Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: Lame excuses for trying to divert funds from Milwaukee

Last month on this blog, I reported that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) is trying to misuse a federal waiver process to siphon child welfare funds from Milwaukee to the rest of the state.

Last week, the news website Urban Milwaukee followed up and reported on DCF’s excuse.  Fredi-Ellen Bove, a DCF division administrator, first tried to claim that “any savings realized by Milwaukee [through reducing foster care] would have reverted back to the federal government.”

That’s grossly misleading.  Savings revert to the federal government under the current system, in which states are reimbursed for every eligible child they place in foster care.  But a key advantage of a waiver is that you get to keep the savings from reducing needless foster care, as long as the funds are reinvested in child welfare.

Urban Milwaukee wasn’t suckered.  The website reports that when she is pressed on the matter …

Bove concedes the state made a choice to spend the money in a different way. “We reached the conclusion we don’t need waiver dollars to meet the needs in Milwaukee.” Bove says Milwaukee has a stronger support system than other counties, with 12 months of “post-reunification” care by counselors after a child’s case is over, while other counties lack this.

But this, too, is an evasion.  For starters, it was DCF’s own stupid decision to seek only a narrow waiver focused exclusively on post-reunification services. (The Wisconsin proposal and proposals from other states are available here.)  Second, the existence of this one program has not magically wiped out all of Milwaukee’s child welfare problems.

Indeed, it strains credulity to think that Milwaukee, where children are torn from their families at a rate significantly higher than many other cities and where the child poverty rate is more than 34 percent, really needs the money less than, say, Ozaukee County, where the child poverty rate is six percent.

But if Wisconsin DCF really believes the issue is spending waiver money most efficiently, that’s all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to turn down Wisconsin’s waiver proposal entirely.

Thirteen states have applied for ten waivers.  Massachusetts, for example, is proposing to spend $20 million per year on its five-year waiver initiative.  Wisconsin, in contrast, proposes to use only $7.1 million in funds for its waiver, and the total doesn’t get that high until the fifth year.

Since the law only allows ten waivers per year for three years, surely the federal government owes it to American taxpayers to use those waivers to provide the most real benefit to the greatest number of children.  So it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money to waste a waiver on Wisconsin’s current proposal.

Fortunately, the federal government can issue ten more waivers in 2013 and another ten in 2014.  Wisconsin should go back to the drawing board and return with a comprehensive proposal to serve all children who otherwise might be placed in foster care or remain trapped there.

If Wisconsin DCF needs some help, the current proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State are good models.  You can read about them in NCCPR’s Report Card on all of the publicly-available waiver proposals, on our website here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Foster care in America: NCCPR issues Report Card on child welfare waiver proposals

Today, NCCPR releases a Report Card evaluating, and grading, all nine publicly-available proposals for waivers from federal child welfare funding rules. These are the grades:

Arkansas                  B+
Colorado                    B-
Illinois                        F
Massachusetts          B
Michigan                   C-
Pennsylvania             B-
Utah                            B+
Washington State    B+
Wisconsin                 F

The full report card is available on our website here

Monday, August 20, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: State wants to rob Milwaukee to aid other counties

HHS should reject Wisconsin’s 
child welfare waiver proposal

            There is nothing unusual about a rivalry for resources between a big city and the rest of the state.  Think New York City vs. Upstate, Chicago vs. Downstate, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh vs. rest-of-state etc.

            But I’ve rarely seen anything as blatant as what the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families proposes to do to Milwaukee.  In shocking, explicit detail, its proposal for a child welfare funding waiver describes how the state would confiscate savings made by improving Milwaukee child welfare and use that money in every Wisconsin county – except Milwaukee.

            Wisconsin is one of 13 states that have submitted formal proposals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for waivers from federal child welfare funding rules, though only eight of the proposals currently are available on the HHS website.   Under the waivers, federal money that normally can be spent only on foster care can be spent on better alternatives as well.  Since the better alternatives also cost less, reducing foster care generates savings.  Under a waiver, the state can keep the savings, as long as the money is reinvested in child welfare.

            In most states, child welfare is run directly by the state.  In about a dozen states, individual counties run child welfare.  Wisconsin is among those dozen, but it’s a curious hybrid: At least partly as a consequence of a lawsuit by the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights,” the state Department of Children and Families runs child welfare in Milwaukee directly, through a division known as the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW). 

            The Wisconsin proposal is a slapdash, slipshod effort. (Contrast it to, for example, the much bolder, far-reaching proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State.) Wisconsin proposes to make extremely limited use of waiver funds to finance only one innovative service: help to families after they have been reunified to prevent the children from reentering foster care.  And the services they propose to provide appear to be largely “soft” services, like counseling, instead of the concrete help families need most.

