Monday, November 30, 2015

In Cleveland, child welfare goes to pot

On September 26, Hollie Sanford of Cleveland, Ohio, gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

For reasons that are unclear, the hospital tested both mother and baby for drugs.  Both tested positive – for a byproduct of marijuana.  That’s because Hollie drank marijuana tea to ease the pain of labor.  According to one of several excellent stories in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hollie said she took that approach because she thought it was safer than narcotics or medicines.

The whole thing should have been none of the county child welfare agency’s business.  And you can bet that had Hollie Sanford been, say, a Junior Leaguer from Chagrin Falls or Bentleyville it wouldn’t have been.  She never would have been tested and, if somehow she had, Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services (CFS) would have done exactly what it should have done: Nothing.

But while news accounts don’t specify their income, Hollie and her husband appear to be a working class family.  And they’re an interracial couple.  That’s more than enough to trigger the racial bias and class bias that permeate American child welfare.  (NCCPR President Martin Guggenheim discusses exactly this sort of double standard in the context of marijuana cases in this article from The Nation. And there's more about the double standard, and the harm it causes in this piece from The Huffington Post.)

So Cuyahoga County went to court to put the family under “protective supervision.”  Your newborn still can live with you, the County told the Sanfords, so long as you promise never, ever to use marijuana and let us monitor your life – at a time when that life already has more than enough stress, what with the arrival of a new baby.  Hollie agreed.  As she told the Plain Dealer: “I said I’d do anything they wanted to get my daughter home.”

All that extra stress poses far more risk to a newborn’s healthy development than a mom who sometimes uses marijuana tea, or even smokes a joint.

But then it all got worse. 

The case came before a magistrate  - essentially an assistant judge - by the name of Eleanore Hilow.  She took it upon herself to go far beyond what even CFS wanted – she ordered the child confiscated from the parents and consigned to foster care.  Fortunately, a cousin stepped forward, so at least the child wasn’t placed with a stranger.  Hollie and her husband had daily visits.  But still more stress was placed on the parents – and most important, the infant – during a crucial period of parent child bonding.

After Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell wrote an excellent story on the case, the actual judge, Thomas F. O'Malley, overruled his magistrate and allowed the child to come home – still under protective supervision.

As often happens in situations like this, the Plain Dealer story prompted others to come forward.  In a follow-up story, Dissell wrote: 
Several attorneys and guardians ad litem with cases in Hilow's courtroom told the Plain Dealer she often makes unilateral decisions to remove children from parents or caregivers, forcing them into the county's custody without sufficient, or any, evidence being presented during a hearing.
 Then Dissell dug further, and found this
Hilow and her judge, Thomas F. O'Malley, drew more appeals than any other pair – 28 out of a total of 120. They also had more full or partial reversals.  On cases they decided since 2011, the typical judge/magistrate pair drew fewer than two reversals. O'Malley and Hilow drew 9. That was more than a quarter of the roughly 30 reversals for the entire local juvenile court. The next closest pair had five reversals. More than once, appeals court judges used unusually direct language in reversing Hilow's rulings. They did not question her motivations, but, like some lawyers who have practiced in her court, they said that her rulings exceeded both her discretion and her authority.
 And unfortunately, not all of the bad decisions have been overturned – at least not yet.  Again, from the story: 
Hilow decided that a newborn, born with methadone in his system, should be placed in the emergency custody of the county. A county worker and addiction professional testified that Dara Gibson and her baby could stay safely in a treatment center. But Hilow, according to her decision, was skeptical. There was nothing to prevent Gibson from fleeing the center with the baby, who at only about 2 months old, couldn't fend for himself. He's now in a foster home.
But the egregious conduct of one magistrate should not be allowed to distract attention from the only slightly less egregious behavior of the Cuyahoga County child welfare agency.  Not only did they harm this child by ordering around the parents, putting everyone under surveillance, and dragging the whole matter into court in the first place, they also used up time, energy and resources that could have been spent finding children in real danger.

But as long as it’s a hot topic in Cleveland right now, I hope someone asks the current head of Cuyahoga CFS, Thomas Pristow, why he’s doing this kind of harm to families. Perhaps it would get the agency to, uh, turn over a new leaf.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2015

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I 've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

 How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view
keeping families together
But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


How child welfare systems view adoption
    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations today. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit. 

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "age out" of foster care each year with no home at all has soared 41 percent since 1998.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Foster care in Oklahoma: Cause for celebration: A baby warehouse is closing!

 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.

There are fewer "human teddy bears" in Oklahoma
   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.

