Thursday, September 30, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: LA Times discovers civil liberties issues in child welfare – sort of

"I was never told I could refuse their search, and the tone and level of authority of my attackers made me feel that it would be dangerous to even try."

                The quote comes from Darlene McDade-White, who says she was a victim of an illegal search by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  Her story was told yesterday in the Los Angeles Times.

                When I saw the headline on Garrett Therolf’s story about the case – “Child welfare official alleges warrantless search” – my first, fleeting, thought was: Wow, someone at DCFS is coming to McDade-White’s aid and demanding civil liberties be respected in child abuse investigations - and the L.A. Times is covering the story!


                I was wrong on both counts.


                Darlene McDade-White is not a child who was, say, pulled out of her class and interrogated in the principal’s office by a caseworker who suspected she’d been abused.  She was a not a child who was stripsearched by a caseworker looking for bruises.  Nor was she a child forced to undergo a terribly traumatic examination for sexual abuse based on someone’s anonymous call to a child abuse hotline.

                Nor is Darlene McDade-White a parent whose child had to endure any of those things.  Nor did she have to endure a warranteless search of her home by DCFS workers checking to see if there was enough food in the cupboards as they prepared to confuse poverty with “neglect.”

                Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that any of those things ever will happen to Darlene McDade-White, or anyone in her family.  Because Darlene McDade-White actually works for DCFS.  In fact, she’s their lead internal affairs investigator.   She’s the “child welfare official” mentioned in the headline.

                McDade-White  was a victim of a different kind of search.  She says the allegedly illegal search was conducted by other DCFS workers.  They searched her purse, allegedly looking for evidence that McDade-White might be the one who leaked information about child abuse fatalities to the Times.  They found no such evidence.

                And that, of course, is why this search is the one that caught the attention of the Times
If the allegations are true, the harm to McDade-White is not trivial. But she is an adult.  And the harm to her does not come close to the harm that unreasonable searches and seizures, based on no more than an anonymous call to a hotline, do, routinely, to children all over the country.

That call is all it takes to send caseworkers to any home where they will demand immediate entry and the right not only to search the home, but sometimes the right to stripsearch the child looking for bruises.  (Policies vary across the country – in some places the caseworker does it herself, in others the child may be taken to a doctor – but the child still will be stripsearched by a total stranger, they’ll just call it a “medical exam.”)

That doesn’t mean DCFS and its counterparts should stop investigating allegations of child abuse.  It does mean that, as I’ve discussed before on this Blog, here and here,  “children’s rights” should include the Constitution’s #4 – the one about being free from unreasonable search and seizure.  In other words: At least meet the minimal standards required to get a judge to issue a warrant.

Although the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California, repeatedly has ruled, most recently last December, that warrants are required if parents don’t give consent, (with the same exceptions as in criminal cases), there is no requirement to give families the equivalent of a Miranda warning.  Indeed, what McDade-White said of her own situation, applies so perfectly to families confronted by DCFS workers that it's worth repeating:

I was never told I could refuse their search, and the tone and level of authority of my attackers made me feel that it would be dangerous to even try.

And unlike the situation with McDade-White and her purse, if a family says no to a warrantless search by a child protective services agency, the caseworker can call law enforcement, claim the case is an emergency and get the child removed on the spot. 

But those kinds of warrantless searches, which occur over and over in LA County, and everyplace else in America, never have attracted the attention of the Times.  Apparently, Garrett Therolf and his colleagues are interested in violations of Amendment #4 only when they might impinge, even indirectly, on the Times’ rights under Amendment #1.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Foster care in Florida: State’s reforms are NCCPR's latest “Way to do Child Welfare Right”

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 28: Check out Sarasota Herald Tribune columnist Tom Lyons' take on Florida's improvement, and the waiver that did so much to make it possible.

Less than a decade ago, child welfare failure could be summed up in a single word: Florida.  The fact that a five-year-old foster child could disappear for more than a year before anyone at the Florida Department of Children and Families even noticed became a symbol of failure not just in Florida but nationwide.  The case was only the most visible example of how the take-the-child-and-run approach brought to DCF in 1999 had collapsed the entire system.

                Today in child welfare, Florida stands for something else: It stands for openness, innovation, and progress.  And it stands for the fact that you can’t have child protection without family preservation. That’s why today NCCPR adds the transformation of child welfare in Florida to our list of “Ways to do Child Welfare Right.”  

Two changes were crucial: First, in the tradition of a “team of rivals,” Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, brought in one of the state’s most popular Democrats, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, to lead DCF.  The joke at the time was that when Butterworth failed, Crist could blame the Democrats.  If that was the plan, the joke was on Crist.  For starters, Butterworth and his successor, George Sheldon (another Crist rival) started by dragging the agency out of its bunker, initiating a policy of telling the press and public as much as the law allowed, and interpreting all ambiguity in favor of openness. 

