Monday, June 27, 2011

Foster care in Connecticut: Why Joette Katz needs to watch her back

            This week, on our monthly Blog at the trade journal Youth Today, I wrote about the gutsiest leader in child welfare.

            That would be Joette Katz, who resigned from the state supreme court to run the  Connecticut Department of Children and Families.  She immediately set about trying to reverse the take-the-child-and-run mentality that has dominated Connecticut DCF for decades.

            The state takes away children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average, when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state.  And it warehouses children in group homes and institutions at one of the highest rates in the nation.

            Just last week, she won what amounts to a vote of confidence from the state legislature.  And then, days later, a child known-to-the-system died.

            Often, that’s when child welfare agency chiefs cut-and-run.  But not Joette Katz, telling the excellent online non-profit news site, The Connecticut Mirror:

"I think in the past that's been exactly the mistake, frankly," Katz said. "A child dies and the next thing you know workers are getting thrown under the bus and 500 children get removed [from their homes] the next day because it's a reaction to a tragedy. I think that's the exact wrong way to behave."

            But Katz will face much more pressure in the months and years ahead – and so will her boss, Gov. Dannel Malloy.  It’s happened so often the same way across the country that one might think there’s a playbook somewhere explaining exactly how to bring down a child welfare reform effort.  In fact, it’s more a matter of grandstanding politicians and people who make their living holding children in substitute care doing what comes naturally.

            The data on the astounding number of children Connecticut stashes in group homes and institutions suggest that the state has a particularly powerful “foster care-industrial complex” – the private agencies who run all those group homes and institutions that are paid for every day they warehouse children. 

            Indeed, the Hartford Courant reported in January on what amounts to a rare outbreak of candor among these agencies (the reasons for which will become clear below). According to the Courant  “directors of treatment centers and heads of the trade groups that represent them pointed out in interviews last week that facilities need referrals from DCF to stay in business.”

            So what will happen when they start getting fewer referrals?

            The first option is to wait for the first tragedy that can be pinned on the reforms.  For example, one of the Connecticut reforms is “differential response,” in which families involved in cases believed to be less serious are offered voluntary help instead of a child abuse investigation.  As I’ve noted often on this blog, in a review of the scholarly literature concerning differential response, the Vera Institute of Justice found that every single study of the practice found no compromise of safety, and many found that safety improved.

            But it won’t work every time.  No system gets it right every time.  At some point a child will be wrongly diverted to this program and then something terrible will happen to that child.  When – not if, when – that happens, the members of Connecticut’s foster care-industrial complex will come out from under their rocks, fingers wagging, saying See?  See?  Katz is doing too much to try to keep families together!  The pendulum has swung too far!

            The private agencies will exploit the case in every way they can to drown out the fact that children also die in group homes, institutions and foster homes, and to overwhelm all those studies about the safety of differential response.  And, unfortunately, unless the Connecticut press corps is unusually vigilant, they may well succeed.

            Or if the financial pressure on the institutions gets bad enough soon enough they won’t wait for a fatality.  They’ll start leaking files about cases that didn’t go wrong but could have – cases where differential response was used in the face of what the agencies will claim are obvious warning signs.  (Some of the claims might be true. When an agency handles thousands of cases each year, it’s going to screw some of them up, in all directions.  But no one has a financial incentive to leak files about cases of wrongful removal.)

            All the way back in 1993, when New York City made some early, tentative steps toward reducing entries into care, the now-defunct New York Newsday ran a huge story under the headline “Children sent home to mom, dad danger” – a collection of leaked case files.  There were several of them, in a city which then and now handles tens of thousands of cases every year.

            Of course the reporter did not reveal the sources for the leaked documents – but the fingerprints of the city’s private agencies were all over the story.  (One lesson from this: If the demonstrable benefits to children and the public’s right to know isn’t enough reason to open court hearings and most records in these cases, how about the fact that doing so takes control away from those who leak such records selectively?)

            Much more recently, this past January in fact, the Courant ran a huge story about the serious and real problem of Connecticut warehousing children in residential treatment centers out of state.  But the one and only solution offered in the story was to warehouse the children in state.  The story portrayed Connecticut’s own providers as ready and willing to provide everything these young people needed, but they were forced to watch with empty beds (yes, empty beds!) as the children were sent elsewhere.

            At no point did anyone suggest calling the local institutions’ bluff by demanding that they accept “no reject, no eject” contracts – much less suggest that the solution is not institutionalizing so many children at all.

            So the only question now is whether the same providers will receive an equally-credulous reception when they start leaking stories about problems with Connecticut’s reforms – the ones that haven’t even begun yet.

And see also our op ed column in The Day of New London, Ct., supporting Justice Katz's reforms.