Thursday, December 28, 2017

A devastating report on Iowa child welfare – from the state’s own consultants

Reports issued by consultants tend to be diplomatic documents. One has to use genteel language when criticizing the people who hired you in the first place.

Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking the message from a recent report by the highly respected Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group concerning child welfare in Iowa.  The report found that recent policy changes made by the state Department of Human Services in the wake of high-profile tragedies have made things worse.

And things weren’t good to begin with.

Iowa has long been an extreme outlier, tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in America.  Then, over a little more than a year, four high-profile cases of vicious, sometimes fatal abuse of children “known to the system” made headlines.

Given that, in every one of these cases, the alleged perpetrators were foster parents who had adopted the children they allegedly abused, one might think this might finally lead to reforms aimed at curbing needless removal.

But that underestimates the capacity of child welfare systems – and often, sadly, the press and the public -- for double standards.  Had there been four separate cases of horrific abuse by birth parents making the front page of newspapers in a relatively small state day after day we all know that everyone would be scapegoating efforts to keep families together and demanding that we take away more children.

Yet even in the wake of what newspapers would normally call a “spate” of child abuse tragedies involving foster and adoptive parents, there is no media outcry demanding that Iowa curb its obscene rate of tearing apart families.  (In fact, I don’t think policy in either direction should be based on horror stories – Iowa should curb its obscene rate of removal not because of horror stories, but because of the data on how harmful such removal is to children.)

DHS moves full-speed backwards

But DHS has done nothing to curb needless removal. On the contrary, even though the abuse occurred in foster care, DHS has made changes that actually increase the likelihood that even more children will be funneled into the very system where these children were tortured.

Sadly that is not unusual. As I first noted long ago, foster-care panics – huge spikes in removals of children from their homes in the wake of horror stories – almost never work in reverse.

So, the consultants tell us, Iowa curbed screening of reports alleging child abuse and neglect.  The proportion accepted for investigation soared from 50 percent to 65 percent.  And of the reports accepted, the proportion diverted to a more family friendly approach known as “differential response” was reduced.  That happened even though 25 separate studies have found that differential response is safe – and the Child Welfare Group found that Iowa’s differential response program “was working as intended and that outcomes overall were positive.”

Again the response is unsurprising. When the first of the horror story cases made headlines, supporters of Iowa’s take-the-child-and-run approach rushed to scapegoat differential response  -even though there was no evidence that the case in question ever involved the use of differential response.

The result of all this is a 43 percent increase in the number of families subjected to a child abuse investigation in Iowa.

Here’s what the consultants have to say about it:

These policy measures, the broadening of intake and the lowering of screenout rates, are familiar; they follow a pattern often taken by states in the wake of child fatalities or other high profile cases in well intentioned attempts to ensure children’s safety. They have, however, in the reviewers’ experience, seldom if ever had the intended effect. Such actions can, in fact, serve to place more children at risk by adding to workload requirements that are frequently already overwhelming and broadening the scope of intervention far beyond the expertise or experience of child welfare personnel.  
One fact that is frequently lost in child welfare reform efforts is that child protection intervention can, if too broadly targeted or poorly executed, cause great harm, inflicting trauma on children and families that has far worse effects than the maltreatment it is intended to prevent in all except the minority of particularly egregious incidents.

Other key findings

That was only the beginning. As I read the report, a theme emerging over and over is that almost everything that exists to help families and children on paper in Iowa doesn’t function that way in real life.

● On paper, Iowa embraces the concept of family team meetings, in which everyone important in a child’s life gets together to work out a plan to keep the child safe. In practice, extended family, friends and others often are left out, and the agency presents a “cookie cutter” service plan instead of something geared to what the family really needs. In other words, DHS does exactly what DHS would have done had there been no family team meeting.

● Although people interviewed by the consultants claimed that a wide array of services are available to families, as I read the consultants’ report, the services appear to be skewed heavily toward providing the kinds of help that make the helpers feel good – endless “counseling” and “parent education” instead of the help families need, which often involves concrete help with things like housing, child care and other supports to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.

Indeed some of those consulted by the consultants said that the workers who are supposed to support families actually do little more than monitor them. Others said the people who do these jobs are not well-qualified to do much else.

● DHS misuses and overuses the worst form of “care” – parking children in shelters.  One youth told the consultants: “No healing takes place in shelter care.”

