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.