Illinois lawsuit bolstering due process in that state was a ten-year-old girl, listed as a sex abuser – for pulling up the pants of a four-year-old boy she found "playing doctor" in her family's home day care.

Being falsely listed can lead to traumatic investigations of children and, eventually, needless removal of children from everyone they know and love, consigning them to the chaos of foster care.

In cases of real abuse, when it's too easy to list the most convenient suspect, it's more likely that the real abuser will get away.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On Monday, more about foster care in Los Angeles

    Using the California Public Records Act, we got the answer to the question the Los Angeles Times wouldn't even ask. On Monday, we'll answer the question here, and have a full report at

Friday, April 23, 2010

Worse than foster care: Why can’t orphanages just say ‘no’ to drugs?

Yesterday's post to this Blog discussed stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about widespread abuse in Georgia's privately-run publicly "regulated" orphanages – the assortment of group homes, shelters and "residential treatment centers" that are typical of most states.

At about the same time, The Miami Herald ran two stories that illustrate both the tragedy of relying on orphanages and the power of the orphanage industry. Both stories, by reporter Carol Marbin Miller, revolve around an issue the Herald has focused on for nearly a decade, the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications on foster children.

One story is about Denis Maltez, who was institutionalized at age 8. Four years later he died, and the Miami-Dade medical examiner says the cause of death was a side effect of being overmedicated.

Much of the story focuses on the psychiatrist who prescribed the medications.

But the biggest failing in this case occurred before the doctor ever was involved.

No one so much as accused Denis' mother of abusing or neglecting him. But this also was not a case in which the Florida Department of Children and Families took away the child. DCF wasn't even involved in that decision.

Rather, this case is more like the kinds of cases at the heart of the "Safe Haven" debacle in Nebraska. Denis' mother couldn't cope with her autistic son's "volatility and violent outbursts." Another Florida agency, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), apparently had only one suggestion: Institutionalize him.

So technically, this was a voluntary placement. But it wasn't really voluntary at all.


When the mother of this boy went to APD, at the end of her rope, here's what APD should have said:

You don't have to deal with these problems alone, and you don't have to institutionalize your child to get him help. We have a program called Wraparound which brings everything a group home can offer right into your own home. We will give you all the help you need to take care of your son, without you ever having to surrender custody, and without him ever having to be institutionalized.

Such programs really do exist; I'm sure there is some of it in Florida, probably more now than before the state's recent child welfare reforms, which began after Denis was institutionalized.

This approach costs less than group homes and institutions, and it has succeeded with young people who have far more serious problems than this boy. This previous post includes a link to a video of a wonderful presentation by the "father of Wraparound," Karl Dennis.

But Denis Maltez' mother apparently wasn't offered that option. So, according to the Herald, she followed the recommendation of APD and decided

to move him into a sparkling new Miami group home called Rainbow Ranch. Administrators for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities had recommended the home, run by a man who had once pleaded guilty to practicing medicine without a license.

The group home discontinued Denis' treatment by a team from a local hospital and instead handed over his care to the same psychiatrist who "treated" all the other residents – and I do mean all of them. After Denis died, APD discovered that 99 percent of the residents were on psychiatric medication. The psychiatrist never met with Denis' mother, and described the boy as ``hyper, needy, pesty.''

According to Herald columnist Fred Grimm, after Denis died:

A dossier was compiled [by state regulators] against the three licensed Rainbow Ranch group homes, listing grotesque incidents in which disabled children in the homes were haphazardly fed, neglected, overmedicated and so under-supervised that the kids physically abused one another.

Except for the absence of either a full-scale riot or an exorcism, that sounds remarkably like what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution kept finding in orphanages in Georgia.

But none of this should come as a surprise. All over the country, newspapers have exposed the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children.

The Herald began reporting on the topic in earnest in 2003. That led to a law intended to make it harder to use the medications just to keep kids docile for overwhelmed caretakers. But DCF ignored the law.

Then the Herald reported that psychiatric medication may have caused the death of a foster child, Gabriel Myers.

This time the response has been different. Reform-minded leadership is in charge at DCF, and they've probably responded more forcefully, and more candidly to the problem than any other state. They've set up a special section of the DCF website to post results of investigations and committee meetings, recommendations and what's being done about them, and they even include links to news coverage critical of DCF.

In other words, this time, there is a serious effort to curb these practices, not because of a new law, but because of new leadership.


But there is only so much government can do when it is trying to substitute for family. That lesson is driven home by the data DCF uncovered while investigating the Myers case.

It found that when foster children are institutionalized, 26 percent of them are medicated. When they're placed with strangers, it's 21. But when foster children are placed in kinship care, with extended family, usually a grandparent, only four percent are prescribed psychiatric meds.

It's not hard to figure out why: Grandparents and other relatives are more likely to love these children, and so will tolerate more difficult behavior before demanding a prescription. And that's just one indication that the best solution to the misuse and overuse of meds on foster children is not a new law – it's grandma; or, better yet, keeping more children out of the system in the first place.

Still another indication came from another Herald story. It described how, apparently with no difficulty at all, residential treatment providers got the sponsor of such a proposed law to weaken it so drastically it might actually be worse than existing law. Under the proposal, as amended, once a child is in an orphanage, the people running the place would have what amounts to a three-day free pass to dope up any child, no questions asked.

Here again we see what we see in Georgia: the enormous power of the foster care-industrial complex to put its interests ahead of those of children.

And that's what the Herald itself still doesn't get. Even as it runs stories about the terrible things the foster care system does to children once it gets hold of them, the same reporter has been writing misleading stories attacking the reforms - reforms which, according to independent evaluations, have safely reduced the number of children taken from their parents. And some of the same people are sources for both sets of stories. It's a bit like sounding the alarm about a fire and then throwing up barricades in front of the fire engines.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Worse than foster care: Bring back the orphanage? That’s a riot!