●Foster parent complaints included “disrespectful treatment when, as often happens, they are subjects of unwarranted maltreatment reports.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of all maltreatment reports are unwarranted, regardless of who is accused. But I highlight this common complaint here because, just once, I’d like to hear an Iowa foster parent say: “The agency really needs us. If this is how they treat us, imagine how they treat the birth parents!”

● Both parents and children rarely saw their own lawyers at any time except at court hearings. The consultants were too polite to say that that means, so I will: It means neither parents nor children typically get anything approaching adequate legal representation.  It means everyone has to rely on DHS’ version of the facts. And that means DHS almost always gets whatever it wants.

● The lawyers don’t seem to be the only ones who are out of touch.  Consider one of the report’s top priority recommendations:

Review requirements for having facetoface contacts with parents and other caregivers and for coordination between case managers and [caseworkers who work with families] to ensure that there is appropriate emphasis on having immediate, frequent, and purposeful contacts with parents, particularly parents of children in out of home care, to develop and implement a plan to achieve reunification or other timely permanency outside of foster care. Strongly consider requiring regular facetoface contact with parents in their places of residence.  [Emphasis added.]

Now, let’s stop and think about that last sentence for a moment. 

What kind of child welfare agency is so backwards, so utterly out-of-touch with best practice - or even minimally adequate practice - that it needs outside consultants to tell it that workers who work with families actually ought to make regular face-to-face contact with those families in their own homes?

The one that has been destroying the lives of children in Iowa for decades.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

UPDATED (AGAIN!): Quick – call CPS!


It seems like every couple of years I have to update this post.  Because Alaska's most famous dysfunctional family is in trouble again.  There's been an arrest. Violence, drugs and alcohol may be involved.   And once again, there is no mention of a child protective services investigation.

Remember, this is Alaska, which year after year is the foster-care capital of America - holding proportionately more children in foster care than any other state.

As you read about the latest incident, imagine what the response of CPS would have been had this been a Native Alaskan family.

And anyone who still believes there is no racial or class bias in child welfare needs to explain why this family never seems to be investigated.


I originally posted this in November, 2009.  But look what's happened now.  It's possible that children may have witnessed domestic violence in the very same home - and we all know how quickly Child Protective Services rushes to investigate families, and sometimes take away the children when that happens.  (They shouldn't take the children, but that doesn't stop them.)

And it looks like the alleged perpetrator's mother may be in denial - rushing to blame others for what happened.  

I don’t really think CPS should investigate this family — because I believe there should be a very high threshold to trigger an investigation of any family.  But if our child protective services systems are to be consistent, then CPS will have to look at this family now, right?  Especially since this is all happening in a state that takes away children at one of the highest rates in America.

Oh, wait.  The family isn't poor.


Wow. Sounds like quite a dysfunctional family. According to the allegations:

    The kids pretty much are left to fend for themselves. They do all their own cooking, cleaning, laundry, and they have to get themselves ready for school. One of the older children, herself an unwed teenage mother, has a stormy relationship with Mom. The big sister is the one who helps her kid sister with the homework, while the boyfriend cooks for them. It's alleged that Mom even largely ignored her special needs infant. 
The mother in the family in question.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
    More allegations: Mom and dad have lots of loud arguments in front of the kids – other than that they rarely talk. And mom apparently doesn't work too hard. She leaves work early, and while the kids are fending for themselves, she pampers herself with a long bath and just sits around watching house and wedding shows on TV. Sometimes, "she would literally say things that did not make sense." As for Dad, he allegedly spends a lot of time "drinking beer or screwing off." And the boyfriend's mother has an arrest record.

    Depending on which caseworker showed up at the door, this might not be enough to get children removed from a family, even an impoverished family – at least not if the kids were managing to keep the house neat and tidy. But such allegations probably would be enough to trigger a child protective services investigation and send that caseworker to the door in the first place. And if the CPS worker "substantiated" the allegations, she'd probably order a "psych eval" on the adults in the home. I'm not saying that's a good thing – only that it almost certainly would happen were this family poor.

Yes, the source of these allegations may not be reliable – but at least he put his name on them. Even an anonymous set of allegations like these could trigger an investigation against an average family – especially an average impoverished family, especially in the state where this family lives, which has one of the highest rates of removal in the nation.

    So: When exactly will Child Protective Services in Alaska be investigating Levi Johnston's allegations concerning Todd and Sarah Palin?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Two giant child welfare systems effectively admit the obvious: They confuse poverty with "neglect"

It’s the biggest single problem in American child welfare – and one that child welfare agencies almost always deny even exists: the widespread needless removal of children when family poverty is confused with child “neglect.”

