Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Foster care in dairyland: CR brings its war against grandparents to Wisconsin

When 13-month-old Christopher Thomas of Milwaukee was beaten to death by the aunt who was caring for him, everyone familiar with child welfare in Wisconsin saw it as a tragedy.  That includes the people at the group which so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights.  For all their many faults, there’s no question they care deeply about vulnerable children.

But, it seems, CR also saw the death as something else: an opportunity to bring its war against grandparents to Wisconsin.  And, sadly, it is succeeding.

This week CR issued a report which, by their standards, was practically gleeful in recounting the big new bureaucratic hurdles the state has put in the way of grandparents and other relatives who come forward to take in children through kinship foster care.

As has been noted often on this blog, there is a wealth of research showing that kinship foster care is more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care.  And there is no evidence that these benefits are any greater, or any less, if the grandparent or other relative is “licensed.”

But for an organization as enamored of bureaucracy as CR, licensure is the Holy Grail.  All over the country, CR has been trying to force grandparents to comply with the same licensing regulations required of strangers.

The problem, of course, is that just as most parents who lose children to foster care are poor, so are most grandparents.  But licensing regulations typically are geared more to middle class creature comforts than to health and safety.  So poor people can’t always meet all of them.  CR’s response boils down to: Who cares?  If you can’t comply with a plethora of bureaucratic regulations you can’t possibly be any good as a caretaker.

Not that CR says that, of course. They always point to how the pages of new bureaucratic regulations they want to impose include exceptions – but those exceptions are extremely hard to get. 

This can be seen in Michigan, where CR’s obsession with licensing has forced at least 1,500 children to be expelled from the homes of grandparents and other relatives – and no one is tracking what happened to them.

Wisconsin, in contrast, had been sensibly flexible about all this – until the death of Christopher Thomas prompted the state to impose an astoundingly byzantine licensing scheme. 

Now, Wisconsin doesn’t just have licenses for grandparents, it has five separate levels of licensing.  And don’t even think of taking in a level 3 child if you’ve only got a level 2 license!  But wait, there’s more: A process for granting “exceptions” that is so complex it requires creation of an “exceptions panel” to rule on requests.  It also requires that any grandparent who wins an exception from a regulation create her or his own specially- approved alternate means of complying with “the intent of the requirement.”  On the other hand, that’s not required if grandma seeks a “waiver” instead of an “exception.”  (There is no mention of whether there is a “waiver panel” or if the “exceptions panel” is empowered to handle waivers as well).  The regulations also impose an exhaustive regimen of training on grandparents who are likely to be pretty exhausted to begin with from suddenly being called upon to take in the children.

Since this is every bureaucrat’s dream, CR’s director, Marcia Lowry must be in heaven! 

Well, not quite.  It seems there’s still a loophole or two. 

For one thing, although every kinship foster parent must apply to be licensed, they don’t actually have to receive a license.  Under some circumstances, if the relatives find the process too burdensome or too overwhelming; or if they’re simply is too suspicious of the child welfare agency to want to be under its thumb, they can withdraw from the process.  They won’t get nearly as much in payments to help defray the costs of raising their children, but it remains their option.  The agency then decides if the love the relatives have shown is more important than meeting every technicality required for licensure.

And, in an indication of just how onerous licensure has become under CR’s grand scheme, 57 percent of the first group to go through the process, 194 in all, dropped out.

What is CRs response?  Do they consider that maybe, just maybe, the whole licensing process, geared to young, middle class strangers, is too burdensome for older, impoverished relatives?  Of course not.  CR demands that the loophole be closed and those who drop out not be allowed to keep the children in their care unless a court approves.  Of course CR knows full well that every judge is thinking: “If I approve this and something goes wrong, I’ll be blamed for causing ‘the next Christopher Thomas.’”  It’s going to be hard enough to get agencies to show the wisdom and courage to allow unlicensed relatives to keep the children, let alone get a judge to approve.

Or consider this classic example of the CR mindset:  Common sense says that if Aunt Jane and Uncle Joe are willing to take in their nephew, and their mother, Grandma Sally also lives in the home that’s an extra benefit.  But CR says it may be a threat.  So not only must Jane and Joe get medical examinations and have a medical professional provide a written statement that they have no physical or mental problems that could affect their ability to care for the child, Grandma Sally has to go through this as well.

The State of Wisconsin did allow an exception if Grandma Sally has no health insurance (not every grandma is old enough for Medicare) and can’t afford it.  CR’s response: Close that loophole!  Damn the expense to the family!  Sally is way too much of a risk to be allowed in that house until a medical professional checks her out!

No wonder, as noted in the previous post to this Blog, the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut wants to move in precisely the opposite direction.

As I’ve noted before on this Blog, there can be real advantages to licensing both to states and to relatives themselves.  That’s why states should encourage licensing and help relatives to meet licensing standards.  It is not, however, reason enough to threaten the stability of children living with loving relatives.

So what can we expect in the future in Wisconsin?  Sadly, it’s likely to be another mass expulsion of children from the homes of grandparents and other relatives in the name of CR’s obsession with licensing and bureaucracy.  Soon, there is likely to be another state full of children wronged by “Children’s Rights.”

POSTSCRIPT: If you want to see exactly what Marcia Lowry and her minions at CR will never understand about love and family and kinship check out this story from the CBS Evening News.  Could anything be worse than some bureaucrat showing up at their door and taking the children away because of some picayune licensing requirement?