Whenever newspapers run big stories about the harm of foster care, particularly abuse in foster care, someone is almost certain to write a letter-to-the-editor in which gooey nostalgia trumps both common sense and at least 100 years of research. The letter suggests that, since foster care is so harmful, we should bring back the orphanage.

In fact, the orphanage never left. Mostly, they've rebranded themselves as "residential treatment centers." But whatever they're called, they remain, by far, the worst option for children.

You can't really blame the letter writers. No group is more demonized in American media than birth parents who lose their children to foster care. (Even the commonly-used term for such parents, "biological parents" was coined in the 1970s with the specific intent to be pejorative, and it is. It conjures up an image of someone no more important to a child than a test-tube.)

Sometimes the journalistic attacks on efforts to keep families together are deliberate, as in recent Cleveland Plain Dealer editorials and Los Angeles Times news stories. More often it's simply a function of news being the unusual. The parent who really is a sadist and a brute will be on the front page - right where she or he belongs - but the typical case won't. Even the excellent stories in the Journal-Constitution imply that birth families are not an option, referring to what happens to the institutionalized children as "additional" abuse. In fact, many children are not abused until they are placed in substitute care.

So with the best option, keeping families together, off the table, it's understandable that people would respond to revelations about foster care by assuming orphanages are all that's left.

The letters almost always come with what I've come to call the magic adjective. The writer almost always specifies that he or she wants "good" orphanages or "well-run" orphanages, as though providing this specification magically will make it so.

This week, two newspapers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and The Miami Herald cut through the treacle about institutionalizing children and provided important reminders of the reality of modern day orphanages – and why all the wishing in the world won't make them good. The Herald coverage, which I expect to get to in a future post, included a story that helps explain why these God-awful places are so hard to get rid of.

In the second part of a multi-part series that concludes this Sunday and Monday, the Journal-Constitution looked at one residential treatment center.

Like many such places it looks wonderful – set in beautiful countryside with nice buildings and even a stable full of horses. (There's something about horses that makes some journalists particularly prone to fall in love with orphanages that have them.) But reporter Alan Judd wasn't fooled. Here's how his story began:

Even before the riot, state regulators found plenty wrong at the Downing Clark Center.

They said the group home for foster children had detained a resident in a filthy isolation room as long as 24 hours at a time. They cited the facility because employees had been too distracted to notice suicide attempts, had stood by as one resident attacked another, and had propositioned teenagers placed there for protection.

By Jan. 4, residents had gone days without the medicines that helped control their behavior: antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs that had not been dispensed after the home's nurse quit.

That night, residents roamed free through Downing Clark's dormitories. They ripped fixtures from the walls. They smashed television screens. They beat others who were younger and smaller. It took three hours, more than two dozen sheriff's deputies and state troopers and 20 arrests to quell the disturbance.

The owners of the facility told the Journal-Constitution it was just a pajama party gone bad.


Of course defenders of institutionalizing children love to dismiss such cases as aberrations – rotten apples in their lovely barrel. And, in fairness, so far the Journal-Constitution has found only one full-scale riot. They've also found only one exorcism. But when it comes to the problems that preceded the riot, the newspaper found that those kinds of problems "pervade" group homes, residential treatment centers and other latter-day orphanages in Georgia.

As Judd wrote in part one:

Fights. Sexual assaults. Consensual sex between young teens. Abuse by foster parents and group home employees. Escapes. Suicide attempts. All occur with regularity at many of Georgia's 336 private foster care agencies, the Journal-Constitution's examination found.

The stories make a compelling case for that assertion. So does common sense.

Whom do we institutionalize? The mentally ill, prisoners, juvenile delinquents, and foster children, but usually when the foster children are older and they've started to scare us. Take a population that is hated and/or feared, isolate them in closed compounds, and what do you expect? What politician is going to put up the big bucks needed to get serious about inspection and enforcement? And even if they were willing to spend the money, once they found out how lousy so many institutions are, where would they put all the kids?

No wonder Georgia officials make clear they're far more interested in protecting the institutions than protecting the children.

In explaining why Downing Clark was allowed to remain open until the full-scale riot, Keith Bostick, director of the state Office of Residential Child Care, declares: "We tried to use a nudge versus the big stick." In general, says Bostick: "It is not the goal to put people out of business. We want to do as much as we can to try to keep kids safe. But it is a balancing act."

What's really scary, though, is that one of the state's commonly-quoted "child advocates" told the AJC almost exactly the same thing:

"There's a big balancing act," said Karen Worthington, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University. "Do you close down a facility, or do you try to work it out and hope the worst doesn't happen?

It's not really a mystery why state officials would say there needs to be a balance between child safety and keeping private agencies in business. Such agencies often have blue-chip boards of directors, embedded in the business, political, and civic elite of their states and localities. While governors and public child welfare agency leaders come and go, the private agencies sometimes become, to use the late columnist Jack Newfield's memorable phrase, "the permanent government" of child welfare. Michigan is a prime example.

In Georgia, the regular reporter on the child welfare beat for the Journal-Constitution (not Mr. Judd) became increasingly dependent for quotes to bolster stories attacking Georgia's efforts to keep families together on Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, a trade association for private child welfare agencies. Adams became the reporter's Godsource, that one source who turns up in almost every story and whose words are treated as holy writ.

But there's another reason as well. As the Journal-Constitution put it:

Shutting down any facility further stresses a system already short of space and money.