Even if everything goes the way the state wants, by the end of the  waiver period, only $7.1 million per year of what now is spent on foster care would be shifted to better alternatives.  That’s less than ten percent – and it would take five years even to achieve that.

            But here’s where Wisconsin’s plan goes from merely pedantic, mediocre and unambitious to appalling: Of that $7.1 million, $1.2 million, or 17 percent, doesn’t come from the waiver at all – it comes from money that is, in effect, stolen from the vulnerable children of Milwaukee County to be redistributed to the rest of the state.

DCF is arguing that in Milwaukee County they’ve already done such a great job putting plans in place, that they’re sure they will reduce reentries even without the waiver.  Since the waiver lets them keep money saved through this reduction, DCF plans to take these savings and divert the money to Wisconsin’s other 71 counties, instead of spending it on bolstering services in Milwaukee.

Or, as the waiver proposal itself puts it, on page 13:

To the extent that [the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare] BMCW experiences success in reducing its re-entry rate, the IV-E demonstration project waiver will build on the successful experience in BMCW to replicate and expand post-reunification support to the 71 non-Milwaukee counties.  Specifically, federal IV-E and state matching funds that are not utilized for [foster care] maintenance costs in Milwaukee due to lowered out-of-home care caseloads will be reallocated to non-Milwaukee counties to fund the administrative and service costs of twelve months of post-reunification support.  [Emphasis added.]

And check out pages 21 and 22, where the state seems almost gleeful as it explains in detail how Milwaukee savings will be siphoned off to the rest of the state.

As far as I know, the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR), has been silent about Wisconsin’s waiver proposal – I don’t know if they’ve even read it.  Will they actually stand silent as the state of Wisconsin proposes to siphon child welfare funds away from the county where they have a consent decree?  Unfortunately the answer may be yes.  These are funds to keep children out of foster care, as opposed to funds to “improve” foster care.  And, of course CR has made clear over and over that it is indifferent, at best, and hostile, at worst, to keeping kids out of the system.

CR may well remain silent even though CR has a special responsibility to speak up.  It was CR’s lawsuit that set in motion the chain of events that led to the state taking over child welfare in Milwaukee.  Were county government still responsible for child welfare it would have been a lot harder for the state to pull a stunt like this.

            Under federal law, HHS can award up to ten waivers per year for the next three years. There are 13 proposals for this first round of waivers. The Wisconsin proposal should be sent immediately to the scrap heap.  The state should be informed that the federal government will not be an accomplice to siphoning funds from one part of a state to another.

Next week NCCPR will issue a Report Card on all eight publicly-available waiver proposals.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Child welfare in DC: Ask for housing help, lose your kids?

            One of the many false claims from America’s latter-day “child savers” – to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves – is the claim that “we never take away children because of poverty.” 

            Point out the fact that most state laws define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter – a perfect definition of poverty – and they’ll reply that in some of those states the law specifically makes an exception if the lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter is caused by poverty.

            But, of course, the child savers have all sorts of ways around petty annoyances such as what a law actually says.

            Recall the case from Texas in which a family was torn apart for lack of housing and the flack for the child welfare agency blithely explained that the children weren’t being torn from their loving parents because they were poor, but because they were in an unsafe living environment.  “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment,” she explained.

            And now we have the spectacle of Washington, D.C., enacting what looks for all the word like a cruel, calculated plan to stop families in desperate need of housing from seeking help from the D.C. government.

            As the D.C. blog Policy and Poverty first reported in May, the plan is simplicity itself.  When someone calls the center that is supposed to help homeless families, the center promptly turns around and turns them in to the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) – the agency that investigates child abuse and takes away children in the District.

            The Policy and Poverty blog notes that this is done despite the fact that

As the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless notesDistrict law specifically states that “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.”

            CFSA claims it hasn’t actually taken any children as a result of these referrals.  But as the Blog also notes, CFSA has admitted that of all the children it tore from their families in 2010, 35 were placed primarily because of “inadequate housing.”

            And what CFSA will admit is only the tip of the iceberg.  As I’ve noted previously on this Blog, an independent evaluation by CFSA’s own Citizen Review Panel found a serious and widespread problem of needless removal of children from their homes.

            In a Washington Post story in June, Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare – and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors – cut to the heart of the matter:

What’s unusual about D.C., White believes, is that the overburdened city is using its new warning to reduce the number of families in its system by scaring away parents …  who might be able to scrape by sleeping on couches, with friends and family or in their cars.

“These people are simply walking in the door for assistance and people don’t have shelter and they’re saying, ‘We’re calling CPS on you? ‘ It’s ridiculous,” White said. “It is scandalous. I’ve never seen it done this blatantly.”

Lawyers for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said they first began hearing from families who had been threatened with investigation this winter and now many of their clients avoid seeking help.