But this week, two of the largest systems in the country effectively admitted it.

"Preventive Service" #1

Florida: Candor from the Attorney General's office

In Florida, the admission was explicit.  WFLA-TV, the same television station that broke this outstanding story about a child taken because of poverty only to die in foster care has followed up. In this story, they found state officials who admit that children are held in foster care solely because the children lack decent housing:

Or, as the version of the story on the WFLA-TV website puts it:

At a recent meeting of the Hillsborough Children’s Board, Stephanie Bergen from the Florida Attorney General’s Office counted 40 foster kids in Hillsborough County who are separated from their parents due to poverty and nothing else.
“What Stephanie is talking about is kids who’ve been in foster care for more than 15 months and the only thing that’s keeping them from going home is the lack of housing for their parents,” [child advocate Robin] Rosenberg said. “It’s a community-wide crisis. It’s a statewide crisis.”
Rosenberg says there are 125 foster kids statewide in the same situation.

This admission is just the small tip of a very large iceberg. It covers only children still in foster care after 15 months and only cases in which a child welfare agency apparently admits that the children are still trapped in foster care solely due to poverty.

I don’t know how the Attorney General’s office came up with the number but the 15-month timeframe offers a clue. Under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, agencies are supposed to ask a court to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months.

But there are lots of exceptions, including cases in which the agency itself admits to failing to provide adequate help for a family as documented in its own case plan. Needless to say, such confessions are rare. So these probably are those rare cases in which the agency was willing to admit that poverty was the only problem preventing reunification - and even say it out loud in court.

In contrast, multiple studies have found that, nationwide, 30 percent of foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing.
"Preventive Service" #2

New York City: A food pantry that tells a story

In New York City the admission came in the form of a food pantry.

At a child welfare agency that’s been moving backwards in recent months it’s good to see one step in the right direction: The New York City Administration for Children’s Services is opening a food pantry in one of its field offices. A story in the New York Daily News suggests the food will be available for families already under ACS supervision or who already have a child in foster care. But an ACS press release implies it may be available to prevent removal as well.
Either way, The Daily News story includes an acknowledgement of what agencies usually deny. According to the story:

Families are more likely to get cited for neglect or lose custody of their kids if they don’t provide the food kids need, especially if they’re already being investigated for other offenses. 
And here’s what the Food Bank For New York City, which is running the food pantry at the ACS office says.

“For families who are struggling to provide meals for their children, it can become very difficult,” said Food Bank Vice President Camesha Grant.
“Their children are at risk of being taken out of the home and potentially placed into a foster home,” she said. “It may not be the only thing, but it certainly becomes a factor, and an important one if it is deemed you’re unable to provide the basic necessity of food.”

As for that caveat about “especially if they’re already being investigated” that doesn’t really narrow things down much.

A recent study found that the families of more than half of all African-American children will be investigated before those children turn 18. The study didn’t break that down by income – but, obviously, the percentage of poor African American families who will be investigated is even higher.

And the ACS food pantry is in only one office in one of the city's five boroughs.  According to the Daily News, one more is planned for next summer. ACS “hopes” to “eventually” open others.  In the meantime, how many more children will be taken from everyone they know and love because their families can’t afford to provide the children with enough food?

Even with the foster-care panic now underway in New York City, New York actually takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the country. So if New York City needs food pantries in order to stop taking away children needlessly, one can only imagine how many children are torn apart because of poverty in states and cities such as these, that take children at rates vastly above the rate in New York City.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

NYC child welfare chief takes credit for past commissioners’ success – even as he undermines that success

ACS Commissioner David Hansell
A New York Daily News story today is filled with lavish praise for the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.   Of course, all the praise comes from the Administration for Children’s Services itself – specifically, ACS Commissioner David Hansell.

Though the numbers he cites aren’t wrong (which is refreshing), the problem is the numbers that are left out.  Also left out: The fact that all the good news reflects the work of Hansell’s predecessors – not Hansell.

Hansell is, in effect, claiming credit for some genuine, long term success.  The time periods he cites vary but they all end on June 30, 2017.  Hansell wasn’t even named to the job until March, 2017.  So while the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day has indeed plummeted – over the course of 25 years – and that is a major success story, Hansell had nothing to do with it. It’s the work of better commissioners who used to run ACS and the efforts of family advocacy groups and family defenders. 

