Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2018

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    Often, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. 

Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. 

The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations on Saturday. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. 

And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times (Now Tampa Bay Times) in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

(As for how the Tampa Bay Times regards birth parents – see this post from 2017.)

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. 

Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008 -- a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother – who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. 

The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain the sharp increase in the number of children who "aged out" of foster care over the past 20 years. 

We estimate that the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has contributed to creating more than 100,000 additional children who age out with no permanent home.  UPDATE, 2018: And data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that of all the children who leave the foster care system at age 16 or older, half have no permanent home.  It's even worse for nonwhite foster children.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. 

And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death. In 2017, in Iowa alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving children adopted from foster care.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.

Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Chronicle of Social Change apologizes for – and removes – column that used a crude racial stereotype

Last week, I repeated NCCPR’s longstanding call for the Chronicle of Social Change to apologize for a column that included a section that bullied an impoverished African-American mother with a vile racial stereotype about poor people wasting money on sneakers.

I said it needed to be a real apology, without reservation - not one of those “if-anyone-was-offended” non-apology apologies.  And it needed to be prominent on the Chronicle site, in front of the paywall.

On Monday, to the credit of its editor and publisher, the Chronicle issued just such an apology.  In their statement, editor John Kelly and publisher Daniel Heimpel wrote: 

[The author of the column] has told us that she doesn’t consider this allusion to be racist. And despite criticism of the column related to this section, our initial decision was to keep it on our site.
We were wrong. The fact is that the trope of a low-income mom buying children designer clothes, at the expense of spending on more critical family needs, does exist as a crude and often racial stereotype. Its inclusion in this piece may not have been intended in that way, but our editorial process should have identified this and we should have insisted on its removal from the piece. 
Once it was live on our site, we should have considered more carefully the criticism of this reference and taken it down. We mishandled this decision, and in so doing have allowed a callous dismissal of a young single mother’s very human efforts to do right by her daughter to remain in our pages. …
We regret it, we have learned from it, and today we remove this column from our website with our sincere apologies.

I believe the apology is sincere – which is why I’m not referring to the Chronicle as the – well, you know.

J. Khadijah Abdurahman, an astute observer of issues involving race and child welfare, and someone who regularly asks challenging questions of all of us, points out in a tweet that it took a long time to reach this point and “there’s no reflection on why not a single person in their office raised a red flag before publishing.”

My guess, and my hope, is that such reflection has taken place internally. 

There also are a number of other issues with how the Chronicle approaches news coverage of child welfare.  For example, an event they sponsored in Washington yesterday on the so-called shortage of foster homes does not appear to have included  anyone taking the position that the problem isn’t too few foster parents – it’s too many foster children.

But I prefer to assume that  this is reflection of the old way of doing things at the Chronicle, and now that is going to change.  So, as far as I’m concerned, as of today, the slate is clean.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Impressive reporting on racial bias in Texas child welfare

There’s a pervasive stereotype – especially in Texas - about those of us who think there should be less coercive intervention into families. It goes like this:

If you want to take away fewer children you must be one of those right-wing extremists who doesn’t care if parents beat up their kids!  This stereotype has been reinforced for at least 20 years by the most prominent liberal in Texas child welfare -- a “Godsource” for Texas journalists -- who has crusaded endlessly to tear apart more families.  (I see no reason to name him here, but you’ll find plenty about him in the report we released about Texas child welfare in 2005.)

So mainstream media coverage consists almost entirely of the following “master narrative”: Texas spends too little on child welfare, the only mistake Texas child welfare makes is to leave children in dangerous homes, Texas should take away more children and anyone who thinks otherwise must be one of those right-wing spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child “parents rights” fanatics.

One of those themes actually is correct: Texas should spend more.  The rest is Texas-sized misrepresentation.  It misrepresents not only those of us on the Left, but also many smart, principled conservatives with whom I disagree on almost everything but who care passionately about protecting children and see that the current approach isn’t doing the job.

Greetings from the Family Values Left

Speaking only for myself, I’m a lifelong tax-and-spend liberal who proudly cast his first vote in a Presidential election for George McGovern and his last vote in a Presidential primary for Bernie Sanders.  And one look at the Board of NCCPR (go ahead, have a look) makes clear we’re not exactly a right-wing bunch.

But that stereotype also may explain some interesting findings about racial disproportionality in Texas child welfare, discussed in an excellent story that, itself, breaks the mold for Texas media.

