Friday, November 15, 2019

Child welfare in Kansas: They’ve been knocking on doors for nearly 30 years. Maybe someone is starting to listen.

When parents picketed the Kansas State Capitol last week, something unusual happened.

The first time I heard from a grassroots group of parents fighting for their children against the child welfare system in Kansas it was 1990 – shortly after my book, Wounded Innocents, was published.

Any such group has all sorts of strikes against it from the start: Most of the members will be poor – because that’s who is targeted by child protective services agencies – so they won’t have much in the way of resources.  Most have watched their children endure the trauma of needless foster care.  And then, when they organize, they are demonized; viewed at best as sick and at worst as evil.

So after several years, the members can’t keep up the fight anymore.  Then, perhaps a few years later, a new group forms and the pattern repeats.

That’s because among those who view them as sick and/or evil are many in the state’s media. For example, they have faced only contempt from the largest newspaper in the state, the Wichita Eagle.

But last week, when parents organized and picketed outside the State Capitol in Topeka, something heartening happened: They were treated with respect by the reporter who wrote this story; Peggy Lowe of public radio station KCUR.  Perhaps that’s because Lowe has partnered with Sherman Smith of the Topeka Capital-Journal to take a careful in-depth look at what happens to children after they are taken.

It also may be because Kansas has become a de facto laboratory experiment proving that child welfare systems routinely confuse poverty with neglect.  As Lowe and Smith explain:

Kansas added thousands of children to the state foster care system as former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his appointed DCF secretary, Phyllis Gilmore, imposed policies that reduced aid to struggling families.

A University of Kansas study found that was not a coincidence.  That is in line with multiple studies suggesting a good solution: When you increase cash assistance to poor families, what the child welfare system calls “neglect” declines.

How the system hurts children

The reason it’s so important to listen to these parents is not because the system hurts them – though of course it does. The reason to listen is because the system does so much to hurt children.

● It hurts children needlessly removed by inflicting upon them the same enormous emotional trauma felt by children separated at the Mexican border.  So it’s no wonder study after study of typical cases finds that children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

● That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

● But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger.  So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes.

So in case there are any other Kansas reporters who want to reconsider old assumptions, here’s some context.

● Kansas tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation – nearly double the national average.  The number of children trapped in foster care on any given day in Kansas is higher than all but four or five other states.

● And those are just the official figures.  Many states use a system of hidden foster care to hide large numbers of placements.  But Kansas has another dodge that, as far as I know, is unique.  If Kansas were required to count these placements as well, the state might well be the child removal capital of America.  You can read all about how Kansas gets away with it here.

● One former Kansas human services chief, Don Jordan, was apparently caught in a bald-faced lie; we just don’t know which was the lie.  While meeting with parents in 2008, he said:

In Sedgwick County [metropolitan Wichita] oftentimes we end up writing things because it's what our social workers get bullied by the District Attorney's Office into writing. So they really have no belief in what it says. [Emphasis added].

Later in the meeting, Jordan said:

I am working on our staff that we do our assessments properly and we not get bullied into writing things we don't believe. But then the reality comes down to, you send a 25-year-old social worker into a room with a 15-year county ADA (assistant district attorney) who is willing to yell at them, cuss at them, scream at them and threaten them, you know.

But when he found out the comments would become public, Jordan, told the district attorney that he was just “pandering” to the parents.  That gives a sense of just how abysmal Kansas child welfare leadership has been. 

By the way, that didn’t happen under Brownback.  Both the apparent lying and the inventive method for hiding foster care placements took place under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. In Kansas, child welfare has been bipartisan: both parties have failed miserably.

● Another former Kansas human services chief effectively admitted that large numbers of Kansas children are in foster care needlessly – in the most bizarre way possible.  Confronted with the fact that so many Kansas foster children were running away – and how little she seemed to know about it, Phyllis Gilmore sought to reassure people that children running away from foster care isn’t always so bad. So, according to The Kansas City Star:

(Gilmore) said that in many cases, children have left to go back to their biological families or other people with whom they have a relationship in order to try to not be in foster care. … “So it isn’t always a tragedy but some certainly can be and that’s why we have to take it all very seriously,” Gilmore said.

But wait a minute. The Kansas Department of Children and Families, as the agency now is called, says children are taken away only when they have been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm — harm so severe it can’t possibly be prevented without resorting to foster care. And, of course, children are not supposed to be returned as long as those harmful conditions exist.

So how can it not be a tragedy when children go running straight back to these supposedly horrible parents who are such a danger to them?

Unless, of course, many of those parents are not actually a danger — and Gilmore knew it.

● A group that should be helping to fix all this may make things worse; not on purpose, of course, but because of naiveté about how child welfare works and what’s needed to fix it.

Kansas Appleseed has partnered with the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” which has brought another of its McLawsuits in Kansas.  There’s an excellent chance the suit will actually make Kansas child welfare even worse.  That’s because you can’t solve these problems by hiring a bunch more caseworkers and launching another foster parent recruiting campaign. 

Kansas doesn’t have too few foster parents.  Kansas has too many foster children.  And if all you do is go on a caseworker hiring binge, without changing what those caseworkers actually do, all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

Wrongful removal drives everything else. The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.  And that won’t happen until we start seeing everyone in that system, children and parents, for who they really are.

For more about Kansas child welfare, see the comprehensive report issued by NCCPR in 2007. Unfortunately, it's not out of date.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Philadelphia DHS has a new scapegoat for the City’s obscene rate of child removal: Philadelphians!

DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa seems to be suggesting that Philadelphia is a cesspool of depravity so much worse than other cities that it explains why they take away so many children. (But they’re commissioning another study of the problem.)

            The Philadelphia Department of Human Services has been taking so much heat for tearing apart families at the highest rate among America’s biggest cities, (worst among the top five, a close second to worst among the top ten, even when rates of child poverty are factored in) that it has commissioned a new study of the problem.  At the same time, the department has a new scapegoat for the swath of family destruction it cuts through the city’s poor neighborhoods: Philadelphians.

            Those are among the takeaways from agreat story by freelance writer Courtenay Harris-Bond in Philadelphia Weekly – the first in a three-part series. (Links to the rest of the series are at the end of Part One.)

            UPDATE, NOV. 15: When I first saw the story, I overlooked the excellent column that accompanies it, from Philadelphia Weekly editor Kerith Gabriel. Don't make the same mistake!

            The story includes chilling accounts of the harm done to children by needless removal from parents or extended families -- to which DHS and its commissioner, Cynthia Figueroa, respond with a litany of excuses, some familiar, some new.

            The good news: DHS no longer appears to be denying its extreme outlier status outright. (Remember the Pyramid of Bulls**t?)  And DHS even is commissioning a study of the issue.  (At least I hope that’s good news. DHS already has a study, but apparently prefers to ignore it, which raises the question of whether DHS is just going from consultant to consultant until they find one that will tell the agency what it wants to hear.)

            The bad news: Having acknowledged its outlier status, DHS can’t face up to the fact that the fault lies with DHS. They can’t admit that they are the primary reason why Philadelphia tears apart families at nearly triple the rate of New York City and nearly quadruple the rate of Chicago.  So we get the excuses:

            ● First DHS tries to divert our attention from the number of children taken away over the course of a year – entries into care – to a different statistic, the “snapshot number,” which shows the number of children trapped in foster care on a given day. Philadelphia does badly in both categories, and both numbers are important. But it’s entries that really shows a jurisdiction’s propensity to tear apart families.

            ● Then a p.r. person for DHS says that “We’re all reporting in the same categories to the federal government, but how you define that category can be different.”

           But what we’re measuring here is foster care, not subcategories. The federal government does have a clear, standard definition of foster care that every jurisdiction is expected to follow.  There also is a clear, standard definition of an entry into care.  It’s true, some places cheat.  But unless DHS has evidence that every other big city is engaged in a cheating scandal that would make Felicity Huffman blush, there is no reason to doubt Philadelphia’s outlier status.

            Indeed, a consultant hired by DHS itself came to the same conclusion, and issued an exhaustive report on how to fix the problems – a document DHS apparently wants to ignore.

            ● Then DHS points out that they’re placing a greater proportion of children with relatives instead of strangers than they used to.  That’s true – and that is an improvement. But kinship care is still foster care.

            ● Then DHS dredged up the Sandusky excuse.  All those new laws passed in the wake of the scandal surrounding former foster parent and group home operator Jerry Sandusky prompted many more people to report their slightest suspicion of child abuse, so of course that would lead to a spike in child removals.

            That is the standard excuse offered up by child welfare systems whenever there is a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden spike in removals of children from their homes following a high-profile child abuse tragedy.  And it doesn’t hold up.

            First of all, every big city has foster-care panics – New York City has had at least three since 1995 – but in spite of that, Philadelphia takes away children at a far higher rate.  And Philadelphia has been an outlier for well over a decade. The problem goes back well before the Sandusky scandal (and, in fairness, well before the current leadership at DHS).

But also, during a foster-care panic, what rises most is the proportion of bulls**t reports alleging child abuse and neglect.  That’s because anyone and everyone is constantly encouraged to report anything and everything, so they do just that.  And, of course, “mandated reporters,” such as school personnel, who can be punished for failing to report, are even more scared than usual, so they’re even more prone to report cases they know are ridiculous.

Those same new state laws that Philadelphia blames also apply in Pittsburgh, of course. But in metropolitan Pittsburgh, the longtime director of the human services agency knew that a lot of the new reports would be absurd and demanded that his staff not panic. So there was no increase in foster care in Pittsburgh.  (Though it should be noted, the rate of removal in Pittsburgh also is way too high.)

DHS suggests it’s all YOUR fault

            ● But the most striking excuse of all is the one in which Figueroa seems to be blaming Philadelphia’s high rate of removal on – Philadelphians.  From the story:

“The number of children in DHS care reflects the safety, risks, and environments of children in Philadelphia,” Figueroa said. “We are doing everything we can to keep families together.”

            Now that’s odd.  Because Philadelphia’s rate-of-removal is out of line with all of the five biggest cities and all but one of the ten biggest cities even when you factor in rates of child poverty.  In other words, compare entries into care to the number of impoverished children in each city and Philadelphia is still an extreme outlier.  Indeed, those consultants DHS hired and then ignored did a special comparison to other high-poverty cities – and Philadelphia still was an outlier.

Citing cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee, the consultants noted that these places “also have high rates of children in poverty, but do not experience out-of-home care rates even approaching those of Philadelphia.”

            So what Figueroa really seems to be saying is that “the safety risks and environments of children in Philadelphia” are far worse than the “the safety risks and environments of children” in other impoverished cities. In other words, Philadelphia is some kind of cesspool of depravity beyond what is found in any other of America’s biggest cities.  She prefers to blame the people of Philadelphia rather than take responsibility for her agency’s failure.

