Friday, January 27, 2012

Open courts in child welfare: LA Judge takes a big step in the right direction

UPDATE, JAN 31: STILL ANOTHER INDICATION THAT OPEN COURTS WORK: Though only a minority of states have open court hearings in child welfare cases, they include some of the largest - New York, Texas, Illinois and Florida among them.  Once court hearings are opened in Los Angeles, nearly half of America's foster children will live in a jurisdiction with open hearings. Yet in all the years that these hearings have been open, no state has closed them again, and none of the fears of opponents has come to pass.

            Court hearings concerning cases alleging child abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County would be presumed open to the press, but remain closed to most of the public under a draft order issued Friday by the Presiding Judge of the county’s Juvenile Court.  Judge Michael Nash will hold a hearing on the draft order Monday. 

            If Judge Nash proceeds with this order as written, it will be a significant step forward in holding the county Department of Children and Family Services and the courts themselves accountable for what the system does to children and families in Los Angeles. [UPDATE: JAN. 31: At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Nash announced that he will issue a final order after making some minor changes to the draft.]  As we explain in our Due Process Agenda, none of the many other state and local systems that have opened these courts has closed them again because all the fears of opponents proved groundless.  The need for opening these hearings is superbly explained in a letter from Berkeley attorney Edward Opton, reprinted in the previous post to this Blog.

            The order also has some unfortunate limitations.  But in reading the reasoning Judge Nash offers in his draft order, it appears he considers this as far as he can go under existing law, based on rulings from California appellate courts.

            Under the proposed order:

Members of the press shall be allowed access to Juvenile Dependency Court hearings unless there is a reasonable likelihood that such access will be harmful to the child’s or children’s best interests.

Any party can raise an objection to a reporter’s presence, at which point the judge would have to rule on the issue of “reasonable likelihood” of harm.  The order offers no guidelines, no definition of harm, and no standard of proof that someone objecting to the presence of reporters must meet.  That gives lousy judges plenty of leeway to keep their courts closed whenever they don’t want reporters to see how those courts do their jobs. 

The provisions for the general public are a little more confusing, and a lot more restrictive.  According to the draft:

Members of the public shall be admitted to Juvenile Dependency Court hearings at the request of or with the consent of a child about whom a petition has been filed. Other members of the public may enter the courtroom and be present at a hearing if the court finds that such persons have a direct or legitimate interest in the case or the work of the court.  Upon request of the court, such persons shall specifically articulate the purpose of their presence.

            As I read it, this means that if the child (which often will really mean the child’s lawyer) wants someone in the courtroom, that person is allowed in no- questions-asked.  Anyone else has to prove a “legitimate interest.” [UPDATE, FEB 1: Judge Nash's final order clarifies that this is, indeed, what he meant.]

            But it’s possible that Judge Nash is saying that, for a member of the public to be admitted, that person would have to both have an invitation from the child’s lawyer and meet the legitimate interest test.  That’s unlikely, but if it is what Judge Nash is saying then it would set a terrible precedent.  It would give one party to the case a power denied to all the others, instead of leaving such decisions up to the judge.  This is exactly the kind of condition the sponsor of legislation to open California courts statewide wisely rejected.

            The other problem, of course, is that the order opens up the question of  what, exactly constitutes “the press”?

The appellate court decisions on which Judge Nash relies predate the Internet.  No doubt a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, even Garrett Therolf, would be considered a member of the press.   But the best coverage of child welfare in Los Angeles has come from WitnessLA, a Blog written and edited by Celeste Fremon, a former reporter for LA Weekly.  Is she a member of the press?  Given the strong reporting often seen at WitnessLA, I doubt that Fremon really would have a problem. But it illustrates how drawing the kind of distinction Judge Nash has in mind has become more difficult.

            The good news is that for decades Illinois and New Mexico have operated this way.  In those states juvenile courts are presumed open to the press and closed to the public.   Those states don’t seem to have encountered any difficulties.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Foster care in America: The case for open courts

The Presiding Judge of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, Michael Nash, is planning to open court hearings in child abuse and neglect cases to the press and the public.  He has solicited comment on a draft order opening these hearings.

A particularly compelling response came from attorney Edward Opton, who has practiced law in Oakland, California, since 1981.  He works with a national organization that advocates for the rights of low income children and youth. As Opton points out, toward the end of the letter, the description of the process offered by those who want the hearings closed actually is one of the strongest arguments for making them open.

