Sunday, October 28, 2018

Washington State threw away foster children in an out-of-state institution where, one youth says, you can be punished for trying to wipe away a tear

Clarinda Academy in Iowa, where, according to Disability Rights
Washington, Washington State foster children were verbally and
physically abused.  The big newspapers in both states never noticed.
(Photo from Disability Rights Washington) 

FIRST OF TWO PARTS (Read Part Two here)

● It went on for years while major media in two states were asleep.  It took an alt-weekly in Spokane and an advocacy group to raise the alarm.

● The advocacy group found that Washington State caseworkers knew what was happening – and did nothing.  One refused to even call a child pleading to talk because “my work phone is not working at the moment.”

● They found that Washington State may be violating state law, at least two federal laws, and the United States Constitution.

● The state’s child welfare agency’s clueless response: Spend more to stash children in in-state institutions.

Here’s what Washington State considers the best way to “treat” children who have been taken from their parents and are said to have behavior problems.

● Ship them more than a thousand miles from home.
● Isolate them in an institution run like a prison.
● Subject them to verbal and physical abuse.

Almost as bad as what Washington State has been doing to these children is the state’s response when the abuses were exposed: We’ll stop institutionalizing the children out-of-state – by spending more money to entice “providers” to institutionalize them in-state!

The state’s child protective services agency – and almost all of the media who finally caught up with the story -  missed the point: The problem isn’t that one particular out-of-state institution is abusive – the problem is that institutionalization is inherently abusive – and unnecessary.

The evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure  (You can read all about that evidence here).  The claims that there are some children for whom nothing else works don’t hold up to scrutiny.  On the contrary, residential treatment “works” only for child welfare agencies – they can stash the children out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Indeed, through an unusual chain of events, the exposure of what was being done to children at an out-of-state institution has its roots in a newspaper expose of failings at a similar institution right in Washington State.  But that expose didn’t come from one of the big players in Washington State journalism – it came from Inlander, a Spokane-area alternative weekly, and reporter Wilson Criscione.

What really works

What actually works for children is Wrapraround – which brings all the help a child needs directly into the child’s own home or a foster home.  This video provides an example of how it works:

But of course, all this was lost on Washington State media – except for Inlander. Instead, Washington State media accepted the state’s promises at face value and blamed the shipping of Washington State foster youth all over the country on what one online news site called “Washington’s long-festering and desperate shortage of foster homes and group homes for youth with behavioral and mental health challenges.”

Wow. Long-festering and desperate.

But that is bull.  Like so many other states, Washington State doesn’t have too few foster parents, Washington State has too many foster children.

While not as bad as, say, neighboring Oregon, Washington State still takes away children at a rate 17 percent above the national average. The rate of removal in Washington State is more than 60 percent above states that are, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe by emphasizing safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families in the first place.

How we know about the abuses

The reason we know about what is being done to children shipped to that jail-like institution has nothing to do with media in Washington State (again except for Inlander as I’ll explain in part two of this post).

The story was not “broken” by any big media organization in Washington State.  And it was not broken by any news organization in Iowa, even though the institution where all these abuses took place – Clarinda Academy - is in Iowa.  Indeed, in Iowa, coverage of this prison-like facility for children who often have committed no crime appears to have been confined largely to reporting the scores of games played by Clarinda’s sports teams.  (And no, the collapse of the newspaper industry is no excuse. That started around 2006. Clarinda opened in 1992.)

So we found out what Washington State has been doing to these children thanks to an advocacy group, Disability Rights Washington (DRW).  Federal law requires states to designate agencies such as DRW to serve as watchdogs for people with disabilities. And they got interested thanks to a story in Inlander.

After DRW did the actdual reporting, Washington State’s largest newspaper, The Seattle Times was reduced to writing a story based entirely on DRW’s findings.  And Iowa’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, was reduced to reprinting the Seattle Times story. [UPDATE, November 27, 2018: The Register has now caught up, though the story is fairly thin, with none of the power of DRWs report.]

It was DRW that actually sent investigators to Iowa to find out what was happening to the Washington State children at Clarinda Academy, part of a for-profit chain called Sequel. Among the findings in their comprehensive report:

● Youths were lured into “voluntarily” going to Clarinda by false claims about the place. One foster youth who loves music was told there was a choir – and a swimming pool.  But there was no pool.  And there was no choir. In fact, she wound up in a dorm where young people were not even allowed to sing.

● The no-singing rule is one example of the prison-like rigidity to every aspect of daily life.  Others include having to move from place to place lined up single file, being barred from talking to the opposite gender, almost never being allowed off the facility grounds and severe restrictions on phone calls to friends and families.  Some dorms add on restrictions such as no leaning on walls, no talking during meals, no walking on grass, and no going to the bathroom without permission.

● There is a coercive, almost Orwellian system of exploiting peer pressure to keep the young people in line, complete with “hundreds, if not thousands” of unwritten “norms” the youth have to follow.  (Clarinda officials told DRW their system was modeled on an institution in Pennsylvania, Glen Mills. But even DRW may not know that Glen Mills itself has been the subject of controversy over its discipline practices).