                Butterworth also started listening to current and former foster children – for real, not for show.  And that probably was the single most important factor leading him to reverse the agency’s course and embrace safe, proven approaches to keep children in their own homes.  Sheldon built on that as well.  Most recently, he launched an initiative to try to make foster children’s lives as normal as possible – that is, an effort to reduce barriers to living a normal family life that most of us don’t even think about – like the difficulties in getting a driver’s license or the requirement for background checks before a foster child can sleep at a friend’s house overnight. 


                But the Crist administration doesn’t deserve all the credit.  Former Governor Jeb Bush, who did so much to plunge the agency into chaos, also made one crucial decision that made recovery from his own mistakes easier: He accepted a waiver from federal funding restrictions.  Money that, in other states, can be spent only on foster care, Florida can spend on better alternatives as well.   (It’s been argued that Bush’s decision had nothing to do with enlightened public policy and everything to do with him wanting to help his brother, the former President.  But who cares?  It worked).

                It’s all led to a 35 percent reduction in the number of children torn from their families between 2006 and 2009.  Independent evaluations, required by the waiver, have found that child safety improved.  If the Senate follows the House and approves legislation to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue such waivers, it will be easier for other states to achieve similar results.

                But there was one last barrier to adding Florida to our list.  No state could be considered a national leader in child welfare as long as it banned fit, loving parents from adopting just because of their sexual orientation.  The worst kept secret in Florida is the fact that the Crist Administration’s DCF leadership hated that law, but it was not struck down by a Florida appeals court until last week.

            Florida still has a long way to go.  It’s a big state and not every region has gotten the message.  So even with all the progress, the rate of child removal in Florida still was slightly above the national average in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available for every state.  And, as with all good systems, there still are huge mistakes in all directions.  Some children still are left in dangerous homes.  Other children still are needlessly taken from their families.  As we note in the publication we now call Thirteen Ways to do Child Welfare Right: All of the things that go wrong in the worst child welfare systems also go wrong in the best – but they go wrong less often.

                In addition, there is a powerful group of providers, advocates and others who still don’t get it – people who actually view the take-the-child-and-run era as the good old days.  And they never miss a chance to exploit the inevitable tragedies in a huge system to advance their agenda.

                But for now, Florida child welfare is heading in the right direction.  And while other reformed systems had to significantly change direction to start doing child welfare right, for Florida it was even harder.  In Florida it required a U-turn.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A win for kids: House passes child welfare waiver bill, allowing flexible use of foster care funds

The House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to grant funding waivers like the one that has helped Florida dramatically improve its child welfare system.

                How big a win is this?  I’m not sure.  Members of Congress want to get out of town to start campaigning as soon as possible, and I’m aware of no action at all on this in the Senate.  But this is at least a small step in the right direction.

                The bill would restore HHS’ authority to authorize a wide variety of waivers, but the most important are waivers like the one granted to Florida.  That one allows the state to use all of the federal aid other states can use only on foster care for better alternatives as well.  In exchange, Florida gave up the right to receive ever more federal money for taking away ever more children.  So it’s no wonder the child welfare establishment is not thrilled by this.

                In keeping with their approach of never say no, just “yes, but…” it to death, the Child Welfare League of America, the trade association for public and private agencies, many of which can’t exist without a steady supply of foster children, and the Children’s Defense Fund, which thinks we’re still living in 1968 and can’t conceive of anything that doesn’t involve federal control and “entitlement” funding as being good, declared that  CDF, CWLA and others have concerns that extending waivers now will have a chilling effect next year on comprehensive child welfare financing reform.”

                But what CWLA and CDF want is neither comprehensive nor reform.  They want to keep the open-ended entitlement for foster care, and they want something called “delinking” which would eliminate the one small brake on that entitlement. (For details, see our report on child welfare financing.) Even were this a good idea – and it isn’t – this is already in the deep freeze in Congress for one simple reason: At a time when any new spending is poison, this plan is not cost-neutral.  The waivers, however, are.

                What CWLA, CDF and much of the rest of the child welfare establishment really fear is that more states will opt for such waivers and succeed, reducing needless removal of children from their homes – and putting at least a few private agencies out of business in the process.  Or worse, from CWLA’s point of view, Congress might see how well the waivers are working and simply offer the Florida option to every state without a complex waiver process.