One woman who recently testified at a[D.C. city] council hearing wept as she described her fear that she would lose custody of her younger son, a 16-year-old honor student, after the family was evicted from their apartment in April and ended up sleeping in Anacostia Park.

“I’m just so afraid,” she said. “They tell me they’re going to come and have my son taken away. I can’t deal with that. My boys is all I know.”

            Most disappointing is who it is who turns out to be behind this cruel policy.  In the District helping homeless families is the responsibility of the Department of Human Services.  That agency is run by David Berns, who earned a national reputation as a reformer for transforming child welfare, and significantly reducing foster care, in El Paso County, Colorado.

            If anyone ought to know better, it’s Dave Berns. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Child welfare in Connecticut: This is what progress looks like

            About a year ago on this Blog I wrote that Joette Katz, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, was the gutsiest leader in American child welfare. 

            At the time, I wrote that when Katz resigned from the Connecticut Supreme Court to take the job the previous January. 

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.

But most important, Katz refused to back down after the death of a child “known to the system” made headlines.

One year later, Katz’ courage is paying off.  According to an excellent story in the Hartford Courant:

Reforms have begun to take hold at the state's $820 million child-protection agency, a department that lurched from crisis to crisis with child-removal, institutionalization, and public spending rates that far exceeded the national average year after year.

Eighteen months into the tenure of Commissioner Joette Katz, child advocates, lawmakers and outside observers say they see significant and encouraging signs of improvement at the Department of Children and Families. …

There are fewer kids in large residential centers, fewer kids in out-of-state placements, fewer child removals with no immediate effect on child safety, fewer kids returning to DCF custody after having been reunited with family, and more kids living with relatives or significant family friends as foster parents, DCF records show.

The director of the state’s leading child advocacy organization, Connecticut Voices for Children, is impressed:

"[Katz is] telling the workers that she knows that every decision they make — remove the child, leave the child — entails risks. She's asking the workers to consider the whole broad array of resources available to a family, including the extended family. And she recognizes that simply removing a child is, in itself, a trauma, sometimes a needed trauma, but still a trauma. And that is a sea change for this department.''

So are legislators in both parties:

"Each death is so laden with emotion — you want to be sick,'' said state Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden, the ranking Republican on the legislature's select committee on children.

"Still, there needs to be a measured response, not a knee-jerk reaction,'' said Suzio. "From Joette Katz we are getting judicial temperament along with an intense commitment to her mission. Remember, this was an agency that couldn't clean up its act. Now, we're seeing improvement on a steady trajectory. It's still early, but she is staying the course.”

The co-chair of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children, Rep. Diana Urban, also is supportive:

Where past DCF administrations "pulled back and became ultraconservative” [after high profile tragedies] Katz "is empowering her workers to make decisions about individual cases,'' said Urban, a Democrat of North Stonington. "When she's here, in front of us, she's backing up her workers. She is not shrinking from the reforms.''

Katz has made clear she has no plans to change that:

"We can't be in a reactive, crisis mode all the time … We are not going to go around just putting out fires. We are not going to stop taking educated risks and exercising our professional judgment. Like police, like fire, tragedies will happen, even if you do everything right.''

Katz also knows what happens in the wake of the usual response to high-profile tragedies: A foster-care panic, a sharp sudden spike in removals of children from their homes.  Such panics only overload caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger.  Foster-care panics make all children less safe.

Even the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, which has a decades-old consent decree in Connecticut, isn’t getting in the way -  so far.

How long can the progress last?  Who knows?  Sometimes reform-minded leaders cave as soon as there is a high-profile tragedy.  Katz has not.  But in other cases, a new governor takes office and decides to put political expediency ahead of policies that truly protect children.  It happened just that way in Connecticut nearly two decades ago. 

A reform-minded DCF Commissioner had made significant progress.  Then in 1995, shortly after then Governor John Rowland took office, a child “known to the system” died.  Rowland exploited the tragedy and reversed all the reforms.  Nine years later, Rowland resigned in disgrace and was jailed for corruption.  The agency he wrecked did not start to recover until Katz became commissioner.

Could history repeat itself?  Of course.  But even if it does, for every day Katz’s reforms stay in place, Connecticut children face less risk of being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.  For every day the reforms stay in place, children who really must be taken from their homes are more likely to be placed with a relative and less likely to be institutionalized.  And for every day the reforms stay in place, DCF caseworkers will be less overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. So they’ll have more time to find children in real danger.

In child welfare, this is what progress looks like.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why they hype: A rare moment of candor about phony child abuse numbers

Catching up with The Associated Press, which did the story last year, The New York Times published a story in June about how the hype and hysteria surrounding the Penn State scandal obscures the fact that rates of child abuse in general, and child sexual abuse in particular, actually have been declining significantly.