With Opton’s permission, his letter to Judge Nash is reprinted here:


Dear Judge Nash:

This letter responds to the several comments you have received in objection to the current proposed blanket order concerning WIC 346.

The objectors to a juvenile court that would be presumptively open, but closed upon proper showing of good cause, without exception ignore the reasons that, in democracies, courts normally are open to the public.  The objectors point to a panoply of potential harms, almost all hypothetical, that might occur if dependency courts were open; but as to the benefits of open courts they say not a word. 

I suggest that the objectors are failing to take notice of a thousand years, or more, of history, in which the openness of the judicial system has developed hand in hand with government of the people, by the people and for the people, while closed courts, secret courts, Star Chambers have been the tools of dictatorship, oligarchy and arbitrary rule.  It goes without saying—but needs to be said more often—that the co-development and co-incidence of openness in government, including open judicial systems, on the one hand, and democracy on the other, is no accident.  Justice flourishes in the open; injustice in the dark.  This is a basic principle.  It is supported by theory and, even more important, by mankind's collective experience.  That experience is called history.

It follows that pleas for exceptions, for courts that operate in secret, cannot be persuasive unless they show that the particular proceedings they would keep secret differ in some exceptionally important respect from the great variety of proceedings, practically the whole of our judicial system, that are conducted in the open. 

The objectors to the Court's proposed blanket order do not and cannot make the case that the potential costs of open dependency hearings, such as embarrassment and stress, are different from or greater than  the identical “downsides” of openness in many other judicial settings. 
Consider, for example, marital dissolutions, applications for domestic violence restraining orders, mental competency hearings, and criminal proceedings of all types.   In all such proceedings, the alleged misbehavior of adults is contested.  Often the alleged misbehavior is reprehensible, and no matter whether the evidence of human failure concerns a bank president or a bank robber, it has the potential to embarrass not only the adult plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses, but also their families, including their children. 

In other words, the objectors' arguments that children might be harmed would apply with equal or greater force—or lack of force—to a large proportion, perhaps half or more, of all judicial hearings.  The objectors offer no rationale for making dependency hearings an exception to the general rule of open courts.  That general rule no doubt has costs for families, children included, but the benefits of open courts overbalance those costs.  No evidence has been offered that the balance of costs and benefits in dependency court is uniquely different, so different that the normal principles of our judicial system should not apply.
                                                                        * * *
The history of secret judicial proceedings teaches us that secret proceedings are unfair, unjust proceedings.  I know of no exceptions.  One side, the institutional side, has the advantage.  The other side, the individual, is the subject of the proceeding but seldom an effective participant, for she finds the procedure is stacked against her.  The forms of justice may be observed, but the reality is otherwise.

Consider, for example, typical dependency proceedings in Los Angeles Courts as described by a knowledgeable group of objectors to the proposed blanket order.  The objectors, who are children’s attorneys and/or executives who employ children's attorneys, describe the dependency court as a scene of manifest injustice:

“The typical work day of children's attorneys in court is very full.  Attorneys are constantly required to multi-task and juggle between many responsibilities.  Once the attorneys enter the courtroom in the morning, they are reading the 5-10 court reports they have just received minutes before and then they meet with and interview extended family members, caregivers and clients in the shelter area of the courthouse.  These conversations can take anywhere from 10-45 minutes or more depending on the child's current state of mind, the nature of the hearing, the complexity of the family situation and the number of children in the family.  The child's attorney must also negotiate settlements with parents' counsel and county counsel.  Throughout the day they are continuing to read late reports that are handed to them and speak to parties who continue to arrive.  When their child clients are present their attention must be focused on the child talking with them, explaining what is happening and watching for nonverbal clues regarding their clients well-being and any current distress or anxiety.”  (Letter from executives of Children's Law Center to Hon. M. Nash, November 28, 2011, p. 9.)

