Monday, April 11, 2011

They can’t fix foster care – but they sure have mastered doublethink

           One of the most, uh, remarkable things about Marcia Lowry and her colleagues at the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) is their mastery of doublethink – the term George Orwell invented to describe “the power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them.”

            CR’s skill at doublethink is now on display in a series of reports and press releases about Oklahoma, where they’ve brought one of their class-action McLawsuits.

            In a previous post to this Blog, I noted that CR had issued a scathing report on the widespread abuse of children in Oklahoma foster care.  The problem, I said, was that CR isn’t lifting a finger to actually keep Oklahoma children out of foster care.

            Turns out I underestimated CR’s capacity for doublethink.  Now they’ve put out another press release about still another report.  Among the complaints this time: Oklahoma supposedly has gone too much to reduce the number of children in the very system CR itself says is a grave danger to those children.

            The report is written by Viola Miller, an odd choice given her mediocre record running child welfare systems in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Her report appears to be based in no small measure on reading other reports commissioned by CR.

            Miller agrees with what those other experts said about Oklahoma foster care.  She concludes that children are being harmed at an “alarmingly high rate” and until DHS cleans up its act, “the children in its care will continue to live in danger.”

            Then, in the very next paragraph, Miller launches into an attack on DHS for its success in getting more children out of this abysmal system.  Miller condemns DHS for using “differential response” an approach that now is used in many other states.  Every independent evaluation done of differential response shows it does not compromise safety; some have shown that child safety improves.

            And what evidence does Miller have that differential response is unsafe in Oklahoma?  The fact that it’s working.  Miller complains that the number of children in Oklahoma foster care is dropping too quickly.

            But that ignores one key fact: Oklahoma started out with, proportionately, vastly more children in foster care on any given day than the national average, and a vastly higher number of children taken away over the course of a year.  Even with the reductions in recent years – the very reductions Miller says have come too quickly – Oklahoma still tears apart families at a rate 40 percent above the national average and the number of children in foster care on any given day remains 50 percent above the national average.

            That means Oklahoma simply had vastly more cases that could suitably be diverted to differential response, and a sharp decline in the foster care population makes sense.
            Miller’s other “evidence” of a problem is that DHS offers voluntary safety plans to families who are assessed using differential response.  But that’s exactly what DHS is supposed to do.  That’s the whole point of differential response – in cases where the risk is believed to be low, you go out and offer voluntary help, not a coercive investigation.  What Miller appears to be arguing for is perverting differential response into child abuse investigations by another name.


            There is, in fact, a case to be made for the possibility that DHS is not doing differential response as well as it should – but not based on the reasons Miller suggests.

People often point to horror stories about children dying in their own homes when they are “known to the system” as supposedly proving that the only error made by child welfare agencies is to leave the children in dangerous homes.  I usually reply by saying, among other things, that child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel; they err in all directions.  Indeed, it makes no sense to think the errors go only way.

            But that also means a system that has screwed up foster care as royally as Oklahoma DHS has done is bound to be having problems getting alternatives right as well.  And, in fact, Miller found contradictions in various manuals for implementing differential response and responding to hotline calls.  That raises legitimate cause for concern.

            But nothing in Miller’s report suggests that the problems with differential response come anywhere near the scope and severity of the problems with foster care; nothing justifies any notion that there is equal danger.

            The credibility of Miller’s claims about differential response are further undermined because they are part of a pattern of CR seeking to undermine almost anything in almost any state that doesn’t involve subjecting every family to a full-scale child abuse investigation and traumatizing children with needless foster care.  CR also is going after differential response in Georgia, despite significant evidence that the Georgia program does not compromise safety.

            And back when Miller herself still was running the system in Tennessee, CR successfully bullied the Tennessee legislature into repealing a law that would have brought just a little bit of balance to the incentives judges face when making decisions about whether to remove children from their homes.

            A lot of this boils down to the whole bureaucratic mindset at CR.  Sure, foster care in Oklahoma is horrible for kids’ psyches and puts them in grave physical danger, but, they seem to believe, we’ll fix it – we’ll hire lots more workers and give them lots more bureaucratic forms and checklists and “training” and then everything will be fine.  And while we’re fixing foster care, we’ll just keep shoveling more kids into it and opposing efforts to divert kids to better options.

            Lowry likes to say that she doesn't know how to fix poverty, but she knows how to fix foster care. In fact, the results of her lawsuits suggest she doesn't know how to fix either one – and her efforts sometimes make the poverty worse.

            But even were it true, as Miller suggests, that the problems in Oklahoma foster care and Oklahoma’s efforts to avoid foster care are equivalent, that still raises a fundamental question: 

Miller writes that “children in Oklahoma are facing serious risk of harm both before and after they enter state custody.”

In that case, by tearing these children away from their families at a rate 40 percent above the national average, you accomplish exactly what?