Monday, December 16, 2019

The journalism of child welfare at its best

Photo by Nightryder84

When reporters for the Kansas City Star wanted to know what happens to former foster children, they began in the most logical place: Jails.

He still has the last name of a woman who adopted him in grade school — then gave him back.
From the time he was 3 until he turned 14, Dominic Williamson was bounced to 80 different foster homes. When he turned 18, he found himself alone and homeless, and resorting to a life of crime.
Now, at 20, he has a home more permanent than any he’s ever known.
The Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas.

Those words begin an extraordinary six-part series published Sunday by the Kansas City Star.

We’ve all heard about the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  Just two months ago, Prof. Vivek Sankaran wrote a powerful column about a former client of his.  He was a bright, engaging little boy when his aunt first asked child protective services for some help. Instead, CPS threw him into foster care, moved him from home to home, group home to group home, until he had no ties to anyone who loved him.  You can probably guess where he is now.

But Star reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas wanted to know more.  How often does foster care lead to prison?  What about other outcomes?  How did these youth get funneled into the foster-care to prison pipeline in the first place?  And, most important, how can we do better?

6,000 inmates respond

So they devised a questionnaire and asked state prison authorities to cooperate.  Twelve states took part; 6,000 inmates filled out questionnaires.  That formed the basis for a series that, though published by a regional newspaper, is national in its scope and, I hope, its impact.

Of course not every former foster child winds up in prison; though the percentage who do some prison time is alarming. And, as one advocate told the Star: “We are sending more foster kids to prison than college.” (In fact, it’s not even close.)
The link to one part of the series aptly sums up a crucial finding: Former foster kids blame a system they say took them from their homes for being poor

Much of the story focuses on MichelleVoorhees:

“Just because their family doesn’t have the means to take care of them doesn’t mean that you should just sever that bond,” said Voorhees, 28, who had two stints in foster care. “So many of these problems truly do stem from poverty.”
“There’s all this money to pay to foster homes and all this money for adoptions and what-not,” she said. “I don’t understand how there is so much funding to rip us away, but no funding to keep us there.”
Bauer and Thomas write that Voorhees

often thinks of how life could have been different if she were able to stay with her mother for all of her childhood. To know that she was always safe and loved.
“Had my mom just had a little bit of help, had she had enough money to buy her own vehicle, had she had enough money to relocate herself from an abusive situation, had she not had to have been dependent on men in the first place for any kind of financial stability, I don’t believe that she would have made some of the decisions that she made,” Voorhees says. “I don’t believe that she would have struggled as a mother, because my mom is a good mom.”

Read the story to see how Voorhees’ life actually turned out, thanks to the best efforts of the child welfare system to “save” her from her mother.

And you can see her story in this video:

“The animus against poor families…”

And, of course it isn’t just Voorhees.  From the story:

Many prison inmates who completed The Star’s survey said they believed they were removed from their homes because of poverty. They said their families would have been stronger with a little support. …
One inmate in the Upper Midwest said he went into foster care after being molested by a babysitter when he was 10.  “They did not have to take me out of my home,” he wrote on the survey. “We were poor and couldn’t afford a lawyer.”
An inmate from Hawaii said when she was moved into foster care, she felt like she lost her identity. “I felt abandoned not just by my parents but by the same system that was created to protect,” she wrote. “The whole foster care system needs to be broken down, reconstructed on the principle of Children first Family is Everything.”

Plenty of experts backed up the youths’ perceptions:

“This country has a hesitation for providing anything that looks like welfare to families,” said Clark Peters, a professor of social work at the University of Missouri. “So it is really the animus against poor families that drives this. …”

Amazingly, even the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) agreed.  The story quotes the group’s Litigation Director:

“Often, vulnerable poor families don’t have the money or the power to push back against government intervention,” said Ira Lustbader, an attorney who has spent the past two decades representing children nationwide in class action lawsuits. “Families are ripped apart for poverty and not abuse.
“There are deep biases at play in government intervention. And judgments made that are based on perceptions of poverty and race play out horrifically for too many families.”

The tragedy, however, is that CR does have the money and the power to push back against needless removal, but for decades it has failed to use that power. In fact, its lawsuit settlements sometimes have made the problem worse.  So now the question is: Will CR back up the words with a change in its approach to litigation?  Kansas would be a good place to start.

Making a crucial connection

Of course not every example in the Star series involved wrongful removal.  The series also describes cases in which the initial removal was absolutely essential, yet the system still failed.  But the Star stories make a vital connection between these failures that most other stories miss:

Kids who could have stayed in their homes take up beds in good foster homes that are needed for severely abused and neglected children whose safety is in jeopardy. Because of that, kids from Oregon to Florida and states in between are forced to sleep in child welfare offices or homeless shelters.

As it happens, Oregon and Florida have been two of the states where the failure to make this connection has had the most severe consequences. 

Just last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) produced an excellent, thoroughly reported, searing expose about the harm done to children shipped by the Oregon child welfare agency all over the country to facilities run by a for-profit McTreatment chain.  But the story never mentions the key reason it keeps happening: For decades Oregon has torn apart families at rates well above the national average. And for decades, Oregon media have largely, though not entirely, ignored that fact. (OPB has actually done better than most on this point; but still it rarely gets a mention.) 

In Florida, the Miami Herald itself not only failed to make the connection, it set off a foster-care panic that reversed reforms and made the entire system worse.

The Herald’s approach further opens the spigot on the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  The approach by most journalists in Oregon does nothing to close the spigot.  The Kansas City Star breaks new ground with a systematic look at how the youth come out at the other end.

Getting the most from the stories

            After three or four stories nonsubscribers to the star are likely to hit a paywall.  But you can get a one-month subscription for $1.99 or a day pass for only 99 cents. I know the hassle of signing up is more of an issue than the cost, but it’s well worth it.

            If you must stop at only three stories I recommend (of course) the one noted above, which documents unnecessary removal and the confusion of poverty with neglect, the first part of the series, which presents an excellent overview, and the one called “A daughter, a foster care child, an inmate: Crystal Smith’s letter to her mom.”