One might rephrase the objector's description of a routine day in court in transactional/operative terms as follows:

Children's attorneys come to court with two or more strikes against them and their clients.  They are handed written reports that caseworkers have compiled.  They now see for the first time the written evidence that will be used that day to consign their clients to be separated from their family, or to be reunited with the family.  Their clients may or may not have been consulted in the preparation of those reports, and if their clients were consulted, what they said may or may not be fairly represented in the reports.  The child's attorney was not present when the caseworker interviewed the child, and so, if there is a mismatch between what the child reportedly said to the caseworker and what the child is saying now to the attorney, the attorney is not in a good position to determine which version, if either,   is more reliable.  The children's attorneys must attempt on the spot to patch together oral evidence from family members and caregivers who they, the attorneys, may never have met before—and all this must be attempted not in a law office, with desks, quiet, privacy and staff, but in “the shelter care area of the courthouse.”  In this chaotic scene, the children's attorneys often cannot provide effective legal counsel.  Cases usually are resolved according to the recommendations of the Department of Children and Family Services, and the presence of the children's attorneys often is little more often a matter of form.  The formalities must be observed even if the reality of effective legal representation has become a distant memory, a law student's aspiration that has drained away in the assembly line routine of dependency court reality.

Does the above extrapolation from the objectors' November 28 letter fairly represent the reality of dependency court?  Is it totally off base, partially correct, or uncomfortably close to the truth?  The writer of this letter does not know, and that is the problem.  The secrecy of dependency court makes independent assessment impossible. 

What the writer of this letter does know is that allegations of unfairness, of “stacked decks” in dependency courts, are widespread, and they are of a remarkable consistency, though they enter cyberspace, via blogs and on-line comments to newspaper stories, from people who mostly are strangers to one another.  Such complaints are also consistent with principles of organizational sociology (or from another perspective, commonsense organizational politics): when isolated individuals and an institutional bureaucracy resolve conflicts in a setting where the bureaucracy is a repeat “player” and the individuals are not, the rules of engagement almost always develop to serve the interests of the repeat player, the bureaucracy—and especially so when the proceedings are secret. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Foster care in America: ABC News discovers false allegations of child abuse (against middle-class white people)

            One month after broadcasting a program about foster care in which all birth parents are evil brutes whose children, many of them minorities, must be rescued by noble white people who either are foster parents or run residential treatment centers, ABC News discovered that there is such a thing as a false allegation of child abuse after all.

            But, of course, the network probably is interested only because this is one of those relatively rare cases in which the victims are people the producers can identify with. They are white and middle-class.  That made the producers comfortable devoting an hour of ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20 to the story of the Wendrow family.  (The full broadcast version is available here.)

            If the name sounds familiar, it may be because I’ve mentioned the case before, in this Blog post.  It’s the “Ouija board” case, in which prosecutors in suburban Detroit tried to prosecute a family based on “disclosures” supposedly made through a long-discredited practice called “facilitated communication.”

            The case already had been the subject of an excellent six-part series in the Detroit Free Press.  ABC even interviewed one of the reporters for that series.  Nevertheless, the ABC News story is well worth a look, if only to actually see and hear former Oakland County District Attorney David Gorcyca during his deposition in a civil lawsuit brought by the family.  There’s also an astounding segment toward the end of the program.  It raises questions about whether the prosecution tried to hoodwink the court during a demonstration of facilitated communication.  (Click on the last of the videos available here to see it.)

            But there is particular irony in ABC News zeroing in on this particular case.  Just a few miles – and a world – away, in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit there is a more recent case of blatant abuse by prosecutors and child protective services: the case of Maryanne Godboldo.

            Godboldo’s daughter was taken from her and institutionalized for nearly two months after Godboldo exercised her legal right to take the child off of a potent psychiatric medication that was causing severe side effects – a medication that authorities later admitted she didn’t need.  The child was taken after an illegal order (a judge’s signature had been, literally, rubber-stamped) was illegally served by police.

            ABC’s Detroit affiliate, WXYZ-TV, led all other media in the city in covering the case – so it’s not as if there is any shortage of either information or video. In addition, one of the prosecutors instrumental in prosecuting the Wendrow family, Deborah Carley, also played a key role in the case against Marianne Godboldo.

There are of course, two key differences between the Godboldos and the Wendrows: Race, and class.  Given that one of the messages in ABC’s foster care special (albeit an unintended one) is that Black people can’t be trusted to care for their own children, that may well explain the network’s lack of interest in the Godboldo case.  The Free Press itself is guilty of a similar double standard.

So impoverished, minority families are victimized twice; first by the racial bias that permeates child welfare itself, and then when they attempt to get Big Media to pay any attention to what the system is doing to their children.

But things are not hopeless.  There was a time when, when it comes to this sort of double-standard, no network was worse than NPR.  But that changed last year.  Perhaps someday better producers will bring change to ABC News as well. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Child abuse: What happens when the "mandated reporter" is - a reporter?