In fact, those are the exact words I used the last time I wrote a post about shelters.  That post was about Oklahoma.  About the hideous conditions in their baby warehouses, about the fact that the state Department of Human Services was desperately searching for even one expert who would speak well of them (they failed), and about how there was probably a foster-care panic underway making everything worse.

But over the past three years, it looks like things have changed - for the better.  In fact, one of the baby warehouses just closed.  There even was a "turning off the lights ceremony." 

Here's what happened.

The first step toward solving a problem is admitting you have one. Oklahoma DHS now admits there was a foster-care panic.  Here's what DHS Communications Coordinator Katelynn Burns told Tulsa People in September:

Burns with OKDHS says the significant spike in children entering state custody was due to a state- and agency-wide fear factor that frequently resulted in the removal of children from their homes.
“There were a series of highly publicized child deaths that kind of put people in a foster care panic,” she says. “People were afraid to keep kids in families if they weren’t sure they were going to be OK.

And, the article says,  

In the past few years, she says the agency’s focus has shifted to preserving families when it is safe for the child by contracting with private agencies to provide comprehensive home-based services to some families of children at risk for foster care.
For example, a child living in a filthy environment might previously have been removed from his home due to perceived neglect, Burns says. With the new approach, OKDHS might contract with private agencies to help teach his parents cleaning and organization skills that would allow the child to remain with his family.

 It's not yet clear how much has been accomplished.  Even before the foster-care panic, Oklahoma was taking away children at a rate far above the national average.  By 2013, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, the rate of removal in Oklahoma was nearly 70 percent above the national average and nearly triple the rate in states that are national models of child welfare reform.

A story in The Oklahoman reports a small drop in the number of children in foster care on any given day, but it gives no figures for the number of children taken away over the course of a year - the best measure of foster-care panic.

But we know this: Enough progress has been made to close a baby warehouse - and reduce the number of children in many other baby warehouses across the state.

That is cause for celebration.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Oregon's double standard for defining child abuse

Gov. Kate Brown
Responding to the revelations from Willamette Week discussed in the previous post to this blog, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ordered an "independent review" of the state foster care system and promised to create a "task force" to guide it.

Wow.  An independent review and a task force.  She really must be serious.  

Except she's not.  Because, according to The Oregonian, the review will focus on “abuse investigations, licensing practices and how the far-flung agency can better share warning signs.” 

Not one word about the real problem: Oregon takes away far too many children needlessly (again, see the discussion in the previous post).

But there was one interesting revelation at the hearing.

Apparently, in Oregon there are two different standards for determining if someone has committed child abuse, one for parents, and another when the state is the parent.

According to the Oregonian:

In 2014, more than half of complaints were ruled closed during an initial screening, in part because state law strictly limits investigations, usually to cases involving serious injury or an ongoing threat.

A story in the Salem Statesman Journal says this definition applies to "abuse at the state's foster homes."

Compare that to the definition of abuse or neglect that applies to everyone else in Oregon, as summarized on page 66 of this publication.  As with most state laws, the one in Oregon is breathtakingly broad, particularly the wonderfully tautological definition of neglect:
‘Neglect’ means negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child, including the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, or supervision. 
With a definition like that, there is hardly an impoverished parent in Oregon who couldn't be labeled neglectful at some point.

Somewhere along the line, someone in Oregon apparently figured this out - because, it seems, Oregon officials are not about to let such a broad, vague definition apply when they are the ones responsible for the placement.

The news accounts don't specify exactly what the definition of abuse is when it happens in foster care, so I don't know if that definition needs to be broadened, as one Oregon legislator is proposing.  But the definition that applies to all other Oregon parents needs to be narrowed.  And, of course, the definitions should be the same.  

Perhaps the task force could get to work on that.  And if that's too much for a mere task force, how about a "blue ribbon commission"?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Child welfare in Oregon: One bad foster care agency down, how many more to go?

This post was updated on December 31, 2015 to provide more recent data on the rate of entries into foster care in Oregon. 

        The good news: Thanks to stories in Willamette Week, the alternative weekly in Portland, the state of Oregon has shut down a private foster care agency that warehoused children in hideous conditions. 

Here’s a quick sense of how bad things were: Over ten years, four group homes run by this agency were the subjects of more than 1000 police reports – that’s an average of 25 police reports per home per year.  If the police were called to any impoverished birth parent’s home that often, you may be sure the children would have been taken away.

            The bad news: Willamette Week also shows how the state Department of Human Services (DHS) knew exactly what was going on and turned a blind eye for more than 18 months.  The private foster care agency was called Give Us This Day, but a more appropriate name would have been Give Us The Children And Go Away. 