            As for the part about “we’re doing everything we can to keep families together” – I believe that. In fact, that’s the problem. The Philadelphia Department of Human Services is doing “everything we can.”  But the leadership at Philadelphia DHS doesn’t know how to safely keep families together - and they don’t want to learn.

And there’s more about the DHS Excuse Machine in these blog posts. (Scroll past this one after clicking on the link.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 12, 2019

● The Austin American-Statesman has a good story about that giant study of Texas CASA that shows CASA makes things worse for kids.  CASA’s response is depressingly familiar: They crank up the excuse machine.  I discuss CASA’s response, and include a link to the full American-Statesman story, here.

● Also from Texas: The latest installment in the joint Houston Chronicle / NBC News investigation of children harmed when doctors rush to conclude that illnesses or accidental injuries are child abuse.  Here’s the print version; here’s a link to the full series, and this excerpt ran on NBC Nightly News:

● The observation that the “child protection” system is really a parent punishment system is nothing new.  But when someone who has worked closely with that system for decades effectively admits as much – that is new. That admission is one of many revelations in an excellent story form the Arizona Republic.  I have a discussion of the story, with a link to the full story.

● When family defenders get so beaten down they don’t fight enough for their clients, writes Vivek Sankaran, it becomes “Injustice Without Objection.”  “Systems don’t automatically bend toward justice,” he writes. “They only do so when lawyers say the magic phrase: ‘I object.’”

● In several posts to this blog, I’ve highlighted the problem of “hidden foster care.” CPS agencies coerce parents into “voluntarily” surrendering their children to foster care with relatives – but they come up with some euphemism or other so they don’t count it as foster care in official statistics – and deny parents even the minimal due process protections of the formal foster care system. Most recently, I discussed this in connection with Nebraska.  Other states known to be plagued with this problem include North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.  Now, add Missouri to the list.

● And in Kansas, which long has taken away children at obscene rates, families once again are fighting back.  And for once, at least some Kansas media are taking notice.

Monday, November 11, 2019

“Child welfare” in Arizona: The parent punishment system in action

Studies have found abuse in at least one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The record of group homes is worse.  So when Arizona’s so-called “Department of Child Safety” needlessly tore four little girls from their father and threw them into separate group homes, they should have known what was likely to happen.

Suppose, hypothetically, a child protective services agency said this:

            You spanked your ten-year-old boy too hard.  We have to punish you for this. So to punish you we’re going to arrange to have two of your daughters sexually abused. That’ll teach you a lesson!

            Absurd, right?  No one could possibly be so cruel – and so shortsighted.  But while the part about the child protective services agency arranging the sexual abuse on purpose is entirely made up, everything else really happened.  And while of course no child protective services agency would try to do this to a child on purpose, the caseworkers should have known that the odds were better than 50/50 that something like this would happen.

            Here’s the actual story, as told by the Arizona Republic in the first installment of a series following five families over two years.  In addition to the print stories, these families are the subject of a documentary that premiered in Arizona on Nov. 11.  The Republic included this except about the case of Stephan McCray and his children.

             McCray’s then ten-year-old son was misbehaving in school; he threw something at another student.  “That’s behavior I won’t tolerate,” McCray says.  So McCray spanked him.  The police and the Arizona agency that goes by the Orwellian name “Department of Child Safety” alleged that McCray left "numerous marks across [the child’s] back and left arm." McCray says the investigators “mistook scars from childhood scrapes as evidence of child abuse.”

Whichever is the case, had McCray been white and middle class, odds are he simply would have been sent off to “counseling” with a private therapist and that would have been the end of it.  But, of course, he is neither.  (He’s also a follower of the Nation of Islam, which, he says, further discomfited the white, middle-class caseworkers he dealt with.)

Though there was never any allegation that McCray abused or neglected his other four children, all of them were taken – possibly illegally.

            According to the story:

Four of [the children] shouldn’t have been taken from him, [McCray] says: Stephan Jr. was the only child listed in the court order, so why were all five removed?  But when he asks DCS, he says he’s told too bad, his attorney should have caught the error.
McCray also was charged criminally.

McCray’s own mother – a former foster parent – was ready and willing to take the children. But she was turned down - because she didn’t see her son exactly the way DCS did – as a danger to his children.

            What did DCS think was going to happen?  Did they think McCray would sneak into his mother’s home through an open window in the middle of the night to spank his kids?

  Instead, all of the children, their ages ranging from six to 10, were torn not only from their father but also from each other. Then they were institutionalized – consigned to the worst placements of all, group homes.  For months they were not even allowed to visit each other.  McCray says one of his daughters became so upset that the group home called police – for a child who couldn’t have been more than eight years old. The police took her to “a psych ward at a hospital.”

            And then, Stephan and his mother say, two of the young girls were sexually abused. 

High rates of abuse in foster care

            Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes. The record of group homes and institutions is even worse.  Thus, DCS had every reason to know that if they took five young children and placed them in five separate group homes, at least one of them was likely to be abused there.

            Nevertheless the “Department of Child Safety” took away four children who they never so much as alleged were abused in their own homes and placed them at enormously high risk of abuse.  And that, of course, is on top of all the emotional trauma inflicted on the children by being taken from their father, their extended family and each other.

            Ultimately, DCS decided it would be o.k. to place the children with their grandmother after all.  Then, two years after they were removed, the children were reunited with their father – much the worse for the experience.

For the "Department of Child Safety," it’s not really about child safety

            The agency name notwithstanding, “child safety” was never really the point.

            Critics of the system often say that it is not really a child protection system at all; it’s a parent punishment system.  The child welfare establishment denies this. So it was striking to find a 30-year veteran of that establishment actually admit as much, albeit accidentally. 

