Monday, October 29, 2018

The failure of residential treatment: An alternative weekly in Washington State asks the questions bigger media won’t

● The questions arise through the story of a 15-year-old boy who walked more than 100 miles in the middle of a Pacific Northwest winter to escape “residential treatment” – and return to his mother - where he is doing well.

 ● A county court commissioner put it best: "Until you can show me that those sorts of institutions work, why would we build another one?"

It's a long way from Spokane, Washington to Libby, Montana. 
But one 15-year-old boy walked most of the way - in the middle of winter -
in order to escape "residential treatment" and return to his mother.


Read the full story from the Spokane alternative weekly Inlander here.

In a previous post to this blog, I wrote about how Washington State’s practice of stashing away foster children in out-of-state institutions, including one where alleged verbal and physical abuse of the residents was exposed in a comprehensive report not by a big news organization but by an advocacy group, Disability Rights Washington.

But one reporter, Wilson Criscione of the Spokane-area alternative weekly Inlander, has done outstanding reporting on this issue; journalism that puts its larger counterparts to shame.  In fact, DRW first found out about Washington State’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind-we-don’t-care-we-don’t-have-to approach to these children thanks to a 2017 story by Criscione exposing problems at an in-state institution, the Excelsior Youth Center.

(And if you think “we-don’t-care-we-don’t-have-to” is a little harsh, check out the full DRW report, including the story of the Washington State caseworker who responded to an institutionalized out-of-state child’s plea to talk to him or her on the phone by replying: “my work phone is not working at the moment.”)

It was probably this paragraph in the Inlander story that prompted DRW to begin asking questions:

For some kids at Excelsior, their behavior only gets worse, and officials take the extreme step of shipping them out of state.
But the Inlander story does much more than reveal the way Washington State throws away foster youth.  It includes the views of those who challenge the entire “master narrative” crafted by the Washington State child welfare agency and the state’s major media: that there are some children for whom residential treatment is the only alternative, and that only children with the most severe problems are institutionalized.

It does all this by telling the story of Timothy Moore, a 15-year-old who escaped being shipped out of state by running away – back to the mother who never should have had to give him up in the first place.  It also tells the larger story of the failure of institutionalization in general and in Washington State in particular.

The story of Tim Moore

Tim Moore was born in Montana. He was  never beaten or tortured or starved by his mother, Lynnette Haines. Haines’ only crime was to, herself, be a victim of severe beatings by a man from whom she could not get away.  No, Montana did not take Tim away because of that.  But apparently no one helped her either. That left her no choice: At the end of 2013, in the hope it would stop him from getting hurt, Haines sent Tim to live with relatives in Washington State. He was 12-years-old.

But Tim says those relatives beat him with spoons, whipped him with barbed wire – and worse. (The relatives deny it.)

After Tim told a school counselor about being abused, Washington State caseworkers could have searched for Tim’s mother and pressed Montana authorities to provide the help she needed to escape an abusive boyfriend (if she had not escaped already).  Instead they put him in a foster home with strangers. 

But they don’t seem to have done much to help Tim, or the foster parents. Inlander reports that Tim was expelled from school “and therefore expelled from the home.”  A placement with an older sister didn’t work out.  But instead of thinking: Let’s provide Wraparound services to Tim and his sister so they can stay together, caseworkers decided that if they just institutionalized him at Excelsior the “more therapeutic setting” might make him well enough to live with his sister again.

At the institution, everything gets worse

But at Excelsior, everything got worse. Tim felt unsafe, and he felt no one cared about him so he started running away. He committed crimes to survive on the streets.  It happened with a lot of residents, Tim told Inlander. “They’re pretty much turning into criminals on the streets, because Excelsior’s not a good place for kids.”

Tim was jailed. When he was released, Excelsior – whose whole reason for being is supposedly to take in the children with the most severe problems – refused to take the 15-year-old back.  In other words, they were engaging in a common industry practice known as “creaming” – as in skimming the cream.  And unlike some states, which have what are called “no reject, no eject” requirements in their contracts with providers, Washington State apparently allows this.

In this case, Excelsior’s exercise in creaming may have been the best thing that ever happened to Tim.  He was told he’d be sent to Iowa – probably to the place exposed in the DRW report. Instead he ran away. He found out his mother was living 160 miles away, in Libby, Montana. 

So he went home. He jumped out of a caseworker’s car and ran away.  He asked strangers for directions.  He hitchhiked part of the way, but mostly he walked, from Spokane, across the Idaho Panhandle, to Montana, in the middle of winter. He told Inlander he didn’t eat or sleep for three days. He drank water from gas station restroom faucets.

Three-and-a-half days later, Criscione writes,

he showed up on the doorstep of his mother's trailer at 3 am, in the rain, with holes in his shoes, blisters on his feet and tears running down his face.

