Monday, October 24, 2011

Foster care in D.C.: The stories behind the statistics

A previous post to this Blog dealt with a report by the District of Columbia Citizens Review Panel (CRP), a group mandated by federal law to assess the performance of D.C.’s child welfare agency, the Child and Family Services Administration.

The report is a scathing indictment of CFSA for tearing apart hundreds of families needlessly – and often, probably, illegally.  The previous post sums up the facts and figures.  But one of the most notable features of the report are the case histories, and the appalling responses from CFSA.

Consider this case:

The “D” Family. A child was living with his uncle, who reported to CFSA that he was facing eviction. The uncle said he was feeling overwhelmed, “tired, frustrated, and hungry” and that caring for the child would hinder his relinquishing his apartment. CFSA interpreted this situation as an admission of the uncle’s inability to raise the child and an immediate threat to the child – even though the eviction was not imminent and the uncle’s story could reasonably have been understood as a request for assistance. CFSA removed the child.

The case record reveals a later email from CFSA’s lawyer to a Child Protective Services staff member stating “had CFSA responded differently to the uncle’s repeated requests for help, this case might never have led to a removal.” The Panel agrees with this assessment. No imminent danger was present. The eviction was not scheduled for several weeks. CFSA could have helped the uncle obtain a housing lawyer to help him fight the eviction in landlord-tenant court or helped him obtain housing assistance, but instead CFSA removed the child. It is possible that the uncle would have refused to take the child back even if CFSA had provided this sort of assistance. But there is no way to know. We do know that the uncle did take the child back just three days later – strongly suggesting that the uncle did desire to keep the child. [Emphasis added].

In response, CFSA argues that it was absolutely essential to remove this child on the spot because, according to the case record:

the child had been born prematurely had been exposed to PCP and was believed to have developmental delays. … [T]he uncle “noted several times …that he would not take the child back [emphasis added]… noting that he wants to leave the apartment as quickly as he could and having to care for the child would hinder this effort.”

The investigator further quoted that the uncle as saying [sic] that providing care for his nephew was “getting to me feeling overwhelmed” and the uncle was “tired, frustrated and hungry.”

Further, the uncle was himself a recovering PCP user.  The dangers associated with forcing this man to continue to care for a child under these circumstances are not acknowledged by the CRP reviewers.

But, of course, neither the CRP reviewers nor anyone else was suggesting that the uncle be forced to keep the child.  Rather, CRP was suggesting that had CFSA offered to ease the enormous stress faced by the uncle by providing him the help he needed – including a lawyer to fight the eviction or a new place for the entire family to live - the uncle would no longer feel overwhelmed and be glad to continue taking care of his nephew.

The fact that the nephew was, in fact, returned to the uncle three days later, suggests that CRP got it right.  And, of course, it’s not just the Review Panel that drew this conclusion.  As is noted in the Panel report, CFSA’s own lawyer reviewing the case reached the same conclusion.

The Panel also found appalling behavior by CFSA in cases involving battered mothers, like this one:

The “L” Family. The father of four children assaulted their mother. The Metropolitan Police Department arrested both the father and the mother following this incident.  … An aunt of the children appeared on the scene but neither MPD nor CFSA considered releasing the children to her. The case record reflected no effort to determine the mother’s wishes regarding short-term care of her children. CFSA removed the children. Their mother was released from jail very shortly and CFSA returned the children three days after their removal. CFSA could have avoided this traumatic separation and the placement of the mother on the child protection registry by permitting the aunt to take the children or asking the mother to designate a temporary caretaker via a custodial power of attorney.

Incredibly, CFSA responds that whenever it uses its emergency power to tear apart a family it has concluded, on its own and on the spot, that the parents must be “unfit” and it would be “improper” to have an “unfit” parent “make a custodial decision.”

But how, exactly, does being beaten by a man make a mother unfit?  This speaks volumes about the mindset at CFSA, as does this case, which raises the same issue:

The “M” Family. This child’s parents were in the process of divorcing, and her
father physically assaulted her mother. MPD arrested both parents and contacted CFSA. The child
’s brother was temporarily staying with the children’s grandmother. The grandmother physically came to CFSA to request that she take care of the child who was removed, but CFSA did not release the child to her grandmother. The case record indicates no effort to ask the mother to designate a caretaker. CFSA removed the child, placed her with strangers, and placed her mother on the child protection registry. Her mother was quickly released and reunified with her daughter four days after the removal.

Thanks to a successful class-action lawsuit, in New York City such behavior by the child welfare agency is illegal.  (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the battered women who brought the suit.)  That’s because the harm of removing a child from a parent is actually worse for that child, sometimes far worse, when the parent is, herself a victim of domestic violence.  As one expert testified, taking a child from a battered mother because that mother has been beaten “is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound.”

Unfortunately for the children, at CFSA, the policy on these cases boils down to “please pass the salt.”