Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Child welfare in Illinois: The children’s crusade redux?

Twenty-six years ago, a little boy in Chicago died a horrible death, and everybody learned the wrong lessons.  Can the child welfare system – and the media – do better this time?

UPDATE, SEPTMEBER 15, 2020: The child welfare system has given its answer, and it is a resounding, and depressing “No.” Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

The story I wrote for the Chicago Reader in 1995.

            In 1993, 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was killed by his mentally-unstable mother, Amanda. The child had been taken from her, then returned to her.  Aha! said politicians and media, especially the Chicago Tribune, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services must be bending over backwards to coddle abusive parents and support “family preservation” at the expense of “child safety.”   If we just take away vastly more children, there will be no more cases like Joseph Wallace. 

But, as I wrote in a story for the Chicago Reader in 1995, called “The Children’s Crusade,” family preservation had nothing to do with Joseph’s death – in fact, it almost saved his life.  Later stories by Tribune reporters all but acknowledged that their earlier reporting got it wrong.  But it was that early reporting that stuck in the public mind.  It was summed up best by Benjamin Wolf, Director of the ACLU of Illinois' Institutionalized Persons Project, which has a decades-old consent decree that spurred reform of DCFS. As Wolf put it at the time, those early stories made a bad child welfare system “unquestionably worse.”

            That’s because DCFS and the courts did what those early news stories told them to do.  There was a foster-care panic -- the number of children torn from their families soared.  By 1996, a child was proportionately more likely to be trapped in foster care in Illinois than any other state.  An already bad system was plunged into chaos, thousands of children were traumatized when they were taken from parents who were nothing like Amanda Wallace – and child abuse deaths actually increased.  It took a decade to recover. 

          Now, the whole cycle is in danger of repeating itself.  This time, the child who died a horrible death was A.J. Freund.  Some of the early news coverage has been more nuanced – a thoughtful examination of the issue of child welfare and drug abuse by Tribune reporter John Keilman and the way Tribune reporter Robert McCoppin handled allegations by a county prosecutor are good examples. But some of the commentary repeats the mistakes the Tribune made in 1993.  Meanwhile, politicians and others already are setting up efforts to keep families together to take the fall for this latest tragedy.  If they succeed, it will lead only to more such tragedy.  The stakes are, literally, life and death.

The harm of foster-care panic

            One thing that’s changed over the past 26 years: There is even more research on the enormous inherent harm of placing a child in foster care.  At least five separate studies, two of them massive in scope and looking specifically at cases from Illinois, have found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

            That’s not as surprising as it may sound. The typical cases seen by DFCS workers are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Others fall on a broad continuum between the extremes.  Think for a moment about what happened to all those children torn from their parents at the Mexican border last year.  Yes, DCFS caseworkers almost always mean well – but the children they take suffer just as much trauma. They shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.

            And yes, that applies even when the issue is drug abuse. A study of infants born with cocaine in their systems found that the actual physical development of those infants was better when left with mothers able to care for them than when placed in foster care.

            Some might respond: “Yes, but A.J. was born with opiates in his system, and his mother allegedly killed him, so we should put all children born with opiates in their system in foster care.” But there is a problem with that logic:  The mother accused of killing him, JoAnn Cunningham, also was a licensed Illinois foster parent.

            That’s the problem with building arguments on horror stories.  For every one you have I have one that “proves” the opposite – and vice versa.  When anecdotes collide it’s time to look at the data.  We’ve already seen what those data tell us about typical cases.  Now consider what they tell us about physical safety.

            Of course most foster parents don’t abuse or neglect the children in their care.  But study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.  Worse still, for reasons discussed below, a foster-care panic actually makes it more likely that children in real danger will be overlooked and more children will die.

            But that hasn’t deterred Illinois politicians.

A Tribune story about a legislative hearing says that legislators “called into question the agency’s longstanding priority of keeping families together…”

            The Associated Press reports that Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, said there was “too great a focus on what was otherwise is a laudable goal of reuniting biological families when possible.”

            According to another AP story: “Then there are questions about whether it is too difficult for child welfare workers to remove children from their homes, and too easy for parents to have their children returned to them.”

            In fact, it is extremely easy to remove children from their homes – DCFS workers – and police - can do it entirely on their own authority, without even asking a judge first.  And Illinois has one of the worst records in the nation when it comes to prolonging the time children languish in foster care.

            But most important of all, if taking away more children is the answer to preventing child abuse deaths, why hasn’t it worked in states that take away proportionately far more children than Illinois?  They have exactly the same sorts of tragedies.  Even more to the point, if taking away more children is the answer, why didn’t it work the last time it was tried in Illinois?

            During those same years that the number of Illinois children taken from their parents skyrocketed, child abuse deaths actually increased.  They didn’t start to go down again until the panic abated and foster care numbers started to decline.

When DCFS actually improved

            And, in fact, it was that very decline, a new emphasis on family preservation, and bold new leadership that led to a remarkable turnaround at DCFS.