And how did all that work out?  As of April, 2017, when the Inlander story was published:

Tim, now 16, lives about as normal a life as he could ask for with his mom in Montana. She bakes cookies when he gets home from school as his little brother plays with Play-Doh. In school, Haines says he's getting A's and B's, and he even corrected his math teacher in front of the class. He has sleepovers with friends, plays sports, and draws pictures that are hung on the fridge. When his mom hears him curse, she warns him about his language. He rolls his eyes and obeys.

One last attempt at state-sanctioned sabotage

But Washington State made one last attempt to sabotage all this.

Incredibly, the state still wanted to institutionalize Tim in Iowa.  Why? Because Haines had a “history” of “exposing” her children to domestic violence.

Of all the reasons to break up a family, witnessing domestic violence is among the very worst – for the children.  As one expert put it, for a child, tearing her or him from a parent whose only crime is to be a domestic violence victim is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  That’s why in one state, New York, it’s illegal, thanks to a class-action lawsuit. (NCCPR’s Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs.)

The solution in cases such as Tim’s is to remove the abuser.  No one helped Haines do that – but by the time Tim found his way back to her, she’d done it herself.

So, as Criscone writes:

[Juvenile Court Commissioner] Rachelle Anderson, presiding over the case, had to choose. Either Tim would be placed in Iowa, as the state recommended, or he'd be allowed to stay with his mom, where he was already doing well in school, did everything his mother asked, and had counseling appointments scheduled.

Fortunately she made the right choice.

All of which prompted Tim’s lawyer, Katie Maucione, to ask the obvious question.

"If a kid like Tim needs a … placement like Excelsior to be successful," she told Criscione,  "then how do we explain his successful and sudden streamlining right back into society?"

The failure of residential treatment

In fact, nobody needs a placement like Excelsior to be successful.  On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that such placement does no good and often reduces the chances of success.  Tim’s story offers a classic example of the failure of residential treatment – and why the excuses for continuing to use it don’t stand up for scrutiny.

The director of field operations for the Washington State Department of Health and Human Services at the time, Connie Lambert-Eckel told Inlander that “Excelsior is unique because of its location, its history and the nature of its facility in taking some of the most difficult-to-serve kids in the state.” (Lambert-Eckel has since been promoted.)

But Tim wasn’t really “difficult” until after he had experienced Excelsior. And he stopped being “difficult” as soon as he made his way back to his own mother.  And remember, Excelsior had actually kicked Tim out for supposedly being too difficult. 

So what Lambert-Eckel really is saying is: Excelsior is an easy place to dump kids.

And apparently the dumping can start early.  Inlander notes that that “a 10-year-old girl snuck out of Excelsior and was allegedly raped — twice — by a 13-year-old boy.”  Yes, Washington State is institutionalizing ten year olds.

Yet Lambert-Eckel’s only solution is to build more dumping grounds.  The child welfare agency wants more money, so it can pay the institutions even more than the over $90,000 per year per child that they get now. 

In the year since the Inlander story was published, the state legislature rearranged some deck chairs on its child welfare Titanic and created a separate agency for child welfare.

But in response to the DRW report the new agency offered only the same old same old: We want to pay “providers” more money so we can keep on institutionalizing children, but do it all in-state.

And what kind of results does this $90,000+ per year per child produce?

Turning victims into criminals

From the Inlander story:

Michelle Ressa, a Spokane County court commissioner, suggests that group homes are more likely to call police for something that in a family setting would result in, for instance, a child being grounded. "I have seen examples of kids throwing food, and police being called," Ressa says. "I don't think that would happen with Mom and Dad. … "I haven't seen that what's happening at Excelsior is working for the majority of kids," Ressa says.

It’s not just Excelsior:

Local public defenders who represent these kids say they consistently notice their client's criminal history starting or getting worse once placed in a group home. Mike Elston, a Spokane County public defender, says he has four clients who are group home residents, and together, 90 percent of their pending charges come from incidents against the group home or its employees. For those clients, about half of their criminal history prior to those charges came from group homes.

And it’s not just Washington State.  Karen de Sa of the San Francisco Chronicle found the same thing happening at “shelters” in California.

In the Inlander story, one a public defender cut to the heart of the matter:

Brooke Foley, a Spokane County public defender representing juveniles, says the problem is that kids are put in these group homes, especially Excelsior, in the first place. "I think it's borderline negligence for the state to put them there, when they know this is happening," Foley says.

And how does the director of Excelsior explain the dismal results? It’s all the fault of the kids – or their parents – or maybe their foster parents; anyone but us.  As he explained to Inlander:

Whether or not it happens when they lived with you, or they lived with me, doesn't make you or me the reason they're making negative behavior choices Their choices are a result, again, from their disabilities. Their choices, again, are from their abuse and neglect histories. Their choices, again, are from the learned environment, which was not what we would call orthodox.

But even if that were true, the reason the state is paying places like Excelsior more than $90,000 per year per child is so they’ll actually fix those problems.

Or as Michelle Ressa told Inlander:

Until you can show me that those sorts of institutions work, why would we build another one?