Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Foster care in LA: Stories the Los Angeles Times doesn’t want you to hear (presumably)*

            This morning, Margaret Prescod devoted her entire morning program on KPFK FM in Los Angeles to the stories of families whose children were needlessly taken by child welfare agencies.

            You can  hear the program online here.

            The program begins with excerpts from a documentary produced by DHS-Give Us Back Our Children, an excellent grassroots group in Philadelphia – the only one of America’s largest metropolitan areas that takes children at a rate even higher than Los Angeles.

            Then come the stories of three families, one from Santa Cruz, and two from Los Angeles.

            Perhaps most moving was the story of May Hampton.  A young woman in Hampton’s extended family, whom Hampton had raised and for whom she was legal guardian, was killed.  The woman was living in Hampton’s home and, together, they had been raising the woman’s four children.  DCFS let Hampton keep three of the children but took one, a seven-year-old girl who apparently was present when her mother was killed.

            So now this child must endure not only the trauma of her mother’s death, but also the separation from everyone else she knows and loves – they even were barred from the mother’s funeral.  During visits the child begs to come home.

            But the system still isn’t done hurting this child.  Says Hampton:

We went to court this Monday, and the child’s lawyer came to me and she said: When your children talk to [their sister] they are not to tell her that they miss her, that they would like to see her.  I don’t want them to tell her anything like that. … I’m just warning you.

            If that sounds strange or hard to believe, it shouldn’t.  Those kinds of small acts of mind-boggling cruelty are quite common in child welfare systems.

            Of course Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, could have written about this or the other stories heard on KPFK today.  He simply chose not to.   Or he could have attended the community forum on December 11 where these families and others spoke.  He didn’t do that either. 

            And he is not alone.  Listening to Ms. Hampton I was struck by the failure as well of L.A.’s other public radio stations, where Warren Olney at KCRW and Patt Morrison at KPCC prefer to round up the usual suspects, like Therolf, – even after Daniel Heimpel, writing in The Huffington Post,  raised profound questions about the accuracy of his reporting - for dry comments from “experts” without letting listeners hear from people like May Hampton.

            So please listen to her story (it starts about 11 minutes into the program) and see if you think she, and so many others like her, deserve to be heard on those other public radio stations, and in the Los Angeles Times.

*-Pursuant to the journalistic standard set by Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, who has created an exception to the Times’ code of ethics for presumptions, I am free to presume things about the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tomorrow: Hear some of the stories you won’t read in the LA Times


Tomorrow morning at 7am Pacific Time (10am Eastern) on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles, and available live online at Highlights from a community forum in which families told their stories of losing children to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Foster care in Washington: The Grinches who stole DC kids’ Christmas

            They would be the head of the Washington D.C. child welfare agency and the chair of the relevant committee of the D.C. council, who cut help for grandparents raising kids to keep them out of foster care, and other help for kids already in foster care.

            But they spared the network of powerful private agencies that dominates DC child welfare, and the nation’s best-paid foster parents.  Details are in this NCCPR op ed for the local opinions section of The Washington Post.

And for our take on child welfare in Oklahoma, see the NCCPR Op Ed in The Oklahoman.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: Sunshine is good for children


            The Los Angeles Times editorial board has written another very good editorial on child welfare and, in the process, once again embarrassed Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times.

            It seems that one of the last things Trish Ploehn did before she was removed from her job was reverse DCFS’ former opposition to opening court hearings in abuse and neglect cases to press and public.  That’s something I’d first suggested to Plohen when we met nearly three years ago, long before the current controversy.  The Board of Supervisors agreed and voted to ask the California Legislature to change state law to open these hearings.

            The Legislature should listen.

            Since 1980, well over a dozen states have opened court hearings in these kinds of cases, and not one has closed them again.  That’s because all the fears of critics proved groundless – indeed in many states, one-time critics of openness now are among the biggest boosters of open courts. 

            While it is impossible to guarantee absolutely that no child ever will be embarrassed by an open court hearing, this much we know: When the system is fully open and accountable, and everyone knows that, if they cut corners, someone may be watching, more children are likely to live long enough to blush.  The former chief judge of New York’s highest court, Judith Kaye, who opened these hearings in New York put it best.  Said Judge Kaye: “Sunshine is good for children.”

           The reasons open courts are better for children are discussed in detail in our Due Process Agenda so I won’t elaborate on it here.  I do have one question for the Times editorial board, though: How did you guys find out about this?

            I ask because even though he’s spent months complaining about secrecy at DCFS (often with good reason) Garrett Therolf never bothered to report the agency’s reversal in its position or the Supervisors’ vote.  To find out about it, you had to either have been notified directly by DCFS and/or the supervisors, or you had to read it at WitnessLA, which had the story three weeks ago, or you had to read the memo I sent to NCCPR’s list of reporters and advocates in Los Angeles that included a link to the WitnessLA story.

            Presumably, Therolf didn’t report the story because he’s one of those with the most to lose if better reporters can walk into court at any time and see all sides of the story – particularly the sides Therolf keeps refusing to report.  (Once again, I am applying the David Lauter standard – the Times Assistant Managing Editor has made clear it’s perfectly o.k. to “presume” whatever you want about someone with whom you disagree.)

            The Times editorial argues that opening these hearings will help reporters find answers to questions like these:

            Does DCFS remove too many children from their homes when there are allegations of abuse? Does it leave too many in the hands of abusive parents or reunite them too quickly?

            In fact, what they will find is that the answer to both questions is: Yes.

