Friday, November 30, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: Trump approach to separating kids has much in common with foster system

If there’s one thing that really, really upsets America’s child welfare establishment, it’s pointing out the close resemblance between the Trump administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents at the Mexican border and the American foster care system.

So, every few weeks, it seems, there is another desperate attempt at hair-splitting to try to convince us that when American child protective services agencies tear apart families nearly 270,000 times every year, it’s nothing like those roughly 2,600 cases that occurred on the border.

Of course the two systems are not identical. Although the percentage is small, some of the children taken by U.S. agencies really did need to be removed for their own safety. And unlike Donald J. Trump, most people in the U.S. child welfare system have good intentions.

But even the good intentions can have a downside. They are likely to shield needless removal of children into U.S. foster care system from the kind of intensive scrutiny the Trump family separation policy is likely to get when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January.

That’s unfortunate, because good intentions is pretty much where the differences end. As this handy chart makes clear, everything else amounts to distinctions without differences. And the efforts of foster care apologists to draw those distinctions actually illustrate the extent to which the two systems are similar.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Catching up slowly: The Des Moines Register finally notices the problems at an Iowa RTC

Even a thin story is better than none.  Unfortuinately, that’s what Iowans got.

Clarinda Academy (Photo from Disability Rights Washington)

Last month, after Disability Rights Washington (DRW) released a scathing report about a residential treatment center in Iowa, to which many Washington State children were sent, I wrote: 

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.) …
After DRW did the actual 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.

Now the Register has begun to catch up; slowly. But the story in the Register this week does little more than regurgitate police reports and give enormous amounts of space to statements from an executive from Sequel, the for-profit chain that runs Clarinda.  The story includes no interviews with current or former residents.  And it gives readers no way to understand the oppressive climate of day-to-day life at Clarinda that DRW found.

If anything, the Register further dehumanizes Clarinda residents by suggesting they’re all delinquents – the DRW report makes clear that’s not true – and citing one former resident accused of a recent murder.

But the story does serve one useful purpose. If you first read the full DRW report – and, in effect, hear the voices of those forced to live there, and you get a feel for the day-to-day oppressiveness of the place, then you will wonder about the willful blindness it take for Iowa authorities to do nothing.  That blindness allowed the Sequel executive to gloat that “In September, the state of Iowa completed their on-site audit at Clarinda, which noted no deficiencies and renewed our full licensure status."

Read the DRW report and you might also be more concerned about this revelation, buried at the end of the Register story:

After the eight boys ran away this year, inspectors determined that the teens who fled were separated from others for weeks after they were found. 
Those students were supposed to have their status reviewed every three days, but [A state inspector] found that after he began an investigation in May, staffers falsified student supervision plans and forged students' signatures.  The facility was given a provisional license afterward, but [the inspector] recommended its full license be restored.

Of course, even more than Washington State, Iowa has a strong incentive to ignore problems in group homes and institutions – when you take away children at the ninth highest rate in the country, as Iowa does – a rate more than double the national average - you’re always begging for beds. And beggars can’t be choosers.

So it’s no wonder that, the Register reports,

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said little about Washington State’s probe into the treatment of youth at Clarinda and has taken no steps to remove any Iowa children from the facility.

Of course not. There’s no public pressure on her to do anything. 

See these young people as just names on police reports – or worse – and no one cares.  See them as human beings – as DRW did – and perhaps someone will

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

There is a news story that Philadelphia’s child welfare agency desperately does not want the world to read. What do you think we should do about that?

● Let’s show Philadelphia DHS that silencing a whistleblower will backfire.

● This one isn’t just a child welfare issue, It’s also a First Amendment issue.

Last month the Legal Intelligencer began a series of stories about the horror show that is foster care in Philadelphia.  The first story, by reporter P.J. D'Annunzio, focused on the widespread problem of abuse in Philadelphia foster homes.  (The Legal Intelligencer will ask you to register to read it, but registration is free.)