But that's because Georgia still is placing too many children needlessly. The state child welfare agency is doing significantly better than it used to. After a foster-care panic several years ago, Georgia reversed course. Now, the child welfare agency is embracing efforts to keep families together and having some success – with no compromise of child safety. They've also been attacked for it by Normer Adams and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But children can be institutionalized through other agencies as well. In Florida, for example, the placement that led to the latest tragedy spotlighted by the Herald had nothing to do with the child welfare agency.


In contrast consider what happened in Illinois.

Back in 1995, when another Georgian, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, recommended warehousing poor people's children in orphanages, media flocked to Maryville, near Chicago – the state's showpiece private orphanage and the place that supposedly proved orphanages could work. Like Downing Clark, Maryville had gorgeous grounds – it made for great TV pictures. The director at the time had enormous political clout – and a giant statue of himself outside the main entrance.

Seven years after this publicity bonanza, Maryville's main campus was revealed to be rife with abuse. The director was forced out (peacefully, no troops were sent to pull down the statue) and, most important, the state was able to pull hundreds of children out of the place. The reason? Illinois has rebuilt its system to emphasize keeping families together. It takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the nation. So when the horrors of Maryville finally came to light, the state had better places to put the children.

But the focus on abuse in institutions should not blind us to the most important reason to steer clear of orphanages: They are inherently abusive. Even if no staff member ever beat or raped a child, even if no child ever was drugged into a stupor to keep her or him docile, orphanages would be the wrong answer. Because institutionalization itself does so much harm. That's one of the reasons why there is so much research showing that orphanages, both the original model and the modern kind – residential treatment centers – simply don't work.

In addition, when children really can't return to their own homes, the best option is adoption. But the overwhelming majority of foster children are adopted by people who first were their foster parents. Institutionalizing children takes away their best chance of adoption, leaving those children on their own at 18 with no one to love them.

Why can't we replace foster care with "good" orphanages? Because there is no such thing as a good orphanage.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Canadian child trapped in U.S. foster care: Casualty of a newspaper’s jingoism?

Twelve-year-old Noah Kirkman, of Calgary, Canada has been trapped in Oregon foster care for nearly two years. He may lose his mother, Lisa Kirkman, his stepfather, and even his Canadian citizenship. And while most of the blame for this rests with the Oregon Department of Human Services and a judge in Lane County, the state's largest newspaper may have worsened the climate for this child and prolonged his suffering. Perhaps that's why the newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, seems to have averted its eyes from the case.

The nearest newspaper to the scene, the Eugene Register-Guard, has had no such hesitation. In a comprehensive account in February, the Register-Guard explained what happened this way:

Kirkman said she came to Lane County from Canada on a visit in the summer of 2008 and left Noah in Oakridge with the boy's stepfather — Kirkman's husband — for a vacation. … Oakridge police kept spotting Noah, then 10, on the streets that summer — trespassing at the city's industrial park, sitting alone on a fence that had been knocked down, riding his bicycle without a helmet — and drove him home a couple of times, police chief Luis Gomez said. Seeing a pattern, police referred at least two incidents to the DHS, Gomez said. And DHS took custody of the child.

(And see also CNN's interview with Lisa Kirkman and her lawyer).

DHS and the judge would not return Noah to his mother. They would not turn the case over to Canadian authorities to let them decide if Noah's mother is fit. And they would not let him stay with his stepfather right there in Oregon. Instead, they've moved him from foster home to foster home, school to school – in other words, they've treated him just like any other Oregon foster child.


This case isn't all that hard to understand given the mentality of Oregon DHS in general and some recent events in particular.

Oregon tears apart families at a rate 70 percent above the national average and double and triple the rate in states widely considered to be, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe. This take-the-child-and-run mentality is deeply ingrained. Oregon has been taking children at one of the highest rates in the nation since at least 1985.

Then, a few months after Noah Kirkman was placed in foster care, the Oregonian ran a huge story about a little girl named Adrianna Romero Cram. Born in this country to Mexican parents, Oregon officials sent her to live with Mexican relatives who planned to adopt her. Adrianna endured months of abuse before those relatives killed her. Other relatives and teachers repeatedly warned Mexican child welfare authorities that the child was in danger.

Notwithstanding the fact that American CPS workers, even in Oregon, make exactly the same kinds of mistakes, the Oregonian's approach was to whip up a jingoistic frenzy. The theme that dominated the coverage, much of it written by a reporter who, thankfully, no longer is with the paper, is that officials in foreign countries could not be trusted to protect children, and no child should be sent across the border until that nation could prove it lived up to Oregon standards.

Months later, the newspaper displayed no second thoughts when Oregon caseworkers and Oregon supervisors made almost identical mistakes in the death of Jeanette Maples, an Oregon child who lived – and died - right in Oregon.

The coverage had its intended effect.

To see the double-standards at play here, one need simply compare Oregon to Russia.

Right now, Russia is threatening to ban adoptions of Russian children by Americans after an American mother stamped her Russian child "return to sender" and shipped him back. Several other American parents, albeit an extremely tiny minority, have killed the Russian children they adopted. Many in the United States, especially adoption advocates are outraged, are outraged; they say Russia is grossly overreacting.

But there was no such outrage, and the Oregonian was downright giddy, when Oregon DHS responded to the newspaper's stories about Adrianna Cram by imposing a nine-month moratorium on placing Oregon children in any other country anywhere on earth.

When the moratorium was lifted this year, Oregon imposed a series of conditions, including, according to the Oregonian: "Adoptive relatives in other countries will be required to take parenting training using an Oregon-approved curriculum." (Because, apparently, Mexicans, Canadians and the entire rest of the world can't possibly teach someone how to be an adoptive parent without help from Oregon.)

Given the take-the-child-and-run mentality and the extra fear of being the judge who sends another child to a foreign country (albeit not foreign to the child) only to have something go wrong, it's no wonder Noah Kirkman is trapped in foster care – deprived of his mother, his father, and his stepfather.