Amid all of the calls to turn anyone and everyone into a “mandated reporter” of anything and everything that might conceivably be considered “child abuse” there is one thing that the reporters writing news stories about these bills and, especially, the editorial writers endorsing them may not have considered:

What happens when the mandated reporter is – a reporter?

It didn’t occur to me either, until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an executive order turning every employee of the University of Wisconsin System into a "mandated reporter" of child abuse.

My first full-time job after journalism school, nearly 35 years ago, was with Wisconsin Public Radio.  That made me an employee of the University of Wisconsin System.  The same is true for reporters at WUWM – the call letters stand for University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  There’s nothing particularly unusual about this. Around the country many public radio and television stations are run by colleges and universities.

            “Child abuse” means far more than, say, seeing an adult rape a child in a shower, one of the allegations in the case against former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.  Under Wisconsin law, for example, mandated reporters must report when they have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been abused or neglected.”  Wisconsin defines neglect as “failure, refusal, or inability on the part of a caregiver, for reasons other than poverty, to provide necessary care, food, clothing, medical or dental care, or shelter so as to seriously endanger the physical health of the child.”

So what happens now, if say a Wisconsin Public Radio or WUWM reporter is doing a story about families living in poverty? A single mother, speaking on condition that her name not be used, says things sometimes get so desperate that when the sitter doesn't show she has to leave her seven-year-old home alone to go to work, or she'll be fired.

Is the reporter supposed to shut off his or her tape recorder and say: "Excuse me, as an employee of the University of Wisconsin System, I’m not sure if you’re poor enough to fit the exception in the statutory definition, so my promise to you of confidentiality is null and void.  I am now required to call the child abuse hotline and turn you in"? 

It's unlikely, but it really could happen.  Twenty-five years ago, during my first months at the Albany Times Union, I covered this story about two families living in dangerous housing.

Given the conditions in the building, one could make a case that any mandatory reporter was required to call in this family.  Instead, when my editors put the story on the front page of the metro section on Thanksgiving Day, with a big photo, that got the families moved - but it took about three weeks. 

Technically, journalists already might face this issue in the 18 states in which everyone is a mandated reporter. I doubt that any actually has turned in a family due to the law.  But I think it's a problem of a different order of magnitude when a particular group that includes journalists is singled out as a category of reporter, and the governor is making a big deal about it at a time when mandated reporting is on everybody’s mind.

It’s hard enough to get news organizations to cover issues of poverty as it is.  (One reason I remember the Albany story after so many years is that it prompted by first argument with the worst editor I've ever encountered - she wanted me to drop the story and cover some political trivia instead.)  Impoverished families would have every reason to shy away from telling their stories if they knew that a mandated reporter law trumped any promise of confidentiality.  And journalists might become even more reluctant to report on the problems of poverty if it could pose this kind of dilemma.

It’s something editorial writers might want to think about before jumping on the make-everyone-a-mandated-reporter bandwagon.  Because none of the proposals says “except journalists.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Foster care in America: Child abandonment, Casey-style, part two

Foundation makes a poor choice to lead a new initiative.

            Yesterday’s post to this Blog discussed the misplaced priorities behind a new Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative “to enhance the existing network of state child welfare policy advocates working to achieve comprehensive reforms for children and families involved in child welfare systems.”

            The priorities are to make foster care “better,” and promote adoption – with barely a word, initally, about bolstering efforts to reunify families or keep children out of foster care in the first place.  After this omission was pointed out, a few such words were added to the press release announcing the initiative.

            If that weren’t bad enough, the person they’ve chosen to lead the effort has already used his Twitter account to smear and stereotype any of us who might want to do more to keep families together – he tried to hold us all responsible for the death of a child “known to the system” in Sacramento.

            I’m talking about Bruce Lesley who runs a group called First Focus.  Up to now they’ve done very little in child welfare, concerning themselves largely with broader children’s issues, like the impact of the recession on children.  In one of their few forays into child welfare, they actually took an unusually progressive stand – taking a far more forward-thinking approach to child welfare waivers than groups like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy, who essentially tried to “Yes, but…” such waivers to death.  But that only made a succession of tweets from Lesley last month even more disappointing. 

As usual with people in child welfare, the last thing Bruce Lesley wants to do is anything that would harm children.  The issue, as usual, isn’t motivation, it’s results.

