Thursday, March 24, 2016

Abuse in foster care: The denial runs deep

Here’s the latest foster care horror from Oregon, according to the Oregonian:

Under the watch of the Oregon Department of Human Services, a lawsuit alleges, a young sister and brother were starved so severely by their foster parents and guardians that they weighed the same at ages 4 and 5 as they did at ages 1 and 2.

 Those facts, largely supported by the state’s own examination of the case, are laid out in a complaint filed against the state Thursday. It says the children ended up resembling victims of a famine: their ribs visible, their bellies protruding and their brain development severely affected.

 The suit says caseworkers and their supervisors and managers overlooked repeated specific complaints and glaring red flags… A caseworker saw the children less than a month before doctors at Randall Children’s Hospital determined they were suffering from chronic starvation, but the caseworker did nothing.

That story comes on top of this one, and this one. That’s just Oregon. A federal judge in Texas found rampant abuse in foster care. And in just the past week, there was this from New York and this from Utah.

Of course, there are plenty of horror stories about how children are treated by their own parents. In fact, the current child welfare system was largely built on such stories. When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.
But not in the highly-selective way Marie Cohen chose to do so in a recent column published by The Chronicle of Social Change.

She wrote that “State data compiled by the federal government show that the proportion of children in foster care who were the subject of substantiated maltreatment in foster care ranged from 0 to 1.34 percent.”
But the figures she cites come from child welfare agencies’ own investigations of abuse in foster care. For reasons that should be obvious, in such cases agencies have a strong incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.
If the figures Cohen cites are to be believed, there are three states – Delaware, Vermont and New Hampshire – where absolutely no children at all were abused or neglected in foster care in 2014. New Hampshire has made that claim for five years in a row. Seriously?

Texas claims that fewer than one-third of 1 percent of foster children were abused in foster care in 2014. In other words, if 300 former foster children were gathered in a room and asked, “How many of you were abused over the course of a year?” only one would raise his or her hand.
That’s not what the judge found.

And in Oregon, which claims that fewer than three-quarters of 1 percent of foster children were abused, state law apparently 
sets a higher standard for substantiating abuse if a foster parent or institution staff are accused than if the accused is a birth parent.

In contrast, research has revealed alarming rates of abuse in foster care. One independent study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the rate in group homes and institutions is even higher. And for reasons related to study methodology explained here, even those figures almost certainly are underestimates.

In response, Cohen abandons the fiction of the official figures and simply tells us the homes from which the children were removed must be even worse because the children were removed from those homes. But just because a caseworker says a home was abusive or neglectful doesn’t make it so – particularly since poverty itself often is confused with “neglect.”

Her argument also presupposes that no intervention other than foster care could prevent recurrence of abuse in the cases in which children were removed. But the real question is: How does the rate of abuse in foster care compare to what would happen if families simply got the help they needed?
It’s not hard to answer, considering that even when families don’t necessarily get the help, foster care often is a worse option. There are two massive studies involving 15,000 typical cases in which the researcher made exactly the sort of comparison Cohen demands: What happens to children placed in foster care and left in their own homes, in the same types of cases?

The children left in their own homes typically do better – and that’s even when the families did not necessarily get any help.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. Cohen wants to further increase the dose. I prefer less toxic options.