Thursday, August 12, 2010

Foster care in Iowa: A dangerous exercise in self-delusion

    In writing about child welfare, there's a natural tendency to focus on places where something new is happening. It may be a foster-care panic, making things worse or a reform-minded administration making things better, but one way or another it's new. So child welfare systems that just keep on lousing up the lives of thousands of children year after year, without much changing, don't get the attention they deserve.

    One such place is Iowa. Year in and year out, that state's Department of Human Services tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation – most recently fifth highest, when poverty is factored in. The rate is more than double the national average.

And there may be no place else in the country where the odds of a child being torn from everyone she or he knows and loves depend so much on which side of a state line they happen to live on. The rate of removal in Iowa is more than four times the rate in neighboring Illinois – but it's Illinois where independent court-appointed monitors have found that reforms have improved child safety.

    Now Iowa is proving something else: There is no idea in child welfare so good, no innovation so successful that a lousy child welfare system, suffused with arrogance from top to bottom, can't screw it up.

    The innovation in question goes by a variety of names, such as Team Decisionmaking, Family Group Decision Making and Family Group Conferencing. There are differences among them, but they're all variations on a theme: Within 72 hours of removing a child from the home, bring everyone who knows and cares about that child and that family – extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, etc. - into one room to try to work out a plan to reduce to an absolute minimum the time that child spends in foster care with strangers. The plan may involve bolstering supports for the birth parents so the child can come home right away – or at least sooner – or it may involve placing the child with a relative or a trusted friend instead of a stranger.

    It doesn't always work. Some child welfare agencies abuse the process to bully families instead of helping them. But in most places, this approach has shown considerable success in safely getting children out of foster care more quickly.


    Some innovators in child welfare have taken it a step further: Why not see if we can bring everyone together just in the hours from the time a worker decides a child must be removed to the time the physical act of removal is supposed to take place, and try to find a way to prevent the child from being taken away at all? It's been particularly successful in neighborhoods where it's been tried in New York City. (Though the city's Administration for Children's Services has regressed in many other ways, it's stuck with this initiative).

    So, could there possibly be a child welfare agency so arrogant about its own omnipotence, so callous about the inherent harm to children that comes from being taken from their families, and so just plain dumb that they would exert all the effort to set up these meetings and then refuse to use them to find alternatives to taking away the child?

    Welcome to Iowa.

    According to a well-reported story in the Des Moines Register, the Iowa Department of Human Services wants to implement statewide a program in one county called "pre-removal conferences." As the name implies, the conferences are solely for the purposes of issuing what amounts to an ultimatum to the family: We're taking your kids, you can scream and yell about it, or you can cooperate, but we're taking your kids. This way, according to Wendy Rickman, administrator of DHS' Division of Child and Family Services, parents are less likely to make a scene, a child can take his favorite toy with him, etc.

    "Our mantra is be very hard on the problem, but be very easy on the people," Rickman told the Register. "We say, 'You cannot abuse or neglect your kids,' but in the process, the system should not further traumatize.'
    So taking a child from his entire family and landing him in the home of strangers, away from mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, teachers, friends, and classmates is "very easy" for the child – just so long as he gets to take a teddy bear with him. Right. And it certainly won't "further traumatize" the child if there's a meeting in advance.

    I don't know which is worse – if they know better and are just putting out a line for public consumption or if they're actually engaged in mass self-delusion and seriously believe this.


In case they really don't know, let's put it on the record: The main reason foster care is so traumatic is the fact of removal, regardless of how it's done. And the more DHS workers convince themselves they've made removal harmless by avoiding "a scene," the less likely they are to take the steps needed to actually prevent wrongful removal – steps that other states have used to create systems that take far fewer children than Iowa while keeping children safer.

The ignorance and/or self-delusion is accompanied by a dangerous arrogance, as can be seen in this comment from DHS social work administrator Mike McInroy: "We didn't want it to be a negotiation," McInroy said. "You could be there a couple hours, going back and forth."

Of course not. After all, we certainly wouldn't want to take a couple of hours of Mr. McInroy's precious time in order to save a child weeks, months or maybe a lifetime of foster care.

Even Howard Davidson, executive Director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law seemed unable to quite believe what Iowa was doing. He told the Register Iowa's approach is:

"kind of a strange process." "Undoubtedly the agency has very good intentions," Davidson said, "but this needs to be thought through more carefully." Davidson said parents are at a disadvantage because they haven't had time to consult with an attorney, and the court hasn't assigned the child a lawyer yet. "Most parents are very compliant and docile because it's the power of the state and all that," Davidson said.  


To the extent that there is any good news in all this, it is in these two revelations in the Register story:

First, at least for the moment, DHS is abandoning the fiction one always hears from lousy child welfare agencies that take huge numbers of kids - the one where they piously proclaim that they don't remove kids, they don't make that decision, they don't have the power, blah, blah, blah, it's all up to a judge. For the moment, at least, Iowa DHS has dropped this silly pretense and made clear that they do, indeed, decide when children are going to be taken from their homes.  The only job of the judge is to rubber stamp what DHS already has decided. According to the Register:

At Iowa's pre-removal conferences, DHS workers make clear that removal is inevitable. They ask parents to sign a consent for the emergency removal, and tell them DHS will seek a court order if they decline.

Second, it turns out that Iowa apparently has the nation's most considerate child abusers.

DHS labels every case in which it marches in to remove a child an "emergency" placing children at "imminent" risk of maltreatment. But the Register found that the majority of Iowa child abusers apparently go out of their way to place children at imminent risk only on Mondays through Fridays, during normal business hours, since that's when most "emergency" removals take place.