            So what’s the problem with what Bruce Lesley tweeted about child welfare – and why do a few tweets matter so much?  Understanding that requires a brief recap of about 40 years of child welfare history. (For a more detailed history see our Child Welfare Timeline.)


            The family preservation movement started in the 1970s, but it didn’t really start to gain traction nationally until the early 1990s, with passage of the first federal law to put any money behind it, then called the Family Preservation and Support Act (now the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Act).

            The prospect of the federal government actually spending money on family preservation scared the hell out of what I have come to call the foster care-industrial complex, the network of public and private agencies that lives off of a steady supply of foster children.

            Those agencies started smearing family preservation to reporters every chance they got – spreading horror stories, or taking advantage of horrors the reporters found on their own.  Throughout the 1990s, any time a child “known to the system” died, the party line was that it was because of family preservation.  Family preservation advocates supposedly put it ahead of child safety.  Worse, we supposedly put “parents rights” ahead of “children’s rights” and supposedly wanted to return to the days when “children were the property of their parents.”  (For a classic example of how all this played out at the time, see my 1995 critique of how the Chicago Tribune handled the Joseph Wallace case – coverage that, tragically, became the template for much of what followed.)

In places like Arizona and Sacramento, California the smear campaign has never stopped.


            That “property” argument is particularly potent – and particularly dangerous for children.  (It’s usually offered up by the same people who spread the Myth of Mary Ellen.)

Children always are going to need someone else, an adult or adults, to make key decisions for them.  Depending on the children’s age an adult is going to have to decide how late they can stay out at night, whether they have to go to school and even whether they can cross a street by themselves.  That’s not turning children into property – that’s loving them and protecting them.

So the issue isn’t whether children are going to be making their own decisions vs. being the “property” of adults, the issue is whether the best person to make decisions for a child, and indeed, to raise that child, is the child’s parent or the government.

            Sometimes the answer really is the government.  No one – not a parent, or a foster parent or a group home or an institution - has a right to beat, rape, torture starve or kill a child.  But though I am a big-government tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it, when it comes to raising children the right answer is going to be “government” a lot less often than it’s used today.

            The fear and smear culminated in passage of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which blew huge holes into previous law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.

            It’s because of ASFA, and the mentality behind it, that even though actual child abuse in this country peaked in 1993, the number of children in foster care kept increasing until 1999, and the number of children torn from their parents over the course of a year kept escalating until 2005.   ASFA also is the main reason for a 70 percent increase in the number of children aging out of foster care with no home since 1998.

            Part of the reason the smear campaign against family preservation was so successful is that the family preservation movement failed to fight back.  Many advocates naively thought that, because the attacks on family preservation were so preposterous, no one would believe them.  But they did.  As a result, the family preservation movement nearly “niced” itself to death.

            NCCPR was established in part out of the conviction that this must never be allowed to happen again.  No smear against safe, proven alternatives to foster care would go unanswered – not even a smear of 140 characters.


            That effort includes making clear that those of us to advocate for more help for families but less coercive intervention into their lives are the real children’s rights advocates, and it is those who would make it easier for the state to control a child’s life who really want to turn that child into “property.”

If you want to know what it’s like to be treated as property, just ask a foster child who’s been moved from home to home and can’t even sleep over at a friend’s house without a government caseworker’s permission.

            And that brings me back to Bruce Lesley, and one particular tweet.  The tweet concerned this case in Sacramento – a case of a child who died after being returned to a dangerous home.  The case actually is less clear-cut than many that make headlines.  And the Sacramento Bee, often among the worst offenders when it comes to scapegoating family preservation, was much more careful this time.  There certainly is no suggestion that any “parental rights groups” were pressuring Sacramento child protective services to keep this family together.

            But good ‘ol Bruce Lesley rushed in to fill the gap with this tweet on Dec. 26:

Reasons unclear for fatal CPS decision to return a child to her parents - How do parental rights groups justify this?

            So there it was in 131 characters, a revival of the fear and smear against the family preservation movement by suggesting that we’re all really “parental rights” groups who don’t care if children die – or at a minimum somehow are responsible every time a child protective services agency screws up.

            And a few minutes later, in another tweet, he said it again:

I am saying that parental rights advocates should answer to child deaths too, as does CPS.

That is the equivalent of saying that foster care advocates or agencies providing foster care – or big, new foundation initiatives that stress foster care and adoption and ignore family preservation - should be blamed whenever a child, like, say Logan Marr, dies in foster care.