The problem is so widespread that even one of the city’s foremost advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, Frank Cervone, says the rate of such abuse is grossly understated in official figures (a problem I noted on this blog last week).

To its credit, and unlike many other such stories, this one also noted concerns about needless removal of children in Philadelphia - where the rate of removal is the second highest among America’s largest cities, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

A grandmother’s story

The lead example in the story concerns a grandmother, Virginia McKale.  First, she was denied custody of her grandchildren by a judge who later would be removed from family court after a Legal Intelligencer investigation “detailing her history of due process violations.”

The younger child, who suffers from severe brain damage, was institutionalized. The older child, age 9, was moved five different times.  In the fourth of those placements he was raped by another child.  The story was careful to use pseudonyms to protect the children’s identifies.

“They know they’ve done wrong,” McKale told the Legal Intelligencer “and every time I turn around they’re trying to cover it up.”

McKale had no idea how right she was.

An agency with a shred of decency would have placed the children with their grandmother and surrounded the family with all the support they needed to heal from what the agency itself, and its private contractors, did to them.

Needless to say, that was not the response from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. Instead,  DHS got a judge to issue two orders: First, a gag order, so McKale can’t tell anyone any more about what DHS and its contractors have done or are doing to her family. 

Even worse, they got an order rescinding unsupervised visits.  Now all visits must be under the supervision of the very agencies she’s criticized – so you can be sure McKale will be under a microscope as the visit supervisors search for excuses to cut off visits all together. At a minimum it will ratchet up the stress all around and make visits harder to schedule.  So in effect, Philadelphia is punishing a nine-year-old rape victim because his grandmother dared to speak out about how he was raped in foster care.

Here’s what we can do

But there is one thing we can do about this: Make the gag order backfire.

I almost never explicitly urge people to do anything on social media – partly because it angers the social media gods.  But this once, I think an exception is called for. 

The Legal Intelligencer published a story that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services desperately does not want the world to see.  So let’s do everything in our power to make sure as much of the world as possible sees it! 

In case you need more inspiration, here are a couple of other excerpts from the story.

A former DHS lawyer speaks out:

John Capaldi, a former city solicitor who represented DHS in the courtroom, said the system does not do enough to rehabilitate families, keeping children in foster care for longer than necessary.
Capaldi, now a dependency lawyer, said, “Taking children away from parents in a lot of cases is fracturing and maybe does more harm than good.” Many of these cases involve parents who struggle with substance abuse, but who are not abusive toward their children, Capaldi said.
“Yes, there are many instances where children need to be removed,” he continued, “but I’ve seen many cases where children are removed from parents who, if they were provided with better [substance abuse] treatment and care,” would have been motivated to get clean for their kids. …
Resources are not used wisely, especially in instances where children are removed from families with housing issues, Capaldi said. …  “There’s situations where the agency will take a family of four kids and split them up. It would make more sense to subsidize an apartment for [the] mom because it would cost less than to pay four foster parents.”

Wrongful removal and abuse in foster care

According to Danielle, whenever her 5-year-old daughter asked her foster mother for a drink of water, she was told to “drink your pee,” or sweat and spit. Her daughter suffered from trauma-induced bed wetting, which the foster mother chose to curb by dehydrating her.
Danielle, 33, of North Philadelphia, lost her three daughters and newborn son in February after she tested positive for marijuana. However, her children—who secretly funneled information about their living conditions to her by slipping letters in her purse during parental visits—said that the foster mother smoked marijuana incessantly in front of them.
Additionally, Danielle said the foster mother stole care packages meant for the children and confined the three girls, none of whom were older than 12, and infant boy to an empty room for hours each day. …
“My kids were tortured and this is something they’ll have to deal with for the rest of their lives,” Danielle said. “They should have been put with family.”

So, we know that the one thing DHS really cares about is not the children or the families – it’s not having its failings exposed to the world.

What should we do about that?

Monday, November 26, 2018

On Giving Tuesday: Want to know how effective NCCPR is? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away!

