Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: When anecdotes – and “whistleblowers” – collide

An editorial in the Bangor Daily News wisely
recommends rejecting Maine Gov. Paul LePage's
bad ideas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Although Maine child welfare is careening full-speed backwards, Maine journalism about child welfare, fortunately, is not.  The editorial response to the bad ideas spewing forth from Gov. Paul “Trump-Before-Trump” LePage shows the same prudence and open-mindedness that helped reform child welfare in Maine after Logan Marr died.

On June 1, for example, The Bangor Daily News called LePage’s solutions “heavy handed and overly punitive.”  The editorial wisely urged rejection of LePage’s idea to impose criminal penalties on mandated reporters who don’t report their suspicions of abuse and neglect. 

As for LePage’s embrace of the Big Lie of American child welfare, the myth that child safety is at odds with family preservation, the Daily News reminded readers of what so many in Maine have forgotten:

The focus on family reunification came after the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was suffocated by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who prosecutors said wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head, suffocating her.

The editorial also pointed out that there is no need to change statutes to encourage a take-the-child-and-run approach, as LePage wants, because “Maine’s statutes on child placement already emphasize that a child’s safety is the ‘paramount concern.’”

But then the editorial veers a bit off course. According to the editorial:

Rather than rewrite the statute, it may be more effective to put measures in place to ensure that DHHS follows this directive. For example, whistleblowers have reported that some caseworkers are so intent on reunited a child with her parents that they are willing to overlook risk factors, like drug abuse. Changing this does not require a change of law; instead better training and support can change this practice.

There are several problems with this.

● Drug abuse sometimes is indeed a “risk factor” – but it is not cause for automatic confiscation of the child.  This is discussed in detail in this NCCPR column for the trade journal Youth Today.  The workers criticized by the “whistleblowers” may not be overlooking drug abuse or other risk factors, they may simply be weighing those risks against the enormous known risks of needless foster care, and reaching a conclusion the “whistleblowers” don’t happen to agree with.

Sometimes, as they attempt to balance the risks, the workers will get it wrong – in both directions. Assuming that the errors go only one way only increases the risk of harm to all vulnerable children.

● It’s a lot easier for white, middle-class professionals to “blow the whistle” than it is for those whose children have been needlessly taken – since they are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  There are plenty of poor people who would love to blow the whistle on how their children were needlessly taken, but they don’t know how to pull together documents and speak to reporters. And if their cases are still pending they often fear retaliation by DHHS.

Occasionally, you get a whistleblower who has both professional status and insight into wrongful removal.  Someone such as former Maine foster parent Mary Callahan, who led efforts to improve Maine child welfare after Logan Marr died.  Here’s how she blew the whistle.

And on those rare occasions when the long arm of DHHS reaches into the middle-class, those parents can blow the whistle. This recent example is especially worth reading in light of the fact that one of those who shares responsibility for this family’s pain also was a leading campaigner against the reforms that followed the death of Logan Marr.

Looking at the data

So what happens when anecdotes – and the experiences of whistleblowers – collide? That’s when it’s time to look at the data. 

As is explained in detail in this previous post, the data show that when Maine embraced family preservation it made children safer.  And the data from around the country show that the LePage take-the-child-and-run approach (whether it involves changing laws or “putting measures into place” at the administrative level) makes children less safe.

● And finally, no one has to tell DHHS to put “measures into place” to take away more children. I’ll bet it’s already underway – with a vengeance. Maine almost certainly is in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in the number of children taken needlessly from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.

Of course that’s not what the editorial suggested should happen. On the contrary, the Bangor Daily News and other Maine newspaper editorials have gone out of their way to avoid pouring gasoline onto the fire of foster-care panic. That’s a good start, but more is needed.

Someone claiming that there exists a “practice” of ignoring “risk factors” doesn’t make it so.  Far more likely, overloaded workers don’t have time to consider those risk factors properly – so they’re making more mistakes in all directions, taking more children needlessly while leaving other children in danger in their own homes. Indeed, were DHHS actually to provide “better training and support” as the editorial suggests, it would result in fewer removals of children and more emphasis on family preservation – since that’s what makes children safer.

But obviously DHHS can’t be counted on to do that.

And that’s why even more is needed from the state’s most influential journalists. Refusing to pour gasoline on the fire is a good start, indeed it’s far better than the performance of journalists in many other states.  But what would really help is for people with influence to pour water on those flames - that is, demand a stop to the foster-care panic.

I hope they’ll do it before more children get hurt.