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.