Of all the journalists who have covered child welfare, few are more keen on pushing a take-the-child-and-run approach than former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf.  The issues with Therolf’s work at the Times were so serious that even an ideological soulmate  found serious problems in story after story.  The crescendo of criticism was such that LA Observed, a Los Angeles news site that closely tracks area media, took notice.

Then, just as he was leaving the Times, Therolf demeaned the work of Black scholars while cheerleading for those who insist that child welfare is magically immune from racial bias.

So, on this Giving Tuesday, where better to turn for a testament to the power and influence of NCCPR – right?

Not that he offered such a testament on purpose, of course.  I’m sure he didn’t even realize it.

Last month, Therolf was able to get a sugar-coated version of his L.A. Times-style reporting into a national magazine. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can use the quote below to Google it if you are so inclined.)  After noting how horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system” can drive increases in foster care, he discusses one of the very few cases in which it worked in reverse:

Logan Marr, a 5-year-old girl from Maine [had] been removed from her home by the state’s grossly interventionist child-protective-services agency. In a gruesome twist, Logan was placed in the custody of a former caseworker, who disciplined her by gagging her with duct tape and leaving her in the basement, where she died.

The case became the subject of a PBS documentary, and media attention made Logan a symbol of child-protective services’ overreach. The pendulum swung, and the United States saw a nearly 25 percent drop in the number of children in foster care from 2002 to 2012. [Emphasis added.]

Therolf never mentions which organization drew all that media attention to the case of Logan Marr. He probably doesn’t know.  It was, of course, NCCPR.  We’re the ones who told producers for Frontline about the case. You’ll find an NCCPR op-ed on Frontline’s website for the programs. 

It was NCCPR that focused the discussion of this case, in Maine and nationally, on the fact that Logan was taken because her family poverty was confused with neglect.  And it was NCCPR that shifted the focus from the usual calls for tougher licensing standards and more visits to foster homes to the real issue: Maine was taking away far too many children.  There’s a detailed discussion of what we did and how we did it here.

Some caveats: We didn’t do it alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without activists in Maine led by a fed-up foster parent.  And, although one probably shouldn’t say this in a fundraising pitch, the attention we drew to the case of Logan Marr was not solely responsible for that big drop in foster care.  But it helped.

There’s more about  our successes across the country hereincluding testimonials from child welfare leaders and journalists who actually like our work.

And best of all, we do it on a shoestring.  Now that the entire staff (that’s me) is volunteer, all we need is a few thousand dollars a year for things like the phone bill, office supplies, purchasing overpriced studies from scholarly journals, and – ideally – some travel to meet with journalists and local advocates.

There are a lot of places well worth your support on this Giving Tuesday – but very few where a small donation can get so much done.

Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Anyone talking about child welfare who wants you to believe the number discussed below can’t be trusted

That’s because independent researchers report vastly higher rates of abuse in foster care than shown in the figures used by foster-care apologists - figures that involve agencies investigating themselves. 

Suppose, hypothetically, you could gather 400 former foster children in a room.  Then suppose you asked them this question: During the last full year you were in foster care, how many of you were abused or neglected?

Who seriously believes that, in that scenario, only one of those former foster children would raise her or his hand?

Right.  Probably no one.

And yet twice in just the past couple of days, a version of that claim has turned up.  No, I’m not going to link to it, any more than I would spread claims from Donald Trump’s tweets.

But in both cases, the authors seriously suggested we believe that only one-quarter-of-one percent of foster children are abused each year – one in 400.

They didn’t pull this number out of a hat.  But they did something just as unreliable. They cited the average that states report to the federal government.  But these official figures represent the state investigating whether there is abuse in homes and institutions to which the state itself forced the child to live in the first place.  That creates a clear incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.  The fact that finding abuse also means finding a new placement for the child creates still another perverse incentive.

And, of course, agencies usually are investigating allegations of abuse in foster care while the children are still in the foster home or institution.  This is likely to produce results about as reliable as a POW video in which the prisoners assure the Red Cross they’re being well treated.

