Sunday, January 30, 2011

Foster care in Rhode Island: The seduction of Kevin Aucoin

Here’s the thing about children’s “shelters” – those exercises in adult self-indulgence and adult self-delusion that turn real flesh-and-blood children into human teddy bears; those places where some communities dump children as soon as they are taken from their homes, supposedly to be examined and “assessed” by “trained staff” in order to prepare them for exactly what they would have gotten without the shelters – usually a succession of foster homes:

They can be oh, so seductive.

Sure, as discussed in a previous post to this blog, the research is overwhelming that children suffer enormously when they are cared for by rotating shift staff.  Sure, a comprehensive study specific to shelters showed that the outcomes for children who went through them were worse even than those for children shipped straight into foster care.

But, well, they usually look so nice, with pretty pictures on the walls, lots of toys and a staff that really does care about the kids.  And the behavior of the children themselves can disguise a shelter’s failure as success. Call it the “Mr. Lou” effect, after someone who used to run what was, a few years ago, one of the very worst such places, Child Haven in Las Vegas.

He told a local television station that he loved coming to work at Child Haven because babies and toddlers "grab my leg. They call me Mr. Lou. They tell me they love me."

But when a young child grabs the legs of anyone who will pay him a little attention and tells him "I love you" he's not getting better – he's getting worse. He is losing his ability to truly love at all, because every time he tries to love someone, that person goes away. It's even worse than the well-known problem of children bouncing from foster home to foster home. We are setting some of these children up to become adults unable to love or trust anyone.


It’s bad enough when this goes on for a few days or a week.  It’s even worse when the children have to change caretakers every eight hours during the week and with still other caretakers on weekends for 30 days or more.

Yet that is the norm at the Washington Park Children’s Shelter, one of three such places in Rhode Island.

One of the last moves of the outgoing leadership at the state Department of Children Youth and Families was one of the few things they did right: they announced they would close the shelters in early January. But shelter owners always have the ear of politicians and the press.  They spread the usual horror stories of what would happen without them, citing a “shortage” of foster homes.  But that shortage exists only because Rhode Island tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the country.

Shelter operators also are good at using their good intentions (I don’t doubt they’ve convinced themselves that their life’s work helps kids, research notwithstanding) to deflect attention from all the harm shelters do.   So while it was disappointing, it wasn’t surprising when new governor, Lincoln Chafee, promptly gave in and ordered the shelter contracts extended through February 28.

According to the Providence Journal, Chafee’s interim DCYF director, Kevin Aucoin was scheduled to visit the Washington Park shelter on January 18. I don’t know whether he got there, or whether during any such visit, he had any “Mr. Lou” moments.
What I do know is the Journal story gave a new indication of just how low shelter operators will sink to keep their human teddy bears. 

The story quotes Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center which has sued states over the misuse and overuse of shelters:

No matter how well run a shelter is, Shauffer said, studies show that residential care facilities with multiple caregivers working in shifts cannot provide for the emotional needs of children, especially those under age of 6. Those children, she said, need one or two people whom they can attach to who will care for them regularly. That’s not possible, she said, when their caregivers change every eight hours.

“They [caregivers] can be good people. They can be doing the best job they possibly can,” Shauffer said. “But they’re dealing with a model that doesn’t work because that’s not how babies were born to be raised.”

And what did the co-founder of the Washington Park shelter, Frances Murphy, do to rebut the research?  She slimed all working parents who send their kids to day care.

The DCYF pays its foster care providers $15 a day, Murphy said, so those foster parents usually have jobs outside their homes and the children are placed in daycare. “Where’s the bonding taking place there?” she said.

Oh, right.  So being taken to day care by foster parents (or, presumably parents, period) and coming home to the same foster parents every night, and spending all weekend with those same foster parents, is just like being cared for by rotating shift staff 24/7.

And that assumes the only alternative to shelters is foster parents.  Particularly in a state with the kind of sky-high rate of removal seen in Rhode Island, the alternative often could be never taking away the children at all.


Boys Town also runs a shelter in Rhode Island.  Their executive director, William Reardon, wrote an op ed column responding to one I’d written supporting shutting the shelters down.  He said all those things shelter operators always say about “assessing” and “planning” etc.  (He also said his shelter uses so-called “house parents” instead of shift staff, but that still means the child needs to endure another placement and adjust to a whole new setting again, when the time in the shelter ends.)

And at a time when the buzzword in child welfare is “evidence-based” Reardon offers not a shred of evidence to show that his model actually helps children.  That’s because he can’t.  Exactly the same rationale – the same blather about assessing the children, making a plan, etc. - was offered for setting up a comprehensive network of shelters in Connecticut.  

But unlike Rhode Island, Connecticut actually funded an evaluation, by Yale University.  The evaluation found that the children placed in the shelters fared worse than those sent directly to foster care.  (Unfortunately, shelter operators have the same kind of political clout in Connecticut as in Rhode Island so not only are the shelters still open, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families took the study off its website – so I’ve posted it on ours.)

And excuse me if I’m not inclined to take the word of Boys Town for anything, in light of the problems at their flagship campus in Nebraska, as reported in the trade journal Youth Today.

So of course instead of providing actual evidence Reardon does what shelter operators always do -  invite people for a carefully-guided tour so they can see those pretty grounds and well-meaning staff.    


