Thursday, April 29, 2010

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.