All that helps explain why, when independent researchers examine case records and question foster care alumni – who can speak more freely -- their studies keep finding abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The record for group homes and institutions is even worse.  You’ll find the details here – including discussion of why even these figures probably are underestimates.

This, of course, is in addition to all those studies that directly compare outcomes for foster children to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes – studies that keep finding that the children left in their own homes do better.

And it isn’t just those of us in the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy who know the one-in-400 figure is absurd.  Even Marcia Lowry, who founded the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, and who is no friend of family preservation, said this to the Philadelphia Daily News:

I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not. [Emphasis added.]
The information about the real rate of abuse in foster care, and the limits of official figures, is so basic that anyone who works in child welfare or writes about it really ought to know it.

The claim that only one-quarter-of-one-percent of foster children are abused in foster care each year should be right up there with "cigarettes don't cause cancer" and "we don't know if human activity contributes to climate change" on any list of assertions so absurd that those making them don't deserve to be taken seriously.

And, indeed no one who suggests that the one-quarter-of-one-percent figure is valid should be taken seriously in any child welfare debate. They should be ignored.

If they seriously believe that figure they should be ignored because they’re na├»ve. If they know better but use the figure anyway, they should be ignored for being disingenuous.

Monday, November 19, 2018

New data expose the myth of “permanency” for older foster youth

Half of them “age out” with no home.  But the best way to prevent the problems besetting children who “age out” of foster care is to prevent them from ever aging in.

 The Annie E. Casey Foundation, (which, long ago, helped to fund NCCPR) has released some useful data on American child welfare.  The report and state-by-state summaries focus on foster youth age 14 and older and what happens to them when they leave foster care.

Of course we already know that the outcomes often are dismal – the new reports help us quantify how dismal.

One finding stands out – particularly now, right after National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day when newspapers are running all those treacly stories equating adoption with permanence.  (People in child welfare call it permanency – perhaps adding an extra syllable makes them feel more important.)

For children who are age 16 or older when they leave foster care, fully half  leave the system with neither permanence nor permanency – it’s called “aging out.”  They’re on their own. And – surprise! – the numbers are worse for children of color.

The Casey data do not say what proportion of these children are legal orphans – that is, the process went all the way to termination of parental rights leaving them not even a legal connection to their own families.  So we don’t know how much of this is a function of child welfare’s 20-year mad rush to termination-at-all-costs (discussed in more detail here and here.)  But that certainly has contributed.

The data also provide useful snapshots concerning racial disparities in child welfare.

Interpret with care

But all of these data need to be viewed with come caution – as does Casey’s own interpretation of the data.

● For starters, the data lump together all forms of “permanency.”  It is misleading, indeed offensive, to suggest that adoption by strangers automatically is an outcome equal to reunification.  Often it’s worse – and on rare occasions it’s better.  Either way, the forms of permanency should be broken down separately.

● No form of “permanency” is guaranteed to be permanent (maybe that’s why they added that extra syllable.) And adoption has a disturbing record when it comes to failure.

● Data on average length of stay can be misleading.  Look at the state data sheets for Minnesota and New Mexico for example, and it looks like they’re doing a fantastic job of getting children to “permanency” – the average length of stay is remarkably low. 

But the real reason is that in Minnesota nearly 14 percent of children torn from their families are sent back within a month – and more than half of those are returned in five days or fewer – much the worse for the experience – meaning they almost certainly never should have been taken in the first place.  In New Mexico more than 35 percent of foster children are discharged from care within a month – so of course their average length of stay looks even better than Minnesota’s.   These states illustrate how, sometimes, one of the worst things states do to children, needlessly tear them away from their parents, can actually make their numbers look better.

● Most important, there is a key error in the narrative – one that is common but disappointing to see coming from Casey.  The state reports include this statement – the first part of which often is not true:

In addition to the trauma of abuse or neglect that resulted in being removed from their homes and placed in the foster care system, experiences while in foster care — including frequent moves — can lead to worse outcomes for youth.

