Sunday, December 20, 2015

Child welfare in Arkansas: The Legislature is not helping

Last of three parts

If little John or Jane from Little Rock isn't in class today,
a child abuse investigator may be at the door tomorrow.
The previous two posts about Arkansas child welfare deal with the failures of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the State Division of Children and Family Services.  But while the governor has been leading the state backwards, the legislature has been no help.

Consider the issue of “educational neglect.”  This is how we began a blog post on thisissue in 2010:

Late [in 2009] the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice, based in New York, issued a report  on one of the seedier back alleys of child welfare: "Educational Neglect." The majority of states, wisely, don't even include such cases in the mandate of their child welfare agencies. Unfortunately, New York, is not one of them. There, educational neglect reports serve one primary function: They're a lever schools can use to force parents to do what they want – like, for instance, not demand too much in the way of special education for their kids, or not complain about school safety.
Here are some highlights from the Vera Institute study, which focused on New York State but applies to any state that still lets CPS investigate "educational neglect":
● Overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. (While that may be obvious, they've got an actual case reading, from Orange County, to prove it.) In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism.
● The notion that educational neglect is the "tip of the iceberg," a sign of some other, deeper problem, (the primary excuse for CPS investigating such cases), is nonsense. Generally, "educational neglect" is the tip of nothing except some kind of school problem, often one that is not the parent's fault.

So guess what the Arkansas Legislature did this year: It passed a law expanding the jurisdiction of the state Division of Children and Family Services to include educational neglect.  The rationale: Exactly the “tip of the iceberg” assumptions that the Vera Institute study found were wrong.

This is a bad idea in any state.  It’s even dumber in Arkansas, where one of the key problems identified in a report from child welfare expert Paul Vincent (a report commissioned by the state itself) is impossibly high caseloads.

The other issue concerns cases where DCFS does not remove the child, but demands that the family meet certain conditions to keep the child in the home.  In most states, these “safety plans” are used in low-risk cases, and are agreed to by the agency and the family.

The Arkansas Legislature has decided, however, that in Arkansas, every single one of these plans is going to have to be accompanied by a formal charge of abuse or neglect and approved by the court.

According to Vincent’s report:

Regardless of the merits of the Act, it will undoubtedly increase the DCFS workload, including administrative tasks and time in court. It is also likely to increase the number of children placed in foster care.

But there’s more – and it says a lot about the mindset both of DCFS and some in the court system, Vincent writes: 
It is likely that this bill was introduced because of doubts on the part of some stakeholders that DCFS could assure child safety without court oversight. Some legal stakeholders criticized a DCFS practice which they called coercive placements, meaning that DCFS would threaten removal unless the caregiver placed the child with another family member, for example, … 
OK, let me interrupt here.  When I first read this, I thought: Good.  The courts have discovered that DCFS is unfairly strong-arming parents into placing the child into what is foster care in all but name.  This also raises questions about how many times DCFS does this but doesn’t officially report the placement as an entry into foster care, something discussed on this blog here.  So it’s possible the real rate of removal in Arkansas is much higher than the official figures reported to the federal government.

But now, let me allow Vincent to finish his thought (I've put the portion I left out above in bold): 
Some legal stakeholders criticized a DCFS practice which they called coercive placements, meaning that DCFS would threaten removal unless the caregiver placed the child with another family member, for example, without properly reviewing the alternative caregiver’s suitability or petitioning the court.
In other words, these “legal stakeholders” were just fine with DCFS strong-arming the parents – but, in keeping with the profound bias against kinship care that permeates the state, they just didn’t like where the child went after the parents were strong-armed.