Two advocates are remarkably candid about one of the reasons for this: It’s because so many of their fellow advocates want it that way.  According to the story:

Mark Chaffin, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, had one possible explanation for why it was hard for some people to accept the numbers. "The child abuse field has always been one that felt like there was not enough public policy attention, so the narrative reflected that. It's at crisis proportions; it's getting worse every year; it's an epidemic," he said. "So when people hear that the rates are going down, it really is sort of a challenge."

Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, notes that many child advocacy groups depend on government financing, and good news always brings mixed feelings. One of them is the fear that if the issue does not seem dire enough, the money might dry up.

"It is very risky to suggest that the problem you're involved with has gotten smaller," she said.

Even if it happens to be true.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Honoring outstanding journalism about child welfare

            The Journalism Center for Children and Families each year gives awards to what judges chosen by the center consider the best journalism about children’s issues.  This year, the center honored three outstanding examples of broadcast journalism.

            For starters, in the audio category, the center honored NPR’s superb series about what the South Dakota child welfare system is doing to Native American families in that state.  This series already had received one of the most prestigious honors in broadcast journalism, a George Foster Peabody award.

            One of two runners-up in the same category was another NPR series, in co-operation with the PBS series Frontline and the non-profit journalism website ProPublica, about innocent people wrongly convicted of killing their children – and the guilty-until-proven innocent mentality that often was behind the prosecutions.

            And in the long form video category, honorable mention went to a segment of the PBS series Need to Know about the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children.

            The full press release from the Center is available here. Below are excerpts from the press about these three winners and links to the stories:


WINNER: "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families," NPR, Laura Sullivan, Amy Walters, Barbara Van Woerkom, Alicia Cypress, Alyson Hurt, Nate Rott, Quinn Ford, John Poole, Susanne Reber (ed.), Steve Drummond (ed.), Keith Jenks (ed.) and Jonathan Kern (ed.)

This outstanding investigation reveals the troubling financial incentive that’s fueling the placement of hundreds of Native American children in foster care. The practice is a disturbing echo of the past, when the U.S. government routinely pulled Native youth from their families and forced them to attend boarding schools. The stories of adults who return home after being sent away to foster care illuminate the human toll on Indian tribes whose very survival depends on children knowing their relatives and learning their culture. The judges said, “This series epitomizes what radio does best: Get into your head, into your heart, under your skin in a way that other media just can't.” In response to the series, U.S. lawmakers demanded action from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

RUNNER-UP (tie): “Post Mortem: The Child Cases,” NPR, PBS Frontline and ProPublica, NPR personnel: Joseph Shapiro, Sandra Bartlett, Coburn Dukehart, John Poole, Susanne Reber, Keith Jenkins, Barbara Van Woerkom, Nelson Hsu, Aly Hurt, Stephanie D'Otreppe, Alicia Cypress, Anne Hawke, and Katrine Elk; ProPublica personnel: A.C. Thompson, Chisun Lee, Marshall Allen, Aarti Shahani, Mosi Secret, Krista Kjellman Schmidt, Al Shaw,  Jennifer LaFleur and Robin Fields; Frontline personnel: Lowell Bergman, Carl Byker, Andres Cediel, Arun Rath,  Raney Aronson-Rath, David Fanning and Catherine Upin; California Watch Personnel: Ryan Gabrielson

This series uncovers how a justice system that relies on tainted medical evidence and flawed conclusions from the coroner can condemn innocent people in prison for the worst of all possible crimes: the murder of a child. A grim topic explored in depth and without sensationalism, the series found that almost always, accused parents and caregivers are poor people of color, whose families are irreparably destroyed by heinous allegations and wrongful convictions. In addition, NPR found the physician who coined the term “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” who at age 95 admitted he was troubled to see his diagnosis used in murder cases.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Drugs in the System,” PBS Need to Know and The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, Sarah Fitzpatrick and Mar Cabra
An eight-month investigation revealed that children, especially those in foster care, were being prescribed powerful medications in combinations that left them lethargic and morose. Foster kids in U.S. were receiving antipsychotic drugs at nine times the rate of other children in the Medicaid system. Adoptive and foster parents detailed the monumental challenges they faced weaning their children off of meds in order to get to know the real child and enable them to develop a healthy attachment. This story made a sizable splash, leading to a Government Accountability Office report and hearings on Capitol Hill. Judges praised the reporting for being “voice for the voiceless.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Child welfare in Los Angeles: Children still suffer when parents “flunk the attitude test” – but the suffering no longer is secret

More than two decades ago, when I was writing Wounded Innocents, my book about the American child welfare system, a lawyer in Los Angeles told me about “the attitude test” – and how it can lead to every kind of child welfare tragedy.