That first part isn’t always false of course. But many children in foster care were not abused or neglected.  And I don’t just mean the many cases in which courts get it wrong because there is no real due process for families.

Children can be placed in foster care for weeks, sometimes months, before a court ever rules one way of the other.  Odds are almost none of those five-day-or-fewer placements in Minnesota, for example, involved children who really were abused or neglected.

No foundation trying to reform criminal justice would refer to everyone in jail as a criminal – because  Many foster children are also being held before any trial to determine if they actually were abused or neglected.
those foundations understand that many people in jail are being held before trial because they can’t make bail.

The language is one more reflection of Casey’s long, steady retreat from efforts to actually curb the needless removal of children into foster care in the first place – something made clear years ago when they set up a new initiative and forgot to even mention that problem.  Their focus now is primarily on fixing foster care – by curbing institutionalization and boosting kinship foster care and adoption.  Sadly, that is the overall message from the new report: Now that the system has done all this harm, what are we going to do to ameliorate it with more “services” for children who age out?

Providing such help is certainly worthwhile, indeed it should be seen as an obligation, since the system inflicted so much of the harm in the first place.  But as a study from another Casey foundation, Casey Family Programs, makes clear, even if you made foster care perfect, it would improve the rotten outcomes for foster children by only 22.2 percent.  (The two Caseys were created by the same family but are run separately.)

There is a certain irony in this.  Those wedded to take-the-child-and-run agenda often accuse the Caseys of being at the center of something akin to a Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy. Trust me, they’re not.  (When we hold our secret meetings in an underground bunker deep in Area 51, I’m the one who hands out the membership cards.)

Still, The Annie E. Casey Foundation is about to get a new leader, Lisa Hamilton.  I hope she’ll turn Casey back toward meaningful work to reduce needless foster care.  I hope she will see that the best way to prevent the problems besetting children who “age out” of foster care is to prevent them from ever aging in.

And besides, if you’re going to be blamed for supposedly using your massive resources to push family preservation anyway, you might as well actually do it.  If that happens, I’ll be glad to send the folks at Casey an official Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy membership card, and share the secret handshake. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Foster care in Kansas: Kansas Appleseed chooses the “child savers” over the children

They’re backing another pointless – and potentially harmful – McLawsuit by the group that calls itself Children’s Rights.

For full details on CR’s unfortunate track record, read our publication The Children Wronged by “Children’s Rights”

Here we go again.  The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) – while ignoring children’s right to their own families – has filed another of their McLawsuits against a state child welfare system.

Nothing unusual in this. But one of their allies in the suit ought to know better.  For them, signing onto the suit is a betrayal of their own stated mission.

CR’s McLawsuits reflect the finest thinking of the 19th Century – when self-proclaimed “child savers” rushed to take impoverished children from their supposedly unworthy, unfit parents.  That’s still the norm today.  But instead of working to curb these practices, CR lawsuits aim to “fix” foster care largely by throwing more caseworkers and more paperwork at the problems.

What’s the matter with Kansas child welfare?

This time the target of the lawsuit is Kansas.

As usual, CR’s description of the enormous harm the system does to children is undoubtedly accurate.  As a horror show for children, Kansas child welfare may be matched only by Texas. But as usual, CR got the solutions all wrong.

The lawsuit ignores the problem that drives everything else: The system is inundated with children who never needed to be taken from their parents in the first place.  CR always ignores this. But it takes a particularly willful measure of ignorance to ignore it in Kansas.

Kansas tears apart families at the a rate nearly 50 percent above the national average. And that’s only the official figure. As we first discovered more than a decade ago, the state hides a huge number of entries into foster care, violating at least the spirit and possibly the letter of federal regulations. Include those placements in the total and Kansas may be tearing apart families at the highest rate in the nation. (There’s more about all this, and the other failings in the Kansas system, in our 2008 report on Kansas child welfare.)