But here’s the biggest giveaway that shelters exist to benefit the people who run them, staff them and volunteer at them, rather than for the children: Everyone in child welfare knows that the children for whom it is hardest to find a home are teenagers.  But Reardon’s shelter won’t take teenagers.  Neither will the others in Rhode Island.  They all take only children under age 12. 

That’s common across the country.  And it’s not hard to figure out why. As I noted in that previous post about sheltersa teenager who's been through removal from his or her parents is as likely to spit in your face as to throw his arms around you.  They don’t make good human teddy bears.  So the shelters only take the very children for whom it’s easiest to find a better alternative – the ones who are still cute.     

Adding to the obscenity of all this is the cost.  The Washington Park shelter costs $185 per child per day.  That’s an average of $5,550 to $8,325 per child.  For that kind of money, an Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention can keep all the children in a family from ever having to enter foster care in the first place.  That kind of money also could buy a year of rent subsidies so children aren’t taken because their parents can’t afford decent housing - or a year of subsidies for yes, day care, so families aren’t separated on lack of supervision charges.

Or Rhode Island can keep using the money to damage kids in order to make the people who run shelters feel like they are doing something useful.  At the moment it all depends on whether Kevin Aucoin does what research says is best for kids, or is seduced by those “Mr. Lou” moments at the shelter.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

GUEST BLOG: Foster care in Maine: More on one state’s transformation

UPDATE, JAN 28: The Associated Press also has an excellent story on the Maine reforms.

In a previous post to this Blog concerning the enormous progress in the state of Maine, I wrote that: “An independent office of child welfare ombudsman was created, under the auspices of a leading state child advocacy group, the Maine Children’s Alliance.

The ombudsman has asked me to share with you his perspective on the changes.  Here’s his comment:


Thank you for voicing your concern for the well-being of children in Maine who are involved in the child welfare system in the recent NCCPR blog “Foster Care in America: The Day Child Welfare Changed? (Part Two).” We appreciate that you recognize the work that the Maine Children’s Alliance’s ombudsman program has done to help improve the system.

Since 2003, the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman Program has worked closely with the
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), reviewing department decisions when callers raise concerns and providing recommendations on ways the department can streamline and improve practices. We are always looking for better situations for children and families, and more cost-savings and efficiency within the system to re-invest in community support and early intervention.

As you have noted, it is in the best interest of a child to keep him/her in the home and with the family whenever possible and safe to do so. Caseworkers now emphasize this goal as they work closely with families, ensuring they receive the supports and services necessary to keep the child safe and the family intact. Reducing the rate of children who are placed in state care or custody has been a significant achievement of our program. In December 2004, there were 2,590 Maine children in DHHS state care or custody. In December 2009, the number in care or custody dropped to 1,650. During this time period, Maine saw a 38.3 percent decrease in the rate of children in DHHS care or custody.

Kinship Care placements enable children to live with people they know and trust, creating a sense of stability and continuity. Over the last six years, Kinship Care has become a preferred placement practice of DHHS. The steady increase in Kinship Care placement is a notably positive trend. In 2004, of the 831 initial placements of children into state care or custody, 146 (17.6%) were Kinship Care. In 2009, of the 777 initial placements of children into state care or custody, 302 (38.9%) were Kinship Care. Not only is Kinship Care placement less disruptive to the child, it is also less costly to the system. There has been a dramatic decline in Residential Care costs for children in state custody from 2004 to 2010, with the state share of residential care costs declining by 86 percent.

For more information about the Ombudsman Program, I encourage you to visit the Maine Children’s Alliance website at

Dean Crocker
President/CEO and Ombudsman
Maine Children’s Alliance

Monday, January 24, 2011

Foster care in DC: As a matter of fact, most foster parents ARE middle class…


The previous post to this Blog dealt with a response to an op ed column I wrote for The Washington Post.  The response came from Marcia Lowry, executive director of the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights.”

Of all the things I wrote, the item that seemed to upset Marcia the most was a line at the very end in which I referred to the highest-in-the-nation pay rates for foster parents in D.C. (From $10,000 to more than $11,000 per child per year, tax free) as giving “middle-class foster parents … more than they need.”

Marcia insists foster parents really aren’t middle-class. She writes:

