A headline on the website of the Portland Oregonian today says:
Foster care scandal: Are kids safe? 'I can't answer that question yes'
The headline refers to a dialogue at a legislative hearing yesterday. According to the Oregonian it went this way:
Clyde Saiki, the department [of Human Services] interim director, was asked at a hearing Thursday whether he could say all children in state care "are safe today." He gave a blunt response: "No."
"The way you've asked that question," Saiki told [State Sen. Sara] Gelser, "I can't answer that question yes. That's something that bothers me. That's something that keeps me up at night."
Judging by the stories written about this, it seems reporters were shocked – shocked! – that the head of the child welfare agency can’t guarantee that every foster child is safe.
But it was a loaded question – one to which the only possible honest answer is “no” and always will be “no.” Not just in Oregon, but in every child welfare system in America, including the few that are relatively good.
Abuse in foster care is a major national problem. Study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.
Oregon may well be no worse than many other states, particularly those other states which, like Oregon take away far too many children. Oregon may just be getting more attention at the moment.
But Sen. Gelser trivializes this serious issue by setting an impossible standard. Indeed, the phrasing of the question makes me wonder if she wanted a serious answer, or just a chance to look good on television. Earlier I gave her credit for sincerity, now I’m starting to wonder.
The reason for that boils down to the word that made the question so loaded: All.
Are all children in foster care in Oregon safe? No.
Are all children in foster care anywhere safe? No.
Are all children agencies decided to leave in their own homes safe? No.
Are all children at college safe? No.
Are all children in high school safe? No.
Are all children currently in cars on America’s highways safe? No.
Are all children currently walking down the street safe? No.
Are all politicians more interested in grandstanding than genuinely improving child welfare? No.
Or, to put it another way: Would anyone seriously call a police chief on the carpet by demanding to know if all citizens in his or her community are guaranteed not to be victims of crime?
The question should be: What can be done to make children as safe as possible – and bring abuse in foster care as close as possible to zero? But that’s not nearly as likely to get you headlines – especially since the honest answer is: Start by taking away fewer children.
A threat from foster care agencies
This was illustrated, albeit unintentionally, in the Oregonian story. Gelser has introduced legislation that supposedly would crack down on abuse in foster care. But look what the head of a trade association for foster care agencies said:
Janet Arenz, the director of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs, a group that lobbies for foster care providers, supported Gelser's goals
Let me just stop here: Her goals involve making sure foster children aren’t abused. Who wouldn’t support them? Now, get ready for the but …
but raised concerns about the cost some providers might face under stricter rules. She said agencies had been ending their foster care contracts even before the prospect of reforms. State officials have repeatedly lamented, in hearings but also in … emails … Oregon's lack of safe and appropriate placements for foster children. The foster system is in charge of 8,000 kids on any given night.
"They're not sustainable," Arenz said. "They're losing too much money. There's tremendous risk in managing the kids and making sure they're complying with rules and regulations."
In other words: Better watch out Oregon, if you make us meet even minimal standards we’ll close our doors and then what are you going to do?
That threat only works when the state is taking away too many children in the first place. Stop the wrongful removal and foster care no longer is a sellers’ market. The state can call the agencies’ bluff and get rid of the bad actors.
Flaws in proposed legislation
Unfortunately, Gelser’s “all or nothing” approach also is reflected in a bill she’s introduced to force Oregon DHS to crack down on abusive foster care providers. Again from the story:
Officials would also be forced to revoke a license if a child dies because of abuse, regulators learn a provider didn't immediately report a sex crime, or the provider fails to cooperate in an investigation.
Now, consider a hypothetical:
Agency X has been doing an exemplary job for 40 years. It holds foster parents and group home staff to the highest standards and it genuinely works with families to get children returned home as soon as possible. It has an unblemished record.
Until one day, one staff member, perhaps beset by personal problems of his own that no one knew about, explodes. He hits a child hard, the child hits his head on the floor and dies.
Or, let’s say one staffer gets scared and covers up an instance of child-on-child sexual abuse.
If the Oregonian description of Gelser’s bill is correct, the license for this entire agency is pulled immediately.
What happens to the children?
|Actually, Linus was on to something|
Flickr Photo by Lehigh Valley, Pa.
They may well have to be uprooted and moved to another foster home – even though one of the major reasons foster care does so much harm to children is because it forces them to move from placement to placement.
Gelser’s jury-rigged solutions remind me of an old Peanuts cartoon in which everyone is trying to figure out how to keep Snoopy warm when he sleeps atop his doghouse on cold winter nights.
All sorts of bizarre ideas are brought up until, finally, Linus says: "Why doesn't he just sleep inside the doghouse?" The others just look at him and roll their eyes at the absurdity of such a suggestion.
Similarly, Gelser and Oregon media, insist on ignoring the fact that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.
By the way, if you click on the Oregonian story be sure to scroll down to the comment from WeCanDoBetterOregon. It is one of the best analyses of political – and media – response to this kind of crisis I’ve ever read.