The numbers Hansell didn’t talk about

One number in particular is conspicuously absent. That number represents the glaring failing of Hansell’s own leadership – the foster-care panic that has led to a sharp increase in the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year.  In FY2017, entries increased by 13 percent – the first increase in children removed from their homes since 2009.

This actually understates the impact of the panic, because the time period in question, July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 – includes about three months before the tragic death of Zymere Perkins, which set off the panic.

That number, how many children a child welfare agency takes away over the course of a year - known as “entries into care” - is the real measure of whether an agency is committed to the better, more humane and safer option for the overwhelming majority of children – keeping families together.

Hansell didn’t start the foster-care panic. Zymere Perkins died toward the end of the tenure of his predecessor, Gladys Carrion (or, rather, it brought her tenure to an end), undermining significant progress made under her leadership.  But Hansell was, and is, in the best position to stop it.  He hasn’t.

The Daily News story also leaves out something important in this paragraph:

The number of children re-entering foster care after being reunified with family or placed with kin has also decreased, from 9.1% in fiscal 2015 to 6.3% in 2017.

What the story leaves out is fiscal 2016. That year, this figure was 7.8 percent. In other words, during Carrion’s tenure, there was a slow, steady improvement in this safety outcome, even as entries into care were decreasing.

The other key safety measure is ignored entirely: reabuse of children known to the system. That number declined during most of Carrion’s tenure – but it went up in FY17, even as the number of children taken from their homes increased.

Compounding the problem: For months ACS wouldn’t even give straight answers about the entry-into-care numbers. Recall all the dissembling and conflicting stories from ACS about the increase in entries, including Hansell’s erroneous claim that there was no increase.

 A cascade of other problems

The panic that has been, at a minimum, tolerated by Hansell also has caused a cascade of other problems such as a huge increase in court supervision cases. 

As the Center for New York City Affairs explains in this report, this clogs up the entire child welfare system. Court hearings are delayed, and it takes longer to actually set up the hoops through which the families must jump. Where families really do need help, the help is delayed, so family problems can worsen. 

The court delays, as well as new CYA bureaucratic procedures also are delaying when children are allowed to leave foster care and return home.  That, rather than the excuse Hansell gave the Daily News, is the more likely reason for a sharp decline in reunifications in FY 2017.

And, of course, caseloads for investigators are increasing, giving them less time to find children in real danger.

The bottom line is this: Even as Hansell brags about past success, his own approach to child welfare is undermining that success.

If he ever stops the foster care panic, then David Hansell will have something to brag about.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NCCPR in WitnessLA: Power, privilege and foster care – how a northern california politician bent an entire child welfare system to his will

Meet Matt Rexroad. He is an ex-Marine who describes himself as “an influential part of California politics for more than 25 years.” The Sacramento Bee calls him “A no-nonsense political consultant who works to elect Republicans.” His clients have included the state Republican Party the McCain presidential campaign and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. He’s also a former mayor of the city of Woodland, in Yolo County, near Sacramento, and a current member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

About four years ago, Rexroad and his wife took in a foster child, an infant he liked to call “Bonus Baby.” The Rexroads took the boy in because, according to the Bee, they believed “their family could handle a new addition and because of their Christian faith.” We don’t know Bonus Baby’s race, but the odds are about two in three that he is nonwhite. The odds are even greater that his family is poor.

After two years, the Rexroads decided that Bonus Baby would be better off with them. They applied to adopt the little boy. The Child Welfare Services division of Yolo County’s Department of Health and Human Services felt that Bonus Baby could safely return to his own home. The Rexroads hired a lawyer, went to court, and lost.
But the real story is what happened next. The number of children taken from their parents skyrocketed, and child safety worsened. Read about it in NCCPR's column for WitnessLA

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Child welfare and sex trafficking: The problem with residential treatment centers for sexually trafficked youth is residential treatment itself

The New York Times published a story Wednesday about how some residential treatment centers are having problems “treating” victims of sex trafficking. The problem: the young people keep running away.

The story focuses on two institutions, Pleasantville Cottage School and Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls in Westchester County. According to the story:

People who have worked in child welfare in and around New York City say there is a pipeline from centers like the ones here back to the streets, where children fall prey to the abuse that they were supposed to escape. Over the last 18 months, the state, which oversees residential treatment centers like Hawthorne, stopped sending children to Hawthorne and to the nearby Pleasantville Cottage School. Among the 51 centers statewide, Hawthorne and Pleasantville are the only ones to have faced such severe sanctions over missing children in recent years.