● When peer pressure wasn’t enough, DRW found that Clarinda misused and overused painful physical “restraints”  DRW reports that every student they spoke to “reported that restraints they experienced were physically painful and frequently resulted in back, shoulder, and neck pain for several days or weeks.” 

Restraints were used at Clarinda when residents dared to move or clench their hands during a verbal intervention.  Restraints were used on a student because the student scratched his or her leg.  At Clarinda, one foster youth told Inlander, you can even endure physical restraint if you “raise your hand to wipe a tear.”

● One reason Clarinda could do this is that Iowa’s laws limiting the use of restraints on children are far more lax than those in Washington State. (Perhaps Iowa media should find out why that’s the case.)  Clarinda residents repeatedly described methods of restraint that are illegal in Washington State but perfectly o.k. in Iowa. 

From the Disability Rights Washington report on Clarinda Academy

● To the extent that there may be a problem with past criminal behavior, the problem may rest more with the staff than the residents.  According to DRW “over a third of the twenty-six staff who had participated in restraining Washington youth had convictions for criminal driving offenses or illegal use of alcohol and controlled substances.”

The report also found that the Washington State caseworkers for these Washington State children knew about it – and apparently took no action. 

No Washington State child at Clarinda was visited by her or his Washington State caseworker.  They contract with Iowa workers instead.  According to the DRW report:

Despite numerous statements that Clarinda Academy uses restraints “all the time” as a “consequence” for breaking the rules, “to be on safe side,” or even “for no reason,” Children’s Administration case notes do not document any follow up by Washington social workers to talk with or visit the youth who had reported abusive restraints. DRW found no other evidence that reports by contracted social workers resulted in any action by Washington State to determine whether Clarinda Academy improperly uses restraints in violation of Washington’s own standards …

(Now that the DRW report is public, the state child welfare agency finally is making such visits.)

One telling example of caseworker callousness: When a Washington State caseworker was specifically asked in an email to please call a Clarinda student who  “is having a hard time with restraints and wants to talk about it” the worker replied: “Unfotunately, my work phone is not working at the moment.”

DRW summed it all up this way:

The documentation DRW obtained demonstrates that Washington and Clarinda Academy are both failing to protect against the use of restraints for coercion or punishment for not following expectations. The Academy’s vague policy, generic crisis plans, inconsistent training, and tolerance for various staff misconduct - including tolerance for inappropriate restraints - create a fertile breeding ground for improper practices that would violate both Iowa and Washington rules. 

Making trauma worse

An expert who reviewed the records for DRW, Dr. Gauri Goel, found that being warehoused at Clarinda may have worsened whatever problems the youths had to begin with.  Their treatment at Clarinda “can be potentially harmful to the child over time … the treatment they are receiving is likely to be ineffective and potentially counterproductive in attending to their trauma-related needs.”

The problems are further compounded by being sent so far from home.  “They are being distanced from those who may be able to provide them with a sense of safety and security both within the here-and-now and as potential future caretakers,” Dr. Goel said.

DRW argues that what Washington State does to these children may violate Washington State law, at least two federal laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the U.S. Constitution.

Now that DRW has exposed what should have been exposed by big news organizations,  Washington State has offered up a depressingly predictable response.

Now, suddenly the agency realizes it really should send caseworkers to meet with the children it’s essentially thrown away out of state.  They’re promising to get all the children “into other situations” by the end of January.

But “other” doesn’t necessarily mean better.  Remember that foster youth who was lured to Clarinda by false promises of a pool and a choir? She’s still institutionalized, but now she’s even farther away in South Carolina.  Perhaps saddest of all, she’s been persuaded that somehow this was her fault and she has to plead with the very people who did this to her.  So, Inlander reports,

"They think I'm going to go back and be a monster in Washington," she says. "All I struggled with was self-harm."
She says she's overcome that and is not letting that define her anymore. She says all she wants to do is graduate school, go to college and help homeless people. She herself wants to be home.
"I want to be there. I can't spend another Christmas Day at placement," she says. "I just can't."

But blaming the victims is Washington State’s entire rationale. 

So the state says the children placed out of state usually have “complex behavioral health challenges that require 24-hour care not feasible in individual foster homes or have other challenging therapeutic needs.”

Again, that’s 100 percent Grade A bull----.  When these children really need to be out of their own homes, family foster homes can work – provided the foster parents are given the intensive help they need – 24 hours a day if necessary.  That’s how Wraparound works.

And if you get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back into their own homes, there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the children who really need to be taken away, provided the state gives the foster parents the intensive support they may need.

But instead of bolstering Wraparound the state proposes to increase pay rates to get more providers to be willing to institutionalize children in Washington State.  (They already pay more than $90,000 per year per child.)

But institutions do not become magically better because they’re in Washington State.  Granted, the rules on restraints are better than those in Iowa, but given how lackadaisical the child welfare agency seems to be, it’s hard to believe much is done to enforce even that. And better rules on restraints doesn’t alter the fact that residential treatment doesn’t work and often does harm.

Indeed, the entire chain of events leading to DRW’s expose actually began with a cover story in Inlander – and much of that story focused on serious problems at a residential treatment center right in Washington State.

That story in part two.