Lesley’s Twitter behavior is all the more dangerous when citing a case from Sacramento, which, until recently actually took away children at the highest rate of any large county in California.  (Apparently those parents rights groups arent so powerful after all.)


Rather than respond on the issues when I and one other advocate on Twitter took him to task, Lesley just repeated the same mantra over and over in tweet:

some parental rights groups always support parental control & treat kids as property.

After tweet:

Kids are treated as property by some. To act as if that isn't the case is what is ridiculous.

After tweet:

The whole system needs to be improved. But, kids are NEVER the property of others.

Dare to disagree with what Bruce Lesley believes and you’re allied with those evil “parents rights” groups who want to treat kids as property.  And, according to Bruce Lesley, “parent’s rights” groups somehow have something to “answer to” whenever a child known to the system dies.

This is the guy the Annie E. Casey Foundation has chosen to lead its new child welfare reform initiative. 

I have never seen Bruce Lesley tweet that foster care advocates are responsible when a foster child dies.  I’ve never seen him take to task the advocates who have left us with a system that tears apart thousands of families needlessly and churns out walking wounded four times out of five.  I’ve never seen him warn against the danger of responding to cases like the one in Sacramento with a foster-care panic, a huge, sudden surge in needless removals of children.  In fact, his tweets about the Sacramento case risk encouraging such panic.
Unlike some others in the field, Bruce Lesley has not been waging a concerted campaign against keeping families together.  As I noted above, in one of its rare previous forays into child welfare policy First Focus took an unusually progressive position.   I doubt that Lesley even knew the history of his kind of loaded rhetoric when he dashed off those 131 characters.  I doubt he had any idea of the kind of damage that kind of careless rhetoric did in the 1990s.  But that’s the kind of thing you need to know if you’re going to be in charge of a child welfare reform initiative that will depend, at least in part, on persuading policymakers and the public.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Foster care in America: Child abandonment, Casey-style, part one

New Casey initiative is was silent on wrongful removal, racial bias in child welfare.

UPDATE: 12:30PM Casey breaks its silence on keeping families together, amends press release (but  doesn't let on it's amended)

            The Annie E. Casey Foundation (a former funder of NCCPR) sent a disturbing signal last week that it is abandoning any serious effort to stop the  needless removal of children into foster care.  Worse, it is putting in charge of an effort that should be countering stereotypes about family preservation someone who has promoted those very stereotypes. (M0re about that tomorrow.)

            Casey announced creation of something called the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC – get it?) “to enhance the existing network of state child welfare policy advocates working to achieve comprehensive reforms for children and families involved in child welfare systems.”

            But the reform efforts SPARC will “enhance” are anything but comprehensive.  According to the press release in its original form:

SPARC will support a broad range of policy efforts, including permanency for older youth, child-focused adoptive parent recruitment, post-adoption services, educational stability for children in foster care, funding for permanency efforts, eliminating unnecessary delays in court processes, improving legal representation for children and families involved in the child welfare system, better regulation of psychotropic medications for children in foster care, reducing institutional placement of children, and customized services for immigrant children and their families.

UPDATE, 12:30PM: Responding to pressure from NCCPR (there've been lots of "hits" on this post from Casey Foundation websites this morning) Casey revised the press release.  The new first sentence includes the words "strengthening families to safely prevent removing children from their homes."

The problem of course, is that this means only that, for those behind this project, family preservation is, literally, an afterthought.  There still is no mention of family reunification, or fighting racial bias.

And the date on the release remains the same - Casey gives no clue the release was changed.

            Anybody see anything missing in that list?  The trade journal Youth Today spotted it immediately.  According to their story:

The interests of SPARC focus mostly on youths who have already been removed from their families and placed in foster care.

            Mostly?  How about 99.99 percent.  There is barely a word about working to prevent children from being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love in the first place.  And while there is plenty about adoption on SPARC’s list, there is not a word about doing a better job of reunifying families.  (In addition to the obvious references to adoption “eliminating unnecessary delays in court processes” is code for “rush to terminate parental rights.”)


            I’ve had the sense Casey was moving in the direction of abandoning family preservation and pushing only adoption and making foster care “better” at least since Patrick McCarthy succeeded Doug Nelson as CEO more than a year ago.

Casey continues to do good work reducing the use of the worst form of care, group homes and institutions, but SPARC’s priorities make clear the Foundation thinks reducing entries into care from more than 300,000 per year to the current 254,000 per year is enough.