                I suspect that’s the kind of real reform the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. John Linder (R-Georgia) had in mind in his remarks on the bill:

This bill comes to the floor in a fashion too many bills have not in this Congress: First, we held a subcommittee hearing; then the legislation was drafted with bipartisan support; and finally we ensured it does not increase the deficit by even a penny.  It is an example of what can happen if we pursue in a bipartisan way goals that are widely shared, and that have been demonstrated to achieve real results.

The legislation before us would allow all States to follow the successful child welfare reform model tested in Florida and other places.  As we learned in our hearing, those reforms reduced the number of Florida children in foster care by 36 percent, increased adoptions by 12,000, and improved child safety - all without spending more taxpayer money.  …

Since 1994, 22 States have joined Florida in using child welfare waivers. This legislation extends the authority for all States to do so for 5 years. This will allow other States to test and replicate policies that are working.  And it is my hope this will one day pave the way for successful Federal reforms covering all States.  Meanwhile, let's move this bill forward and continue our efforts to improve the lives of all children.

                Actually, Florida’s waiver wasn’t the first, as that line about “joined Florida” may imply – but it is the only comprehensive waiver that applies statewide.  Michigan initially accepted the same deal and chickened out at the last minute.

                Oh, and it was nice of CWLA to put that little “yes, but…” statement out yesterday morning, just hours after the website for Youth Today published an NCCPR Blog about how CWLA has impedes real child welfare reform. 

                I’ll have more news related to Florida on Monday.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Connecticut and CR are back in court over foster care. They’re both wrong.


UPDATE, SEPT. 22: The judge has ruled that DCF will not be let out of the consent decree.  Of the only two options on the table at the moment, that definitely was the one that's less bad.

In 1991, three state child  welfare systems signed consent decrees with the states that were suing them.  Two of those decrees, in Alabama and Illinois, helped transform their states into, relatively speaking, national models.  The third decree, in Connecticut, accomplished very little.

                The reason will come as no surprise to any regular reader of this Blog.  The Alabama suit focused on rebuilding that state’s system to emphasize family preservation. The Illinois suit ultimately did the same.  But the Connecticut suit was brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) – and we all know what that means.

                Connecticut is a state which, year after year, takes away children at a rate well above the national average, (and, at the moment, double the rates in Illinois and Alabama).  It is a state so fanatical about taking away children that at least three times judges have blasted the state child welfare agency for deliberately misrepresenting cases in order get the courts to rubber-stamp removals.  It is a state which has had at least two devastating foster-care panics since 1995 and may be on the verge of another.

Yet CR’s consent decree does nothing to force the state Department of Children and Families to stop taking away so many children needlessly.  That guarantees a system that always will be overloaded, a system where none of the other serious problems will be fixed. 

                Money isn’t the problem.  Connecticut spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the nation, a rate more than triple the national average.  But it throws vast amounts of money away on needless foster care, and on the worst, and most expensive, option of all, group homes and institutions.  Connecticut also ships hundreds of children to out-of-state institutions at a rate which, while not as atrocious as Rhode Island, still is horrendous.


Tomorrow, Connecticut DCF and CR are scheduled to be back in U.S. District Court fighting over the consent decree.  DCF says they’ve made such magnificent progress implementing the decree that they should be let out of it.  CR says the agency still is so wretched that it should remain under the latest version of a decree that dates back nearly two decades.

                They’re both wrong.

                DCF does indeed remain a child welfare agency that does so much harm to the children in its care that some kind of court oversight is essential.  But DCF won’t change as long as the consent decree ignores the elephant in the room.

                What’s urgently needed is a new consent decree – one that is focused on getting DCF to stop taking away so many children needlessly.

                All this is illustrated by a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA) at the University of Connecticut Law School and posted on the Ct. Mirror news website.

                The brief combines data showing that, when it comes to things like institutionalizing children and shipping them out of state, DCF’s performance actually is getting worse, with heart-rending case examples like this one:

                "Maybe if you put my picture on flyers and post them on telephone poles, someone might see it, and decide they want me and will take me home," says Michael …  Kind and generous and  engaging and curious-all words to describe this eight-year-old little boy who sits at a SAFE Home - a group home for young children- waiting and waiting and waiting for a family to take him home.
Michael first became the victim of abuse at the hands of his parent. After his mom's rights were taken away, Michael was placed in at least two different foster homes, split from his other 6 siblings. When DCF finally found the "home" Michael so desperately wanted, and the agency placed him in this adoptive home, his adopted dad sexually abused him and Michael found himself for a second time removed from his "family" and waiting for someone to provide him with the nurturing home he longs for.  
After months at the SAFE Home, anxiously waking up every day wanting to know if DCF had found another family, this time a "safe" one, DCF finally came through and placed him in a therapeutic foster home. But when Michael's behaviors became too much for them to take, they gave him back, "returned" him to DCF, like he was a piece of clothing to take back to the store.
And so as of the filing of this amicus brief, Michael sits at the SAFE Home once again looking and waiting for that one person in this state who will call Michael his son.

