Sunday, February 12, 2012

Foster care in Oklahoma: Inside the baby warehouses

How many children have to suffer
so adults can get their “baby fix”?

            I’ve written often on this Blog about the horror of parking place “shelters,” abominable first-stop placements where the worst child welfare systems leave children for weeks or months, to be “cared” for in shifts and then moved on to foster homes or other institutions.

            The primary role of shelters is to turn real flesh-and-blood human beings into human teddy bears who exist for the gratification of the adult staff and volunteers who care for them.

            Case in point, “Mr. Lou.” He told a local television station that he loved coming to work at what was once one of the very worst of the baby warehouses, Child Haven, in Las Vegas,  because babies and toddlers "grab my leg. They call me Mr. Lou. They tell me they love me."

But when a young child grabs the legs of anyone who will pay him a little attention and tells him "I love you" he's not getting better – he's getting worse. He is losing his ability to truly love at all, because every time he tries to love someone, that person goes away. It's even worse than the well-known problem of children bouncing from foster home to foster home. We are setting some of these children up to become adults unable to love or trust anyone.

            Mr. Lou’s comment was so amazingly ignorant that, when I first wrote about him, I’d assumed he was a volunteer.  Turns out he actually ran the place.

            More recently, before leaving the agency last year, a reform-minded director of the child welfare system in Las Vegas, Tom Morton, got all of the babies out of the shelter, cut the number of children of all ages there on any given day from hundreds – yes, hundreds - down to a handful and made sure almost no one stayed more than 24 hours.  He also fired Mr. Lou.


            Nothing like that has happened in another God-awful system, the one in Oklahoma.  Scores of children, including babies, routinely are parked in overcrowded shelters in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.  And adults still get their psychic satisfaction at the children’s expense. 

Before The Oklahoman ran a package of stories about the shelters Sunday, the state Department of Human Services apparently tried desperately to find even one national expert to tell the newspaper that shelters were a good idea.  They failed.  Then the agency turned around and claimed that they have no choice but to use the shelters.  That’s not true either.

            Data in the stories also raise the possibility that Oklahoma’s already- outrageous rate of child removal may be getting worse – and that may be partly because of The Oklahoman itself.


            One story features Oklahoma’s answer to Mr. Lou.  I won’t name her because she really is a volunteer and she almost certainly doesn’t know any better.  But what she said captures the real purpose of shelters in a nutshell.  The volunteer stops in two or three times a week to rock babies in the nursery because, she told the newspaper:

             “They are so cute — my kids are older — for me, I get my baby fix.”

             Indeed, that's just what it looks like.  Check out the 40 second video at the top of the main story showing strangers using other people's babies as human teddy bears, as they talk mostly about how much they - the adults - get from it; in effect, the "high" from their "baby fix."  It's almost as though the babies were taken down from a shelf just before the tape began, and put back whenever the adults got bored.

            As noted in previous posts to this Blog, the babies pay a very high price for giving the adults their “fix.”  As Carole Shauffer, senior director of strategic initiatives for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco told the Oklahoman:

there has been a significant amount of child development research that shows every month that babies and toddlers spend in shelters can lead to behavioral, brain and cognitive changes that can be long lasting.

“It's because a fundamental task for those very young children, particularly children ages 6 months to 3 years, is to attach to one particular caregiver and that's how they learn. It's how they learn language. It's how they learn to rely on people ... So, if they have constantly changing caregivers, which is what happens in a shelter, they cannot attach to any one of them because they are not there long enough.”

            When told about the Oklahoma shelters, John Mattingly, the former Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and someone who certainly has never hesitated to break up a family (albeit at far from the rate in Oklahoma) told the newspaper:

             “I'm really shocked. … An experienced child welfare person shudders to even think about that, to tell you the truth. That's how out-of-date it is …

 “Some teens you'll have trouble placing.  But infants and toddlers — foster parents, if you treat them right, will be beating down your doors to take care of those kids.”


            Knowing that The Oklahoman was working on these stories, in fact, just minutes after one of the reporters interviewed me, someone at Oklahoma DHS did a Google search using the terms: "Experts on shelter care for children is good."