It works this way:

Parents who really are guilty, even of serious maltreatment, sometimes can get away with it if they are “system-wise” and know how to put on a good act for a caseworker.  The parent who says “Oh, I am so very, very sorry.  I know I need help.  Please bestow upon me your ‘counseling’ and your ‘parent education’” may get her child returned over and over again, no matter how serious the abuse.  The parent who says “I’m innocent, damn it!” because she is, in fact, innocent, may lose her child forever. 

The attitude test is alive and well in Los Angeles (and everywhere else in America) but given how reporters tend to stereotype families, they often refuse to believe it – unless, of course, they see it for themselves.  Certainly, it’s unlikely that Garrett Therolf of the Los Angeles Times would ever have believed it, had he not seen it for himself.

He could see it because in February, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, opened hearings in what is called “dependency court” to the media and, sometimes, to the public.

So Therolf saw a classic example of vindictive caseworkers punishing children because their mother “flunked the attitude test,” and he wrote a very good story about it.  (See also this excellent summary and analysis of the story from WitnessLA.)  And be sure to read to the end: The final paragraphs perfectly sum up American child welfare.

In the story, Marlene Furth, who works for the contractor that provides defense counsel for these families, did a very good job of putting the case into context. 

[Furth] called it an "outrageous case" of retaliation that she sees too often. It is "not a daily occurrence, but it is also not highly unusual," she said in an interview.

"The problem that exists," she said, "is that there are very very many dedicated workers and they work extraordinarily hard to reunify families, and then there are many workers who don't - either because they are burned out, overworked or reached a point where they don't care."

But, of course, had Furth's firm had gotten its way, we’d never know about this case.  That’s because her firm, contrary to the interests and desires of many of its clients, has been fighting against keeping these court hearings open – in part, I believe, because it would expose the poor quality of representation families often receive.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Child welfare in Michigan: Why let a few hundred “missing” foster children spoil the party?

            It was another love fest at federal court in Detroit last week, during a hearing on the dreadful consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).

            According to one news account, the judge overseeing the decree praised “a different day, a different mindset, and a different atmosphere” in court compared to when the original settlement was reached in October, 2008.  According to another, a CR lawyer praised DHS for "some really important strides."

            No kidding.  The current director of Michigan DHS, Maura Corrigan, and the director of CR, Marcia Lowry, have identical outlooks: Both have contempt for birth families (Corrigan literally walked out on them during their one and only chance to tell their stories to one of those Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions that states and localities love to name to avoid actually changing their systems) both view permanence for children only in terms of adoption and neither cares about the slash- and-burn budget cuts in support for impoverished families used to finance their so-called reforms.  (For full details see our reports on Michigan child welfare.)

            Corrigan also is the one who wrote an op-ed column for the Detroit Free Press under the headline “Removing children from families always follows legal procedures” at the very time probation officers were illegally rubber-stamping the names of judges on orders removing children from their homes.

            So of course they get along famously.  The so-called progress largely involves hiring hundreds of new caseworkers to tear apart more families (financed in part by cutting family preservation and public assistance programs) and extending foster care until age 21.

            Amid all the celebration there is not one word about the hundreds, perhaps thousands of foster children who have gone “missing” thanks to the consent decree.

            They’re not literally missing, of course.  Someone knows where each child is individually – the foster parents and caseworkers, mostly.  But when it comes to their collective fate, they are entirely off the radar.  Corrigan and Lowry appear content to keep it that way.  They've adopted their own "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  In public, at least, Lowry's group doesn't ask and Corrigan's agency doesn't tell. 

            The children in question are those who were kicked out of the homes of grandparents or other relatives when those relatives couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with the ten pages of hypertechnical requirements to become formally licensed as a foster parent.  The consent decree requires that loving grandparents and other relatives, who often are poor, comply with exactly the same requirements as the middle-class strangers for whom those requirements originally were designed, unless they can obtain a waiver.  The consent decree deliberately makes those waivers very hard to obtain.

            Of course, all foster homes should be required to meet minimal health and safety standards – and all child welfare agencies should be required to provide the help needed to bring the homes up to those standards. But the Michigan foster care licensing requirements go way beyond that.  As I’ve noted before, the apartment where President Obama was raised by his grandmother would not have qualified under these regulations.  Some relatives simply may be too poor to provide all the required middle-class creature comforts.

            But Lowry, the ultimate bureaucrat, has shown that she doesn’t give a damn.  Licensing brings in federal money so the children be damned.  (Licensing also makes the relatives eligible for higher payments – no one is saying they shouldn’t be allowed to be licensed if they want it.)

            But damned to where?  Lowry doesn’t know, and DHS isn’t telling.

            The only clues to what is going on are in the periodic reports issued by the monitor for the decree.  The figures provided in those reports are confusing – and the most recent such report mentions only the number of unlicensed homes closed without any mention of the number of children affected.  But it appears that more than 2,000 children have been kicked out of homes with relatives since the decree went into effect.