            Like most child welfare agencies, DCFS is arbitrary, capricious and cruel. It errs in all directions at once. Wrongful removal overloads caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger. That’s one reason the foster-care panic started by Therolf’s reporting, has made everything worse, something illustrated in the previous post to this Blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: The price of panic

UPDATE: WitnessLA has more, making clear the mother was not at fault.

This story from the Los Angeles Times offers one small example, one “little picture” as one of my journalism professors liked to say, of what happens when bad reporting manages to terrify an entire county agency.  By bad reporting, I am not referring to this particular story.

Here’s the lead:

A Great Dane snatched a 6-month-old baby from her mother's arms in Monrovia and ran with the girl in his mouth before dropping her in the street, authorities said Wednesday.

The baby's mother was talking in the doorway of a neighbor's home Monday when the 180-pound dog rushed out, slammed into her, snatched the baby with his jaws and ran off, said Lt. Michael Lee of the Monrovia Police Department.

The infant has been hospitalized, but is expected to live.

The police already have investigated and found no crime.  But just in case the infant and mother have not suffered enough, in the midst of all the other stress for this mother, the police department says DCFS is "pushing an investigation" – a choice of words which makes clear what the police think of the idea.

And who knows?  If at any point in her past this mother had a child abuse report filed against her, or once committed a crime or is in any other way something other than pure-as-the-driven-snow, the chances are excellent that this infant’s suffering will be compounded by being taken from the mother and placed with strangers.

Of course the reason DCFS is “pushing an investigation” is because they’re terrified that if they don’t, and then it’s revealed that the mother has a long, questionable history, that will be the topic of Garrett Therolf’s next front-page hatchet job.  That is the bad reporting I'm talking about.  And that is the essence of foster-care panic.

Yes, it’s possible that the investigation will uncover a horrible mother one incident short of being the next front-page tragedy (or maybe uncover some discrepancy in the mother’s and other witness accounts of this incident that the police missed). Such cases also could turn up if DCFS started simply investigating families at random – or tried to investigate every family. 

Everything in child welfare comes down to balancing harms.  In this case, the risk of putting so much extra stress on a mother who nearly lost her child in a horrible accident, and the risk of needless foster care, and the risk that the time wasted while DCFS is “pushing an investigation” will cause DCFS to overlook some other child in real danger, all outweigh the much smaller risk that this particular mother will be the next brutal, sadistic killer mom - if DCFS has the common decency to leave her alone.

So here it is, one small indication of the pain that Garrett Therolf’s “reporting” is inflicting across Los Angeles County.

UPDATE, DEC. 19: The Times has another excellent editorial today, this time supporting opening court hearings in these cases to the press and the public.  The Times notes that DCFS has changed its position and now supports openness, and the Board of Supervisors will lobby the state legislature to make the change – something Therolf has never bothered to report.  More about this later in the week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alliance for Children’s Rights responds to previous post


The Alliance for Children’s Rights has asked to respond to the previous post to this Blog.   I’m glad to publish the response below.  In part this is in the hope, however unlikely, that by once again publishing a point of view with which I don’t entirely agree, this will set an example for Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, who has systematically shut out of his stories strong advocates of family preservation and those, outside DCFS, who take issue with his “master narrative.” (I’m not optimistic.  Previously I’ve allowed Therolf himself to comment on this Blog when he felt treated unfairly, and he still shuts out meaningful dissent from his own stories).

In any event, below is the response, in full, from Janis Spire, Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, followed by my response to the response:


In response to your recent blog on Foster Care in L.A., I would like the opportunity to clarify my statements on the KPCC Pat Morrison show and any inferences you have made in reference to The Alliance for Children's Rights position regarding L.A. County's Capped Allocation Waiver and childhood safety.

I was asked by Pat Morrison to identify any opportunities that may be presented by Trish Ploehn's departure as the CEO for Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services.  I suggested that Trish Ploehn may have lost her job because of all the attention the media paid
to child fatalities but there are a lot of things that no one is paying attention to that need improvement.  My statement about the waiver was to suggest that Ms. Ploehn inherited the Waiver and that waiver outcomes have never been adequately evaluated to determine whether or not the manner in which flexible dollars are being spent are achieving successful outcomes.  I further suggested that those dollars could also be spent better protecting the children who are in foster care and who need more services and support to keep them safe. 

The Alliance is not opposed to the Waiver and strongly supports any efforts that facilitate family stability including the provision of front-end services designed to keep children from entering foster care.  However, Waiver dollars are intended to address the needs of all youth
at risk, including those in foster care placement.  Because Waiver outcomes in participating states and counties could  influence the direction of  funding child welfare for decades to come, data should be gathered and measured  to ensure that the welfare of  all children at
risk are being sufficiently met.

Finally, The Alliance has not been interviewed by the L.A. Times on this issue, and would like to be taken off record as being a source for Mr. Therolf.


First, I should not have used the word “feeding” in the subhead for the previous post, since that could be read as implying something clandestine.  Rather, I meant that the Alliance’s public statements, like the ones on KPCC, may have prompted Therolf’s campaign against the waiver.

If, in fact, future evaluations for which Los Angeles County already has contracted do not address the issues Ms. Spire raises, as the first one, in fact, did not, then I agree that a more comprehensive evaluation is a good idea, if only to make it harder for “reporters” like Therolf to take a sentence out of context and distort the entire meaning of an evaluation, as he did with the first one.

But as long as foster care is reduced and the standard safety measures do not worsen (and the most recent data indicate that is the case) that is, in fact, a successful outcome.

As for the question of how waiver savings should be spent the larger issue is that the waiver never was ambitious enough, so there have not been enough savings.  The new DCFS leadership should be doing more to keep children out of foster care needlessly, and in particular, more to curb the misuse of the worst forms of care, group homes and institutions, (though to the agency’s credit they have made some real progress on that front).  Those savings then could be used both to keep more children safely in their own homes and better help those already in foster care.