                But the brief also illustrates why the current consent decree is doomed to fail.  Over and over again, the authors offer only one alternative to the current  mess in Connecticut: Recruit more foster homes.  But no child welfare system in America ever has fixed itself simply by adding more foster homes.  In Connecticut, as in most systems, the problem isn’t too few foster parents, the problem is too many foster children.  (The case of Michael illustrates part of the problem.  His adoptive home was abusive and his foster home gave up on him.)

                But even if CCA believed that the real heart of the problem is that Connecticut takes away too many children, they couldn’t say it in their brief.  Because it CCA said that DCF needed to stop taking away so many children, DCF would immediately respond that no one has the right even to mention that issue in court -  because it’s not in the consent decree.  So all sides have a vested interest in pretending the elephant in the room isn’t there.


            The brief also reinforces the false stereotypes about families that poison the child welfare debate.

The case examples feature only brutally abused children, even though they represent a small fraction of the cases seen by DCF workers.

All children in the system are referred to as “abused and neglected” children “already traumatized by abuse, neglect and removal from the parent or guardian…”  This is wrong as a matter of fact and law.  Some children are in foster care for months before a court ever decides if there was any maltreatment at all.  And for some children, they only trauma they suffered was the trauma of removal.

Perhaps most disturbing, in discussing the problems of children who “age out” of the system at 18, the brief quotes a DCF document stating that the outcomes for these children may be “homelessness, arrests, hospitalization, [emergency room] visits, or return to the families from which they were removed.”  CCA then refers to all of these outcomes, equally, as “tragedies.”

Connecticut needs a whole new approach. 

For starters, the state’s elected officials and DCF need to take steps to ensure the state doesn’t endure still another foster-care panic, in the wake of a high-profile case in Torrington.  Such panics plunged the system into chaos in 1995 and 2003 – the first time with what amounted to an endorsement of the panic from CR’s founder and director, Marcia Lowry.

 Then the state needs to sit down with CR and radically reform the consent decree.  What gets measured gets done – and right now efforts to curb entries into care aren’t even measured.  Illinois is successful because the two sides realized their original consent decree wasn’t working and they came up with something better.

In 2011, Connecticut will have a new governor and, almost certainly, a new DCF commissioner.  That would be a great time to sit down with CR and start over.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Worse than foster care: Scandal at America's most famous orphanage

Last April, I noted on this Blog an excellent series of stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the problems plaguing many of that state’s latter-day orphanages.   As one story reported:

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.
                But it’s not just your obscure, run-of-the-mill orphanages that are plagued with problems.  Every few years, a newspaper reveals big trouble at one of the model institutions – the very places orphanage advocates point to in support of their calls to warehouse children.

                In 2001, it was SOS Children’s Village in Florida.  The South Florida Sun-Sentinel revealed that between 1999 and 2001 33 reports were filed with Florida’s child abuse hotline alleging abuse of children at the 50-bed facility; 21 were "substantiated" or "indicated."  During the same time period 13 "house parents" and 14 "parent assistants" quit or were fired.  (So much for that argument you always hear from orphanage proponents about how the places provide “stability.”)

Then came Maryville, one of the places to which media flocked after Newt Gingrich proposed throwing poor people’s children into orphanages if their parents couldn’t afford to raise them after welfare “reform.” In 2002, the main campus at Maryville, near Chicago, was revealed as a place of terror for many of the children confined there, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.  The newspaper reported that “the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism…” In 2001, police were called to Maryville 909 times.

In 2004, Illinois pulled all 270 state wards out of Maryville – something it could do because it had done such a good job of reducing needless foster care.  In Illinois, substitute care no longer is a “sellers market.”

And now scandal has reached the very pinnacle of American orphanages – the very place Gingrich himself cited as the perfect place to stash poor people’s children.  The Omaha World-Herald reports that the State of Nebraska has suspended admissions to two programs at Boys Town.

The reason: “investigators found staffers improperly restraining and isolating children.”

According to the World-Herald: “Staffers at a Boys Town National Research Hospital program, for instance, sometimes placed children face down on gurneys and locked them into place with belts. They used the practice, which has been discontinued, to prevent children from harming themselves and others.”  The story also reports that “A program director at the hospital reported 19 times in the last year that drugs were used to calm patients, although Boys Town says it doesn't use drugs.”  A Boys Town official said the state must have misquoted the program director.

