Monday, April 5, 2010

Foster care in Cleveland: Will child welfare “go haywire” again?

The 1990s were a time of chaos for the child welfare system in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (metropolitan Cleveland). Stories about child abuse deaths led to scapegoating and panic, making a bad system far worse. Thousands of children were swept needlessly into foster care, destroying their families and often, the children's futures.

I say things like that a lot on this Blog, of course. But this time, it's not just my conclusion. Those are the findings of one of the most extraordinary pieces of reporting on child welfare I've seen anywhere in the country, a 4000-word dissection of how the wrong response to tragedy collapsed a child welfare system, published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 8, 2004. The headline said it all: "Child welfare gone haywire."

But let the Plain Dealer reporters explain it:

What has been described as a culture of hysteria had engulfed the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Building. … Rather than risk censure for making a costly mistake, … social workers concluded that it was safer for them to just take the kids. The result was a six-year foster-care tidal wave … [The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services] started taking kids away from their families at a furious pace, overwhelming its foster-home network and burdening taxpayers with huge increases in costs.

DCFS Director James McCafferty acknowledges that many of the thousands of additional foster-care placements may have been unnecessary.

The story was extraordinary in another respect. The Plain Dealer acknowledged the role of lousy, out-of-context media coverage in fueling the panic and contributing to the disastrous results.

Ultimately, the system righted itself, and child safety improved.

But now, child abuse fatalities and near fatalities are back on the front page. And guess who hasn't learned a damn thing from all those mistakes in the 1990s: The
Plain Dealer.

Not everyone at the Plain Dealer. The news coverage has been largely careful and straightforward, and one reporter, Diane Suchetka, has tried to add some context. But the editorial board has systematically ignored all the lessons from "Child welfare gone haywire." In the process they've increased the chances of more child abuse deaths, increased the odds that battered women will be driven underground and away from seeking help, and figuratively spat in the face of Joel Rutchick and Kera Ritter, the two excellent former Plain Dealer reporters who wrote "Child welfare gone haywire."

The Plain Dealer editorial board resurrected the canard that, because children known-to-the system sometimes die, and because two such cases, and one that came close, happened in rapid succession, the county must be putting family preservation ahead of child safety – even though, using measures that are far more reliable than horror stories, Cuyahoga County has a better record for keeping children safe than many Ohio counties that take away proportionately more children. (Details are in NCCPR's report on Ohio child welfare).

A columnist assumed that all parents who lose their children to foster care must have done terrible things to those children, and it's too easy to get them back. In fact, children often are taken when poverty is confused with neglect. Then the children are bounced from foster home to foster home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone, while their parents are forced to jump through meaningless hoops.

Another columnist says bring back the orphanage – even though there is overwhelming evidence that warehousing children even in "good" orphanages is, by far, the worst option.

Countering these very myths is a large part of what "Child welfare gone haywire" was all about.


As has been noted often on this Blog, we know what really works, and what does not, to curb child abuse tragedies.

A major national study found that taking away more children doesn't work. That's not as surprising as it may sound. In Cuyahoga County, a county with nearly 300,000 children, there were six children previously known-to-the-system killed by their caretakers in 2009. Though each is the worst form of tragedy, they also are needles in a haystack. You'll never find all the needles by trying to vacuum up the entire haystack.

We also know that little is more dangerous for children than falsely equating child removal with child safety. Two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that children placed in foster care typically fared far worse in later life than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes – even when those families got little or no help. Several other studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of orphanages is worse.

The worst option of all is another 1990s-style foster-care panic, with terrified caseworkers rushing to tear apart families not to protect children but to protect themselves from winding up on the front page of The Plain Dealer.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University estimate that before they reach the age of ten, nearly one-third of all children in Cuyahoga County are put through the trauma of a child abuse investigation. And that's the countywide figure. Since it's unlikely that many of those investigations are occurring in, say, Pepper Pike, it is likely that such trauma has simply become one more hardship to endure for the majority of children in the City of Cleveland.

Now that figure, and entries into foster care, are likely to soar. Not only would that do enormous harm to the children needlessly investigated and taken, it also will overload caseworkers, making it less likely that they will find the children in real danger. That's why, in state after state, foster-care panics have been followed by increases in child abuse deaths.

None of this means no child ever should be taken away. But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in small doses. Nothing would hurt children more than returning to the days when Cuyahoga County prescribed mega-doses of foster care, and child welfare went haywire.


What does work? Ameliorating the worst effects of poverty works. Curbing teen pregnancy works. Some child abuse prevention programs cited in some of Suchetka's stories work – but, as the stories point out, Cuyahoga County often is not using them.

They don't work perfectly. No state or county will be able to prevent every tragedy, not even every tragedy in which a child was "known to the system." But Cuyahoga's record, both when child welfare went haywire and then when it improved, shows that the way to reduce such tragedies is to do more, not less, to keep families together.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the county child welfare agency already has begun to cave. Cuyahoga DCFS is taking the classic steps seen elsewhere when agencies are in full cave-in mode:

  • They've named an OBRC (Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission)
  • They're "reviewing" all open cases and all child reunifications from January 2009 through the present. The problem with that is lack of any comparable review of all cases in which children are in foster care to see if all of them need to be in foster care. The message to the frontlines is obvious.

In "Child welfare gone haywire," even the politician most responsible for the panic in the 1990s, former County Commissioner Timothy McCormack, expressed some regrets. He said he had to do something but "I didn't know there was a better way."

This time, nobody has that excuse.

And, remarkably, one current County Commissioner apparently has learned from McCormack's mistakes and is standing up for Cuyahoga County's reforms. According to one recent Plain-Dealer story:

Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones criticized the media scrutiny of the agency over the recent cases and said the workers are dedicated to protecting children.

If you'd like to know more, too bad. Jones was relegated to the last 50 words of a 700 word story.