Noah's mother has gone public with her fight, including a Facebook page with 2,500 followers. And the story has been gaining increasing media attention, first in Canada on the Calgary affiliates of CBC and CTV, the Calgary Herald and other media, including the nation's most prestigious newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and now in the United States. In addition to CNN, Lisa Kirkman has been on Portland television stations KGW and KATU. But if there's been any coverage at all in the Oregonian, I've missed it.

It's not just Noah who is suffering, of course. All that time money and effort wasted doing enormous emotional harm to Noah is being stolen from finding the next Jeanette Maples – the next child in real danger, overlooked because workers are inundated with false allegations, trivial cases, and needless foster care.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Mass. Foster care Mclawsuit: Did CR even read its own legal papers?

OK, it's a rhetorical question. Somebody must have read them before they were filed. But here's why I ask:

I often cite studies showing that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically do better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. Understandably, some people are skeptical. After all, the studies deal in numbers; and they just don't seem to jibe with gut instinct. If only there were some concrete examples.

Well, here's an example. Adam was taken from his mother "at a very young age" on a charge of "neglect" – there is no further description of what his mother allegedly failed to do. But we know that by age 16 Adam had been:

Rushed into an adoption by a couple who brutally abused him.

Separated from his siblings.

Placed, at age 13 in a residential treatment center for sex offenders even though he was not a sex offender.

Brutally beaten by a group of teenagers allegedly organized into a "fight club" by a staffer at the RTC.

Repeatedly raped by another boy in the program. When he cried for help, Adam said, staff would turn up the volume of the television to drown out his cries.

Or how about the case of Seth?

He and his brothers were taken from their mother because their home was unsanitary, the mother had "mental health issues" and Seth allegedly had been left alone unsupervised when he was eight years old. (The length of time he was alone is not specified.) The children's mother was overwhelmed by the problems of three sons, all with learning disabilities. And Seth had been abused sexually, by a former boyfriend of the mother.

Instead of giving Seth's mother the help she needed to cope, Seth and his brothers were taken away. Seth immediately was institutionalized and the brothers were separated from each other. They're rarely allowed even to see each other. The child welfare agency moved quickly to terminate parental rights, but assigned Seth a goal of long term foster care. And that's all he's gotten, having been moved over and over from home to home.

And then there's Rakeem. He was taken from his parents "in large part due to educational neglect" – that's the allegation that the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice says generally doesn't even belong in the child welfare system at all.

By now, Rakeem's education has suffered from at least as much neglect, probably more.

And that was just the beginning. He was separated from his siblings and rarely even gets to see them. From the moment of his removal he was treated like a criminal, placed in a foster home that was more like house arrest, then moved from placement to placement and ultimately institutionalized.

When the institution offered to provide transportation so Rakeem at least could have regular visits with his family the child welfare agency said no. Instead, they used visits as leverage, saying Rakeem couldn't have more until his "behavior" improved. Even the Child Welfare League of America says visits never should be used for reward and punishment. (And, as it happens, though not stated explicitly, it appears the cause of Rakeem's behavior problems was how much he missed his family.)


So, where do all these stories of needless removal come from? Where did I read about all these cases in which taking away the children made their lives far worse? Where did I find all these examples that make clear why the studies keep showing that, in typical cases, children do better when left in their own homes?

They all come from the same place: Adam, Seth and Rakeem are "named plaintiffs" in the lawsuit filed yesterday against the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights.

These cases also help explain why Massachusetts takes away children at a rate nearly 50 percent above the national average.

(At the same time, another named plaintiff illustrates how, when you overload your system with children who don't belong in foster care, workers don't have time to make good decisions in any case: This child was the victim of severe physical abuse in her own home. There is no question removal was justified. And yes, that was the one case among the named plaintiffs in which DCF actually tried returning the child home.)

And yet, as usual with CR's lawsuits, the Complaint offers only deafening silence on the issue of wrongful removal. There is not one word about the problem of Massachusetts taking away children needlessly. Curbing such wrongful removal is nowhere listed among the demands for "relief" at the end of the Complaint. There is not one word suggesting that CR realizes that Adam, Seth and Rakeem probably could have remained safely in their own homes had their parents gotten the right kinds of help.

Similarly, in listing the causes for the high rate of abuse in Massachusetts foster care, the Complaint lists every possible cause except the obvious: When you take away too many children, you have no place to put them. That encourages lowering standards for foster parents, and willful blindness to abuse in foster care. Taking too many children also explains why, as the Complaint notes, DCF winds up doing things like placing an asthmatic foster child with smokers

Instead there is only the usual list of CR's obsessions and failed solutions: Hire lots more caseworkers, recruit more foster homes and, of course, give the foster parents a big pay raise. Such solutions will only siphon away scarce funds that should be used to help all the other Adams Seths and Rakeems in Massachusetts stay safely in their own homes.


And that's not the only way the stories of the named plaintiffs contradict the rest of the lawsuit.

From the moment he was removed from his home Rakeem begged to be placed with his grandmother. He mentioned it over and over – until his grandmother died, at which point DCF wouldn't even let Rakeem attend her funeral.

Yet, as noted in yesterday's post to this Blog, even as CR complains that DCF isn't doing enough to place children with relatives, CR also is seeking to put further barriers in the way of kinship care placements, bringing its obsession with "licensing" – the one that's done so much harm in Michigan – to Massachusetts.

But then, cognitive dissonance is nothing new at CR.

At about the same time CR was pressuring Tennessee to repeal a law that would have slightly curbed entries into foster care, CR's Executive Director, Marcia Lowry was telling 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."

Back in 2003, Marcia warned Congress that

"… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers."

But that hasn't stopped her from including adoption quotas in some of her lawsuits.