            As the AP story notes “The system saw big improvements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after a federal consent decree in response to [the] American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawsuit.”  The improvements also were a result of the appointment of one of the most politically-savvy leaders ever to run a child welfare system anywhere in America: Jess McDonald.  He quietly put an emphasis on safe, proven alternatives to foster care. 

            And child safety improved. Who says so? Independent monitors appointed by the court as part of the consent decree.  In 2003, the lead monitor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Children are safer now than they were when the state had far more foster children.” Their latest report shows that safety continued to improve all the way through about 2011.

            Much of what looks like a significant worsening after that is simply due to the fact that the monitors changed the way they measured key safety indicators.  But part of it is a real decline – due to budget cuts, higher caseloads and turmoil in DCFS leadership – not a Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy.  We know this because in recent years there has been little change in the number of children taken from their parents in Illinois.

            All this also explains why child abuse deaths can actually go up during a foster-care panic. 

      The real reason for child abuse tragedies among children “known to the system” is almost always overloaded, underprepared caseworkers who don’t have time to investigate any case carefully – so they make terrible mistakes in all directions.  A foster-care panic increases the overload, so there’s even less time for each investigation -- and even more tragic mistakes.

            So now let’s look again at the death of A.J. Freund.  In hindsight the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. But if you’re working for an agency that’s suffered years of budget cuts and increasing caseloads, you don’t have time to look at the big picture.  Over and over, workers seemed to look only at the immediate incident.  They did the minimum required to check the necessary boxes – not because they didn’t care, but because it was all there was time for.  (Or, in some rare cases, if that county prosecutor is correct, they may not, in fact, care.)

            And it wasn’t just DCFS workers who didn’t go deep enough.  Rep. Feigenholtz says "I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging (DCFS) to take the child."  But, as noted aboive, the cops don’t have to beg anyone. They had full authority to remove A.J. themselves.  And on at least one occasion, a police officer arrived at the door and left again  after peering into the house, and seeing two boys there who appeared to be “happy and healthy.”

            But now, in a move that will increase the danger to children – but placate legislators -   DCFS   Every case involving young children that was determined to be “unfounded” is now going to be “reviewed” all over again.  At the same time, the number of calls to the Illinois child abuse hotline almost certainly has spiked – it almost always happens after high profile deaths.  Workers, terrified for their jobs, will rush to take away more children needlessly, exposing them to emotional trauma and the high risk of abuse in foster care – and at the same time, they’ll actually miss more children in real danger.
has made that workload even worse.

            None of this means no child ever should be taken away.  But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention.  Illinois was able to make children safer only when it started to use foster care in smaller doses. 

Enter Chapin Hall

            Even those of us who are not learned scholars understand this much about the research process: You’re supposed to do the research first and then draw conclusions.

            But apparently, over at Chapin Hall, they prefer a different approach.  According to AP:

The research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago is expected next month to issue what [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker called “actionable recommendations” into how the DCFS’s Intact Family Services Unit functions.
But Chapin Hall has shared one conclusion in a press release: “With the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation, Illinois has a high threshold for child removal.”

            Rep. Feigenholtz leapt on that, and, according to AP “said lawmakers have to answer the question of whether the threshold for child removal is too high or whether the workers are ‘not aware of them [sic] or are poorly trained.’”

            But even leaving aside the problems with this conclude-first-do-the-“research”-later approach, the way Chapin Hall uses the figure on entries into foster care is misleading.

            ● The low rate of removal in Illinois is driven almost entirely by Cook County.  It’s not unusual for big cities to have lower rates of removal than their surrounding states, possibly because caseworkers in big cities may see more poverty and are less likely to confuse that poverty with neglect.

            In the rest of Illinois, the rate of removal is more than two-and-a-half-times the rate in Cook County, and only about 18 percent below the national average.*  But of the three cases that prompted Chapin Hall’s “research” two occurred outside of Cook County.  So these data could as easily be used to make a case that downstate Illinois should be taking proportionately fewer children.

            ● And there’s still another problem with the figure.  Illinois is notorious for taking away children and not reporting the removals as foster care placements.  Chicago attorney Diane Redleaf, author of They Took The Kids Last Night, calls it a “shadow foster care system.”  It works this way: DCFS tells a family: agree “voluntarily” to place your children with, say, grandma, and we won’t go to court and place them with strangers.  DCFS then can argue that it was not really a “foster care” placement.

            Illinois is not alone in this practice. But by its nature, we don’t know how often it happens and how Illinois compares to other states.  That calls into question Chapin Hall’s claim.

            There’s one other problem with Chapin Hall being hired to do anything concerning DCFS. Chapin Hall is run by a former DCFS director, Bryan Samuels, creating an unavoidable appearance of conflict-of-interest.  This is not the first time Chapin Hall has failed to be sensitive to such appearances.

Then how do we fix this?