A recent survey in Illinois found that the average wage income for foster parents was just $35,500 a year and was $28,600 a year for relative caregivers.
Thus, she makes it sound like relatives earn $28,600 and strangers get $35,500.
But it’s not true.
I went back and took a look at the actual study.
Turns out, the $35,500 figure is the average income for all foster parents, kin and stranger combined. And the study in question was done in Illinois, which has one of America’s most progressive policies of placing children with relatives, so the unusually high proportion of kinship care parents brings down the average.
When you look only at what should best be called “stranger-care” parents, the average income is $41,220. That’s just short of what the same study said was the median family income in Illinois, $44,459. (Before anyone says “Hey, you switched from a mean (average) to a median,” that’s what the study did, you’d have to ask the authors why they felt it was the fairest comparison.  And it’s Marcia Lowry who cited the study in the first place.)
As for kinship care parents, NCCPR long has noted that they do, indeed, tend to be poor. And that’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that Marcia Lowry runs around the country fanatically demanding that they comply with precisely the same licensing requirements as those middle-class strangers. Having waged a war against grandparents that forced at least 1,800 children out of such kinship homes in Michigan as a result of imposing such requirements, Marcia is in no position to pose as a champion of such parents. And to really see how much harm this licensing fanaticism can do in DC, just check out Jason Cherkis’ story in Washington CityPaper
Marcia would argue that she demands licensing because when grandparents are licensed state and local governments have to pay them the same amount as strangers, and the federal government reimburses states for part of those costs at the same rate as for foster care with strangers.
Those are good reasons to demand that states streamline licensing requirements for everyone, limiting them to those genuinely essential for health and safety and eliminating those geared to middle-class creature comforts.  They are good reasons to encourage kinship care parents to become licensed and help them to meet licensing requirements.  They are not good reasons to demand that impoverished grandparents comply with requirements that are far more onerous if you happen to be poor – or risk having their grandchildren taken away.
It is particularly disingenuous to hide behind kinship care parents when talking about the lavish pay for foster parents in Washington D.C.  The District does a particularly poor job of placing children with relatives.  The most recent data, from 2006, show that only 16 percent of D.C. children are placed with relatives, compared to a national average of 25 percent.  (In Illinois it’s 35 percent).
The way to help kinship care parents is, as noted above, to streamline licensing requirements for all foster parents and then provide kinship care parents with extra assistance.  Marcia, however, apparently prefers a “trickle down” approach in which $10,000 per year per child tax free, is lavished on, yes, middle-class strangers, just because it also will trickle down to the grandparents and other kinship foster parents.
We can do better than that.  And we would, if things like Marcia Lowry’s ill-conceived lawsuit settlements didn’t keep getting in the way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Foster care in DC: An unflattering view of foster parents from a surprising source

 I’m sure Marcia Lowry, executive director of the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) would insist she’s the last person to believe most foster parents are in it for the money.  But a recent op ed column she wrote for The Washington Post raises questions about how she really views the motives of foster parents.

As I noted in a previous post to this Blog, back in December, I wrote an op ed column for the Post decrying the fact that the D.C. Council was pitting programs to help keep children out of foster care against programs to help kids already in foster care, while ignoring far better places to cut.  Such places include D.C.’s overuse of group homes and institutions (like the residential treatment centers exposed by Washington CityPaper’s Jason Cherkis in an excellent story last week) and the lavish pay rates for foster parents - the highest such rates in the nation.

Specifically, D.C. pays at least $10,428 per year per child.  For older children, it’s more than $11,280 per year per child.  The money is tax free.  The government also covers foster children’s health insurance through Medicaid.
CR itself admits, in its own study, that this is more than enough to cover not only the basics for foster children but also every toy, game, after school activity, movie ticket, amusement park ride, etc.  In short, all of the things foster children (and children in general) should have.  (Check out CR’s “technical report” for the study so see all the things CR believes the government should reimburse.)

But Marcia Lowry seems to think that unless foster parents are reimbursed by the government for every penny they expend on these items, the foster children won’t get them.

In a response to my op ed column Lowry wrote that

 In his commentary [Wexler] went on to suggest that the District has “lavish[ed] ... money on foster parents” and that it should consider cutting the “fat pay raises” for families willing to give abused and neglected children a safe home — and perhaps a few small pleasures of childhood, such as a toy, game or amusement park ride.

So, tell me Marcia: Do you really believe that D.C. foster parents are so greedy that if they were paid less than $10,000 per year per child, tax free, and actually had to dip into their own pockets to buy a foster child a teddy bear they wouldn’t do it?  Would they really deny foster children they say they love and treat as their own “a few small pleasures of childhood” if those pleasures are not government-subsidized?  And if that is what you believe, do you really think it’s a good idea to place children with people like that?
Are you not at all concerned that these lavish payments might attract foster parents who whine at great length even at the prospect of paying for a foster daughter’s sanitary napkins?  (That’s not a hypothetical – it really happened).
Maybe you hold foster parents in such low regard, Marcia, but I don’t. I think the overwhelming majority are not in it for the money, and some are true heroes.  I think they have no problem dipping into their own pockets a little for children they sincerely try to treat as their own – just as people who, say, volunteer to tutor inner-city children may buy some supplies themselves and don’t expect to be reimbursed for the mileage getting to and from the school.  The whole issue of our “social contract” with foster parents is one that CR regularly avoids.
Marcia continues:
… it is the availability of foster parents that keeps children out of costly, ineffective and often harmful group homes and institutions. 
That’s partially true.  But it doesn’t follow that lavish reimbursement is required to get people to volunteer to open their homes to children.  Indeed, when foster parents are surveyed about why they quit, money ranks low on the list.  Ill-treatment and lack of respect from child welfare agencies ranks much higher.  (That’s why, when speaking to foster parents, I always ask: If that’s how they treat you, imagine how they’re treating the birth parents.)

To the extent that there are “shortages” of foster parents, it’s almost always an artificial shortage, created by states taking too many children needlessly in the first place.  Get those children back into their own homes and there will be plenty of room for children in real danger, without having to institutionalize them.