The decision to suspend admissions is all-the-more remarkable since it was made by the state child welfare agency in Nebraska.  There may be no child welfare agency in America more in love with taking away children and holding them in foster care.  When NCCPR compares states we compare entries into care and the number of children in foster care on any given day.  And we use both the fairest method, comparing to impoverished child population, and comparing to total child population.  Year after year, only one state is among the three worst states in all four catagories: Nebraska.

Will the problems at these particular programs be fixed?  Sure.  Boys Town will implement a “corrective action plan” and the programs will clean up their acts – just the way SOS and Maryville did.  And things will be fine.  For awhile.  But when you’re dealing with a population that is either hated or feared that is out of sight out of mind, sooner or later things will deteriorate again.

And no corrective action plan can correct for the fact that institutionalization is inherently harmful and almost always unnecessary.

In the meantime, if what that program director reportedly said is true, perhaps Boys Town needs to change its famous slogan.  How about: “He’s not heavy, he’s overmedicated!”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

GOOD NEWS FOR FLORIDA CHILDREN: State gets short term extension of foster care funding waiver


    NCCPR has learned that the Department of Health and Human Services has granted Florida a ten-month extension on its unique-in-the-nation statewide waiver from federal foster care funding restrictions.

    In a letter to Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, Acting HHS Assistant Secretary for Children and Families David Hansell extended the waiver until July 31, 2012. At that time, HHS will decide whether to extend the waiver for a full five years.  

    This is very good news for Florida's vulnerable children. It means Florida gets ten more months to take money that other states can use only on foster care and use it for better alternatives. The waiver has been a key factor in turning Florida from the national example of child welfare failure to an emerging national leader in safely protecting children by doing more to keep families together. The "maintenance of effort" provisions of the waiver also protected DCF from the kinds of state budget cuts to child welfare that other states have endured.

    This is the same kind of waiver granted to Michigan – but that state chickened out at the last minute.

We've posted the letter from ACF, followed by the letter from Sheldon requesting the waiver on our website here.

    More about the waiver, and how it's helped Florida's vulnerable children is in this previous posts to this Blog which includes links to other posts describing the waiver in more detail.

Some good journalism about some bad foster care systems

    This doesn't happen very often: There's been so much good reporting on child welfare that it's been hard to keep up. So here's a round-up:

     For starters, there have been many good stories on the case of Noah Kirkman, the Canadian boy held in Oregon foster care for two years. There are links in the previous post to this Blog.

Also noted previously, the Los Angeles Daily News story about the foster-care panic in Los Angeles County. But there's lot's more:

     A dogged columnist for the Myrtle Beach, S.C. Sun News, Issac Bailey, has spent months investigating the case of a father whose child was brutally abused by the children of her mother's new boyfriend. The child has been trapped in foster care for two years, for just one reason: Until the columnist started asking questions, the State of South Carolina deemed the father too poor to raise her – even though he'd been raising her before mom fled with her, and even though he's raising his other children with no problem. It's a six-part series.  This link, to today's installment, will get you to the rest.  And see, especially, part three,

    ● The Lincoln Journal Star has an excellent editorial, pegged to NCCPR's data, asking why, as most of the nation does a better job of keeping children safe in their own homes, Nebraska is getting even worse. The Daily Nonpareil, in Council Bluffs Iowa, also citing NCCPR, is asking the same question about Iowa.

     Also in Iowa, the Des Moines Register has a very good story about what the state child welfare agency does when one of its caseworkers allegedly "goes rogue" and interferes in a custody dispute involving her own family. (It does absolutely nothing). The Register also has done excellent editorials, like this one, on the dangers of "central registries" of alleged child abusers that are utterly lacking in due process protections for families.

     And then there's this incredibly botched case in Texas, which illustrates the first rule of lousy child welfare systems: No matter how much it hurts the child, never, ever admit you made a mistake. KPRC-TV in Houston broke the story, and did a follow-up story the next day about the (relatively) happy ending.

It's the second time a Houston television station has beaten the you-know-what out of the Houston Chronicle. (The Fox affiliate, KRIV, did it with this story, and this one.) That's because the longtime reporter on the child welfare beat at the Chronicle, Terri Langford, appears to view it as her mission in life to make sure that this side of the child welfare story never makes it into her paper's news pages.

Which just goes to show that child welfare and the journalism of child welfare have something in common: There's been some real improvement in some places, while others remain mired in failure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

UPDATED SEPT. 15: Oregon foster care agency to Canadian family: In lieu of a pound of flesh, we’ll take your money

UPDATE: The Oregon AP has a very good story about the Kirkman case today.  The story appears on the websites of several newspapers, including the Oregonian - and that's probably the only place in the Oregonian where Lisa Kirkman will get a fair shake.  
Meanwhile KATU-TV in Portland and Canadian media are reporting that legal proceedings in Canada have been delayed - because Oregon DHS screwed-up the paperwork.  So now, in addition to looking vengeful and greedy, Oregon DHS looks pretty dumb.
I've written several times on this Blog about the case of Lisa Kirkman, a Canadian mother whose son was thrown into foster care while he was staying with his stepfather in Oregon. After two years, and multiple foster homes, the boy finally was returned home; largely, I believe, thanks to international media pressure.