But my biggest concern with Ms. Spire’s response is that she does not address the key statement I found objectionable in the first place – that statement, and my response, are in the previous post.

Foster care in LA: Therolf misleads again…


            Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, was among the guests yesterday on Patt Morrison’s program on KPCC Public radio.  Mostly he behaved himself, but he couldn’t resist one more inaccurate cheap shot.  He alleged that safety “indicators” for children whose cases are known to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services “moved in the wrong direction” during the tenure of now former-DCFS Director Trish Ploehn.

            There is no evidence for this claim.

            As has been discussed extensively on this Blog, one indicator may have moved in the wrong direction according to one report.  But more recent data show this indicator may be improving. 

            And even if one regards an alleged one-year increase in fatalities as another “indicator,” and it would be very difficult to find a serious expert in child welfare who does, it is not clear if even this change is real or simply the result of a more subjective definition of a fatality.

            But Garrett Therolf has never let facts get in the way of his “master narrative” at the Times, so there was no reason to think things would be any different at KPCC.  The real question is why two large public radio stations in the area, KPCC and KCRW, keep inviting back on their air a reporter who should (but almost certainly isn’t) facing an internal investigation at his own newspaper for allegedly putting words into people’s mouths that they say they never said.

            I have been wondering for some time where Therolf has been getting this nonsense, particularly the cheap shots about a waiver from restrictions on federal foster care financing.  Presumably, a lot of it is coming from private agencies that are paid for every day they hold children in foster care.  (Remember, pursuant to what might be called the David Lauter amendments to the Times Code of Ethics, such “presumption” is entirely permissible).

            But now it turns out Therolf may be getting some of his misinformation from Janis Spire, Chief Executive Officer of an L.A. group called the Alliance for Children’s Rights.  Spire claimed that the waiver “incentivizes policies that don’t necessarily keep children safe” and generally used her brief time on the program to get in “poonges” – little digs - at the waiver.

            If it were true that foster care equaled safely and keeping children in their homes equaled risk – which is precisely Therolf’s master narrative – then Spire would have a point.  But anyone who has read the research on the high rate of abuse in foster care itself, and the studies that show children kept in their own homes typically fare better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care, knows that the premise is false.  For the overwhelming majority of children keeping them in their own homes is the safer option.  And it makes sense to “incentivize” the option most likely to keep most children safe.       

            It is particularly disappointing to hear these kinds of comments from the CEO of this particular organization.  The Alliance for Children’s Rights came to prominence a decade ago, when it was run by Andrew Bridge, a former foster child who wrote a searing memoir about his experience, called Hope’s Boy.

            Bridge also is a strong advocate for doing more to keep families together – as can be seen in this passionate op ed column in The New York Times urging New York City not to succumb to foster-care panic.  How sad that one of his successors now is egging on such a panic in Los Angeles.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Step one for new LA DCFS leader: Learn from Florida

In a move that shocked absolutely no one, Trish Ploehn has been removed from her job running the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  It was the right move.

A spokesman for the County Administrator says that Deputy County Administrator Antonia Jimenez, will be interim director until a permanent replacement can be chosen.  That may take awhile, given the difficulty of finding the right person for the job: someone who is a superb administrator, a visionary leader  - and actually wants the job.

In the meantime, Jimenez should learn from another huge child welfare system that brought in new leadership in a time of crisis: The State of Florida.

When Gov. Charlie Crist took office, almost exactly four years ago, Florida was the national symbol of child welfare failure.  The new Republican governor brought in one of the state’s leading Democrats, former attorney general Bob Butterworth, to run the state Department of Children and Families.  Butterworth’s first move set the stage for everything that would follow:

He pulled Florida DCF out of the bunker.

No more stonewalling.  No more no comment.  No more going to court to oppose release of documents whenever a case would make DCF look bad -  on the contrary, Butterworth sent his lawyers in to side with reporters seeking those documents.

And every ambiguity in law, rule and policy was interpreted in favor of openness.

That did not fix the problems in the child welfare system.  But it bought Butterworth and his exceptional leadership team time and instilled the trust he needed to start fixing those problems.  One member of that team, George Sheldon, succeeded Butterworth and built upon his change in direction.

As it happens, one of Ploehn’s last acts is a good start in that direction.  According to the excellent Blog WitnessLA, DCFS now supports asking the California Legislature to open court hearings in cases alleging abuse and neglect to the press and the public.  So does County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who is urging the Board of Supervisors to include this in its list of requests of the Legislature.  And so do the current and former foster youth who write for LA Youth – the very young people advocates of secret hearings say they are “protecting” by keeping the press and the public out.

Although WitnessLA reported this on December 7, I haven’t been able to find a word about this in the Los Angeles Times.  Presumably this is because Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times, doesn’t really want openness, since he can write many more stories by bashing DCFS for the lack of it.  And, presumably, this is because if courts are open, better reporters will be able to see how DCFS errs in all directions – so Therolf won’t be able to impose his selective vision of DCFS mistakes on the public.

Of course, I don’t actually know that.  But pursuant to the journalistic standard set by Therolf’s editor, David Lauter, I don’t actually have to know – all I have to do is “presume.”

Jimenez also could learn from step two in Florida, which was to reverse the-take-the-child-and-run mentality that had dominated Florida DCF since 1999.  Butterworth and his leadership team understood that family preservation and child safety are not opposites that need to be “balanced” – rather, having seen the disaster wrought by the take-the-child-and-run approach, Butterworth and his team knew that Florida couldn’t have child safety without family preservation.