Karen Kline, a former caseworker who now runs child welfare initiatives for something called the Family Involvement Center.  In the story and the documentary, she pays the usual lip service to understanding the trauma of removal.  But when she is asked about allegations by McCray and his mother that the case was affected by racial bias, she replies:

Case managers get training in racial and cultural sensitivity, she says. But it's wrong to equate a punishment for spanking with racial bias, she says. [Emphasis added.]

            Kline is wrong. Punishing a parent for spanking might not be racial bias if all parents who spanked their children were treated the same way.  An overwhelming body of research tells us they are not.

            But more revealing is Kline’s apparent acknowledgment that the primary purpose here was to punish the parent.  That would help explain how easy it was for DCS to be blinded to all the harm the agency was doing to the children.         

Other typical blunders

The story reveals other examples of child welfare practices that are as typical as they are harmful to children.

            ● One of the strikes against McCray in the spanking case was the fact that he’d been in trouble with DCS before – for what was, in fact, a classic example of child welfare confusing poverty with neglect.  As the story explains:

Five years earlier, DCS checked out complaints of neglect against him after he left his younger children alone in his apartment while he ran to a school, less than a block away, to walk his daughter home from kindergarten.

For that the children were placed for two years in kinship foster care – with the same grandmother DCS later would say was unfit to be a caretaker.

● At one point, McCray was criticized for missing drug testing, something required because he was on probation due to the criminal charge.  But why were drug tests ever ordered in the first place?  There is nothing in the story suggesting McCray abused drugs.

            ● McCray pled guilty to the criminal charge – because, his lawyer said, if he fought it the case would drag on and on, foster care would be prolonged, and DCS then could turn around and use the very fact of the delay to move to terminate his parental rights.  But that means he has a criminal record – so it’s harder to get a job.

            ● At one point, he had a job but he lost it “due to the demands of court hearings, classes and meetings mandated by the state plan to reunify him with his kids.”  Then, not having a job itself became an obstacle to getting his children back.

            ● The final obstacle was housing – making the McCray children among the estimated 30 percent of foster children who were kept away from their families because of housing.  Ultimately, as McCray himself notes, DCS really did help with that – but it never should have been an issue at all.

            None of this agency behavior would make sense in a real child protection system. It makes perfect sense in a parent punishment system.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

#CasaSoWhite: Cranking up the CASA excuse machine

In 2004, a big study found that Court-Appointed Special Advocates prolonged foster care and reduced placements with relatives.

Now an even bigger study – of Texas CASA programs – has produced even worse findings.  Check out the way Texas CASA is responding.

Last week, this blog reported on the dismal findings from the largest, most comprehensive study ever done of that most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates. 

CASAs are overwhelmingly white overwhelmingly middle-class amateurs sent into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately of color.  The amateurs then tell judges what decisions to make and, to a frightening degree, the judges rubber-stamp the recommendations.  Though CASAs almost always mean well, their only real “qualification” typically is their (usually) white, middle-class status.  In Travis County, Texas, (metropolitan Austin) the CASA chapter was founded by the local Junior League. 

The new study is discussed in detail in this previous post, including a link to the full study. It looked at more than 31,000 cases in Texas. It found that, when compared to children not burdened with a CASA, children with CASAs wereless likely to be reunified with their parents, less likely to find permanence through guardianship with relatives  – and more likely to “age out” of foster care with no permanent home – the worst outcome of all.

In short, CASA makes the Holy Grail of child welfare – permanence (or “permanency” as the child welfare establishment pompously calls it) less likely.

The study was commissioned – and paid for – by Texas CASA.  Back in 2004, National CASA commissioned a similarly comprehensive, rigorous study – and it produced similar results. 

Now the Austin American-Statesman has published a big story about the study findings,  including responses from CASA and the researchers they hired. 

The excuses – point-by-point

So let’s go through the excuses CASA’s defenders came up with, one by one. (Everything below in italics is an excerpt from the American-Statesman story), beginning with a statement that, even for CASA, is breathtaking:
 “Our recommendation is always going to be what’s in the best interest of the child,” said Vicki Spriggs, chief executive officer of Texas CASA.

Wow!  I’d never before heard of the Doctrine of CASA Infallibility.  Good to know.  Now we can shut down the social work schools lay off the caseworkers and get rid of the judges. CASA knows best.  CASA always knows best – because forget that pesky research, the head of a state CASA program says so!

For the record, all sides in all child welfare cases say that whatever they want is in the best interests of the child.  The evidence from the actual study says CASAs are prone to getting it wrong.

“The CASA volunteer’s information is in the court with Child Protective Services’ information, the attorney ad litem’s information, the parents’ information — and then the judge makes a decision, so we’re just part of a process.”

Oh, please Ms. Spriggs. Don’t be so modest.  Texas CASA says it doesn’t track how often recommendations are accepted, but the 2004 national study found that in 83 percent of cases judges accept at least three quarters of all recommendations made by CASAs. In 61 percent of cases judges rubber-stamped every single one of them. And, of course, if Texas CASA recommendations were not routinely rubber-stamped the study would not have found such big differences in outcomes (for the worse) when Texas children had CASAs.  So let’s not kid ourselves, those disproportionately white middle-class amateurs often are the judge in all but name.

Also, notice how Spriggs said judges get “the parents’ information” – not that the parent even has a lawyer to present her or his case. That’s because in Texas poor people often don’t get a lawyer in these cases until well after they’ve begun.