    But clearly, the Oregon Department of Human Services doesn't like being made fools of in two countries. And they've found a great way to get even: Go to court in Canada, and try to make Lisa Kirkman pay Oregon for expenses the state incurred after it wrongfully took away her child. A hearing on Oregon's demand is scheduled to take place today.

    Though crossing an international border in search of these payments is unusual if not unprecedented, sadly, the practice itself is not. In another case, one of the most poignant I've ever read about, Oregon DHS is adding insult to the enormous injury it inflicted on a family by seeking the same sort of payment.

    In many cases, the payments can be the final obstacle standing between a foster child and return to his own parents.

    There is a word for taking away someone's child and making that person pay money to get the child back: Ransom. And it hurts everyone in the system, even the agencies themselves.

The overwhelming majority of parents who lose children to the system have no money to spare. Often that's why their children are in foster care in the first place.

● Because the standard of proof in child welfare proceedings is so low, this provision inevitably punishes many innocent families.

The purpose of foster care is to keep the child safe. Everyone concedes it is harmful to take a child from his or her parents and the longer the foster care the greater the harm. If you make ransom a condition of returning the child and the birth parents manage to do everything else but still owe the ransom, the foster care is prolonged even though the home is now safe. That is punishing the child for the alleged financial failings of the parents.

Prof. Daniel Hatcher of the University of Baltimore School of Law has an excellent article about the entire issue in the Brooklyn Law Review.

One can certainly imagine a child welfare system like Oregon's not giving a damn about the harm to the children. One can see how they'd be desperate for the money – after all, when you take away children at a rate that now is more than 80 percent above the national average, those costs really mount up.
But what really makes ransom an insane practice, even by the standards of child welfare agencies, is the fact that not only does it do enormous harm to the children and their parents, it actually costs the government money.

Collecting ransom actually increases the cost of foster care. No impoverished family ever will come up with the full cost of foster care – instead they are charged for their "share" of the costs. But for every extra day a child is held in foster care because the birth parents haven't paid their "share" of the costs, the state has to foot the entire bill. The birth parents wind up in a deeper and deeper hole and the state winds up paying more and more.

Even if the birth parents scrape together the money to get their child back; or, in cases like the Kirkman case, where the child already is home, the payments only make it harder on the family financially, a particularly steep burden for families that already are poor.

Poverty often creates stress can lead to actual child abuse, or poverty itself is confused with neglect – so the ransom increases the chances of actual child abuse and/or having the child taken away again because of poverty. Once again, you harm the child – and cost the state more money.

So why do these policies exist? Because grandstanding state legislators love them. They get to issue press releases about how they're "cracking down on child abuse" and since in their fantasy world, only parents who are evil, sadistic brutes lose their children to foster care, it's only fair to make 'em pay, right?

Not in the real world.

The Canadian Press, CBC News, CTV News, and the Calgary Herald all have stories about the latest turn in the Kirkman case. And so does the Eugene Register Guard, which has done a far better job than the Oregonian on the whole case.

In the Register Guard story, I posed a question, which I'll repeat here: If DHS is supposed to do everything it does "in the best interests of the child," how is it in this child's best interests to make his family poorer and inflict even more stress?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Michigan logic: Sure, the foster child is dead, but the licensing report was glowing!

    You know the expression "the operation was a success, but the patient died"? There's an equivalent way to think of the behavior of the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR): The licensing report was glowing, but the foster child died.

In July, I wrote about Emily Meno, the latest foster child to be licensed to death in Michigan. Taken needlessly from her own home, she was placed in the home of a duly-licensed stranger, Joy Heaven.

    Heaven didn't just pass muster with the private agency that recommended she be licensed. She passed with flying colors. According to the Grand Rapids Press, the agency worker wrote in her evaluation that Heaven's "patient, loving and compassionate personality will be a tremendous asset in her caring for children."

    According to police that patience apparently wore thin when, they allege, she violently shoved Emily, causing fatal injuries.