            Where did they go?

            ● In some cases, they may have gone back to their own homes, almost always a positive outcome.

            ● In other cases, though children were forced to move, the home really might have been substandard and closing the home may have been valid.

            ● And in other cases (now that the monitor is reporting only on homes, not children) the home actually might not have had any children in it.

            But that probably still leaves hundreds of children needlessly kicked out of the homes of loving relatives and forced to live with strangers.  They may be bouncing from foster home to foster home and /or facing abuse in foster care, all to satisfy Marcia Lowry’s licensing fetish and the hostility to families she shares with Maura Corrigan. 

            The hostility runs so deep that I can find no public statement from either Lowry or Corrigan expressing the slightest concern about these children or the slightest interest in finding out what happened to them.

            The monitor, Kevin Ryan, says he’s trying to find out what happened to the children, but only those who were expelled from relative homes after July, 2011.  Why that date?  Because that’s when a new consent decree superseded the original consent decree, so he has no authority before that date.   

            So when it comes to all the children expelled from the homes of relatives between October, 2008 when the first decree was signed and July, 2011, when the second decree was signed, absolutely no one is inquiring into their status.

            After all, if they did, it might spoil the party.

Monday, June 25, 2012

How to keep foster children off psychotropic meds in one easy lesson

            The issues in politics are not complex, even though the politicians tell us so to convince us of their importance – and to keep us from criticizing them.
--Costa Gavras

The issue of the misuse and overuse of powerful, dangerous psychiatric medications on foster children finally is getting some of the attention it deserves at the national level.

It was the subject of a GAO report and a comprehensive study from PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Most important, it’s a top priority of the nation’s highest-ranking child welfare official, George Sheldon, who runs the Administration for Children and Families.  He led efforts to curb the use of these medications when he ran the Florida Department of Children and Families.  He’s convened a summit on the issue, bringing together officials from all 50 states, at the end of August.

But in child welfare there always is the danger that latter-day “child savers” will try to make complicated what really is not – in order to convince us of their importance, keep us from criticizing them, and avoid actually doing anything about the problem. 

A reminder of why this issue really is not complex comes this week in a superb dissection of child welfare in New York City, published in the New York Review of Books.   (Most of it is behind a paywall, but it’s well worth the $4.99.  

This article, when read along with the stories in the current issue of City Limits, like this one, and last year’s New York Magazine story on the real world of caseworkers, offer a definitive portrait of the real state of child welfare in New York today – and how it got that way.

There is much that is outstanding about this most recent article, including its keen understanding of the history and current reality of child welfare in New York, and the vital role of groups like the Child Welfare Organizing Project in improving that reality for thousands of families.  (Over the years, NCCPR has received grants to help CWOP with media work.)

The story also includes this case example, which will be followed by a pop quiz:

[A] mother who was in a drug treatment program lost her child after a single relapse.  For a while, mother and daughter were allowed to meet regularly at a desolate Bronx foster care agency beside a gravel yard where garbage blew around like tumbleweeds.

One day, when the child appeared with a black eye somehow acquired in her foster home, the mother became hysterical, and the police were called. The child was placed in a new foster home, but after that, mother and daughter spiraled into madness.

While scrambling to assemble court documents, the mother managed to obtain the original report filed when her daughter was first taken away. This document, signed by the New York State commissioner for children and family services, states that the original allegation of neglect was “unfounded”—aside from the single drug relapse, the report said the child was well taken care of.

Nevertheless, because of the mother’s angry outbursts, she lost her parental rights last February. Her daughter, now eight and taking four psychotropic medications to control her behavior—including one that can cause irreversible catatonia and drooling—is, the mother told me, up for adoption.

So, here’s your pop quiz: What would have been the best way to prevent this girl from winding up “taking four psychotropic medications to control her behavior—including one that can cause irreversible catatonia and drooling.”

Any questions?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Foster care in Nebraska: Signs of real progress – but the rate of removal in North Platte is insane

For years, NCCPR, along with outstanding state advocates like the Family Advocacy Movement in Omaha, have been sending one message to the child welfare establishment in Nebraska: The state must get its obscene rate of tearing apart families under control.

Now it looks like the message is getting through.

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 12:  Thomas Pristow, Director of the Division of Children and Family Services in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, has written to NCCPR to explain the discrepancy discussed in the August 24 update below.  He says Nebraska gave the same figures to the federal government and to the voluntary database.  But, he says the Nebraska "Court Improvement Project" asked   the organization maintaining the voluntary database to adjust the figures to remove children placed in foster care through the state agency dealing with juvenile delinquency.  Pristow does not explain why the Court Improvement Project made this request.  The Supreme Court Commission on Children in the Court, a key part of the Court Improvement Project, includes three places for top officials of DHHS.  