The story, by Julie Chang of the Austin American-Statesman, reports that statewide, African American children are, proportionately, twice as likely to be torn from their families as white children.  But in the liberal bastion of metropolitan Austin, Travis County, they are eight times more likely to be taken away. 

Statewide, Latino children were less likely to be removed than white children, but in Travis County they were three times more likely to be removed.

“I was really appalled when I saw [the data],”Aurora Martinez Jones, an associate Travis County district judge who oversees child welfare cases told the Statesman. She added:

“Ultimately, racism still exists, and it’s alive and well in Austin. We like to look at ourselves as a very liberal and progressive community, and we can be in a lot of respects, but ... people still haven’t acknowledged the implicit bias and explicit bias they may experience when interacting with other people in our community.”

Indeed, that progressive tradition actually might contribute to the problem.

Because many on the Left have a blind spot when it comes to child welfare, they are not as vigilant   And because they see an intervention by Child Protective Services as benevolent, they are less sensitive to both racial and class bias, and more likely to needlessly call a child abuse hotline and trigger a child abuse investigation. Of course, all that winds up hurting the very children my fellow liberals want to help.
about protecting civil liberties as they are when confronted by the abuses of law enforcement.

But most notable is Chang’s refusal to simply accept the usual excuses from child welfare’s “caucus of denial” – those who insist that people in child welfare are so much better than the rest of us that they are magically immune from the racial bias that permeates every other aspect of American life.  As Chang notes:

Financial pressure in part caused by the rising cost of living, limited community resources such as affordable housing, and institutional racism drive the differences in Travis County, which have widened over the last decade, according to child welfare advocates.

In other words, it’s both the confusion of poverty with neglect and racial bias. The story also notes that

Two Texas studies conducted in 2008 and 2011 found that even though African-American children were considered at lower risks of maltreatment than white children, CPS workers were more likely to remove an African-American child from the home.
Other studies have shown that when controlled for income, African-American children are still more likely to be involved with CPS than their white peers.

This of course jibes with a wealth of other research that the denial caucus chooses to ignore.

But remember how I said one part of the media’s “master narrative” – the part about Texas spending too little on child welfare – is correct? That, too, is borne out by the Statesman story:

Advocates fear that the disparities will worsen with the loss of the state’s Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement, which had shared data with the child welfare agency but was shuttered Sept. 1 after the Republican-led Legislature cut funding.

But this also illustrates another point: Texas doesn’t just need to spend more, it needs to spend smarter, on everything from tracking racial bias in child welfare to actually doing something about it.

All of which leads Aurora Martinez Jones to conclude:

We have to admit that this child welfare system was not created for African-American children. We did not have African-American children in mind when we started looking at a state agency that would intervene in a parent’s right to be a parent. We were looking mostly at Anglo children and how we could support their families. This system needs reform.

The rest of the media in Texas should pay attention.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

NCCPR statement on new foster care data

The federal government released new data today about children in foster care. (New means the data are "only" about one year old - covering Federal Fiscal Year 2017).  They show a small increase in the number of children trapped in foster care on the last day of that year, Sept. 30 compared to the same day a year earlier. They also show a small decrease in the number of children taken from their homes over the course of a year compared to the previous year.

NCCPR Executive Director Richard Wexler released this statement concerning the data.

The ongoing increase in the number of children in foster care on any given day is not due to the opioid epidemic. Rather, it’s due to child welfare’s typical failed knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to the opioid epidemic.  It is a response that lives at the intersectionof ignorance and arrogance.

The research is clear – even when substance abuse is the issue, in the typical cases seen by child protective services workers children do better when left in their own homes even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.  That’s why the first response should be drug treatment for the parents, not foster care for the children – not for the sake of the parents, but for the sake of the children.

The small decline in the number of children entering foster care gives hope that child welfare finally might be learning that lesson.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Still waiting for the Chronicle of Social Change to apologize for its exercise in bullying and racial stereotyping

UPDATE, NOV 12, 2018: THE WAIT IS OVER: To its great credit, the Chronicle has offered a full apology. I believe it is sincere.  As far as I am concerned, the slate is now clean.

A stereotype in that infamous column published by the Fox News of child welfare bears a striking resemblance to widely-condemned dog-whistle political ads

Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about a negative campaign ad in which a Jewish candidate was portrayed as “holding a wad of cash in front of him, with a crazed look in his eyes.”