    This is not the first time DHS may have erred in falling head over heels for a licensed foster parent. The state was at least as thrilled about the duly-licensed foster/adoptive parents of Ricky Holland. The adoptive mother tortured him, and ultimately murdered him. Throughout the process, the Michigan Department of Human Services ignored one blatant warning sign after another. Even during the time after Ricky Holland had disappeared but his body had not yet been found, during the time police already strongly suspected the Hollands of murdering Ricky, DHS gave the Hollands final approval to adopt another foster child in their care.

    The extra element of tragedy, of course, is that, in Michigan, hundreds of children have been
expelled from the loving homes of grandparents and other relatives solely because they can't meet ten pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements, many of which are unrelated to health and safety. And why is that happening? Because CR demanded it, and won it in a class-action lawsuit settlement. So even more children now face the same risks as Ricky Holland, Emily Meno and others.

    As I said in July, a jury ultimately will decide the guilt or innocence of the licensed stranger who cared for Emily Meno. But this much we already know: Emily Meno is one more child "protected to death" and "licensed to death" by the Michigan Department of Human Services. And a consent decree it never should have signed sure isn't helping.

Friday, September 10, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Countering the “reflex to remove children”

    Here is another response from the comments posted to the New York Times website, reacting to Chris Gottlieb's excellent essay on the Times' "Motherlode" blog:

East Coast
August 26th, 2010
2:55 pm

I am a county solicitor in a city on the East Coast, representing the County Children and Youth agency in court, and a parent who commutes to work with her child. Thank you for writing this. Although many of the social workers I represent in court care deeply about maintaining and supporting intact families, too often there is a reflex to remove children for 'choices' or problems that result from poverty. And there's just an awful lot of judging of parents in general.

During my commute people have periodically told me I should smack my child for fidgeting (he's a toddler), and just as many others have told me I'm too strict. One woman chased me up the subway stairs berating me about my parenting. I don't think she was "well," but it didn't make it feel any better.

The abuse that commenter No. 5 writes about is terrible -- but that's not how most kids come into care. After bringing her kid to the ER with a broken wrist and a black eye, from two different skating accidents, one of my friends noted that not one person took her or the child aside to ask questions about the injuries, which certainly they would have done if she'd been poor and black or Latino. So thank you for what you do.

       That last paragraph, about the experience of the white middle-class professional, reminds me of another professional who has written essays about child abuse – someone who still has a lot to learn, as is discussed in this previous post.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Los Angeles newspaper covers the foster care panic (of course, it’s not the Times)


    The Los Angeles Times has been having a field day reporting on efforts by the county Department of Children and Family Services to cover up the true number of deaths of children previously known to the agency. It's an important story and they're right to cover it intensively.

    But the Times has been trying to keep a secret, too. For months, the newspaper has refused to tell readers that entries into foster care shot up by 16 percent – starting just when the Times' one-sided out-of-context reporting on child welfare reached critical mass last year. The Times wouldn't even ask for the data from DCFS – NCCPR had to file its own California Public Records Act request.

    Fortunately, the competing, but much smaller, Los Angeles Daily News has been willing to report what the Times won't. A year ago, the Daily News reported on the likelihood of such a panic. And this week, they confirmed it.

Whether you agree or disagree with our take on the numbers, discussed in our report on Los Angeles child welfare, it's hard to see how the Times can claim the huge increase in entries into foster care isn't news at all.

And check out the comments at the end of the Daily News story from Deanne Tilton Durfee. Durfee heads L.A.'s Interagency Council on Abuse and Neglect, serves on the county's child abuse death review team, heads the National Center for Child Fatality Review – and is no friend of family preservation. But even Durfee says that child abuse deaths really have gone down since the days, in the late 1990s, when the county was taking away far more children, and had vastly more children trapped in foster care.

Her analysis, and DCFS trying to cover up such fatalities are not mutually exclusive.

And these four facts are not mutually exclusive either:

DCFS is stonewalling, digging itself ever deeper into a bunker to try to hide its screw-ups, possibly breaking the law in the process.

DCFS Director Trish Ploehn's comments on any number of issues have been disingenuous at best.

Ploehn should be fired, despite the long odds against finding someone who is both really good at the job of running a huge child welfare agency and willing to work for the LA County Board of Supervisors.

The Los Angeles Times blew the child welfare story and set off a foster care panic.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Foster care and family preservation In New York City: There are very few “gains” left to lose

There's been another death of a child "known to the system" in New York City. Actually, that's not unusual. In a city as huge as New York, that happens once every nine days or so.

But this one is the first in awhile to get a lot of media attention. The case is more ambiguous than the death of Nixzmary Brown, whose death set off a huge surge in removals of children from their homes. In particular, it's not at all clear that the city's Administration for Children's Services could have seen this one coming.

But facts have never stopped Bill De Blasio. He chaired the City Council's Human Services Committee at the time Nixzmary Brown died, and he never missed a chance to score political points by attacking ACS in ways that encouraged the agency to take even more children.