            In fact, evidence from the states doing the best job of safely keeping children out of foster care suggests that far more can be done, and tens of thousands of children continue to be traumatized by needless foster care every year.

            SPARC’s priorities also confirm that Casey’s goal is permanence for children – regardless of how it is accomplished.  Permanence is, indeed, among the most noble goals in child welfare. But it also signals that Casey doesn’t much care how permanence is achieved – and might even prefer getting more kids into those nice middle-class adoptive homes rather than sending them back to the poor but loving homes from which most of them were taken.

            The only hint of even the slightest interest in keeping families together are the words “and families” at the end of the item on legal representation and the section concerning immigrant children.

            Also notably absent: anything about combating the racial bias that permeates American child welfare.

            Casey priorities also are clear in its choice of partners for this effort.  They’ve included the best of the adoption advocacy groups, a group which also has led the fight against orphanages.  Their inclusion is reasonable.  But there is no organization supporting family preservation.  Even a longtime previous Casey partner, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which has been a leader both on family preservation and racial bias issues, is absent.

            So when Casey writes that SPARC  “will also target assistance for ‘big wins’ — helping a few states gain significant achievements that could inspire policy change on a national scale” it’s not hard to guess what those will be. Probably things like getting another state to extend foster care to age 21.  There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact it makes sense.  Real parents generally don’t abandon their children at age 18; the state shouldn’t either.

            But as is discussed in our most recent Blog at Youth Today, new research suggests severe limits to how much this actually accomplishes in improving the dismal outcomes for foster youth “aging out” of the system.  It would make far more sense to put at least some of the billions expended on this into stopping so many children from ever aging in.  But that is not on SPARC’s agenda.

            Even worse is who Casey chose to head up this effort – someone who just last month saw the kind of journalism that often can set off a foster care panic and tried to throw a little gasoline on the fire.  That’s not the kind of “SPARC” that child welfare needs.
            That story tomorrow.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On our Blog at Youth Today: How “Fostering Connections” fosters more failure

             The child welfare establishment couldn’t stop gushing over the Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.  It was sold as the panacea that would significantly reduce the dismal outcomes for foster youth. 
            Now, two studies from that bastion of child welfare establishment “scholarship,” the Chapin Hall Center for Children, shed some light on how this is all working out. 
            On our Blog at the trade journal Youth Today: The fundamental failure of “Fostering Connections”

Monday, January 2, 2012

Child welfare in America: Important stories from Iowa, Chicago, D.C. and Michigan

UPDATE, JANUARY 3: If you've had an experience with child protective services in IOWA, and are willing to share your story publicly, using your real name, the columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette whose work is discussed below invites you to post to this open thread on her Blog.

           The year 2011 ended with some excellent journalism about child welfare across the country.

            Last September, the Center for the Study of Social Policy issued a report on the racial bias that permeates child welfare in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  That’s no surprise.  Iowa tears apart families of all races at one of the highest rates in the nation, four times the rate of neighboring Illinois, when rates of child poverty are factored in.  (Of course it’s Illinois where independent monitors say the emphasis on family preservation has improved child safety.)

            Across the country, states with the highest rates of removal also typically are among those with the worst rates of racial bias. Iowa is a case in point; South Dakota is another.
            Now, Jennifer Hemmingsen, a columnist for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids is telling some of the stories behind the statistics.  There’s an overview here, then a story about a perfectly fit father denied custody of his child.   That’s followed by a story about how the man’s extended family was turned down as well.  The child was adopted by strangers. 

            The New York Times has a very good story from its news-gathering partner, the Chicago News Cooperative, about cases in which adoption is not always the happily-ever-after it’s cracked up to be – particularly when the state stops paying the adoptive parents. NCCPR predicted this would happen in 1997, when Congress passed the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act which reinforced the take-the-child-and-run mentality in much of American child welfare, and threw in bounties to states for adoptions – bounties the states can keep even when the adoption fails.  We have some context for the Times story, including what little is known about the extent of the problem on our website here.

            For an excellent overview of how American child welfare got into this mess, and some of the ways to fix it, check out this Blog at the Huffington Post from Prof. Matthew Fraidin of the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.

            Another law professor, Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Law Clinic wrote an excellent op ed column for the Detroit Free Press on the widespread confusion of poverty with “neglect” in Michigan – a problem made worse by the state’s dreadful settlement with the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights.”  Sadly, Oklahoma soon may be headed for a similar fate.