In addition, more and more states are finding that, using everything from Wraparound programs to “extreme family finding” institutionalized children can be returned directly to their own homes or the homes of relatives, bypassing what should properly be called “stranger care” homes entirely.  So, in fact, lavishly-paid foster parents are not the only alternative to institutionalization.

It also is flatly wrong to imply that all foster children were “abused and neglected” before the foster parents took them in.  In fact, children can be trapped in foster care for months before a judge ever decides if they actually were abused or neglected.  The status of these children is roughly analogous to that of poor people who remain in jail before trial because they can’t make bail.  (This distortion actually is at the root of a huge campaign by CR, something I hope to get to in a future post.)

Marcia goes on to argue that

…birth parents, foster families and relatives all need support when caring for a child, and they should not be pitted against one another as funding decisions are made. 

Nice thought.  It would be nicer, however, if CR’s lawsuit settlements didn’t constantly pit these very groups against each other.

Marcia’s Georgia settlement has led to diversion of funds to help alleviate the worst effects of poverty.  In Michigan, her settlement has led to slashing of programs to help keep children safely out of the system in order to fund a foster care worker/child abuse investigator hiring binge.  And, of course, Michigan is where CR’s war against grandparents has led to the expulsion of at least 1,800 children from the homes of grandparents and other kinship care foster parents – because they couldn’t comply with ten pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements.  (That CityPaper story I mentioned also illustrates the harm of the licensing obsession, by the way.)

Marcia also hides behind kinship parents in order to propound another myth, the myth that foster parents are barely getting by.  In fact, foster parents typically are middle-class.

More on that next week.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On our Blog at Youth Today: Another child welfare success story

Much like Maine, child welfare in Florida has undergone a transformation – the good kind.  Of course, rather than learn from this success, expect America’s foster-care industrial complex to try desperately to “Yes, but…” to death attempts to let the rest of the nation do what Florida did.

We review Florida’s success on this installment of our monthly Blog at Youth Today.  It all boils down to strong leadership, and a smart waiver.

UPDATED, JANUARY 19: Even Florida's big private agencies have learned that if they adapt to helping families they can thrive in a system that emphasizes keeping children safely in their own homes.  Read how one of the largest, the Children's Home Society, favors the waiver in this Miami Herald op ed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In honor of Martin Luther King day…

…The NAACP asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #IHaveADream to answer the question “What’s your dream?” Here’s my answer:

#IHaveADream that one day no child will be taken from his parents because family poverty was confused with “neglect.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Foster care in America: The day child welfare changed? (Part two)

On Monday, I wrote that we are approaching the tenth anniversary of what might come to be known as the day child welfare changed.

It was the day a five-year-old girl named Logan Marr died, killed by her foster mother, a former caseworker for the Maine child welfare agency.

At first the response to the death of Logan Marr was what it usually is when a child dies in foster care: The press focused on issues like whether there were enough visits by caseworkers to foster homes, were the licensing standards good enough, were background checks adequate, etc. Those are reasonable questions, and it’s understandable that they are the first to pop into people’s heads.

But whether a system will reform in the wake of a foster-care tragedy depends on whether journalists get beyond that and move on to the real problems. In Maine, that meant confronting a culture of child removal embedded in the child welfare agency. At the time Logan died, the proportion of children trapped in foster care in Maine was among the highest in the nation. 

And in Maine, it seemed, the assaults on families always were accompanied by an extra helping of meanness. – for every injury, the Maine Department of Human Services was determined to add an insult. 

The head of DHS at the time, Kevin Concannon, would not even tell Logan Marr’s mother he was sorry for what happened to her little girl – until after she went public with his refusal (at which point he wrote a very nice letter).  On another occasion Concannon, who would, of course, hide behind confidentiality when it suited him, persuaded a newspaper to print an entire court decision terminating parental rights in a case where the family had dared to challenge him publicly.  There was no warning to the family.  They just woke up to find it in their morning paper.  Remember, Concannon did this after his agency had “won.”  (I’m not opposed to newspapers publishing things like this, though the courtesy of a warning from Concannon to the family, so they would have had a chance to respond at the same time, would have been nice.)

NCCPR began raising these larger questions – within weeks of Logan’s death we were in  Maine to meet with journalists and issue a report on the system - and the state’s newspapers began pursuing them. (In part, I think, they were willing to listen because, even before Logan’s death, that other family, the one Concannon picked on, had bravely gone public and made a compelling case – so some seeds of doubt about DHS already had been planted.  It was that family that first put Maine on my radar.  We all owe that family a debt of gratitude.)

Story after story and editorial after editorial zeroed-in on the high numbers of children trapped in foster care.  Two legislative committees held hearings, and NCCPR’s testimony received prominent coverage.  An independent office of child welfare ombudsman was created, under the auspices of a leading state child advocacy group, the Maine Children’s Alliance.  And unlike most such offices, which often do more harm than good, this one took seriously the mandate to look at errors in all directions.

At about the same time, two other things happened.

First, producers working for the PBS series Frontline contacted NCCPR.  They said they were interested in doing a documentary about child welfare and were looking for ideas.  “You can always go to Florida,” I said, “something’s always happening there.  But if you want to look at something that’s not on anyone’s radar, take a look at the case of Logan Marr in Maine.”  I mentioned that, among other things, there was video of Logan complaining about being abused in her foster home, just weeks before she died. 