Maybe it can be their new slogan: "'Children's Rights': Unencumbered by logic since 1995."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Three more foster care lawsuits doomed to fail, three more bad child welfare systems likely to get worse


The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has filed another one of its Mclawsuits against a state child welfare agency – this time in Massachusetts. And NCCPR's sources say that another such Mclawsuit, in Texas, is imminent.

Meanwhile a group which is unaffiliated with CR but has the same myopic outlook about how to fix child welfare systems, the National Center for Youth Law, has filed the same kind of suit in Nevada. (I've come to think of the California-based NCYL as "CR West")

All of these child welfare systems almost certainly are every bit as bad as CR and NCYL say they are. But at best, these suits are likely to drag on for years, perhaps decades with no real improvement (witness CR's suits in Washington DC and Connecticut and NCYL's in Washington State). At worst, they will make these child welfare systems worse, by diverting scarce resources from prevention and family preservation into more child abuse investigations and foster care.

Neither CR nor NCYL has learned from successes elsewhere – including their own.

The only class-action lawsuit settlements that really work are those that push child welfare systems to rebuild by emphasizing family preservation; or at least include such efforts as part of the reform effort. The consent decree that helped transform child welfare in Alabama, brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, is the classic example. (The Legal Director of the Bazelon Center is a member of NCCPR's Board of Directors.) But CR's own settlements in New Jersey and New York City also illustrate this, and so does NCYL's settlement in Utah. In all three cases, individuals and organizations wiser than CR or NCYL helped them craft settlements better than anything they could come up with on their own.

But it seems neither organization has learned either from their failures or their successes.

Judging by CR's press release, the Massachusetts suit zeros in on the problems of abuse in foster care and moving foster children from foster home to foster home – enormously important issues that are at the heart of NCCPR's own advocacy. But the key cause of those problems is the simple fact that children in Massachusetts are taken from their families at a rate nearly 50 percent above the national average. That creates an artificial "shortage" of foster homes, so workers wind up moving children from home to home. And it creates an incentive to ignore abuse in foster care.

But CR, of course, ignores this issue. Worse, their track record in places like Michigan and Georgia suggests they will press for settlements that will allow the states to divert funds now used for prevention, family preservation and help to impoverished families, into more child abuse investigations and more foster care. That, of course, will make everything worse.

The wrongful removal problem in Nevada is even worse than in Massachusetts, with a rate of removal 70 percent above the national average. A comprehensive review of a random sample of cases by one of the nation's leading experts, University of Nevada-Las Vegas Social Work Professor Leroy Pelton, found widespread wrongful removal and confusion of poverty with "neglect." But NCYL ignores the issue.


And both organizations appear determined to extend the war on grandparents that CR is waging in Michigan – which already has caused the expulsion of hundreds of children from the homes of grandparents and other relatives in that state.

Massachusetts already is more restrictive than Michigan about placing children with relatives when their homes are unlicensed. It can be done only when a court approves. But apparently, CR thinks even this is not restrictive enough, since their Complaint complains about these exceptions.

NCYL's suit is even worse. Nevada law explicitly allows placing children in unlicensed homes as long as basic health and safety standards are met. (A great deal of formal licensing typically involves standards geared to middle-class creature comforts.) NCYL argues that the standards under the Nevada law are, in fact, too low. But instead of looking for sensible middle ground, NCYL offers up a horror story or two and appears to demand that every impoverished grandparent meet precisely the standards used to license the homes of middle-class strangers.

There is special irony in this in light of a key issue raised in the NCYL suit: the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children. Florida is closely examining this issue and may be doing more than any other state finally to come to grips with it. Florida's data show that the best protection against overmedicating foster children is – grandma. Foster children in kinship placements are far less likely to be prescribed psychiatric meds than those placed in what should properly be called "stranger care."

It's not hard to figure out why: Grandparents and other relatives are more likely to love these children, and so will tolerate more difficult behavior before demanding a prescription.

So now we have the spectacle of the National Center for Youth Law simultaneously identifying an extremely important problem – and undermining the best solution.

And God only knows what kind of chaos CR has in store for Texas.


Entirely on its own, Texas already came up with the dumb idea of diverting funds from prevention and family preservation into more child abuse investigators and foster care workers. The legislature tried it in 2005, and it failed miserably – just as NCCPR predicted it would in a report we issued on Texas child welfare that year. Now the Texas child welfare agency is trying to reverse years of escalating entries into foster care. That may well be what made Texas a target for CR.

Indeed, a recent "Executive Director's Report" from CR's Marcia Lowry, indicates that CR is about to escalate its war against impoverished families caught up in the child welfare system. Instead of simply ignoring the problem, CR is now threatening to attack states that have succeeded in reducing entries into care. They've already pressured the Tennessee legislature into repealing a law that would have put one very small brake on such removals.

And CR is threatening to make its own determination of which prevention and family preservation programs "work" and which do not. In fact, there is abundant evidence already available on this; and CR is almost certain to get any such effort wrong.

Lowry likes to say that she doesn't know how to fix poverty, but she knows how to fix foster care. In fact, the results of her lawsuits suggest she doesn't know how to fix either one – and her efforts sometimes make the poverty worse.

No one can stop CR from suing Texas of course. We can only urge that state, and Massachusetts and Nevada as well, to fight any proposed settlement that is not built around doing more, not less, and spending more, not less, to keep families together.

Perhaps then Texas won't be the latest state to see its children wronged by "Children's Rights."

Foster care in Michigan: moving beyond blaming the parents – to blaming the kids

A lot of readers of this Blog probably know that there is still another study out to tell us what we already know: the outcomes for many children who "age out" of foster care are rotten. A lot of them face a grim future marked by poverty, crime and homelessness. The odds against their finishing college are staggering. (One finding that's gotten a lot less attention than the others: In spite of all this, a majority of the young people in the study said their lives now actually are better than their lives in foster care.)