There were limitations to the study, which relied heavily on administrative data from the state and CASA, that didn’t allow researchers to capture the benefits of having CASA volunteers, according to[Lead researcher Cynthia] Osborne and CASA officials. 
And what benefits might these be?  They don’t say.  If there are no data to show these alleged benefits how do they know that the alleged benefits, whatever they may be, exist? How do they know that these alleged benefits outweigh the harm done by CASAs in reducing “permanency”?

Even though her study tried to control for it, there’s no perfect statistical tool to account for the fact that CASA volunteers tend to receive more complex cases, Osborne said.

Now it’s Osborne who’s being too modest.  In the study itself, Osborne and her colleagues go to great lengths to show how they controlled for this, and express great confidence in their success.

"CASAs are not going to really help parents complete their services. That’s not really the goal of CASA. If they’re getting cases that are really difficult to tackle during this ... period, that’s not something the CASA themselves can influence,” Osborne said.

First of all, that doesn’t explain why the study – which rigorously controlled for the issue of difficulty of cases – still found that the outcomes for children with CASAs are worse.

But even more revealing is that part about how the goal of CASA is not to help parents complete their services.

Why not?

Why wouldn’t a CASA understand that if a parent can get help navigating the maze of “services” – which often are merely hoops they must jump through – then the child can get out of foster care sooner and that’s in the child’s best interests? So why wouldn’t a CASA advocate for reducing meaningless barriers for families?  Where the services really are needed, why wouldn’t CASAs advocate for making them, say, more accessible, and more attuned to the family’s real needs – in order to speed “permanency” for their children?

Unless of course, the CASAs see their jobs as just monitoring families and waiting -- perhaps even hoping -- to see them fail, so the children can be placed in the homes of middle-class strangers – people more like CASAs themselves. 

In Texas, 72% of CASA volunteers are white; about 30% of foster children are white. … Officials with the Travis County chapter said 35% of new volunteer applications this year have come from people of color.

Which means 65 percent are not.  So even if all those applications are accepted, you’ve barely made a dent in the problem. 

And that does nothing to deal with the problem of class bias.  Being a CASA requires having the time to volunteer.  Poor people desperately struggling to get by aren’t likely to have that kind of time.

Spriggs said the association also is working to make it easier for people with fewer resources to be CASA volunteers, including reimbursing mileage and lodging for those who must travel to see their assigned child.

Oh, well, that will make it easy for someone holding down two jobs to just take some time off to do all that traveling (and their bosses won’t mind a bit) – so of course lots of poor people now will become CASAs!

Prospective Travis County volunteers are trained in recognizing bias, disproportionality and cultural competency.

The entire extent of training, before CASAs start marching into poor people’s homes and passing judgment on them, is 39 hours.  That’s supposed to cover everything.  So how much time is spent on recognizing bias?  Whatever the amount is, the results of the study itself suggest it is ineffective.

Many of the adults involved in the child welfare system, including caseworkers, judges and attorneys, do not reflect the demographics of the children they serve.
“That’s a situation much bigger than CASA,” said Travis County Associate District Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, who advocates for more awareness of how the child welfare system affects children of color. “There are institutional issues that have created disproportionate issues for families.”

Well, yes.  And one of those institutional issues is the assumption, astounding in its arrogance, that, as one law review article aptly notes, simply being white and middle class somehow qualifies one to judge poor families. So why make everything worse by allowing a program that, as the law review article put it “essentially give[s] voice to white supremacy”?
 For the past six years, Travis County CASA has ramped up efforts to find potential family members for the children they represent. In the first two weeks of a case, a dedicated team at the chapter works to find relatives who can step in and care for a child, an effort that increased the number of relatives engaged in cases by 36%, according to county CASA officials.

But what does “engaged in cases” mean? Apparently it doesn’t mean actually getting guardianship when children can’t reunify because the study – you know, the document with actual data – found that Texas children with CASAs are less likely to achieve “permanency” through guardianship by relatives.

But if CASA’s efforts to “find relatives who can step in and care for a child” are helpful in other ways, then CASA should go right on doing that.  By all means, let CASA become a family-finding service.  Similarly, let it become a mentoring service for foster children.

Just don’t let the Junior Leaguers and other overwhelmingly white and middle-class amateurs play a role in deciding whether poor children are allowed to live with their own families.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending November 5, 2019

● The Minnesota Spokesman Recorder has two stories about racial bias in child welfare in that state – a state that takes away children at one of the highest rates in the country.

● A single mother in Muncie, Indiana, faced a choice: Stay home and risk losing her job or go to work and leave her children home alone. She chose the latter. She was arrested and jailed, before all charges were dropped. Now, WTTV Indianapolis reports she’s suing the police department. This earlier story has more context about the case. But for what is still the best insight into this whole issue, check out this 2003 story from The New York Times.

● New York City’s model of high-quality legal defense for families has been proven to safely reduce the time children are trapped in foster care. But the lawyers are not assigned until the city’s child protective services agency files a court petition – but since nearly half of all removals in New York City are so-called “emergencies,” in which the worker takes the child on-the-spot, often the lawyer isn’t assigned until the child already is in foster care.  The Chronicle of Social Change reports on legislation before the New York City Council that would change this. 

The bill is supported not only by lawyers for parents, but also for the lawyers who regularly represent children in these cases.  Rise, the magazine written by parents caught up in the system, has some of the testimony. (By the way, the New York Post hates the bill – that alone should tell you how good it is.)