NCCPR provided extensive briefing material to the Frontline producers, and we were in touch several times over the following year-and-a-half.


Even more important, a very good foster parent got fed up. Mary Callahan kept finding that the children placed with her could have remained in their own homes if only the birth parents had gotten the kind of aid she received as a foster parent. Already a published author, she decided to write a book about her experiences. It’s called Memoirs of a Baby Stealer (Pinewoods Press, 2003). She organized the Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform, a grassroots organization that demanded systemic change.   And when NCCPR released the second of our two reports on Maine child welfare, Callahan joined us, and spoke at the news conference. 

Others also got fed up. A state legislator organized a four-day 80 mile march to the State Capitol – in the middle of a Maine winter - to protest the policies of DHS.

Concannon began feeling the heat.  Once NCCPR and the local advocates “kicked down the door” he had to let other reformers walk through.  So having once scorned the success of states that took away fewer children because they were “southern states” (and if you’re in Maine, pretty much every place else is a southern state) Concannon turned for help to the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, an organization founded by the reformer who transformed child welfare in Alabama.  DHS also brought in the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  But, as a Casey publication about the Maine reforms makes clear, albeit in a genteel sort of way, things didn’t really start to change until Concannon and his old guard were out of the way.

As Casey put it:

Without the right players in the right places at the right time, large scale change in any organization is often doomed. By 2004, a new group of leaders moved into key positions in Maine, people who would be absolutely essential to putting the state on an entirely new child welfare path.

That required a new governor.  Fortunately, in January, 2003, Maine got one.  Gov. John Baldacci saw immediately what the problems were. He got rid of Concannon and brought in that new leadership team.  (Concannon, alas, proved to be a classic example of “failing up” – he wound up with the same job in Iowa and now he’s in charge of the entire U.S. Food Stamp program). 

When a committee was formed to reorganize the Maine human services agency, each member of the group found a copy of Callahan’s book at her or his place at the table. Her presentation to the committee is on NCCPR’s website.

A lot more committee work, and much frustration followed. But the change has been remarkable and, by child welfare standards, remarkably swift.

● Since 2001, the number of children taken from their homes has dropped by 30 percent, and the number of children in foster care on any given day has been cut in half.

● Under Concannon, Maine workers used to brag about their hostility to placing children with relatives instead of strangers.  As Casey’s report put it: “Adding to the overall misery in Maine’s child welfare system was a clear institution-wide prejudice against placing children with relatives.”   But now, Maine has nearly tripled the proportion of children placed with relatives; Maine now exceeds the national average.

And the progress continues.  Just this week, Time Magazine reports in its print edition that the Maine division of Casey’s direct services arm, Casey Family Services, has launched an “extreme recruitment” program to find relatives to take in foster children.  The program was pioneered in Missouri, and the story of how it works is beautifully told in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

● Most remarkable: The proportion of Maine foster children who are institutionalized has been cut by at least 73 percent.

In November, 2003, Maine had 28 percent of its foster children in group homes and institutions and only ten percent with relatives (and even that ten percent was an improvement over the Concannon era, when it was only four percent).  By now that’s reversed – 30 percent are with relatives and only ten percent are in so-called “congregate care” – making Maine one of the best in the nation at avoiding such placements.

The independent child welfare ombudsman has found that the reduction in substitute care has come with no compromise of safety. He strongly supports the reforms.

It all prompted Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to make the transformation of child welfare in Maine a finalist for its prestigious Innovations in American Government awards.


But it isn’t just Maine that has changed.  Things are starting to get a little better in much of the country, though there is, of course, a long, long way to go.  And I think the progress has a little bit to do with something else that happened in January, 2003: The Frontline programs aired -  three hours in all.  NCCPR contributed an essay to the Frontline website.  There was a lot wrong with the programs, and a lot wrong with how the producers dealt with some of us – so much so that when, a few months ago, they came back to NCCPR and asked for ideas for another program, I declined to help.

But that doesn’t change one simple fact: Logan Marr was a very charismatic child, and Logan’s mother made her own case with enormous power.  They simply overwhelmed any master narrative that anyone, be it Maine DHS or the Frontline producers, tried to impose.

As a result, these programs became the first time in well over a decade that a big national news organization created a work of journalism that called into question the conventional media wisdom about child welfare – the false claims that the system supposedly bends over backwards to give too many chances to sadists and brutes who torture their children. 

For those who weren’t following child welfare then, it’s hard to conceive of just how bad it was.  But imagine that the worst of the recent reporting in the Los Angeles Times was the norm, repeated over and over anywhere and everywhere, and you get some idea.

Looking back now, I think the Frontline programs are where that started to change nationwide.   And that’s why January 31, 2001, just might have been the day child welfare changed.


There is always a dilemma in praising a system that has reformed.  It’s important to acknowledge improvement wherever it can be found, in order to encourage more improvement.  At the same time, this can wind up rubbing salt in the wounds of those who were horribly harmed by that system and never benefitted from the changes.  It can do the same to families who suffer right now because there is so much that still needs to change.

The changes in Maine came too late for the family that first took on Kevin Concannon.  And, of course, they came too late for Logan Marr.