And they had the resources they needed to change direction – thanks to the same kind of waiver from federal funding restrictions that Therolf has been trashing in L.A.  Florida’s success with the same kind of waiver is well documented by The New York Times, and by independent evaluations showing that child safety improved.

So for Jimenez, step two needs to be to send a loud, clear message to the frontlines at DCFS.  She needs to send the message that Garrett Therolf will not be allowed to dictate child welfare policy in Los Angeles County.  His agenda of using fear and smear to stampede workers into tearing apart ever more families will not become the agenda at DCFS.

In short, she needs to send a message that the days of foster care panic in Los Angeles County are over.

Foster care in New York: Will ACS apply “the Madoff standard” to poor people?

            Imagine for a moment that a son of someone who was once America’s most notorious drug dealers kills himself.  The drug dealer-father is serving a long, long jail term.  The son may have learned in the past week that he might have been facing criminal charges himself. His own son, age 2, is sleeping in the next room.  His wife is a thousand miles away.

            Another close relative finds the body.  Because the little boy had been left alone for a time, the police say they will notify the child protective services agency.

            But then what?

            One can be reasonably sure that, in such a situation, the child would be hauled off to foster care at least for a few days.  After all, no one is going to just hand over a little boy to a relative of one of America’s most notorious criminals without at least doing a “background check” right?  And certainly the child welfare agency would send someone to the home to make sure this relative truly was a suitable caretaker, wouldn’t it?  And when the boy’s mother got back home, no one would just hand the boy back to the daughter-in-law of America’s most notorious drug dealer, would they?

            And if, by chance, the mother did get the child back, you can bet there’d be a period of “supervision” and court hearings before the child welfare agency was out of the family’s life.

            But relatives of some kinds of criminals, and, in particular, innocent children born into such families, get very different treatment.

            Just substitute swindler for drug dealer and you have the facts, as known so far, in the suicide of Mark Madoff, son of Bernie Madoff, in New York City on Saturday.  The little boy is Bernie Madoff’s grandson.

            And yet, police handed Mark Madoff’s little boy to his other grandfather – the mother’s father – no-questions-asked.  And you can bet that just as soon as the boy’s mother gets back to New York, she will be reunited with her son – if that hasn’t happened already.

            All of which is exactly as it should be. 

            You can bet that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services – the same agency that opposed subsidized guardianship for relatives of impoverished children in part because the agency wouldn’t be able to stay in those families’ lives – will do either nothing at all, or only the most perfunctory checks on the mother and grandfather of the Madoff boy.

            Again, exactly as it should be.

            The problem isn’t what was done in this case.  Rather, much as in the case of a high-powered Scarsdale lawyer discussed on this blog last year, the problem is all those other cases in which the family has a different skin color, and a vastly different income, from the Madoff family.

            So here’s a suggestion for ACS and its counterparts around the country.  From now on, when you encounter a family tragedy and there is a relative for whom there is no reason for any suspicion ready and willing to care for that child – get out of the way and leave the family alone, except to provide the family whatever help they may need in a time of tragedy.  In short, try applying the Madoff standard to poor people.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The DHS Data Disaster


            Sections of long reports with headings like “accessing and utilizing data” tend to get overlooked. 

            But with the latest report from the monitor for the Michigan child welfare consent decree, that would be a mistake.  A lot of the stuff that should make jaws drop is in that section – pages 51 to 55.

            It’s clear that this is among the main reasons the monitoring team wants the DHS leadership fired.  There are constant references to leadership failure.

            The monitoring team was appalled by the sheer sloppiness of DHS leaders when it comes to their handling of data.  For good reason.  Any agency this sloppy with data is being sloppy with children’s lives.  According to the report:

It is the assessment of the monitoring team that the data quality issues uncovered in the course of the verification work should have been identified by DHS leadership prior to submission to the monitoring team. It is deeply troubling that DHS leadership submitted incomplete information to the court.

            When I first read about this, in the summary at the start of the report, I drafted a memo to reporters in Michigan. I said, in my usual, undiplomatic way that DHS had made “the kind of math error that most children can spot by Junior High School.”  But I would up replacing that with a direct quote from the report itself, which is nearly as blunt:

For Period Three, DHS produced the four [data] cohorts to the monitoring team, and the monitoring team immediately noticed a problem using basic addition and subtraction: beginning with the number of children in care at the end of Period Two, adding the number of all children entering care during Period Three, and subtracting all children who left care during Period Three, should have equaled the number of children in care at the end of Period Three. It did not. [Emphasis added].

And it’s worth reading this relatively long excerpt to get a sense of just how sloppy and lackadaisical the DHS leadership has been about this, and how furious the monitoring team is about it:

Finally, despite flagging this issue to DHS repeatedly, DHS leadership has not established a high-level verification and review process to test each report and compare reports for consistency from different units of DHS prior to forwarding those reports to the monitoring team. The monitoring team has consistently found important differences between one report and another.

For example, the monitoring team has found a more than 25 percent difference between the number of adolescents in care reported from one source versus another. Training data is not reconciled with caseload staffing data. BCAL data is not reconciled with data produced by the DHS Children’s Service Administration. Spreadsheets in the same report do not add to the reported totals – and sometimes are not added at all.

Much of the data produced consistently arrives without any analysis, including any critical caveats about the quality of the data. When the monitoring team calls these issues to the attention of individual staff, they are cooperative and respond to the best of their ability. And staff have developed a helpful standard reporting format used for a number of reports that includes the parameters of the report, data definitions, summary information, and the detailed reporting. But these are errors and omissions that leadership should be raising long before that information is sent to the monitoring team. The failure to do so suggests the leadership team is not reviewing the  data, which leaves open the question of what information the leadership team is utilizing to manage the reform. [Emphasis added.]

