Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Child welfare and the latest “drug plague,” part two: How a single, unreliable source led The Washington Post astray

 Read part one here.

Yesterday’s post to this blog dealt with how the Washington Post misunderstood drug abuse in a story about opioids and foster care – and why that misunderstanding hurts children.

But there was an even greater failing in the story. The Post reporters didn’t just get addiction wrong.  Apparently new to child welfare, they got that field wrong as well. That’s because they relied on only one, unreliable source. 

ALL of these things are just like the others
No reporter doing a story on, say, the effects of raising the minimum wage or the impact of environmental regulations on business would talk only to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. No reporter doing a story about the high cost of prescription drugs – or their safety – would talk only to PhRMA – the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of America. No reporter doing a story on the safety of hydraulic fracking would talk only to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

But in seeking to explain the child welfare system, the Post reporters spoke only to a representative of a group that calls itself the Child Welfare League of America.

Putting “child welfare” in your name does not automatically mean you are interested in the welfare of children any more than the fact that the trade association for Payday lenders calls itself the Community Financial Services Association of America automatically means they are interested in the welfare of communities.

A more honest name for CWLA would be the Agency Welfare League of America. CWLA is, in fact, a trade association for public and private child welfare agencies.  That means they bring to the table vested interests, just like the Chamber of Commerce and PhRMA and API.

When the interests of children and the interests of its member agencies are in conflict, CWLA has a disturbing track record. That’s something the Post reporters would have known had they done the kind of digging done by the Hartford Courant in 2004. Or if they’d seen what the Dayton Daily News found even earlier in the course of exposing serious problems at a CWLA member agency.

CWLA has a profound vested interest in “solutions” that involve making its dues-paying member agencies bigger.  In the case of private agencies, their very existence may be at stake.

Financial incentives in child welfare


It is not true, as some on the far right like to say that “governments make money on foster care” (though in some cases, federal financial incentives mean foster care might cost state and local governments less than better alternatives).  But private agencies often do make money on foster care – and almost all institutional care and much family foster care is overseen by these agencies.

These agencies are not inherently nefarious or greedy. The people who run these agencies, like most people in child welfare, usually are well motivated. But their agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care.  So they rationalize to themselves that all those children really, truly need to be in foster care, and need to stay there for a long, long time.

Actually, it’s the kind of behavior one might expect from -  an addict.  And that makes sense. Because the biggest addiction problem in child welfare is neither meth nor crack nor heroin nor any other drug, though all those problems are serious and real.  The biggest addiction problem in child welfare is great big, prestigious, mainstream private child welfare agencies with blue-chip boards of directors that are addicted to their per diem payments for holding children in foster care.  And they’re putting their addiction ahead of the children.

Their trade association and the people who speak for it have a vested interest in feeding that addiction by keeping foster care beds filled – even as they keep convincing themselves they never even think about such things and everything they do is “for the children.”

CWLA’s Orwellian explanation

So when the Washington Post chooses CWLA and only CWLA to explain child welfare, the problems should be obvious.

George Orwell would have
appreciated how CWLA
turns recent child welfare
history on its head.
Given this trade association’s track record, it’s not surprising that, when asked why foster care had been declining before the latest “drug plague,” the CWLA spokesman offered up a version of history only George Orwell could love.

In this version, there is no mention of children who never needed to be taken away in the first place. Instead, foster care numbers supposedly went down thanks to laws such as the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (not 1999 as the Post story claims), which encouraged states to rush to terminate parental rights on the theory that all the children would then live happily ever after in the adoptive homes of middle-class strangers (the kinds of people both members of Congress and journalists find it a lot easier to identify with than poor people who lose children to the system).

In fact, ASFA reinforced all the system’s worst instincts, encouraging a take-the-child-and-run mentality and delaying a reduction in foster care numbers that should have begun long before – at least as early as 1994, when the rate of known child abuse in this country began a prolonged decline.  ASFA also:

● Pays states bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number, creating a financial incentive for quick-and-dirty, slipshod adoptive placements.
 ● Created a generation of legal orphans who left foster care with no ties to their own parents and no adoptive home either. Full details on all of this can be found here.

When foster care numbers finally did go down it was because of the accumulation of research on how enormously harmful it is to most of the children in it – such as the Florida study  discussed yesterday, and the study finding that only one in five foster children is doing well in later life, and the two massive studies finding that in typical cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

And that is because, contrary to the common stereotype – and, as we will see, the preconceived notions of the Post reporters -- most children in foster care have parents who are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Other cases, including many cases that involve drug dependence, fall between the extremes.

Misunderstanding where children come from

But, of course, no one at CWLA told the Post reporters any of this.

And so, the reporters tell us, foster care numbers were cut thanks to ASFA because

When children come from a violent home, for example, it’s a relatively straightforward decision about whether to permanently terminate a parent’s right to care for them.

Notice how the reporters accept the stereotype that most children in the system come “from a violent home.”  In fact, the overwhelming majority don’t.

Of all the children in foster care, 13 percent were removed because child protective services alleged physical abuse and four percent for alleged sexual abuse.  Even alleged drug abuse – in all forms, not just opioids – was listed as a factor in 32 percent of cases. In contrast, “neglect” was a factor in removal in 61 percent. (The figures add up to more than 100 percent because there can be more than one reason for removal.)

So the Post’s explanation, that the number of children in foster care decreased because ASFA made it easier to terminate the parental rights of all those sadistic brutes, falls apart.

But it gets worse. Given the context of the rest of the story, the remainder of the paragraph quoted above implies that we shouldn’t be wasting our time coddling those hopeless addicts:

With drug addiction, which can be a hidden issue and can involve treatment, recovery and relapse, the decision to take a parent’s children away can be difficult and take a very long time.

That view is reinforced two paragraphs down:

Danylle Carson, a lawyer who represents children in foster care and who grew up in Maine state custody herself, said the ultimate goal is to reunite foster children with their biological parents. But that is often a lofty — and unattainable — goal.

In fact, it’s an easily attainable goal. You could cut the foster care population by 30 percent almost immediately – just by providing adequate housing for the 30 percent of America’s foster children who are trapped in foster care precisely because their parents lack such housing.   As is discussed in yesteerday’s post, more states could start dealing with parental drug abuse the way Connecticut is dealing with it. Where treatment at home isn’t enough, we could expand inpatient drug treatment programs where parents live with their children.  (For starters, we could turn every parking place “shelter” for children into an inpatient drug treatment campus for families.)

And it all would cost less than foster care.

To whatever extent opioids or the next drug plague or the one after that requires taking away  children, states can prepare for that by finally getting the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home – and by curbing widespread needless removal in the first place.