Here’s how Mary Callahan sums it up:

There is one more person the reforms would never have happened without and that is a five year old girl named Logan Marr. Long before her death at the hands of her foster mother people had been trying to call attention to the fact that DHS was out of control. Her death made lawmakers listen. Her beautiful face made the public care.

I know her family would rather have her back than hear how important she was to the state of Maine but no one can do that for them. All we can do on the 10th anniversary of her death January 31 is thank them for their dignity and say we are sorry. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Foster care in America The day child welfare changed? (Part one)

            Someday, people just might look back at January 31, 2001 as the day child welfare changed.  Of course no one knew it at the time.  And there was no guarantee that anything good would come of the terrible tragedy that occurred on that day.

            But what happened that day started a chain of events that transformed child welfare in one state, and may have been a turning point for the nation.

            To understand that day, we need to go back some months earlier, to when a little girl in Maine named Logan Marr, and her sister Bailey, were taken from her mother, Christy.

Christy had some problems, but she had never harmed Logan nor had she allowed anyone else to harm her. Mostly, Christy’s problem was, she was poor.

Logan may have been abused in her first foster home. After that, Logan and her sister, Bailey, were moved to the home of Sally Schofield, herself a former caseworker for the child welfare agency.

In her searing account of the case, Logan’s Truth, award-winning independent journalist Terrilyn Simpson published a letter that Christy wrote to Logan’s new foster mother:

Dear Sally, 
My name is Christy. I'm Logan and Bailey's Mom. I'm writing this so you can know and understand my children. I thought I would let you know their likes and dislikes. 
Logan - she likes butterflies, pizza (what kid doesn't?), flavored noodles, pitted black olives (she likes to put them on her fingers), white cheese, grape soda, Babes in Toyland (her favorite movie) the Cartoon Arthur. Logan's dislikes - peas, fish sticks, going to bed early, not picking out her clothes. Bailey's likes - her brown teddy bear blanket (she takes it everywhere, including visits), dry cereal, pitted black olives, cheese, eggs, cooked carrots. 
Bailey's dislikes - having her poopie diaper changed (if you haven't noticed), someone taking her pacifier, fish sticks, someone feeding her (she likes to do it herself). Please ask [caseworker] Allison Peters what the kids are allergic to. 
I don't blame you for not wanting me to know who you are, I will respect that. Regardless of what you have heard or read, I love my little ladies with all my heart. I have never hit, spanked or put my hands on my girls. I do respect my children. I'm not saying you would or wouldn't, but Please don't hit or hurt my children. The girls have already been through enough they don't need the added stress in their life. 
Every night I look up at the sky about 7:45pm and say goodnight to my girls. In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. Please tell the girls before they go to bed I love them and give them a big hug and kiss. Thanks again! 

A few months later, in December, 2000, Logan could be heard on home video during a supervised visit complaining that her foster mother hurt her. Nothing was done. Indeed, at one point, the caseworker who was supposed to be supervising the placement sent an e-mail to Sally Schofield gloating about the prospect of terminating parental rights, so Logan could live with Schofield forever.
About six weeks after that visit, - on January 31, 2001, to be precise, Logan was dead.

Sally Schofield was convicted of taking Logan down to the basement and tying her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape. She died of asphyxiation.

The story easily could have ended there.  How and why it didn’t, and how January 31, 2001 may have become the day that changed child welfare, is the topic of the next post on this Blog.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Two notable works of journalism

…one to read, one to see.

UPDATE: THE "NEED TO KNOW" SEGMENT NOW IS AVAILABLE ONLINE HERE.  (Best bet seems to be to click on "Watch the Full Episode" in the upper right; it's the first story.  When I try clicking on the video of the story alone it tends to cut out about half-way through.)

The cover story in the current issue of the D.C. alternative weekly CityPaper gives hope that the reports of the death of great investigative journalism have been at least slightly exaggerated.  The story is all about the ugly, expensive, soul-destroying world of “residential treatment.”

And tonight, the PBS series Need to Know airs a segment on the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications on foster children.  Since PBS fiefdoms – I mean stations – consider it a violation of their God-given rights to cooperate and air programs at the same time more than a few days a week, you’ll have to check your local listings for the time.  But it’s on at 8:30pm in New York and 10:30pm in D.C.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Foster care in DC: The perils of paying foster parents too much

As the new year begins, let us pause to consider the plight of a former foster parent in Washington, who wrote a searing account of what it was like to scrape by on nothing more than a six-figure income, her husband’s salary and about $45,000 per year – tax free – in payments for taking in four foster children.  

            The first thing I want you to know is, I did not write the comment I reprint below from the website of The Washington Post.  I did not make up some fictitious foster parent in an effort to make foster parents look bad.  As far as I know the post is genuine and the person who wrote it is real.  

            I reprint her comment below because it’s hard to imagine anything that better illustrates the perils of paying foster parents too much, as Washington D.C. does, or giving foster parents in much of the rest of the country giant pay raises, as is proposed by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).  I certainly don't believe that this foster parent is typical.  But this is the kind of foster parent you are more likely to attract when you pay them the way CR proposes to do.

            First, a little background:  The effort to close a budget gap in D.C. wound up pitting programs to help children stay out of foster care against programs to help children already in foster care.