            I don’t think it’s setting the bar too high to suggest that, when Michigan’s new governor, Rick Snyder, reviews candidates for leadership jobs at the Michigan Department of Human Services, he includes among the qualifications the ability to add.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The case of the phantom foster children

Among the many revelations in the latest report from the monitor overseeing the Michigan child welfare consent decree is this, on page 53:

when a child is removed from home, the child was not registering in the database [that counts entries into care] as a child in care until such time as the case had been assigned to a foster care worker and the worker or supervisor completed the entry information in the database. As a result, a child could be physically in care for several days without registering as a child in care for reporting purposes.

And that raises an intriguing question:

What about cases in which DHS needlessly removes a child, quickly realizes the blunder, and, in two or three days, sends the child home (much the worse for the experience)?  Will anyone, aside from those directly involved in the case, ever know the child even was in foster care?  And is this leading to an undercount of the number of children taken from their homes in Michigan each year?

The federal government recognizes that even a very short placement can traumatize a child.  It requires that any time a child welfare agency causes a child to be removed from the home for more than 24 hours it must be reported as an entry into care.

Kansas has found a way to evade this rule, and there is solid evidence that, as a result, the real number of entries in that state is double or triple the official figure.  (For details, see our report on Kansas child welfare.)

In Michigan there is nothing to indicate this is deliberate – just another example of the general incompetence of the state Department of Human Services.  And Michigan may be more inclined to want to make use of the one advantage of making sure you count every entry into care – it’s the only way to get federal aid to help pay for those few days of foster care, if the case is eligible for such reimbursement. 

But placements with relatives in those unlicensed homes that the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights hates so much don’t qualify for federal reimbursement – so there is no incentive to get the data right, and some incentive not to bother, since it will make the number of entries look lower.

For that matter, if the case never officially existed, what implications does that have for the accuracy of caseload counts used to determine if DHS is complying with other parts of the decree?

More on the DHS Data Disaster tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Latest foster care monitor’s report: Up to 2,400 child "casualties" in Michigan’s war against grandparents


Not that I'd ever say "I told you so," but that legal two-by-four did indeed get the Gov.-elect's attention, and there won't be a request for a federal takeover after all.

The Detroit News reports that the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights will seek “a federal takeover” of Michigan’s child welfare system, and ask the court to name a “receiver” to run it.

This is the kind of remedy you use for the worst of the worst – like Washington D.C. a decade ago.  Leaving aside the fact that CR actually helped create this mess, there certainly are grounds for a receivership. But this probably is just a political tactic – a legal two-by-four with which to hit the new governor over the head to get his attention.

Throughout this post, the page number in the monitor’s report that discusses the finding is noted in brackets.  The full report is available here.

Anywhere from 1,500 to 2,400 Michigan foster children have been expelled from the homes of loving grandparents and other relatives since the Michigan Department of Human Services signed a disastrous consent decree with the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR).  That’s one of the revelations in the latest report of the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree [p. 95].

The report is the most damning, most scathing, I have ever read about any jurisdiction.  It shows that an ill-conceived consent decree, doomed to failure from day one, has failed miserably.

The report portrays a system worse than Connecticut, worse than Georgia, worse than Washington State, worse than New Jersey when it was at its worst, to name just four systems operating under consent decrees.  It’s even worse than Washington D.C. in recent years. (I haven’t read the reports from back when D.C. got so bad it was actually placed in federal receivership, but I’ll bet they’re a lot like this one).


In a remarkable statement for this kind of report, the monitor gives what amounts to the ultimate vote of no-confidence in the people running DHS.  He appears to be advising Michigan’s governor-elect, Rick Snyder, to do a total housecleaning, seeming to suggest he replace not only the ineffectual (at best) DHS Director, Ismael Ahmed, but his entire child welfare leadership team.

In carefully chosen words, at the bottom of Page 33, the report states that:

With the election of a new Governor, Michigan has an opportunity to build a high-level leadership team that can coordinate the work of this reform effectively and improve the partnerships within DHS and between DHS and the many private agencies that serve children and families in Michigan.’

One can only imagine how the “Wikileaks version” would read.

The monitoring report doesn’t name names, but clearly the buck stops with Ahmed and with Kathryne O’Grady who heads DHS’ Children’s Services Administration, (which was created as a requirement of the consent decree because CR loves nothing more than creating more boxes on tables of organization, and doesn’t understand that leadership is more important than flow charts).  And it doesn’t sound like the monitor wants the firings to stop there.

DHS needs a leadership team that will run the agency for the benefit of the children, instead of for the state’s powerful, entrenched private agencies that are paid for every day they hold children in foster care.


But even such firings won’t be enough.  It is urgent that Gov.-elect Snyder renegotiate the consent decree itself, to bring it into line with truly progressive decrees like the ones in Illinois and Alabama, which, as The New York Times reported in this story, now is a national model.  (The Alabama decree, crafted by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law after they concluded CR Director Marcia Lowry’s approach doesn’t work very well, focuses on rebuilding the system to emphasize safe, proven approaches to keeping children in their own homes. Bazelon’s Legal Director is a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors.)

Among the other findings:

● DHS is an agency so incompetent that, statistically speaking, it “misplaced” a thousand foster children.  The agency suddenly and mysteriously reported that there actually are a thousand more children in Michigan foster care than it had reported previously for the same time periods [p.5].