Even after the first story was published, in September, it was another state agency, the Department of Justice, that actually shut the agency down, not because of what it was doing to the kids, but because of financial irregularities.

Finally, after publication of the story exposing how much top officials knew and how long ago they knew it, the governor demoted the acting head of DHS.

            Why did DHS allow all this state-sanctioned child abuse for all this time?   The Willamette Week stories make clear that political connections had something to do with it.  But the bigger reason is the problem that has plagued Oregon child welfare for decades: Oregon is begging for places to put children it takes from their parents, and beggars can’t be choosers.

            And the reason for that is not because there are too few foster parents.  Rather, it’s because Oregon takes away far too many children.  To the state’s credit, it’s made considerable progress in reducing removals over the past decade or so.  But as of 2014, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Oregon still was tearing apart families at a rate at least 15 percent above the national average.  When you factor in rates of child poverty among the states, which is the fairer way to compare, Oregon takes children at a rate nearly 34 percent above the national average.

            Oregon’s rate of removal is double and triple that of states recognized as national leaders in reforming child welfare.  And no, this record, which goes back decades, is not because of methamphetamine – the all-purpose excuse long used in Oregon for every child welfare failure. 

In Oregon, the harm of wrongful removal is compounded by another common problem.  The Willamette Week stories note that Give Us This Day was willing to take the children deemed most difficult – children other private agencies wouldn’t touch.  But “private” agencies funded with public funds shouldn’t have a choice in the matter.   It appears that DHS does not require private agencies to sign “no reject, no eject” contracts.  That allows agencies to engage in a practice commonly-known as “creaming” – as in skimming the cream.  They take the easy cases and ignore the rest.  Since the state allows this, it makes agencies like Give Us This Day among the only choices for the children deemed hardest to place.

Until Oregon stops letting private agencies get away with this, and stops taking so many children needlessly, there will be plenty more bad actors for good newspapers to expose.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Progress in South Dakota child welfare

There’s still a long way to go, but the NPR stories are getting results

           It’s been nearly 40 years since I first started following child welfare issues.  In all of that time, some of the finest journalism I’ve ever seen – or, in this case, heard - was a three part NPR series in October, 2011 by reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters about the horrors inflicted on Native American children by the South Dakota Department of Social Services.

            See what I mean?

            With all the changes in the American media landscape in recent years, there’s been some debate over whether excellent journalism like this still can make a difference.  In this case, the odds against making a difference were made greater by the hyper-defensive response of state government and, sadly, by the response of some South Dakota media that rushed to defend that government. 

            Nevertheless, the NPR stories have produced significant change for the better, and more such change is likely.

            ● For starters, even as the state denied doing anything wrong, it changed what it was doing.  In the two years after the NPR stories aired, the number of children torn from their families by South Dakota authorities over the course of a year dropped by one-third.  Nationwide, during this same period, the rate at which children were taken from their families remained virtually unchanged. 

            That’s the good news.  The bad news is that South Dakota was such an extreme outlier that even with this improvement, in 2013, the state remains an outlier.  It still took away children at a rate 80 percent above the national average, when rates of child poverty are factored in.

(The data take us only to 2013, because that’s the most recent year for which the federal government makes state-by-state data available online.  The wait for these data used to be a little over one year, which was bad enough.  I don’t know why the federal Administration for Children and Families is taking so long to produce such basic figures.)

            ● More good news: The NPR stories got the attention of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union – which sued the state.  The ACLU joined the Lakota People’s Law Project, which had been fighting a lonely battle against the state for years.  They won.  As NPR reported:

A federal judge has ruled that the state Department of Social Services, prosecutors and judges "failed to protect Indian parents' fundamental rights" when they removed their children after short hearings and placed them largely in white foster care.

According to the suit, some of the hearings lasted less than 60 seconds. The suit says some parents were not allowed to speak at the hearings or in some cases hear why their children were being removed.
            These kinds of sham hearings are common across the country.  (See NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda for details.)  An official of the Indian Child Welfare Association told NPR the decision could affect how these cases are handled nationwide. 
            ● Still more good news: One of the ways to reduce racial bias in child welfare is to create a more diverse staff.  Apparently the South Dakota Department of Social Services has gone to great lengths to avoid this.  Such great lengths that now the federal government is suing DSS for systematically discriminating against Native American job applicants.
            Progress will come slowly.  The extent to which South Dakota officials hold Native Americans in contempt can be seen by what happened in connection with another response to the NPR stories.  In 2013, the federal government sent top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to South Dakota for a summit meeting with Native American tribal leaders and state officials in an attempt to resolve the issues.