            In particular, Roque Gerald, who runs the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, tried to slash a program to help grandparents keep their children out of foster care.  He argued that since the children were not, in fact, in the system and the grandparents had not been accused of child abuse, this wasn’t really a child abuse prevention program. 

Yes, that really was his reasoning. As I pointed out in an op ed column for the Post:

If torturing logic were a war crime, that statement would get Gerald hauled before an international tribunal.
Every prevention program serves children who have not been maltreated. Maltreatment is what the prevention programs are created to prevent. That’s why they’re called prevention programs. Gerald’s logic is like saying a rent subsidy program doesn’t prevent homelessness because all of the people getting the subsidies are living in apartments.
The DC Council restored some of the cut – but at the expense of deeper cuts in help for children already in foster care.

Neither cut was necessary.  According to an independent monitor of a longstanding consent decree, CFSA warehouses far too many children in group homes and institutions, both the worst form of care and the most expensive.

And DC throws amazing amounts of money at foster parents, paying them at, by far, the highest rate in the country.  In fact, the rate is so high even CR couldn’t claim that DC foster parents weren’t getting enough. 

Keep in mind, CR wants foster parents paid not only for the basics but also for every toy, game, movie ticket and amusement park ride they buy for a foster child.  CR admits that the $940 per month – tax free - it estimates DC pays for a teenage foster child is enough to cover all of this and more.

But it wasn’t enough for “Bodymagicbykim.”  That’s the name a former DC foster parent used in a comment on the Post website under my op ed column.  Below you’ll find her comment, followed by my own response.

As you read Ms. Bodymagic’s comment I would ask you to ponder just one question: If something happened to you and your child had to be placed in foster care, would you want that child placed with this foster parent?


For those who commented on DC foster/kinship care parents receiving too much for the monthly costs of these children. I wholeheartedly disagree. I myself was a foster parent of four teenage female siblings. That was not enough money.

Please consider all of the projects these children are required to complete daily that require costly materials (i.e. assigned novels for book reports, magazines for collages, science projects, models of cells, one was even required to model a futuristic community). Please consider the number of leave requests the parents have to put in to get these children to doctor appointments, court hearings, CFSA family meetings, therapy, dentist appointments and include gas, car-maintenance and parking costs- the list goes on along with the hourly cost of leave at an over 6-figure salary.

These children also needed clothing, shoes, coats (replacements for the aforementioned), hair appointments (minimum $40 per head, per bi-weekly appointment - can range up to $180 per appointment for braids), bedding, linens, necessities (sanitary napkins cost us loads of money), etc.

Now, the food? If you have children, you are clear they're always feeding friends. Try feeding four teenagers and one friend each daily - that's about $1,200 per month right there. In raising productive citizens, you want to teach them how to budget and save - factor in allowance. Also, because these children had drivers' licenses, factor in the increased cost of auto insurance on TEENAGERS.

This doesn't take into account high increases to utilities, property damage, birthdays, Christmas, graduations, back-to-school shopping, gifts for their friends' birthdays, prom, summer camps at $150 minimum per week for the two too young to work, transportation and work-clothing costs for the two that could work, tutors, computer and related equipment, SAT prep class & test costs, drivers' education class, college applications, college visits, extracurricular activity costs and supplies, vacations (or should I have left them at home while I traveled the world?? That would certainly be fair).

I could go on for days. The point of the matter is that I (thankfully) wasn't in it for the money, but I can assure you that I invested quite a bit out of my own pocket. The monthly cost was not enough, honestly, if I didn't have a good salary of my own and factor in that of my husband's.

If I were a poor/middle-class fixed-income grandmother, we wouldn't have survived. So, PLEASE before you make some farfetched statements like you have that effect our livelihoods, do your research by talking to the masses who have lived it. Leave the textbook, projections, forecasts based upon bad data alone. A PhD means little if you haven't lived it! Speak to those with their MRS or MOM first - those are the letters that count most when talking about our children. I'm offended, but willing to share more.


OK, so let me get this straight Ms. bodymagic. You make a six-figure income, you “travel the world” on vacation, and you’re whining because the taxpayers of Washington D.C. supposedly did not pay you enough to cover the cost of your own foster children’s Christmas gifts and school assignments? You demand this money even if it means cutting help to impoverished grandparents raising their own grandchildren?
At least I hope you never also ran around claiming that you treated your foster children “like my own.” And I hope the young people never found out that the thought of doing for them what any loving parent with a six-figure income does for her own children caused so much resentment on your part.
The good news for you, Ms. bodymagic, is that the group that calls itself Children’s Rights completely agrees with you. They think you shouldn’t be expected to do any of this out of caring or, God forbid, love, but rather you should be reimbursed for every penny. The bad news is that they’ve calculated that DC already pays you more than enough for this – even for teenagers, for whom foster parents are paid even more than for younger children.
It’s just that you wanted even more.
And lest anyone think that all foster parents are like Ms. bodymagic, take a look at this op ed, from the kind of foster parent I think we’d all rather see in the system, someone who has indeed “lived it” and who got her MOM degree by majoring in compassion.
There’s much more at the Post website, including my exchange with Richard Barth, the Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland who was an advisor for CR’s foster parent pay report.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Another LA foster care story ignored by the LA Times

Sadly, we must begin the New Year picking up where we left off – with still another story of child welfare tragedy ignored by the Los Angeles Times and possibly caused in part by the Los Angeles Times.