It didn't surprise me that some people were quick to blame these young people's birth parents. What did surprise me is that in Michigan, there are people in the child welfare system who actually are blaming the young people themselves.

Don't believe anyone really would blame foster children for what happens to them when they "age out"? Well, here's a post to a Michigan lawyers listserv from Eric Scott, an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Sanilac County. I'm reproducing the entire post, so no one claims it's out of context. (I've added a link to the news account he mentions, but all spelling errors are in the original.) Mr. Scott writes:

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to the plight of foster kids everywhere, I thought I'd weigh in. I was listening to NPR talk about this report on my way into the office this morning, and was struck by an observation. This report seems to study this issue from the perspective of the foster kids themselves, and doesn't necessarily reflect the entire story. Don't get me wrong, foster kids don't do well after foster care. But, that is not always a reflection of the state failing these kids.

We have a great many kids on our foster care caseload up here, where the caseworker has literally removed every roadblock to success, only to have the foster kid thumb thier nose at the assistance, and wind up in jail, or worse. So my thought is that it isn't always the state that is failing these kids. Sometimes its the kids themselves that the cause of thier own woes. Many of these kids that come into care, are used to having no rules, no boundaries, and have literally been parenting themselves for years. How is the state supposed to address that? I think this report has value, and should be considered, but we should consider it with an understanding that its only part of the story. Some of these kids are going to age out of the system into the adult system regardless of the efforts the state may take to prevent it. I for one would like to see a report that addresses the full story, not just a news worthy one.

Right. Let's have more news stories about things that are not newsworthy. One certainly can see why it's strange to do a story about young people aging out of foster care "from the perspective of the kids themselves," right? And I can't imagine why Mr. Scott would worry about "sounding unsympathetic to the plight of foster kids…"

It really shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but no, Mr. Scott, when children are taken from their own homes, whether rightly or wrongly, then bounced from foster home to foster home, denied any real love for years, sometimes a decade or more, and then kicked out on their own at 18, they are not, in fact, "the cause of their own woes."

There is plenty the state can do to reduce the harm it did by inflicting all those placements and all that time in foster care on these young people in the first place. No, it can't come anywhere near undoing all the damage. That's why the best way to reduce the problems of young people "aging out" of foster care is by preventing so many of them from ever aging in – since most of the parents who lose children to foster care are nothing like the stereotypes Mr. Scott seeks to perpetuate.

But we can reduce the damage to the point where these young people can have better options than jails, psych wards and homeless shelters. Anyone who holds the fate of some of these young people in his hands has no business being unaware of those best practices, and no business throwing up his hands in an e-mail instead of fighting to obtain those practices in his own community. A good place to start learning about what can be done is at Jim Casey Youth Opportunities.


But wait, it gets worse.

This post was followed by one from Wally Kent.

"Right on, Eric," declares Kent. Then he reverts to the more traditional Michigan approach of bashing the parents. Again, here is the post in full:

Unfortunately, by the time children enter the foster care system, many of them have been damaged almost beyond repair, and the system should not be blamed for failing to effectuate a 180 degree turn-around. And yes, the system does attempt to do a better job providing for the needs of these damaged children than their parents, and in large part succeeds, if only by bringing an end to the terrible things which have been damaging them in the first place. The question that is not being asked is how much worse off would these children have been if they had been left in the homes where their basic needs were not being met, and where they were being actively abused, both physically and sexually? Food for thought.

What makes this post even worse than the one from Mr. Scott is not the content; bashing parents is bad, bashing kids is worse. Rather, it's the fact that these comments come from
a judge – Judge Wally Kent has presided over these cases for decades.

So, to answer the judge's questions:

For starters, the whole point of the study is that, for most of these young people, the state does not, in fact, succeed, in large part or in any part. The lead author of the study, put it this way, in The New York Times:

"We took them away from their parents on the assumption that we as a society would do a better job of raising them," said Mark Courtney, a sociologist at the University of Washington who led the study with colleagues from the Partners for Our Children program at Washington and the Chapin Hall center at the University of Chicago. "We've invested a lot money and time in their care, and by many measures they're still doing very poorly."

As to that question that Judge Kent says is not being asked; on the contrary, it's been asked and answered repeatedly. Judge Kent either doesn't know that, or just doesn't want to hear the answers:

The overwhelming majority of children taken from their parents are not, in fact, "being actively abused, both physically and sexually."

In those cases that are typical, children left in their own homes typically are better off than those placed in foster care.

When the issue is meeting children's basic needs, it is far better to help provide those basic needs than to rush in and deprive them of another basic need, love, by tearing apart their families.

The implications here are pretty frightening. For decades, Judge Kent has been approving the removal of children from their homes, approving the continuation of foster care, and approving turning some of these children into legal orphans by terminating parental rights, all without having a clue about how much more harmful it is for most children to be trapped in foster care.

So here's my question:

Do they even bother trying to train judges in Michigan?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Some rare insight into who loses children to foster care – both regular and “sugar frosted”

When I first saw that still another big news organization was doing still another big story about "Safe Families" that so-called alternative to foster care that is really just foster care with sugar frosting, I groaned. I assumed it would be one more puff piece about Safe Families; and in three parts, no less.

I was wrong. For starters, the stories, which focused on one birth parent and one Safe Families foster parent (though Safe Families hates it when you call them that; they are, in all but name, foster parents) really weren't about the Safe Families program itself. Rather, the stories were something you almost never see amid the hype, hysteria and horror stories that characterize a lot of journalism about child welfare: These were stories about a typical case of a mother who lost her newborn daughter to "Safe Families" foster care; exactly the kind of case that dominates most workers' caseloads.