● And the legislature in Wyoming, a state that is always a contender for foster-care capital of America is considering legislation to bolster family defense.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 30, 2019

● Back in 2004, a huge, comprehensive study of that most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates found that CASAs only accomplishments were to prolong foster care and make it less likely that foster children would be placed with relatives instead of stranger.  Now there’s an even bigger, more comprehensive study – and the results are even worse.

Compared to children who were not assigned CASAs, children with CASAs were less likely to wind up in a permanent home and more likely to endure the worst outcome of all: “aging out” of foster care with no home at all.  I have a blog post about it, with a link to the full study.  I’ve also reprinted our annual Halloween reminder to CASA: It’s not a good idea to have a blackface act at your fundraiser.

● And now for something completely different: One of the best recent takes on the child welfare system came last week from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.  Full Frontal examined the racial and class biases that permeate the system and do enormous harm to children needlessly taken.

The program didn’t get everything right – highlighting a so-called foster parent “shortage” that is, in fact, artificial, created by the very problems Full Frontal examined.  But the segment still is notably better than what we get from many “serious” news organizations.  That’s probably because the writing staff for Full Frontal is more diverse than the staff of most “serious” news organizations.  Have a look:

● Last week, I wrote a blog post about a story in The Correspondent which noted that IBM’s supercomputer, Watson was doing a poor job of telling doctors how to treat illnesses.  In fact, some of Watson’s recommendations were dangerous.  It was one more example about how the hype about using big data to solve our problems doesn’t match the reality.  But at least Watson wasn’t guilty of racial bias.  The Washington Post reports that is more than can be said for another widely-used health care predictive analytics algorithm. That algorithm significantly underestimated the health needs of Black patients.  So if predictive analytics is racially biased when used in law enforcement – which it is – and racially biased when used in medicine – which it is – what does that say about using predictive analytics in child welfare?

● One should never take current or former child welfare agency leaders at their word when they brag about their success.  But when it comes to the claims in this column by the former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, the numbers back up the words.  Connecticut did, indeed, dramatically reduce institutionalization and increase the use of kinship foster care during Katz’s tenure.  This column also explains the right way to respond to cases involving substance abuse.

● Nebraska long has removed children at one of the highest rates in the country.  Officially those numbers are finally going down.  But is Nebraska reducing foster care, or just hiding it?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Is Nebraska reducing foster care – or just hiding it?

For decades Nebraska was a national example of child welfare failure. Year after year the state took away children at one of the highest rates in the nation.  The state human services agency suffered from a succession of poor leaders, including one of the very worst, Todd Landry. Landry even made a sick joke at the expense of vulnerable families.   (Proving that no matter how big a failure you are, there’s always room for you in child welfare, Landry now is in charge of child welfare in Maine.)

Nebraska’s failings are outlined in detail in a report NCCPR released in 2012.

But then it looked like things were turning around.  When Matt Wallen was named Nebraska’s Director of Children and Family Services he took some constructive steps.  The new leader of the entire state health and human services agency, Dannette Smith, appears to want to continue the progress.  The rhetoric coming from her agency certainly has improved.  But do the numbers back up the words?

Officially, the number of children torn from their families in Nebraska dropped significantly in recent years.  Officially, as of 2018, Nebraska’s rate of child removal was “only” about 20 percent above the national average, when rates of child poverty are factored in.

But did removals really decline?

Hidden foster care

It seems that even as official entries into foster care have declined, another kind of foster-care has increased.  In an outstanding law review article on the topic, Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan of the University of South Carolina School of Law calls it “hidden foster care.”

It’s something I’ve been writing about for a decade now: Child protective services agencies go to a family and coerce them into surrendering their children “voluntarily.”  In fact, there’s usually nothing voluntary about it.  The agency says: Place your children with a relative “voluntarily” or we’ll go to court and place them with total strangers.

In Texas, nearly two-thirds of entries into care occur this way.  There are indications the number may be almost as high in Virginia – though the data are limited.  And now, some Nebraska advocates claim that, in the past couple of years there’s been as one put it “a huge increase” in such placements in Nebraska.

Although we read federal regulations as requiring states to report these entries into foster care in official statistics, typically they don’t – and the federal government has not cracked down on this evasion. Indeed, in an Orwellian twist, some states refer to this as “diversion” from foster care.

It is not. 

Kinship care is foster care

Though placement with a relative is almost always the least harmful form of foster care, kinship care is still foster care.

The issue actually got attention in Nebraska for the wrong reasons.  Whenever the Nebraska child  welfare agency tries to put its dismal past behind it, a fear-mongering chorus rises up, aided and abetted by an Omaha television station that specializes in hype and hysteria over child abuse – which is why I’m not linking to their story. So in this case, the concern is based on the false claim that these hidden foster care placements are less safe, because a court didn’t sign off on them.

In fact, multiple studies have found that kinship foster care – even informal kinship foster care - typically is better for children’s well-being, more stable, and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care. 

The temptation to use hidden foster care in Nebraska is understandable. In Nebraska the courts tend to be even worse than the child welfare agency, particularly in metropolitan Omaha.  Here’s one example. There’s another on Page 41 or our Nebraska report.

So, one could argue, even if the “improvement” in Nebraska consists entirely of placing children with relatives who formerly would have been placed with strangers, that’s still an improvement.

But such placements are too easy to abuse. They deprive families of even the minimal due process protections available when a worker formally removes the child and then goes to court to rubber-stamp the removal.  In Nebraska, we don’t know if these are all cases in which the children otherwise would have been placed with strangers, or if they include cases in which the children would not have been removed at all if the agency had been required to go to court.