Unfortunately, Pristow did not mention any of this when he first wrote to NCCPR on July 6 to take umbrage at even the slightest suggestion that his agency might have fudged the figures.  Indeed, Pristow did not investigate the discrepancy until after we pointed it out in the update below.

UPDATE, AUGUST 24, 2012: It now appears that the message has not been getting through to the extent that I'd hoped.  In the post below, I warned that the state might be fudging the figures.  That appears to be what happened.

The source for the data on which this post is based is a set of figures Nebraska reported to a voluntary database.  The federal government has a separate database.  States are required to report entries into care to this database, and there are specific rules for what constitutes an entry into care.  

The federal Department of Health and Human Services has just released figures from that database for the year ending September 30, 2011 – the same time period discussed in this index.  The figures are available here

Nebraska reported a much higher figure for the total number of children removed from their homes to this database: 3,151.  In contrast, Nebraska reported only 2,540 entries to the voluntary database.  

So the statewide figure in the NCCPR Nebraska Rate of Removal Index should be considered invalid.  However, the index still probably gives an accurate indication of how counties in Nebraska compare to each other.  In other words, if the state fudged the figures, the state probably fudged those figures the same way in every county.

Today NCCPR releases its Nebraska Rate of Removal Index, which compares rates of child removal for the Nebraska counties that include more than three-quarters of the children removed from their homes.

These are new data, not yet released by the federal government, for the year ending Sept. 30, 2011.  The key findings:

● If the data are accurate (that is, if the state Department of Health and Human Services did not fudge the figures) Nebraska reduced the number of children torn from their parents by 25 percent over the previous year, an important and impressive change in direction.

● However, even with this decline, Nebraska still is taking away children at a rate that is among the highest in America.

● There are significant variations within the state.  The rate of removal in Lincoln County (North Platte) is insane – nearly double the state average.  In fact, the rate of removal in Lincoln County is so high that, were this county its own state, it would have, by far, the highest rate of removal of any state in America.

● Scotts Bluff County, Madison County, and Lancaster County (City of Lincoln) also are alarmingly high, even by Nebraska standards.

● This jibes with what the Family Advocacy Movement has been hearing anecdotally about the behavior of DHHS, the courts, and law enforcement in these counties. 

● None of the measured counties in Nebraska is as low or lower than the national average.

● The data show no correlation between high rates of removal and improved child safety – as measured by the key outcomes used by the federal government.  These data also are available in the NCCPR Nebraska Rate-of-Removal Index.

The full press release, and the full Rate-of-Removal Index, which includes links to the raw data from which it is compiled, are available at the Nebraska Resources Page at www.nccpr.org 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Foster care in America: Rutledge Q. Hutson is gloating - and that’s never good news for children

Regular readers of this blog might remember Rutledge Q. Hutson.  Her formal title is Director of Child Welfare Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.  A better title would be Leader of the “Yes, but…” Brigade that tried to stop Congress from enacting waivers from federal child welfare financing restrictions.  Those restrictions limit a huge pot of federal child welfare aid to funding foster care and nothing else.

Hutson is an expert practitioner of a standard tactic of America’s latter-day “child savers:” never say no to a good idea, just “yes, but…” it to death.

Despite her best efforts, Congress passed a law restoring the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue up to ten child welfare waivers per year for the next three years.  But what Rutledge Q. Hutson and her allies couldn’t do in Congress, they managed to do through their man on the inside, Bryan Samuels, who runs the Administration on Children Youth and Families within HHS.  As is discussed in previous posts to this blog, Samuels has issued guidelines that effectively undercut the intent of waivers – to reduce needless foster care.  Instead, the guidelines seek to turn waivers into a program to make foster care “better” by providing more “services” to improve children’s “well-being.”

So it’s no wonder that last week, Rutledge Q. Hutson couldn’t resist gloating.  She took her victory lap during a meeting of representatives of various child welfare organizations.  For starters, she admitted the obvious: That she had, in fact, been against the waivers all along.  But not anymore.  Bryan Samuels had so radically altered their true purpose that Hutson was thrilled.  In particular, she’s ecstatic over the fact that waivers won’t be evaluated based on whether they keep children safely out of foster care and prevent reabuse. Instead, for a waiver to be successful it will have to show it also improved these children’s “well-being.”

This ignores two salient facts:

● The purpose of child protective services, the agency that can come into your home and take away your child, is not, in fact, to apply subjective judgments about that child’s “well-being.” Rather, its purpose is to prevent children from being abused.

● One of the best ways to improve any child’s “well-being” is to get him out of foster care if he’s already there and keep him out if he’s never been taken away.