And because Associated Press reporter Martha Irvine spent an enormous amount of time with this family, and brought an enormous amount of insight to the task, what emerges is something that was incredibly rare in journalism even in the "good old days" – i.e. a few years ago – before all the layoffs and buyouts. It's even harder to find today: a compelling, insightful, three-dimensional portrait of the real human beings who typically get caught up in child welfare systems, in all their flawed humanity.

The mother, Hazel Evans, is not a sadist and she's not a brute. She's made her share of mistakes, but her problems boil down largely to poverty – in particular lack of adequate housing. And her problems boil down to the fact that, when you're poor, there is no margin for error.

Unfortunately, there is no one link to the entire series. But you'll find them here: part one, part two, part three.

If you read these stories, make no mistake: Had this been almost anyplace else in America besides Chicago, which has one of the lowest rates of child removal in the country, all of the children, not just the newborn, Autumn, would have been removed and placed in official foster care, not just the sugar-frosted kind - especially after an incident with a dresser. Even in Chicago, had the wrong caseworker come to the door or had deaths of children "known to the system" been making headlines that week, those children would be gone.

As for Safe Families, there's no question that the foster parent , Jessica-Anne Becker, not only meant well, she really helped. Bringing Jessica-Anne Becker into her life was one of the best things that could have happened to Hazel Evans and her children. But there was no reason Jessica-Anne Becker couldn't have been in Hazel Evans' life without ever taking away her child – no reason except the fact that Safe Families isn't designed to do that.

But because the price Safe Families extracts in exchange for helping people like Hazel is, in fact, "voluntary" surrender of the child, the stories reinforce my concerns. As I read them, I was struck by the extent to which Safe Families eased some problems while making others worse, like the ability of Hazel to raise her own infant with confidence and the ability of that infant to bond with her mother. Irvine writes:

when Autumn came for visits … her teary brown eyes searched everywhere for Jessica-Anne Becker, the volunteer foster mom who'd been caring for Autumn since she was just 2 days old. "It would almost be like she was homesick, like she missed Jessica and David,'' Jessica's husband, Hazel said. "That broke my heart.''

That, in turn, prolonged the separation.


Suppose the people behind Safe Families devoted the same passion to a program to provide rent subsidies and just enough other help to ease the worst stresses of poverty? Suppose the Safe Families volunteers came in to the families' homes instead of taking the children out? Then Hazel would have gained just as much from Jessica-Anne's mentoring, without the harmful side effects.

The stories also foreshadow problems ahead for Safe Families – if it hasn't happened already without our knowing it. The stories mention foster parents who are reluctant to give back the children they're taking care of. Sooner or later, an impoverished mother like Hazel is going to ask for her child back and a middle-class Safe Families foster mother like Jessica-Anne is going to say no. It will go to court, and, odds are, the mother like Jessica-Anne will win.

This is a particular danger in Oregon, which is rushing headlong into Safe Families without considering how it will mesh with a bizarre, obscene, and, I hope, unique-in-the-nation law that allows absolutely anyone claiming to have "established emotional ties creating a child-parent relationship or an ongoing personal relationship with a child" to march into court and seek possession of the child for his very own. (Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but you can click here and then scroll down to section 109.119 to see for yourself.) Foster parents - the official kind –are specifically prohibited from using this law. But remember, as the Safe Families people say over and over and over, they're not foster care, so …


Of course, those who love Safe Families may find their views reinforced by the Associated Press stories as well. That's fine. I am one former reporter who clings to the idea, now considered quaint in some circles, that great journalism gives readers the information they need to make up their own minds, instead of making selective use of facts and lots of use of loaded language to tell us what to think.

Journalists who substitute sneer and swagger for actual reporting like to dismiss this as "stenography." On the contrary, the kind of reporting seen here, with its enormous investment of time and alertness to detail, is much more difficult than the self-indulgent, one-sided Pulitzer-sniffing* that too often passes for journalism on the child welfare beat.

Irvine's stories are in the mold of outstanding work like Patricia Wen's Boston Globe series, Barbara's Story, and an LA Weekly series by Celeste Fremon, who now edits, in which she spent a full year with one struggling family. (Again, there's no one link but you can start at the very end of the last page of the epilogue, where Fremon does share her own view, and click your way back.)

In the end, the greatest benefit Safe Families has for society may be if more volunteers have their views of poverty and poor people shaken-up in the way it happened to Jessica-Anne.

Every time I read or see one of those stories about a once middle-class family now facing foreclosure and using a food bank, I keep waiting for the reporter to ask the family if their perceptions about poor people have changed. It almost never happens. But Martha Irvine asked. Here's the answer:

Before she met Hazel, even Jessica believed that people like Hazel were using the system, or just plain lazy. Then Jessica, jarred from her comfortable suburban existence, got a firsthand view of just how difficult it could be to make sweeping declarations about the Hazels of the world. …

"We had a front-row seat to the system, and it's just so broken,'' Jessica said.

She recalled how a pediatrician and a pharmacist treated her coldly when she used Autumn's state-issued medical card, until they found out she was volunteering to care for Autumn. She witnessed the bureaucracy — how flooded the public social service system was, the waiting for appointments or phone calls about health care or other services for Hazel or her girls.

Jessica had thought money was tight for her family. But now she felt a little ashamed, seeing how difficult it was for someone who makes little more than minimum wage to stay afloat, let alone get ahead.

"Those people who are in that situation have to want it so much more than I ever wanted to move up the ladder, because they're not even near the ladder yet,'' Jessica said.