And these placements are too easy to hide. 

Because now we don’t know if Nebraska made progress in dealing with its obscene rate of removal, or just found a way to sweep it under the rug.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

#CASAsoWhite: Our annual Halloween reminder to CASA: No, it’s not a good idea to raise money by holding a talent show with a blackface act. (And yes, one CASA chapter actually did that.)

We suggest that the National office for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program use this item from The Daily Show as a training video

One year ago, responding to former Today Show anchor Megyn Kelly’s appalling attempt to justify blackface, (for which she has apologized) her colleague Craig Melvin noted that, as a CNN story put it, “this controversy is an opportunity to inform people — but said most people already knew how offensive blackface is.”

Most people, but apparently not one chapter of that most sacred cow in child welfare Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  Oh, they’ve probably learned in the years since they included a blackface act in a fundraiser, especially since they apparently eventually apologized – but that is just one example of the racial bias that plagues CASA.  And that, of course, raises fundamental questions about the role of CASA in deciding the fate of children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately children of color.  Even more questions are raised by the latest study of CASA's effectiveness.

So every Halloween, I plan to reprint this post from 2017:  

This Halloween, The Daily Show offers a useful history lesson: The topic, why it’s a really bad idea for white people to dress up in blackface:

But the lesson isn’t just useful for Halloween. It’s also something that anyone involved with that most sacred cow of child welfare – Court-Appointed Special Advocates -- needs to know.

CASA is a program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever.   That, of course, raises problems of inherent bias.  But some CASA chapters have made their biases depressingly obvious.

Consider what happened nine years ago in Arkansas City, Kansas. To raise funds for the local CASA chapter, they held a talent competition. The winning act featured the mayor of Arkansas City – dressed in blackface.  The head of the local CASA chapter couldn’t understand why that was a problem.   "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." That’s only the beginning. All the awful details are here.

It would be one thing if this were just an isolated example of racial bias. But it’s not.

● There was the CASA chapter in Marin County, California, which fell apart when the state CASA association merely asked that they strive for more diversity among the volunteers.

● There was the appalling racist rant by someone who says he volunteered in a scandal-plagued Washington State CASA program for 20 years.

● There’s the fact that the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA volunteers spend significantly less time on a case if the child to whom they are assigned is Black.

● And then there’s the question of whether the very structure of CASA makes it, in the words of a law review article, “anexercise of white supremacy.”

Showing the Daily Show video won’t solve all these problems; not even close. But it might help prevent the worst excesses of racial bias in CASA programs.

Originally published, Oct. 30, 2017

Thursday, October 24, 2019

#CASAsoWhite: A big, new study reveals CASA’S biggest #fail yet


A huge, new study of Court-Appointed Special Advocates is out.  It was commissioned – and paid for – by a state CASA program.  It claims to have fixed the alleged methodological failings in other studies.  The results, straight from the study:

 “Overall, children appointed a CASA have significantly LOWER odds than children without a CASA of achieving permanency.” [Emphasis added]

 Compared to children not burdened with a CASA on the case, foster children with CASAs were:

 ● Less likely to be reunified with their own parents.

 ● Less likely to find permanence in the form of guardianship by a relative.

 ● More likely to “age out” of foster care with no home at all.

 ● The results are NOT due to the fact that CASAs are said to be assigned to “the toughest cases.” The researchers took extraordinary steps to account for that.

 The findings are disturbingly similar to a devastating 2004 study of the program. If anything, the new findings are even worse.

Back in 2004, Youth Today revealed the results of the most comprehensive study done to that point concerning the most sacred cow in child welfare: Court-Appointed Special Advocates.

CASAs are overwhelmingly white overwhelmingly middle-class amateurs sent into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately of color.  The amateurs then tell judges what decisions to make and, to a frightening degree, the judges rubber-stamp the recommendations.  Though CASAs almost always mean well, their only real “qualification” typically is their white, middle-class status.  

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, according to that 2004 study.  The study was commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, which thought it would show the world how successful the program is.  But it didn’t.  Instead, the study found that having a CASA assigned to a case prolonged the time children were trapped in foster care, and made it less likely that children would be placed with relatives instead of strangers – even though multiple studies have found kinship foster care to be far less harmful to children than what should properly be called stranger care.

The study also found that CASAs didn’t really spend that much time on their cases - an average of only 4.3 hours per month for white children – and only 2.67 hours per month for Black children.

CASA has an all-purpose excuse whenever a study doesn't find what CASA wants it to find:  Of course we got poorer results, they say, but that's only because we take on the toughest cases.  The findings, CASA claims, are due to "selection bias."  But the researchers who conducted the 2004 study took rigorous steps to avoid “selection bias” – that is, to be sure they adjusted for any differences in the circumstances of the children with and without CASAs.  Nevertheless, when the results didn’t go the way CASA wanted, National CASA blamed selection bias.  At the time, Youth Today concluded that National CASA’s efforts to spin the study “can border on duplicity.”

What National CASA did not do was commission another study.

But, 15 years later, Texas CASA did.

And it’s a Texas-size study.  The researchers looked at outcomes for 31,754 children, far larger than any previous study.  Not only did Texas CASA commission the study, they also paid for it – and they chose the group that would do the research.  The researchers go on at length about how they’re confident they dealt with the "selection bias." problem. So no, the results are not because the CASAs dealt with tougher cases.

And those results are even worse than the results from the 2004 study.

Delaying “permanency”

If their own writing is to be believed, the Holy Grail for those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, is “permanence” – or, as they call it “permanency,” presumably because adding an extra syllable makes them feel more important.