Even the former head of the Kansas child welfare agency effectively admitted, albeit inadvertently, that there are plenty of children in Kansas foster care who don’t need to be there.

And what does CR’s 68-page lawsuit complaint say about this?  Not one word.

After documenting some of the most horrific problems in any foster care system in America, the solutions called for by the suit are mostly requests for injunctions barring the state from doing things such as moving children from home to home night after night, sometimes more than 100 times. But Kansas can’t stop doing that until Kansas stops taking too many children needlessly.

They also seek a study to tell us what we already know -- that caseloads are too high -- followed by the usual caseworker hiring binge.  But if all you do is hire more caseworkers without changing Kansas child welfare’s take-the-child-and-run approach, all the new caseworkers simply chase all the new cases and all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

And it can get even worse.  All those caseworkers cost money.  That’s fine, I’m all for spending moresmarter. But CR has an unfortunate habit of demanding more spending without putting any limits on where the money comes from.  So at least two states complied with settlements of CR lawsuits cutting aid for poor families. 
on child welfare – if an agency also spends

The founder of CR, Marcia Lowry once famously said she doesn’t know how to fix poverty but she knows how to fix foster care. In fact, there’s no evidence she knows how to fix either one. Sometimes her lawsuits actually made the poverty worse.  Though Lowry is no longer with CR, this latest suit is typical of the kinds she brought. So there’s nothing to prevent the Kansas suit from making poverty worse.

That’s not the only way things could get worse. CR actually seems to be calling for Kansas to add more of the worst form of care of all: “residential treatment centers” (RTCs) – even though there is no evidence it works, even though there are far better alternatives, and even though, on the very next page of its complaint, CR acknowledges that existing beds in RTCs are being filled by children who don’t need to be there! (By which, of course, CR means they could be in foster homes. CR would never, ever suggest they could be in their own homes.)

CR’s partners

CR has two partners in this suit.  One is the National Center for Youth Law, based in California.  No surprise there.  Long ago, their similarly myopic approach to litigation prompted me to call them “Children’s Rights West.”

But the big disappointment is the other partner: Kansas Appleseed.  They really ought to know better.  On its website, they say they “investigate social, economic, and political injustice in Kansas and work toward systemic solutions.”  They describe themselves as part of a network “working to defeat poverty and injustice.”

But this lawsuit does nothing to defeat either and may worsen both.

● There is nothing in this lawsuit about the children torn from everyone they know and love because family poverty is confused with neglect – in spite of the fact that a study linked the rise in foster care in Kansas directly to cuts in public assistance.

● There is nothing in this lawsuit about the racial bias that permeates child welfare.

● There is nothing in this lawsuit about providing concrete help to families instead of simply hiring new caseworkers to do exactly what the old caseworkers do – needlessly tear apart families at an obscene rate.

(Oh, and there’s also nothing about curbing the mad rush to termination of parental rights and quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements, even though three of the ten “named plaintiffs” in the suit were victims of failed adoptions.)

And Kansas Appleseed is not alone. Over the years, Appleseed groups in two other states have joined similar McLawsuits.

CR’s usual excuse

Perhaps they were lulled into joining by CR’s oft-repeated claim that you can’t sue on behalf of children not yet in the system.  In fact, you can – as evidenced by the fact that CR itself has done it. 

And, of course one of the only class-action lawsuits that ever significantly improved a child welfare system, the one in Alabama, was built around rebuilding the system to do more to keep families together.  One of the groups that brought the lawsuit, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law wrote a whole book about it. (Bazelon’s legal director also is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.)

So it can be done.

And there’s still a way to do it in Kansas.  Most of these McLawsuits are resolved through negotiations.  The resulting agreements usually involve a lot of pointless micromanaging and, of course, the caseworker hiring binge.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kansas Appleseed can be true to its stated mission by insisting on an Alabama-style resolution to the case - instead of what usually follows a CR McLawsuit: A CR McSettlement.

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.