*-Pulitzer-sniffing is the wonderful term coined by David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to create the HBO series The Wire, to describe stories that forego the subtlety and nuance of great reporting in favor of sensational multi-part series that sometimes distort the truth in the quest for journalism awards. Awards jurors don't have time for fact-checking they tend to be uncomfortable with anything that challenges conventional wisdom - so Pulitzer-sniffing often works.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Almost forgot the “moment of zen”

    Wednesday's post to this Blog about how foster care policy can be distorted by the tyranny of personal experience included a link to a segment of The Daily Show which, about 4:50 in, perfectly explained the problem. But until Johana Scot of the Parent Guidance Center in Texas reminded me, I'd completely forgotten that the same edition of that program also included the best take anywhere on the invasion of the child savers that followed the earthquake in Haiti.

    Apparently, the missionaries involved in the incident didn't realize that, even in a recession, many child protective services agencies right here at home are still hiring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Foster care in Cleveland: The latest danger to children of battered mothers - Plain Dealer editorials

Perhaps the most common child welfare story in American newspapers is the story of the death of a child "known to the system." But all such cases are not alike.

In some cases, the failure of the child welfare agency to act is stark and obvious. These are the cases in which the file reveals more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade. Other cases are more ambiguous. Perhaps still another visit to the home would have revealed the danger, maybe some extra phone calls. But caseworkers are so overloaded with false allegations and trivial cases that they usually don't have time for that. I would argue that the tragic deaths of the children of Banita Jacks in Washington D.C. fit this category.

And then there are the cases in which the child welfare agency would have to be psychic to predict the tragedy. Based on the information made public so far, it appears that the case of Arshon Baker of Cleveland is one of those.

But such distinctions are of no interest to the editorial writers at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They're on a righteous-indignation high right now, too busy reveling in their own fury to notice that, in their quest to scapegoat family preservation, they distorted the facts of the case - as reported by the Plain Dealer's own news staff. In the process they've heightened the risk to some of Cuyahoga County's most vulnerable children – those whose mothers have themselves been victims of domestic violence.


Compare how the editorial writers describe the case to what the Plain Dealer's own reporter found – keeping in mind that the editorial writers say they relied on the news story. Here's the editorial page version:

[Angel] Glass, Arshon's mother, was last in contact with the county child welfare department in October 2008. She subsequently lost her two part-time jobs, went off her medication and became so depressed she couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

But since her case was closed after she agreed to take a parenting class -- she had called the agency after her boyfriend slapped Arshon's sibling -- she was no longer on the department's radar screen as her life spiraled out of control.

Now compare that to the facts of the case, as reported by the same newspaper. (I've put some key points in bold):

Children and Family Services began helping her in June 2007, a year after her release [from prison on an assault charge].
It wasn't because she'd done anything to harm Arshon or his sister, who's 18 months older. Child welfare workers showed up after Glass called police to report that her boyfriend, Larry Wanzo, had slapped her 4-year-old daughter in the face. The little girl was trying to stop the drunken, 6-foot, 5-inch, 210-pound man from hurting her mother, according to the police report.
Glass was doing the right thing, [Cuyahoga County DCFS Director Deborah] Forkas said.

"She was trying to protect the child."

An investigation found no need for action against her. Because she was in a violent relationship, a case worker suggested that Glass enroll in weekly parenting classes and counseling sessions and agree to monthly visits from Children and Family Services.

Glass welcomed the help.

"She was very, very cooperative," Forkas said. "She could've said, 'no.' It was not a forced case plan."
Glass continued the classes and counseling until October 2008. Because she successfully completed the program, Children and Family Services closed her case.

"The professionals that were treating her really felt she had made a tremendous amount of progress," Forkas said. "She was completely stable."

Her office offered Glass ongoing counseling, paid for by Medicaid. Glass, she said, continued the sessions. But because Children and Family Services was no longer supervising her case, workers don't know for how long. [Emphasis added].

Glass also had an outstanding warrant for an assault charge – that occurred a year before she ever contacted DCFS. But the warrant never was served and DCFS never knew about it.


So for starters the Plain Dealer editorial writers are simply flat wrong when they claim the case was closed after Glass agreed to take parenting classes. The case stayed open far longer.

More generally, what do the facts actually show: A mother with a criminal record – before she ever reached out to DCFS - but no record of child abuse. A mother who did nothing to harm her child, and never was accused of doing so. A mother who reached out to protect both children, and accepted help when she was under no obligation to do so.

What, besides psychic powers, would have allowed DCFS to know that long after the case was closed she would lose her jobs, go off her medication and allegedly kill her child? How would DCFS know this case was different from all the other cases of poor people who lose their jobs in a recession, become depressed – and don't harm their children?

Unless, of course, the Plain Dealer is taking the position that DCFS should confiscate the children of any battered mother who reaches out for help – or any mother who reaches out for help when her boyfriend hits a child.

In fact, the trauma to a child of separation from a loving mother actually is heightened if that mother is, herself, a victim of domestic violence. One expert calls it "tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound." (Is the Plain Dealer now advocating a policy that amounts to "please pass the salt?") That's why a class-action lawsuit led to banning this pernicious practice in New York City (NCCPR's Vice President was co-counsel for the plaintiffs). Such removals are of sufficient concern in Ohio for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network to have filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case.

Even if this is not literally what the Plain Dealer wants, consider the message the editorial writers are sending to other women like Glass – if the newspaper gets its way, and pressures DCFS into taking a take-the-child-and-run approach in these kinds of cases.

If there's one thing we know about men who abuse their partners and their children it's that they can be highly manipulative. So what happens to the next mother in Glass' position who wants to seek help because a boyfriend has beaten her child, or her? Why shouldn't we expect the boyfriend to say: "Go ahead. Call the cops. They'll just call DCFS and they'll take away your kids. I read it in the Plain Dealer."