Sunday, December 13, 2015

Child welfare in Arkansas: Full-speed backwards

First of three parts

Give Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson credit for this much: When he called in a consultant to examine the dismal condition of child welfare in his state, he chose well: He chose the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, headed by Paul Vincent, who led the transformation of the child welfare system in Alabama into, relatively speaking, a national model.

Arkansas Gov.
Asa Hutshinson
In a report about Arkansas issued in July, Vincent found a system so short of places to put children that some were sleeping in offices or moving to a different placement every night. 

Among the key reasons: A deep-seated hostility to kinship care – placing children with relatives instead of strangers.

Read all about that hostility, and what it does to children in this excellent story from Arkansas Times - including a case in which one relative after another was turned down, and the children wound up placed in the care of a stranger who adopted them - and abused them.

Only 14 percent of Arkansas children are placed with relatives.  The average for surrounding states is nearly double – 25 percent.  Many other states that do better still.  If Arkansas simply performed as well on kinship care as its neighbors, a large part of the “shortage” of placements would be over.  In contrast, Arkansas has the worst record among these states for using the worst form of care – group homes and institutions – latter-day orphanages.

(Of course, it also would help if Arkansas reduced its rate of child removal to the rate of, say Alabama.  As of 2014, the rate of removal in Arkansas was nearly 80 percent higher than Alabama and there are indications the gap may have widened since then.)

Consultants try to use gentle language when writing about the agencies that hire them, but it’s clear from Vincent’s report that there is a strong bias against grandparents in the state Division of Child and Family Services and the courts.

Study after study has shown kinship care to be more humane, more stable and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care” – see this report, and this one.  Nevertheless, Vincent found

DCFS  staff and stakeholders identified a number of factors limiting the use of relatives. Attitudes toward the suitability of relatives as caregivers on the part of some staff, judges and other legal partners were frequently mentioned as a barrier. This negative view seems to be most prominent among those who view some extended families as sharing a common lack of caregiving capacities.

And now we learn that not only does this bias remain, it goes all the way to the top.

At a legislative hearing this month, grandparents spoke of stepping forward to try to take in their grandchildren, only to be stymied at every turn by DCFS.  The agency director, Cecile Blucker responded first with stonewalling, then with bigotry.

Blucker said the situation is complicated. By law, she said she could not comment on the people who made their cases to lawmakers or comment on any specific case.  "Only one side of the story can be told and only one side of the facts can be told," she told lawmakers.

If such a law exists in Arkansas, it almost certainly exists only because DCFS wants it, so the agency can hide its blunders behind “confidentiality.”  If you really feel hamstrung, Ms. Blucker, ask the legislature to repeal any such law.

If she means the federal government would object if she told the agency’s side of the story, then she needs to explain how it is that at least four states have laws specifically allowing their own child welfare agencies to comment on cases when they have been disclosed by another party – and none has been sanctioned.

But then it got worse.  Again, according to the story:

Generally speaking, [Blucker] said, grandparents can be complicit when they see abuse and sometimes cannot adequately keep their grandchildren safe from the grandchildren's parents.

In other words, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That is precisely the claim that’s been debunked by all those studies.  Or, as one of the nation’s leading experts on kinship care, Prof. Mark Testa of the University of North Carolina, put it: “Fortunately, trees have many branches.”

In poor communities all over America there are parents who have waged a battle for decades to save  their  children   from poverty, despair, and the lure of the streets.  They have been forced to call upon reservoirs of strength that most of us can only imagine. Is the mother who won the battle with three children and lost it with a fourth to be denigrated and discarded when she comes forward to take in that fourth child’s children?  Cecile Blucker seems to think so.

And the bias may go even higher.  In a statement released Dec. 1, touting “progress” in fixing foster care, Gov. Hutchinson said not one word about boosting kinship care.

Even worse: He made his remarks at the dedication of a brand new orphanage.

More on that in the next post about Arkansas.