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.