Nothing better sums up the state of Iowa child welfare than one sentence buried amid the 2,500 words of a Des Moines Register story Sunday: A child is trapped in foster care for four years because her mother “only had an efficiency apartment.”
In a classic example of the vicious, lets-bash-those-“bad-parents”-no-matter-how-much-we-hurt-kids-in-the-process mentality that permeates the Iowa system, the state Department of Human Services punished a child for four years because Mom couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment.
And it’s hard to imagine anything that better explains the fact that Iowa actually spends a lot on child welfare, but gets horrific results than the fact that helping Mom pay for that one bedroom apartment would have cost vastly less than four years of foster care.
Sadly, this is not unusual. Nationwide, 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had adequate housing. In Iowa, which takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, the proportion almost certainly is even higher.
Reading between the lines
There are other messages between the lines in the Register story, almost all of them dismal.
● Iowa is almost certainly in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden surge in children torn needlessly from everyone they know and love. That often happens when child abuse deaths are in the news, as they are now in Iowa. The fact that, in this case, the children who died were children who had been adopted by their foster parents doesn’t matter.
According to the tortured logic of Iowa DHS, when two children placed in foster care die in their adoptive homes (and a third suffers horrific abuse before escaping) the solution is to place more children in foster care.
● The Register story implies that the panic is inevitable – after all, more people are reporting alleged abuse and “more children are being found to be abused” so it stands to reason there are more children who need to be taken, right?
For starters, this leaves out the fact that, even before any current panic, Iowa has been tearing apart families at a vastly higher rate than most of the nation (more on that below). But also, when high-profile cases are in the news, and anyone and everyone is being urged to report anything and everything, what you get is a massive increase in false reports, usually by well-meaning people who suddenly decide that, say, a neighbor’s behavior just might be suspicious.
Child welfare agencies with strong leadership don’t give in to this.
That’s the lesson from Pennsylvania, where individual counties run child welfare.
When that state experienced a similar surge in reports after the sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky (who, by the way, was a foster parent), the system in Philadelphia (the Iowa of big cities – it’s long taken children at a rate far above the rate in most major metropolitan areas) did indeed see an increase in removals. But Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County did not – because the reformer who has run that system for decades understood that most of the new reports were false – and he refused to tolerate a foster-care panic.
Iowa is an extreme outlier
● Foster-care panics cause enormous harm to children in any state. They are worse, of course, in a state that starts out tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation. The Register mentioned in passing that Iowa removes children from their homes “at a higher rate than most other states…” but that’s an understatement. Iowa is an extreme outlier.
● The Register story claims that some groups want to keep more children “found in risky situations” with their parents or relatives. That’s true. But we don’t just want to do that and go away. We support safe, proven alternatives that remove the risk instead of the child.
Foster care, on the other hand, with its high rate of abuse and enormous inherent emotional trauma is most definitely a “risky situation.” In fact, for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time family preservation is the safer choice. (And, for the record, an efficiency apartment is not a “risky situation” to begin with.)
● The story also implies that the fact that there is far more abuse in foster care than suggested by Iowa’s official statistics is merely the claim of one former foster child. On the contrary, it’s what we know from one major study after another.
Iowa makes way too much use of “shelters”
● Still another shocking fact about Iowa child welfare emerges from the story – with no apparent recognition of just how shocking it is: the extent to which Iowa relies on what is, by far, the worst option for children, institutionalizing them in “shelters.”
The San Francisco Chronicle is only the latest in a long line of newspapers to expose the horrors of such places. But more important, even when there is no actual physical abuse, the very existence of this sort of placement is barbaric – shelters are that harmful to children. That’s why states such as Alabama and New Jersey have sharply – and successfully - restricted their use. (One small bit of good news: The Alabama child welfare leader who implemented the curbs on shelters and other successful reforms, is Paul Vincent, who’s been hired to assess the situation in Iowa.)
Much the same is true of “residential treatment” – another option that has been found harmful in study after study – and again, there are far better alternatives. Details here. (See especially the All Purpose Foster Care-Industrial Complex Excuse Checklist on Page 3, which has responses to all the nonsense one typically hears from shelter directors.)
● Almost everyone in child welfare pays lip service to “prevention.” You never hear anyone say “boy, if there’s one thing I hate it’s prevention!” But usually, it’s the wrong kind of “prevention.” There’s a very good chance that the mother who lived in that efficiency apartment was forced into “counseling” and “parent education.” That probably made it that much harder for her to search for what she really needed – better housing and the job necessary to afford better housing.
There is a difference between prevention that involves making the helpers feel good and actually providing what families need. There’s more discussion of this here.
● Even worse, the new director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Jerry Foxhoven, says he won’t even bother trying to get the federal government to change financial incentives that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives. In fact, Foxhoven can barely manage even the usual lip service. From the story:
Foxhoven says he does believe in the concept that "it's a lot easier for everybody to buy smoke alarms than fire trucks." But, he added, "you still need fire trucks."
Unfortunately, in child welfare, the “fire trucks” too often are like the kind in the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.
Turning adoptive parents into second-class parents
● Democrats in the legislature aren’t helping. They, too, are ignoring the elephant in the room – Iowa’s obscene rate-of-removal, focusing instead on scapegoating foster parents who happen to be homeschoolers and demanding “medical check-ups” for every child in foster care and every child receiving an adoption subsidy.
Of course there already are requirements that foster children get medical check-ups.
When it comes to adoptive families, what the Democrats really want is another chance for government to spy on families.
The time to make sure an adoptive placement is safe is before it happens. Something that could be done fairly easily were Iowa not rushing to tear apart families, creasing pressure for quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements.
The whole point of adoption is that the adoptive parent is the child’s parent, period. When you make adoptive parents second-class parents, subject to any form of restriction or oversight that does not apply to every other parent you undermine the emotional security of the children – and providing that kind of security is the whole point of adoption. Otherwise, it’s just another word for foster care.
And why, by the way, should this extra government scrutiny be limited to adoptive parents who get subsidies, as Democrats propose? Are they presumed to be worse parents than wealthy adoptive parents who don’t need such assistance? Or is it just that receiving a government benefit somehow is supposed to give the government extra leverage to invade family privacy.
If that’s the case, then please feel free to do this – just as soon as you also pass a law requiring government audits of how we older Americans are spending our Social Security checks.
The bigger danger is in foster care
● And finally, the Register takes pains to point out that most children “known to the system” who are harmed are not foster children who were adopted by their foster parents. That leaves the false implication that abuse in foster care is extremely rare and it’s birth parents who are the real danger.
But the reason a majority of children “known to the system” who are hurt are hurt in their own homes has nothing to do with comparative danger and everything to do with the immutable laws of mathematics: The majority of Iowa children who are abused are abused in their own homes because, despite the best efforts of the Iowa Department of Human Services, the majority of Iowa children still live in their own homes. Proportionately, there is every indication that foster care is more dangerous – for all sorts of reasons, including foster children abusing each other.
And even were it not so dangerous in terms of abuse and neglect, the trauma of placement itself is so great that two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. But it means you’d better be damn sure that the child really is in so much danger at home that foster care is a less harmful alternative.
For starters, Iowa DHS could stop taking away children when they deem a parent’s apartment too small.