At the legislative hearing, Rep. Grant Wehrli pretty well guaranteed himself a place in news stories by demanding of DCFS Director Marc Smith: “What are you going to do as an agency to ensure that a case even remotely close to this one doesn’t happen again?” If the governor plans to hold Smith to the same standard then just fire him now. And his successor. And his successor’s successor.

The only acceptable goal for child abuse tragedies is zero.  But we must seek that goal understanding that our reach will always exceed our grasp, and if that is the measure of a child welfare agency leader than every leader of a large system has failed, is failing and always will fail.

No one demands that police chiefs stop – or even solve – every murder.  Yet now Smith is expected to “ensure” that there will never be a tragedy even “remotely” like the death of A.J. Freund.

I can hear the objections now: Yes, but we’re talking about children who were known to the system.  As is discussed in detail here, invoking the percentage of cases “known to the system” may be the most meaningless statistic in all of child welfare.  But here’s the short, Illinois-specific response: A vast number of children become “known to the system” each year.

The problem is illustrated by what I have come to call the big blue haystack:

That’s based on national figures.  Here’s the Illinois version, UPDATED MAY 8:

This blue haystack represents the  358,545 children who were, not only known to DCFS in some way but the subjects of investigations by the agency over the three years from 2015 through 2017, according to a just released state audit.  According to that audit, 102 of those children died.  But among those other 348,443 children are many whose case files look just like the files of the 102 who died – and yet nothing went wrong.**

It’s a lot harder to find those needles in a haystack than simply trotting out the “known to the system” figure might lead one to believe.

But there are ways to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies. 

Those ways were summarized in a study done by a liberal Texas think tank (yes, there is such a thing), the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Let’s start with what doesn’t contribute to more child abuse deaths. The study found:

● The rate at which people report child abuse does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state takes children from their parents does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

Here’s what does contribute to more child abuse deaths:

● High rates of poverty.

● High rates of teen pregnancy.

● Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

Which means, of course, the real solutions are pretty obvious.

For starters, restore the cuts to DCFS so workers have manageable caseloads.  But that can’t be done simply by going on a caseworker hiring binge – not now at least.  A foster-care panic almost certainly already is underway in Illinois.  If all the state does is hire more caseworkers, then they’ll simply be chasing all the new cases and all you’ll get is the same lousy system only bigger.

So any new hiring must be accompanied not just by restoring but expanding services for the many families who are troubled but where the parents are neither sadists nor brutes.  That kind of help can prevent such families from ever becoming the subjects of DCFS investigations and stealing time from finding children in real danger.  Similarly, crisis intervention services must be expanded for families on the verge of losing children to foster care.  And high-quality family based drug treatment needs to be readily available for every parent who needs it.

That will cost some money. But the final step won’t cost a dime: Smith and Pritzker need to show the courage to stand up to politicians, stand up to media if necessary, and refuse to allow a foster-care panic.

They should follow the example of Jess McDonald.  Or they could take the more blunt approach favored by Joette Katz in Connecticut.  Katz left a judgeship on the state Supreme Court to run the Connecticut Department of Children and Families under former Gov. Dannel Malloy. 

Before Katz took over the agency, every few years a high-profile child abuse tragedy would set off a foster-care panic.  Not long after Katz started running DCF it happened again.  But this time there would be no panic.  Because Katz would not allow it.  As she put it at the time:

A child dies and the next thing you know workers are getting thrown under the bus and 500 children get removed [from their homes] the next day because it’s a reaction to a tragedy. I think that’s the exact wrong way to behave.

She – and Malloy -- paid a political price for it.  But you know how everyone says we’re supposed to “put the children first”?  It turns out that this child welfare leader and this governor really meant it.

A test for Illinois media

This is also a testing time for the state’s media.  Back in 1993 and 1994, the Tribune’s coverage of the Joseph Wallace case attracted enormous national attention.  Then Managing Editor Ann Marie Lipinski said she got calls from "18 million reporters."  One national news organization after another did huge stories scapegoating family preservation, almost all with a Chicago dateline. 

And it hasn’t stopped.  The Tribune coverage created a template that continues to be followed all over the country: Find a high-profile fatality, or every child abuse death in a state or locality, and rush to blame efforts to keep families together.  All over the country, children suffer for it.

Now, the Tribune, and other Illinois media, have a chance to create a brand new template – in which instead of cheap shots and scapegoats, they search the nation, and even Illinois’ recent past to see what really works in child welfare. 

Perhaps this time, they can set an example for how to cover child welfare right. 

*-Rates of removal are calculated by comparing data on entries into care, available here, to Census Bureau data on the number of impoverished children in every Illinois county.

** - The DCFS Inspector General gives a higher figure for deaths known to the system. But it appears she also uses a much broader definition of "known to the system" - any child who was the subject of a call to the state child abuse hotline.  So while her figures show more needles, her comparison involves a much larger haystack.  Also, as the Chicago Tribune points out, the Inspector General's figures don't indicate how many of these deaths were due to abuse and neglect.