There are actually good reasons for this. Part of the reason foster care is so inherently harmful is because it is impermanent. Children are first traumatized by being taken from everyone they know and love and then traumatized over and over as they are moved from foster home to foster home, sometimes emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone.

But there are many ways to achieve permanency. The best, of course, is not to tear children needlessly from their parents in the first place.  Second best is swift reunification.  Third best is allowing the child to live in the permanent custody of a relative instead of a stranger.  Fourth on the list is adoption by strangers.  That option has an honorable place in child welfare. Sometimes it is, indeed, the best option.

But when latter-day “child savers” (to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves) talk “permanency” they’re typically not interested in the first three – they want to jump to option 4: adoption by total strangers; people with whom the child savers can identify because they are more likely to be of the same race and class.

But officially their standard of success is “permanency” – period.

As the Texas study notes:

The CASA program was designed to help children in foster care, and one way the program believes it accomplishes this goal is by getting children into safe, stable, permanent placements.” [Emphasis added.]

So here’s the stunning finding from the massive Texas study: If a child has a CASA, her or his odds of achieving permanency are significantly reduced. 

It should come as no surprise that children with a CASA are 16 percent less likely to be reunified with their own parents. The racial and class bias that prompted one law review article to call CASA an “exercise of white supremacy” ensures this.

But the Texas study found that a child with a CASA is 20 percent less likely to find permanency in any form – and more likely to wind up with the worst outcome of all: “aging out” of the system with no ties to their own family and no permanent home with anyone else either.

Among those who do find “permanency,” children with a CASA are less likely to find that permanency with a relative, and more likely to find it with a total stranger through adoption. 

The researchers acknowledge that their study is not an outlier, writing: “Our findings largely confirm the conclusions of prior research on CASA.”

The spin: Maybe permanency isn’t that important after all

As was the case in 2004, the dismal findings from the new study did not seem to please the study’s authors.  So they came up with all sorts of ways to spin those findings.

First, of course, they speculated that the lower rates of permanency might be because, with all that time to investigate, CASAs may have concluded that “a given placement is not a safe, stable, permanent option.”  But the study itself doesn’t measure whether any such conclusions are accurate.  The 2004 study found, however, that when CASAs prolonged children’s time in foster care and reduced the chances they would be placed with relatives this did nothing to improve child safety. (It also found, of course, that CASAs aren’t really spending all that much time on their cases.)

Then the authors of the new study seem to suggest that permanence may not be all it’s cracked up to be. They write:

While traditionally legal permanency has been the primary focus of the child welfare system there has been a recent shift by some toward a focus on wellbeing and social support outside of permanent placement.  

The “some” in question seems to be the Texas CASA program itself, since the only support cited for this claim is a promotional publication from Texas CASA.  But if that's really what the researchers and/or Texas CASA believe you have to wonder: Why did they go to all this trouble to do a massive study of legal permanency outcomes if legal permanency isn’t really that important?

Then the researchers take it a step further, seeming to suggest that aging out might not be so bad.  They write:
 Youth who are likely to age out of the child welfare system receive services to help prepare them for adult living and additional services after aging out of care, some of which are not provided to those youth who reach a permanent outcome before age eighteen.

Leaving aside the fact that the description of help to youth who age out is overly optimistic, this offers a wonderful insight into the mindset of the child welfare establishment. They seem to be saying: Youth who age out get help that youth placed in permanent homes don’t, so maybe it’s o.k. to just let them age out. 

Quick: Can anyone think of a better way to fix this disparity?

Only toward the very end do the authors’ ever-so-gently raise the most likely reason for these awful results:

Another limitation of the present study is the lack of demographic information available about the CASA volunteers. CASAs’ age, experience, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background could influence their activities or their interpretation of what is in the best interest of a child. Without access to this information, we are unable to explore the influence of CASA characteristics.

First of all, this begs the question: Why didn’t they have access to this information?

More generally, we do know this information. Nationwide, according to National CASA’s own data, 84.4 percent of volunteers are white and only 19 percent are African-American or Hispanic/Latino.  (Among foster children only 44 percent are white and 44 percent are African-American or Hispanic/Latino). Things can get so ludicrous that the scandal-plagued program in Snohomish County, Washington, which has no actual Black CASA volunteers, used a stock photo from National CASA to portray one.

As for income, that can be reasonably inferred from the simple fact that you have to have enough time and money on your hands to be able to volunteer.

We can also get a sense of the outlook of CASA concerning issues of race and class by things like:

● The CASA chapter that held a fundraiser featuring a blackface act.

● The CASA chapter that fell apart over a simple request to try to become more diverse.

● The former CASA volunteer whose rants about the families he investigated read like a Donald Trump tweetstorm.

● The whole wretched mess in Snohomish County.

Links to details about all of the above can be found here.

The limits of CASA

None of this means that no child ever has been helped by having a CASA volunteer.  But the study findings indicate that children are more likely to be harmed than helped.  If a medicine were found to be more likely to make patients sicker instead of better, we know what would happen: It would be pulled off the market.

CASA might have a useful role to play in child welfare – if it were converted into strictly a mentoring program for foster children, without allowing these usually white, middle-class amateurs to tell judges where those children should grow up.

But in its current form, CASA should be pulled off the market.

It’s time for Congress, which helps to fund CASA, for the judges who appoint CASAs and for the well-meaning people in the programs themselves to stop.

Stop denying children the chance to live safely in their own homes.

Stop denying children the chance to live with their extended families.

Stop denying children permanency.