Monday, May 14, 2012

Foster care in Maine: Will one dumb politician undo a decade of progress?

UPDATE, MAY 16: Longtime Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz has a great column today about a classic case of Maine's child welfare agency confusing poverty with neglect - a perfect illustration of why the state needs to do more, not less, to curb needless foster care.

I’ve written often about the transformation of child welfare in Maine, and how child safety improved after the state abandoned a take-the-child-and-run approach in favor of one which emphasizes safe, proven programs to keep families together.  I’ve written about how the death of Logan Marr, a little girl taken needlessly from her mother only to die at the hands of her foster mother, a former child welfare caseworker, shocked the conscience of the state.

Maine’s reforms have been recognized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which made those reforms a finalist for its Innovations in American Government awards.  The executive director of Maine’s leading child advocacy organization, the Maine Children’s Alliance, who also serves as the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman, even wrote a guest column for this Blog praising the reforms.

Unfortunately, because child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA, sometimes all it takes is one dumb politician to bring down a decade of reform.  Looks like Maine has found its dumb politician, the current governor, Paul LePage.  For starters, as Governing magazine reported, LePage got rid of Jim Beougher, the head of the child welfare division at the state Department of Health and Human Services, who led the reform effort.

Now LePage has found a horror story to exploit. In the wake of that case, LePage now says he “feels” that the state has gone too far in reducing entries into care.  The state’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, compounded the error by confusing two sets of numbers, wrongly claiming that entries into care in Maine have been cut in half.  They have not.

Here are the facts, and how they stack up against LePage’s “feeling.”

● No state can prevent every child abuse death.  Though each is the worst form of tragedy let us be grateful that the number is low enough, especially in a small state like Maine, that the number can rise or fall due to random chance.  That’s why the federal government uses a different measure: the percentage of children reabused in any way within six months after their cases become “known to the system.” 

Since Maine began its reforms in 2003, that percentage has declined by 20 percent.  In other words, with caseworkers spending less time on false allegations and trivial cases, they have found more children in real danger, and made Maine’s children safer – not safe enough, but safer than they were during the era of take-the-child-and-run; the era to which LePage apparently wants to return.

● The claim that the number of children removed from their homes in Maine has declined by 50 percent is flat-out false; and all it takes is two clicks of a mouse to prove it. 

Every state must report these data to the federal government.  In Maine, the number of children removed over the course of a year peaked at 1,052 in 2000 and 1,047 in 2001.  Click here to see for yourself. The number of removals fell after Logan Marr died, and after the PBS series Frontline exposed the failure of Maine’s former take-the-child- and-run approach to the entire nation.  In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, 760 children were taken from their families in Maine.  Again, click to see for yourself.

So yes, over the course of a decade, entries declined, as they should – but by about 27 percent, not 50 percent.

● As can be seen by clicking on those same links, the number that fell by about 50 percent is the number of children trapped in foster care on Sept. 30 of each year.  But that number can rise or fall for reasons totally unrelated to whether children are taken away in the first place. 

Children taken more than a decade ago, during the heyday of Maine’s take-the-child-and-run fanaticism, may simply “age out” of the system with no place to go.  Other children, like the suspect in the current tragedy, himself a former foster child allegedly abused in foster care, are adopted.  This “snapshot number” is important, but it tells you nothing about whether a state is doing more to keep children out of the system in the first place.

● NCCPR compares the propensity of states to take children from their homes by comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children living in each state.  By that standard, Maine still takes away children at a rate slightly above the national average.  In other words, if anything, the reforms in Maine haven’t gone far enough.

Maine also has made great progress in where it places children when they really do need to be taken from their homes.

● Study after study has found that, when a child really must be taken from her or his home, placing that child with relatives is more stable, better for children’s well-being, and most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”  Back when Logan Marr died, Maine had one of the worst records in the nation for kinship care.  Now, Maine uses kinship care at a rate slightly above the national average, though still behind the national leaders.  (Details are in NCCPR’s interactive database.)

●Maine’s greatest success has been in dramatically reducing the worst form of care, the use of group homes and institutions.  The proportion of children trapped in so-called congregate care has been cut by at least 73 percent. (Again, details are in NCCPR’s interactive database.)

But, of course, that means the reform effort made powerful enemies – the people who ran all those group homes and institutions that had to cut back or close entirely.  That foster care-industrial complex apparently has the governor’s ear in a way that vulnerable children do not.

Finally, one more number: 15,000.  As I’ve noted often on this Blog, that’s the number of cases examined in two massive studies of how children fared in typical cases seen by workers for child protective services agencies.  In those typical cases the children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be taken from her or his home.  Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses.  A little girl named Logan Marr had to lose her life before Maine learned that lesson.  To forget that lesson now would be like spitting on her grave.