Now, De Blasio is telling The New York Times he's concerned that some of the "gains" in child protection since the death of Nixzmary Brown have been lost. He can relax. There were no gains in the years since Nixzmary Brown died, there were only losses.


There were considerable gains made starting in 1999, when the first commissioner of ACS, Nicholas Scoppetta, abandoned his embrace of the take-the-child-and-run approach and began pushing efforts to keep families together. But almost all of those gains under Scoppetta and his successors were wiped out after Nixzmary Brown died in January of 2006. And the person most responsible for that is the current ACS Commissioner, John Mattingly.

ACS' own statistics and the annual Mayor's Management Reports show that the "gains" since then are a fiction. The perception of improvement is a result of some slick pandering by Mattingly, who either played to the crowd or worse, really believed the answers lay in talking tough, tearing apart more families, creating a sibling confiscation policy, and opposing just about every real reform in child welfare.

Since gut instinct says that should work, people like De Blasio, who fanned the flames of hysteria throughout, were glad to claim that it did. (It certainly worked for De Blasio. It probably helped him get elected to his current job as the city's "Public Advocate.")

But the numbers tell a very different story. The table below is an excerpt from the data page (Page 20) of NCCPR's report on New York City child welfare (where you'll find data for some measures all the way back to 1993 as well as full source citations). It shows entries into care, deaths of children "known to the system" and the two key measures used to evaluate child safety: Reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster care "recidivism," – the proportion of children taken from their homes who have to be placed again. The time period starts with the last year before Nixzmary Brown died.

Does this look like progress?  Do these look like “gains”?

Entries into foster care
Recidivism %
Re-abuse %
Fatalities, “known to the 
*-Fatality data are for calendar years, the other measures are for fiscal years.

Every measure has gotten worse. I agree with those who say you can't judge safety based on fatalities (I only wish I could convince more reporters). But you can get some idea based on reabuse and recidivism – particularly when it's a trend over several years.


And it doesn't end there: The list of ways John Mattingly has retreated from reform keeps growing:

reneging on a pledge to use "differential response" (a national innovation he's long opposed) to deal with some "educational neglect" cases, opposing state legislation to encourage workers to be slightly more flexible about rushing to seek termination of parental rights for some mothers who are in jail or drug treatment, and even opposing legislation to place more children permanently with relatives through subsidized guardianship. Fortunately, both bills passed despite Mattingly's objections.

Now, even one of ACS' signature achievements during Mattingly's tenure, a remarkably successful initiative in the Highbridge section of the Bronx called Bridge Builders, is in jeopardy. (In 2005, NCCPR received a grant from one of the foundations that helped create Bridge Builders, the Child Welfare Fund, to write about the initiative).

Mattingly's actually become one of the most regressive forces in child welfare nationwide. In an appalling presentation to an Urban Institute symposium last December, he suggested that child welfare agencies were going too far in efforts to combat racial bias, took another swipe at subsidized guardianship, and said we really shouldn't talk so much about foster care as a "bad outcome" because it makes foster parents sad. He even suggested caseworkers might be getting too careful about not taking children from battered mothers.

The damage Mattingly has been doing becomes even clearer when his retreat from reform is contrasted with the dynamic, progressive leader of New York State's Office of Children and Family Services, Gladys Carrion. She championed the bills Mattingly opposed, and has led a huge reform of the state's juvenile justice system (an issue where she and Mattingly are in agreement).

Mattingly's retreat from reform has harmed children not only directly, through needless foster care, and making all children less safe, but also by scarfing up resources that could have been used to save prevention programs from recent budget cuts.

While it is progress of a sort to see Mr. De Blasio zero in on cuts in prevention as his primary concern – or so he says at the moment – it's also hypocritical, given how much he did to push ACS into taking away so many more children. There could be a lot more money available for such programs had the number of children taken from their homes each year not shot up by 50 percent.

Not everything is gone. Mattingly has done a good job of curbing the use of group homes and institutions. And he's made a serious attempt finally to set up a mechanism to hold accountable the scores of private agencies that provide almost all foster care and most other child welfare services other than investigations. It's been partially successful. Though ACS botched the scoring on the latest "request for proposals" as part of this process, causing turmoil among the agencies, I don't think that was Mattingly's fault.

So relax Mr. De Blasio. John Mattingly already undid almost all the progress he made in his early years as commissioner, and before that, as an advisor to Scoppetta. In New York City child welfare, there are very few "gains" left.

The only thing to be determined now is whether this latest tragedy will set off another surge in needless removals of children, make things even worse, and jeopardize what little progress still exists.