● The figure would be even higher but for the fact that DHS is keeping the number artificially low through what amounts to mass youth abandonment.  The agency is expelling young people at age 18 even when they have no permanent homes – breaking a promise “to keep those cases open longer to provide supportive services” [p. 6].  (This is why NCCPR always warns reporters to focus on entries into care, the number of children taken away over the course of a year, instead of just on the number of children in care on any given day, a figure that can be manipulated in exactly the way DHS has done).

● The statistically “misplaced” foster children were discovered after the monitoring team “noticed a problem using basic addition and subtraction” [p.52], skills one would have hoped  DHS itself had mastered and could have applied before submitting bad data to the monitor. According to the report, “it is deeply troubling that DHS leadership submitted incomplete information to the court” [p.51]. Or, to put it less diplomatically, DHS is an agency so incompetent it needs to be reminded that two plus two equals four.  (And that is giving the agency the benefit of the doubt; it assumes the undercounting of 1,000 foster children was merely incompetent and not deliberate.)

● Even where there may have been actual improvement, as in the percentage of children trapped in institutions, it’s impossible to be sure because DHS’ innumeracy makes it impossible to establish a “baseline” [p.3].

● DHS failed to provide even the minimum increase in services for prevention and family preservation required under the decree.  That means overall, those services have been cut, since, as we explain in our reports on Michigan child welfare, DHS slashed these programs in part to fund rate increases for residential treatment centers and in part to fund a foster care worker/child abuse investigator hiring binge – which it saw as necessary to meet the consent decree requirements to lower caseloads.  (In fact, this also could have been done, in part, by taking fewer children needlessly) [pp. 38, 39].

● This means DHS continues to be in violation of the decree, as noted in the previous report from the monitor.  That report found that, instead of increasing this funding, DHS simply was diverting the money from other prevention and family preservation programs.

● DHS failed even to ask the legislature for enough money to implement all the requirements in the consent decree – even though DHS is legally required to do so by the decree itself.  And DHS went further, actually urging the legislature to cut funds for family preservation [p. 38].

● DHS has become obsessed with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Granted, CR started it – there’s nothing they love more – but, as the report noted, “in every monitoring period to date, DHS has reorganized its child welfare leadership structure” [p. 32], so it’s no wonder communication within DHS and between DHS and private agencies has deteriorated.

According to the report, “There is a palpable sense of disappointment with the reform effort across the system, which has only grown over time” [p.6].  But there shouldn’t be.  There’s no reason to be disappointed in an agreement that was doomed to fail from day one.  Saddened, and very, very angry, yes – but not “disappointed.”


Partly that’s because of DHS’ dreadful senior management team.  But DHS alone isn’t at fault.  CR must share the blame for forcing down the agency’s throat a hyperbureaucratic consent decree that diverted resources from where they were needed most, keeping children out of the system in the first place, and into practices that actually do harm, like the war against grandparents.

Study after study has found that placing children with relatives, called kinship care, is more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

In a system that, 20 years ago, actually was a child welfare leader, kinship care was one of the very few remaining Michigan success stories, with the state placing a higher proportion of children with relatives than the national average.

But thanks to CR’s bureaucratic obsessions, that achievement is eroding.  The percentage of Michigan foster children placed with relatives is down from 35 percent in October 2006 (according to previous figures submitted by DHS to the federal government), to 32 percent in March, 2010 [p.31].

And as noted at the start of this post, figures in the latest report add up to nearly 1,500 children expelled from the homes of relatives because of the licensing issue.  The previous monitoring report put this figure at about 1,800.  It’s not clear if some or all of these 1,500 are in addition to the 1,800, or if this simply is a revised count.  My best guess is it’s some of each, and the real total since the consent decree took effect might be about 2,400.

Nor do we know what happened to the children.  In some cases, they may have gone home to their own parents.  In others there may have been good reason to move them.  But it’s likely that in many of these cases, DHS inflicted the enormous trauma of another separation from family and another change in placement – into the homes of total strangers - on innocent children, just to satisfy the bureaucratic obsessions of Marcia Lowry and her colleagues at CR.

CR does not even pretend that this is about safety.  The licensing requirements, based on the assumption that foster care will be provided by middle-class strangers, are filled with minutiae not needed to keep children healthy and safe.  Rather this is about money.  The federal government won’t help reimburse the cost of foster care unless the home is licensed.

That also means licensing can provide genuine benefits for the relatives – entitling them to the same level of monthly reimbursement as strangers.  So it makes perfect sense to encourage grandparents to seek licensing and help them meet the requirements.  What makes no sense is taking away the grandchildren over it.


And the harm doesn’t stop there. In order to get all these grandparents licensed – or expel the grandchildren from their homes – DHS had to create one more mini-bureaucracy, a whole bunch of newly-minted “licensing specialists” who could be doing genuinely useful work instead.

To the extent that there is any good news, it’s that the army doesn’t seem to be led very well.  Call it the upside of incompetence: the whole licensing process is way behind schedule.

Unfortunately, the DHS disaster, it doesn’t end here.  There’s the failure to implement controls on admissions to residential treatment centers, the failure to get a grip on abuse in substitute care and so on.  There may even be cases in which children enter and leave Michigan foster care but the case never is reported as an entry at all.

The Michigan horror show never seems to end.

Tomorrow: More on the DHS data disaster

Monday, December 6, 2010

On our blog at Youth Today: The $5 billion blunder

            How would you like to be responsible for helping to kill a plan that would have given states $5 billion more in child welfare funding over the past five years than they actually got? 

            The Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund now find themselves in just such a position.  And here’s what’s really scary: They don’t seem to have learned from the mistake.