The story went on to list example after example of candidates using crude racial stereotypes:

In New York, Republicans have continually assailed a Democratic congressional hopeful’s decade-old rap career, despite his work as an attorney and a Rhodes Scholar.
In Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp used an ad with a tap dancer to show his opponent in the governor’s race, black Democrat Stacey Abrams, “dancing around the truth,” that was also criticized as having a racist undertone.
In Florida, a Republican official claimed that if black Democrat Andrew Gillum won the governor’s race, “his people” would be getting paid back for slavery. …
In California, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter … has falsely accused his opponent, an American of Palestinian and Mexican descent, of trying to “infiltrate” the government and trying to “hide” family ties to terrorism.

Now, suppose, hypothetically there had been another example.  Suppose the article also had said:
 In New Jersey, a white candidate for State Senate accused his opponent, a Black woman, of “wanting to raise your taxes so her people can waste the money.” The text was illustrated by an African-American buying expensive sneakers.

It would fit right in, wouldn’t it?  In fact, there is no such ad. 

But now consider what actually did appear in a column for the Chronicle of Social Change – the Fox News of child welfare - last year.  The column, by the Chronicle’s one-time “Blogger of the Year,” Marie Cohen, criticized a New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”  In the process it dredged up the sneaker stereotype. 

Here’s how the Times story actually begins:
Maisha Joefield thought she was getting by pretty well as a young single mother in Brooklyn, splurging on her daughter, Deja, even though money was tight. When Deja was a baby, she bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could. When her daughter got a little older, Ms. Joefield outfitted the bedroom in their apartment with a princess bed for Deja, while she slept on a pullout couch.
Here’s how Cohen paraphrases that paragraph and comments on it:
Reporters Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg began with a description of Maisha Joefield, a mother who “splurged” on her daughter even when money was tight. For example, the reporters added helpfully, Ms. Joefield “bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could.” It is odd to me that the authors seem to consider splurging on brand-name diapers, sneakers, or apparel to be an indicator of good motherhood.
Sneakers?  What sneakers?  The Times story never mentions sneakers – or any other “apparel” aside from the diapers.
I don’t know why Cohen brought sneakers into the discussion. I do know that there is a crude, pernicious racial stereotype that says African-Americans are poor because they waste money on expensive sneakers.

The element of bullying

In one sense this is even worse than the campaign ads.  Vile as they are, the ads attacked opposing candidates - people who could fight back relatively easily. The Chronicle column attacked an impoverished single mother. So in addition to being an exercise in stereotyping, the Chronicle column was an exercise in bullying.

More than a year later, in a tweet on Oct. 22 Chronicle Publisher and self-proclaimed “child welfare expert” Daniel Heimpel finally acknowledged that the column was “unfortunate” and they would “correct” it. 

So, where’s the “correction”?  Either there is none, or there is, but it’s partially hidden.

After being generally available for weeks, the original column was moved behind a paywall.  It’s possible that now there is a correction of some kind there too.  I’m not going to pay to find out.  But since the original column was fully public, any correction needs to be fully public as well.  In fact a correction is not enough.  What’s needed is a full-throated apology, without reservation, without whataboutism and without hiding it behind a paywall.  [UPDATE, NOV 12: AND TO ITS CREDIT, THE CHRONICLE HAS NOW DONE JUST THAT]

In the absence of that kind of real apology, real news organizations should refuse to partner with the Chronicle and should treat its “news coverage” with the utmost skepticism.

Was it subconscious bias?

There is one possible difference between the campaign ads and the infamous Chronicle column: As much as the campaigns may deny it, it’s clear that the dog-whistling in the ads was deliberate.  It’s possible that Cohen and the editors who reviewed her column and approved it for publication misread the original Times story and thought it really did mention sneakers.  In fact, I think that is the most likely explanation.  If so, that would make this a classic example of subconscious bias.

That would make the column, and in particular, the failure to apologize for it, no less reprehensible.  But it would add a certain extra irony to something else Cohen once wrote for The Chronicle:

“As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple low-quality, heavy-handed trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases.”

As I’ve said before, I don’t believe either Cohen or Heimpel is a racist. In fact, I think they both really want to help vulnerable children, even if they are wrong about how to go about it.

But we all have hidden biases.  Perhaps they should try another one of those “trainings.”