            Apparently, they couldn’t find any such experts, because none is cited in the Oklahoman stories.  That suggests that for all these years, even as they tolerated the baby warehouses, no one at DHS actually checked to see how much harm they are doing.

            And if, by some chance, they’d actually found an “expert” somewhere to support shelters, what would DHS have done?  Would the agency then have said shelters are wonderful – and they’d known this all along?

With no “expert” to be found, the director of DHS's children and family services division, Deborah Smith, gave the usual excuse:  We don’t like shelters either, we really wish the children all could be in families, but we just don’t have enough foster parents.


            She failed to explain what it was about Oklahoma that made it so different from all the states that have dramatically curbed the use of shelters.

Here’s one key difference: Oklahoma takes away far too many children.

            After systematically ignoring the issue for more than a year, the team of reporters writing most of the child welfare stories in The Oklahoman finally noted in a sidebar Sunday that “Oklahoma traditionally has taken children into custody at a much higher rate than the national average.”

And, at the very bottom of the main story, the reporters included this from Oklahoma State Rep. Ron Peters:

Peters said he believes the big problem is DHS has been taking too many children into custody. … Peters said many reunifications occur within the first week. In cases where the children's safety isn't in jeopardy, everyone would be better off if necessary services were provided and the children were left in the home so they wouldn't have to experience the trauma of being taken to an unfamiliar home or shelter, he said.

            But The Oklahoman made two errors.  First, in noting that Oklahoma had “drastically [reduced] the number of children removed from homes” the figures the newspaper gave actually confused the number of children in foster care on any given day with the number of children removed over the course of a year. 

That mistake is less of a problem than it otherwise might be because, in fact, both figures have declined by about one-third since 2007.  But the bigger mistake the reporters made was failing to note that, even with these declines, in 2010, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Oklahoma still was taking away children at a rate 30 percent above the national average.  And the number of children in foster care on any given day was more than 40 percent above the national average.

            And Oklahoma’s record might be getting worse.

            The stories note that for awhile, DHS had begun to get the shelter population under control.  But now, the shelter population has skyrocketed again, with both shelters often overcrowded and at least one in violation of the state fire code.  The newspaper quotes from a state fire marshal’s inspection on May 31, 2011:

            “The overcrowding of this facility creates a serious and immediate risk to the lives and life safety and welfare to all occupants and residents.”


            DHS “solves” this problem by hiring a “fire watcher” a firefighter who patrols the overcrowded building watching for fire hazards.

            But The Oklahoman never explains the sudden surge in the shelter population.  One possibility: Entries into care also may be going up again.  That certainly would be no surprise.  For the past year or so The Oklahoman has been covering child welfare in the usual mediocre way: systematically ignoring cases of wrongful removal and running story after story about deaths of children “known to the system.”

            That, of course, leaves the false impression that the only mistake made by DHS workers is leaving children in dangerous homes.  It also terrifies workers into taking away even more children needlessly.  In short, it’s a classic formula for foster-care panic.  (Oklahoman editorial board, please note: This does not mean we want The Oklahoman to stop covering the fatalities – rather we want The Oklahoman to start covering needless removal as well.  Much like the Los Angeles Times, some at The Oklahoman have been known to accuse critics of how they cover child welfare of not wanting them to cover fatalities.)

            The Oklahoman stories on Sunday do a pretty good job of conveying the stark, institutional landscape at the shelters:

“Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to keep siblings together,” said Patricia Rowe, supervisor and trainer at the [Oklahoma City] shelter.

Babies sleep in one area, toddlers in another. Older children sleep in sparsely furnished dormlike rooms, two beds to a room. Older children are separated by gender, as well as by age. Some have a stuffed animal resting on their pillows.

Staff members try to arrange visits between siblings as often as they can, Rowe said.

Shelter staff also tries to make sure children have plenty of visual stimulation.
There are toys — lots of toys. … But reminders that the shelter is an institution are constant.

The murals are painted on cinder block walls. Rowe said that's a good thing because they can withstand the punishment if residents get angry and frustrated by their situations.

            What The Oklahoman reporters don’t say is that they may share some responsibility for the fact that so many children are trapped within those walls.