            The details are in a memo from the Congressional Research Service obtained by NCCPR, and discussed in detail in our monthly blog on the website of Youth Today.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Covering foster care at the LA Times: The “readers’ representative” sets the fairness bar very low

            According to the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), back when it was considered one of America’s great regional dailies, the Louisville Courier Journal was the first to name an ombudsman – someone to respond to reader complaints about the newspaper, both privately to the staff and by writing a column assessing how well the newspaper was doing its job. 

            Any institution that constantly demands that everyone else be held “accountable” should have a truly independent ombudsman.  Very few news organizations do - it took the Jayson Blair scandal to push The New York Times into creating such a position - and fewer still have anyone in the job worthy of the name.  The Courier Journal itself does not appear to have one anymore.

            The best way to do this is the method used by the Times and, for much longer, The Washington Post.  They hire someone from outside the paper for a fixed term, typically two years.  That way the ombudsman doesn’t have to worry about being fired for being too hard on the paper – he or she’s already been fired.

            The best of the ombudsmen, among those whose work I’ve read, was Geneva Overholser, when she was at the Post.  One of the few items entirely unrelated to child welfare on the bulletin board here at NCCPR World Headquarters is her 1996 critique of the Post, the Times and the Los Angeles Times over how all three mishandled a major media controversy of the day.  (It’s available in the Post’s paid archive.)

            But ombudsmen like Overholser are very rare.  People naturally hire in their own image.  So editors tend to hire ombudsmen who think pretty much like the editors – and then tell them, in effect, “go ahead, criticize my work.”

            But at least when they call the job ombudsman (or, in the case of the Times, Public Editor) one sometimes sees serious criticism of the news organization’s performance.  When the job is labeled “readers’ representative” or something similar, it generally seems to be held by a longtime employee of the paper whose job is to write columns like “Buyouts, layoffs, will make your Daily Bugle even better!” (If anyone knows of an exception to this rule, I’d be glad to hear about it.)

            So I wasn’t really expecting much when I submitted my own complaint about Los Angeles Times child welfare coverage to their “readers’ representative,” Deirdre Edgar.

            Just before all hell broke loose concerning Times child welfare coverage (meaning, before I knew that there are questions about things like the accuracy of quotes) I complained about one specific item: how Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times, had misrepresented an evaluation of the Los Angeles County child welfare waiver.

             My e-mail read in part:

   As is described in detail in my organization’s child welfare Blog today, in three separate stories, Garrett has suggested that an independent evaluation of Los Angeles County’s child welfare “waiver” concludes that the waiver caused an alleged increase in reabuse of children known to the Department of Children and Family Services.

            Not only does the evaluation report say nothing of the kind, in three separate places – p.2, p.11 and p.137 - the report specifically warns readers against drawing any such conclusions.

            To which the readers’ repesentative replied in an e-mail:

I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think the articles make the conclusion that you believe they do, and therefore no correction is warranted. You even couch your words in your e-mail and in your post – saying the articles “suggest” or “imply” that the waiver led to the increase in child deaths. But the articles don’t say that. However, the Oct. 19 article does directly quote Charlie Ferguson, one of the researchers, who says the data show “an area of concern.”

            So apparently, it’s o.k. to mention the alleged increase in three separate stories about the waiver, and quote the author of the study as saying it’s “an area of concern” but leave out the fact that any increase in child abuse for any reason always is “an area of concern.”  And, apparently, it’s o.k. to leave out the same author’s three specific warnings that there is no evidence of cause and effect.  All of this is fine with the readers’ representative, just as long as the reporter doesn’t use the exact words “the waiver caused the increase.”

            The readers’ representative continues:

That same article also quotes an advocate for abused and neglected children who questions a link between the waiver and the increase in deaths. That’s clearly giving voice to both sides of the issue.

             Actually, the article doesn’t do that.  The readers’ representative is talking about these two paragraphs:

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and one of the state's leading advocates for abused or neglected children, said she was hesitant to connect the waiver with the rise in child fatalities because she worried that too little information is available.

"What analysis has been done by the department?" she asked. "Have they really looked at this? Have they looked at the experience level of the social workers who handled these cases? If they are ignoring this type of analysis, they are foolish."

            One of the few things Therolf has gotten right in all this is that Carole Shauffer is, indeed, “one of the state's leading advocates for abused or neglected children” and her comment reflects this.  But she is not psychic.  She could not be expected to definitively comment on a waiver evaluation she hadn’t read.  She had to depend on whatever Therolf told her about the evaluation.

            And why in the world would even the view of one of the state’s best child advocates be a substitute, as opposed to a supplement, to the views, in full and in context, of the evaluation author himself?

            So the readers representative’s version of  “both sides” is  “yes” and “we don’t know.”  The side that says no, there is no relationship  is entirely absent.  So is the side that says newer data call into question whether there has been such an increase.  So is the side that points out that, even with the alleged increase, the rate of reabuse is lower than it was in 2002, well before the waiver.  So is the side that could have presented more likely explanations for any increase, if there is one, etc. etc.  And, of course, there is no mention of the fact that the evaluation itself says there is no evidence of cause and effect.

           In other words, it’s the Fox News version of “fair and balanced.”

           I followed up by asking the readers’ representative if she also had no problems with the questions about accuracy raised in Daniel Heimpel’s column for The Huffington Post.  She did not reply.  Perhaps she was too busy working on things like her Nov. 29 column.  The one headlined: “Readers respond to demise of Bridge column.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Covering foster care: Overriding the “Veto of Silence”

            Yesterday, I wrote about some of the reasons why so many reporters won’t even look into a story about parents who say their children were taken from them needlessly.  And I wrote about an exception: Issac Bailey, metro columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

            Bailey is not one of those sit-on-your-ass-and-pontificate columnists; content, week after week, to regurgitate what reporters found and add some declarations of outrage.  (In all of journalism is there anything easier to do than spit out the “boy do I hate child abuse!” column?)