Like almost all child savers, Hutson means well.  After all, the very first child saver, Charles Loring Brace, who, in the 19th Century, engineered the confiscation of thousands of poor Catholic immigrant children and shipped them off to the south and Midwest to be raised by Protestant families, also meant well.  He sincerely believed Catholic immigrant parents were genetically inferior, and his scheme was essential for their children’s “well-being.”  Both Charles Loring Brace and Rutledge Q. Hutson have devoted much of their professional lives to a vision for helping vulnerable children.  The problem isn’t the good intentions, the problem is the lousy vision.


Turning child welfare agencies into Well-Being Police sets up both waivers, and parents, to fail.  It actually risks increasing entries into care in states with waivers.

That’s because it compounds one of the biggest problems in the system right now: the fact that once a parent loses a child to foster care that parent actually is held to a higher standard than a parent who never had child protective services in her life in the first place.

For example, no law says that a person who is unemployed can’t have a child.  But once a child is in foster care, getting a job – not just any job, but a job that satisfies the whims of a caseworker - often is a condition for getting the child back. Similarly, no law says that parent who lacks housing deemed suitable by a caseworker can’t have a child.  But once the child has been taken away, regardless of the reason, “suitable housing” often is a condition for getting a child back.  Witness these cases from Texas and South Carolina.

Now, under the Samuels waiver guidelines, the bar for getting a child back and being allowed to keep that child is raised still higher.  Waiver success, and therefore, parental success, is to be judged not only based on whether the parent does not abuse the child, but also on the basis of whether all sorts of “well-being” indicators improve.  So if a waiver keeps children safely at home but they still do poorly at school, that’s a failure.  If a waiver keeps children safely at home but they still have the same emotional problems (plus those that may have been caused by foster care) that, too, is considered a failure of the waiver and the parent.

Obviously, that ratchets up the pressure on parents.  And it creates a back door to bring the coercive power of child protective services far deeper into a family’s life.  In short, it gives child protective services even more grounds to tear apart families and hold children in foster care.

Gwendolyn Clegg, a parental defense attorney in Oklahoma, aptly summed up the problem with this approach in a recent article in the Tulsa World:

"Social workers want to fix all the issues in the whole family. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. …[but] The law only requires you be a D-plus parent, meaning it only requires them to correct the reasons their kids came to us.”

Of course that kind of statement gives a lot of my fellow liberals (especially Rutledge Q. Hutson-type liberals) apoplexy.  After all, shouldn’t every child have A-plus parents?

Well yes.  But not by government force or fiat.

There are all sorts of ways government can and should improve children’s well-being.  Government could ensure that every American has decent health care.  Government could pour funds into low-performing inner city schools (and, by the way, stop scapegoating the people who teach there.)  Government could guarantee access to high quality day care and preschool.  Government could ensure that no American is homeless or lacks decent housing.

Every step the government takes to reduce the scourge of poverty will improve all children’s well-being and help parents do an A-plus job.  And not one of those steps involves imposing on families the extremely dangerous, coercive power of the state.

When it comes to what government should be able to do by force of law to a family, it should indeed require no more than D-plus parenting.  There are a lot of good reasons for that, not least the fact that, foster care so often produces D-minus outcomes for children.

The idea of government as Well-Being Police also plays right into the hands of those on the far right who love to stereotype all liberal ideas, and undercut all efforts of government to offer a true helping hand, by exploiting the extremism reflected in the Hutson-Samuels approach.


Does this mean waivers are doomed to do more harm than good?  Not necessarily.  The actual federal law creating the waivers includes none of this nonsense perverting their intent.  What Samuels has issued are guidelines.  Waiver proposals that focus on their rightful purpose, safely reducing foster care, and on measuring success by seeing if foster care is, in fact, safely reduced (as determined by things like reabuse rates and rates at which children are returned to foster care) still can be approved, particularly if there turns out not to be a lot of competition for the ten available each year.

And the public will have some voice, at least in theory.

The first round of waiver proposals are due on July 9.  At some point thereafter, ACYF will post the proposals on its website and solicit public comment.  So check back then and see if your state has submitted a waiver proposal.  Then speak out – for it if it meets the true purpose of waivers, and against it if it’s the kind of waiver that would make Rutledge Q. Hutson and her latter-day child saver allies jump for joy.

Because the final decision rests with someone who understands what a waiver is supposed to do.

ACYF is part of the Administration for Children and Families, which is run by George Sheldon.  Back when he was running the child welfare system in Florida, which implemented a classic waiver with great success, he testified at that same hearing as Rutledge Q. Hutson.  During that hearing Sheldon talked about meeting with former foster children:

Child after child after child told me I would have rather stayed at home and dealt with the issues in that home than gone into a foster care system where I was moved from home to home and school to school.

So the best hope, maybe the only hope, for what should have been the biggest change for the better in American child welfare in decades is that George Sheldon will show Bryan Samuels who’s boss.