On August 20, 2009 I was in Los Angeles, holding a news conference along with the excellent local grassroots group DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children.  We warned that bad journalism, (particularly the bad journalism of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times) was likely to set off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden surge in children needlessly taken from their parents.  (The material we released that day is on our website here).

As we would confirm by filing our own California Public Records Act request, not only was there such a panic, one of the worst months of the panic was August, 2009, with the number of children taken from their parents that month 20 percent higher than the same month the previous year.

Even as we issued the warning, on August 20, 2009, a little boy named Eamon was becoming a likely victim of that panic.

Pasadena Weekly told the story of Eamon, his sister, and their mother Mary O’Connor with rare insight and compassion last month.  That story, and a heartbreaking follow-up,  make clear that Eamon was born with three strikes against him.  His mother is poor.  She is, as the lawyer who handled an eviction case for her puts it, “a little odd” – but not in any way that indicated the slightest danger to her son.  And strike three for Eamon was being born when caseworkers for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services were especially paranoid about being scapegoated by Therolf for leaving a child in her or his own home and having something go wrong. 


Actually, make it four strikes.  Ms. O’Connor flunked what a Los Angeles lawyer described to me decades ago as “the attitude test.”  She didn’t know how to put on an act of groveling before DCFS workers, begging forgiveness (not that there is any evidence that there was anything for which she needed to be forgiven) and promising to jump through every hoop set before her.  Instead, she fought back in ways even more likely to anger a judge and scare a DCFS worker.

None of which changes one basic fact: There was no problem in Ms. O’Connor’s home that couldn’t have been solved with help to cope with the concrete problems of poverty and the kind of mental health care that affluent families easily can buy. 

There are other factors that may be at play here as well.

It appears that Eamon was put on the adoption track very quickly – placed a middle-class couple of “UCLA graduates” who can’t wait to adopt the boy.  California law may be the most draconian in the nation when it comes to allowing this, letting DCFS to rush to seek termination for infants much sooner than required by federal law.   The alternative weekly in San Jose did a good story about this more than a decade ago.


This case also illustrates the harm of a pernicious practice known as “concurrent planning,” in which child welfare agency workers supposedly do their very best to reunite a child with his birth parents while, at the very same time, placing the child with parents desperate to adopt.  This is like placing before a small child a bowl of broccoli and a bowl of ice cream and trusting that he will eat them both.

Similarly, middle class foster parents desperate to adopt a child are told: “now remember, your first job is to help work to reunite this family, but if by some chance you fail at that, then you get what you really want, a poor person’s child for your very own.”  As one such parent in New Jersey once told The New York Times, in real life the “mantra” for such parents is: “I'm on a plane to South America if they think they're getting this baby back.''

This also may be an example of the one and only time that that the racism that pervades child welfare may work in reverse.  Black families are more likely to be investigated, more likely to have cases substantiated and more likely to have children taken away than white families.  But then Black children tend to stay in foster care longer.

It’s a matter of supply and demand.  White infants are very rare in foster care systems, especially large urban systems – and caseworkers know that this is the one time when families will be lining up to adopt.

I’m not suggesting that DCFS is engaged in “baby-selling” or other similar allegations one sometimes hears.   I’m not even suggesting that DCFS is doing it for the bounty the agency will receive from the federal government, somewhere between $4,000 and $12,000, if the adoption exceeds a baseline number set by a federal formula.  (Funny, Garrett Therolf never writes about that financial incentive). Rather, I’m suggesting that human nature is at play, the common, albeit illegal “comparison shopping” that occurs when middle-class professionals have power over poor people -  as in workers thinking “This baby is so cute.  He’d be so much better off with this nice couple who are desperate for a child.”


What also may be at play is the way the bias against birth parents often extends to their extended families. I say that because there is another middle-class professional couple that stands ready to adopt Eamon: Mary O’Connor’s own parents.  But they’ve been turned down.  Nobody knows why (DCFS can get away with keeping all that secret).  In addition to bias against birth parents’ families another possibility is simply the fact that the grandparents live in Illinois, and interstate placements are a huge hassle.

As Celeste Fremon writes in discussing the case on WitnessLA today:

while is no doubt true that the UCLA grads can give Eamon far more in the way of opportunities than Mary O’Connor likely ever can, let us hope we are not yet parceling out other people’s children on that basis.

And now, as Pasadena Weekly explains, the same fate may befall Eamon’s sister.  That’s partly because, as O’Connor acknowledges, she “panicked.”  When parents panic the system may punish their children forever.  When caseworkers panic and rush to tear apart families, the workers suffer no consequences at all.  (Contrary to what workers claim, they are not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”  When it comes to taking away children, they’re only damned if they don’t.)

What is happening to Mary O’Connor and her children could have happened in any child welfare system at any time.  But it was more likely to happen in Los Angeles County in August, 2009.  No wonder the Los Angeles Times is ignoring the story.  Actually, that’s just as well – were the Times news side to get interested, it would probably be only to trash Mary O’Connor for every mistake she’s ever made and rejoice over the loss of her children.

WEDNESDAY: A post to the website of The Washington Post illustrates the perils of paying foster parents too much.