            Bailey started out as a reporter and he’s still a reporter.  Bailey meets people where they live, seeks out all sides, and pours through documents.

            He spent months researching and reporting a very complex case, involving an impoverished father whose common-law wife ran off one day with their child.  She left him a taunting message on MySpace declaring he’d never find his daughter.  And he didn’t – until authorities in Warren County, New York told him she’d been placed in foster care after the children of the mother’s new boyfriend brutally abused her.

            That’s almost certainly where that little girl would be now, in foster care with strangers, had Bailey not exposed years of bungling by two states, in stories that, to the credit of his editors, the Sun News featured on its front page for six days in a row.  (The entire series is available by clicking here and scrolling to the middle of the page.)  With some encouragement from NCCPR, papers near Warren County picked up on the story, and it’s clear from this account in the Albany Times Union that the county, which at one point had been pushing for termination of parental rights, had been feeling the heat:

“[The lawyer for Warren county] told the judge his agency was simply following the law in the legal process, despite media coverage he considered critical.

"I'm not here to debate the press," the judge told him.”

           We know this, of course, because in New York, unlike South Carolina and most other states, these hearings are open to the press and the public.  With journalists watching, the county reversed itself, the judge ruled for the family and last week, this little girl celebrated Thanksgiving back home in South Carolina with her father. 

            In another column, Bailey performed a service that was almost as valuable: He said out loud what many reporters say only to their colleagues in the newsroom, or sometimes won’t even admit to themselves, about why these stories so often never get written:
We send out social workers to contend with some of the most difficult situations imaginable. And we cut back on their training in times of economic stress. We don't pay them well even when the economy is booming. And we tend to over-react when they make what we perceive as a mistake, particularly when a child dies while under the department's supervision.

I understand why, because I feel the same pang of uncertainty every time I look into a case. Every time I've written about a family involved with DSS and Family Court over the past half dozen years, I've done background checks and gone over court and police documents and visited them in their homes and fielded calls from their supporters and detractors, just like social workers do, seeking to weed through rumor and fact, never knowing how things are going to turn out.

Because there is no way of knowing. And that's why it is easier to not deal with them, to not write about them, to ignore the plight of such families. And it is why studies have consistently shown that after a highly-publicized child death, the number of kids taken into DSS custody skyrockets.

Because for many of us it is more comfortable to pretend we play no role in the dysfunction of the system - through our silence and apathy and irrational reactions - just as it is more comfortable for those within the system to believe it is better to err on the side of placing kids in a system that has chewed up and spit out too many children rather than leave them in homes - and provide real assistance - on the chance that they might - might - come to a different kind of harm, the kind that brings more public scrutiny.

And because of that vicious cycle, kids who would otherwise do well, even with imperfect parents in less-than-ideal living situations, are taken into foster care, flooding the system, making it harder for social workers to have a manageable load of cases, as well as increasing the likelihood that children who really need extreme intervention won't receive it.[Emphasis added].

            Bailey’s tolerance of ambiguity is important for another reason.  The overwhelming majority of people who lose children to the system are nothing like the sadists and brutes whose cases, rightly, make headlines.  But they’re not all pure as the driven snow, either.  They are, like most of us, flawed human beings who’ve made mistakes; they fall somewhere between the extremes, neither all victim nor all villain.  The real issue is whether their children should suffer for that by being consigned to the chaos of foster care.

            Most journalists don’t want to hear that.  I don’t remember where I saw it, but I recall a producer for NBC’s Dateline allegedly saying that program’s formula boils down to three words: “Victim, villain, confrontation.”  The real world of child welfare generally isn’t like that – neither is the real world, period.

            But in those cases that really do fit the formula, middle-class families are more likely to be able to prove it, one more reason why, as I noted yesterday,  on those rare cases when wrongful removal does make the front page, or at least the front page of the metro section, it’s usually one of those very rare times that the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class: a story like this one or this one.


            Although the general public doesn’t know about this, the people who run child welfare agencies do.  After all, their p.r. people, or “flaks” to use the common term among journalists, usually are former reporters.
So they know how to hide behind confidentiality laws in ways that magnify a reporter’s fears. They’ll say something like: “Oh, there’s really so much more to the case, and we wish we could tell you – really we do – but we just can’t; confidentiality, you know.”  I’ve even seen this used in states, like New York, where the law says public child welfare agencies can comment – but few reporters know about it.

             Of course reporters know that if the child welfare agency really had anything more, they’d almost certainly leak it; but given the doubts about parents to begin with and the fear of looking stupid, this veto of silence often kills stories.  And, of course, every time reporters fail to override this veto and go with the story anyway, it reinforces the agency’s determination to oppose any effort to change the confidentiality laws.
Indeed, I have a theory that every time one of these stories is killed, somewhere an agency flak gets his wings. 

            Issac Bailey’s willingness to take on stories that might not advance his own career stands out in other ways as well.

          Another reporter I know, in some ways a very good one, once admitted to me that she would never write a story about a really good program or improvements in a system because she was afraid of looking like a fool if things weren’t as good as she thought.  Very little will cause more loss of “face” for a reporter than coming across as na├»ve.  But doing right by readers sometimes means risking looking dumb.

         We need more reporters with Issac Bailey’s willingness to dig into the stories others won’t – and with his tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Tomorrow: Back to Los Angeles and the role of the L.A. Times "Readers' Representative."