Although not mentioned in the story, both institutions also have had severe problems in the past. For example, a 1990 New York Newsday story found that Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was
 plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

The “dilemma” that overlooks the obvious

Wednesday’s Times story goes on to discuss the supposed dilemma: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls opted to go the jail route. They’ve added security cameras, new lighting and “installed a six foot high fence that stretches 200 feet through trees and bush.” The institution may have been prodded by the fact that the Westchester County town where it is located started imposing a $250 fee for every call about a missing child.

And, of course, the institutions say the solution is to give them more money for programs that “engage” the residents – because the more than $400 per day per child they already get clearly isn’t enough.

But once again, the institutions and their supporters overlook the obvious: The solution to the problems of institutionalizing children is to stop institutionalizing children.

There is overwhelming evidence that residential treatment is a failure.  Even the former head of one of their own trade associations was forced to admit that  they lack “good research” showing
residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

There is nothing a residential treatment center can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound services – in which an intensive array of services are provided to young people in their own homes or in foster homes.

That’s what the Westchester Journal News found in 2009 when the failures of institutions in Westchester prompted the newspaper to take a long, hard look at institutionalization, and at better alternatives.  Unfortunately those excellent stories no longer are available online, but I’ve highlighted some of their findings here.

And if anyone still doesn’t believe Wraparound is a better option, even in the toughest cases, have a look at this video from Karl Dennis, who pioneered that approach.

The fundamental failure of institutionalization

If anything, sexually trafficked youth appear to be a particularly poor choice for institutionalization.  It is a classic example of the fundamental failure of institutionalization - the idea that taking children who have endured severe trauma and putting them all together in one place at precisely the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure somehow is a good idea.

It should be obvious that this approach would lead to precisely the pipeline referred to in the Times story. Indeed, what the Times found in the Westchester institutions, and worse, has been the pattern all over the country.

The Times story also says this, citing the head of the agency that oversees the Westchester RTCs:

The majority of the children return to their homes or are sent to a foster home or other setting closer to their families in less than a year 

That is another indication that, had they used Wraparound, the chances are excellent that the children need never have been institutionalized in the first place.

The headline on the Times story is: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?”

And the answer is obvious: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Foster care in Oregon: The horrors keep on coming

The horrors happen everywhere, but they’re more likely in Oregon, a state which, year-after-year, tears apart families at a rate well above the national average.

The state of Oregon has paid $750,000 to three English-speaking foster kids who were placed in the Gresham home of Spanish-speaking foster parents and forced to wear filthy clothes smelling of urine and sleep in a windowless basement.
Two of the three brothers also were sexually abused by another, older male foster child -- and they were unable to tell that to their foster parents because their foster parents didn't speak English, said Portland attorney David Paul, who represented the brothers.
Paul said the brothers' isolation was made even worse because child-protection workers with the Oregon Department of Human Services failed to regularly check on the boys.

The story is only the latest in a “spate,” as newspapers love to call such things, of high-profile cases involving abuse of children in Oregon foster homes, group homes and institutions.

But perhaps the most interesting, and in some ways, the most tragic, part of this story can be found toward the end:

The biological mother lost custody of her sons under allegations that she failed to protect them against another adult who posed a threat, Paul said.

The Oregon Department of Human Services then proved itself guilty of exactly the same thing.  But there’s more:

When the state finally pulled them from the Gresham foster home, the boys returned to her care and they are now living with her with no oversight from DHS, Paul said.

Which raises an obvious question: Did the children ever really need to be taken in the first place?  If there really was another adult from whom the children needed to be protected, could that other adult have been removed from the home instead of the children?

But they don’t think that way in Oregon, a state where a take-the-child-and-run mentality goes back decades, a state where year after year, children are taken away at a rate well above the national average.

And, again from the story, this is the result:

"They come back a shadow of their former selves," Paul said.

The story also leaves one key question unanswered. These children spoke only English and were placed in home where the foster parents spoke only Spanish.

My guess is the reverse is more common. How many Spanish-speaking foster children can’t make themselves understood to their foster parents because those foster parents speak only English?  What, if anything, is DHS doing about it?  And who, if anyone, among Oregon journalists, will try to find out?