Wednesday, September 29, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, month ending Sept. 28, 2021

 So much has happened during the three weeks I was on vacation that I’m sure this list is far from complete.  But here’s some of what happened, starting with important news about two outstanding advocates with lived experience in the family policing system. 

● “Vowing to work against racial discrimination and unnecessary family separation, a former foster youth from Connecticut and outspoken advocate for her peers has been named as an advisor to the Biden administration’s child welfare leadership team,” reports The Imprint concerning the naming of Lexie Gruber-Perez as a senior adviser to Aysha Schomburg, who runs the federal Children’s Bureau. 

How good is this? Let me put it this way: One of the most extreme advocates for tearing apart more families and institutionalizing more children (whom I will not name) – already is whining about it! 

● Another former foster youth with public policy expertise, Sixto Cancel, wrote a powerful guest essay for The New York Times – and child welfare establishment types promptly did everything they could to subvert it.  I have a blog post about the efforts at subversion

In other news: 

● In addition to everything else foster youth must endure, they all have what amounts to targets on their backs as soon as they become parents themselves.  Because of actual hardships, but also because of stigma, stereotype and the fact that their every word and action is under constant scrutiny, foster youth are exceptionally vulnerable to having their own children needlessly torn from them.  The Imprint reports on legislation passed in California, awaiting a decision from the governor, that would make it easier for foster youth and their own children to stay together – including providing early legal representation. 

● Remember how the Washington D.C. schools and the District family policing agency joined forces to harass families if they were late to pick up children from school?  Well, the dynamic duo of family harassment is at it again: NBC Washington reports that if parents who are justifiably afraid to send their children to school during a pandemic that is now taking a heavy toll on children dare to keep them home, they may face a family police investigation for “educational neglect.”  

One parent, who says she may be forced to capitulate and put her child at risk, put it this way: 

If something were to happen to my child… it will be a decision I regret every single day. And it will be a decision and a consequence that I will lay entirely on the people who forced her back into that building.

● The news is a little better in, of all places, Texas.  Texas Monthly reports on how, in what may be the most polarized state in a polarized nation, Left and Right came together to curb the untrammeled power of that state’s family policing agency. 

● The Tennessee Legislature is considering an important change for the better in child welfare law: Replacing anonymous reporting to the state’s child abuse hotline with confidential reporting.  It would be such an important improvement that when one of the sponsors asked me to record a statement to play for his colleagues, I was glad to take a few moments away from my vacation to do it

● The infant son of American Idol contestant Syesha Mercado and her partner may be reunited with them, six months after he was wrongfully taken from them.  Now those who organized to help the family are working to “shine a light on so many other families, families that can’t get this same attention.” 

● Maine foster parent Mary Callahan and I have a column in the Portland Press Herald on how to really fix child welfare in that state. (Hint: It’s the way they did it once before.) 

And finally … 

● The book I wrote about the family policing system, published in 1990, begins at a hideous Los Angeles County institution known as the MacLaren Children’s Center.  Although I often disagree with David Sanders, who now is with Casey Family Programs, he deserves credit for being the Los Angeles child welfare director who, at long last, stood up to an assortment of vested interests and shut that monstrosity down in 2003.  But decades later, former residents still suffer.  Now some of them are suing.  

“They were put in this institution, treated like garbage and thrown away,” their attorney told the Orange County Register. “My clients are looking forward to confronting those that abused them and those that covered up the abuse.” 

As you read the story, please keep in mind that there are hundreds of MacLarens still open all over the United States – and a whole industry dedicated to fighting any effort to shut them down.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Co-opting lived experience: A former foster youth wrote a powerful Guest Essay for The New York Times. The family policing establishment rushed to subvert it to advance its own agenda.

Most of the letters to the editor in response to this
New York Times essay reek of exploitation.

Sixto Cancel grew up in foster care, survived the experience and now runs Think of Us, an organization dedicated to changing the system that did him, and so many other children, so much harm.

He wrote a powerful Guest Essay for The New York Times about his experiences.  His essay clearly shows the need to  -- no, wait, sentences that begin that way are the problem.  Please go read the essay and decide the policy implications for yourself.

I make this suggestion because, for as long as current and former foster youth have been organizing to demand change and writing about fixing the system, the players in that system have sought to exploit them.  Either they’ve sought to make the youth a kind of front for parroting their own views or, failing that, “interpreted” their essays as somehow supporting whatever they believed all along. 

That’s what happened in response to Cancel’s essay.   Representatives of an assortment of “stakeholders”  -- none of whom has nearly as much of a stake as Cancel and others forced to endure the system, but all of them apparently white and middle-class -- swarmed over the essay, writing letters to the Times seeking to use the essay to support their agenda.  In two instances, there was some justification for the letters.  The rest reek of exploitation. 

● First up, Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a group that has long pushed for greater support for grandparents and other relatives caring for children, whether on their own without family police agency involvement, or because such an agency took away the children – in other words, kinship foster care.  In her case, I think the link to the essay is legitimate – a major theme is the fact that all those years Cancel grew up with strangers and narrowly avoided being institutionalized there were relatives ready and willing to care for him – but the family policing agency never reached out to them. 

● Next, a letter from the former head of that same family policing agency – the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.  Joette Katz started running DCF in 2011, long after Cancel had entered the system.  Katz used Cancel’s essay as a chance to take a victory lap, bragging about how, under her leadership, Connecticut had dramatically reduced the use of group homes and institutionalization and dramatically increased kinship foster care.  It was unseemly, but at least it has the virtue of being true – Katz really did make huge improvements in a horrible system.  It’s not a good system, but she made it a lot less horrible. 

It goes downhill from there. 

● Two foster parents (or, as they should properly be called, stranger-care parents) seem to think that when Cancel named his organization “Think of Us” he meant think of them.  Their letter is all about the terrible hardships endured by stranger care parents such as themselves: last-minute calls asking them to take in a child who is not in their preferred age range!  The financial burden because “Foster parents need a stable source of income yet must still have the flexibility to attend review meetings and transport a child to a school that may be miles away.” (Because, after all, no impoverished birth parent has ever had to deal with such hardship!) 

These particular foster parents are in Massachusetts, where foster parents get a minimum cash payment, tax-free, of $9,125 per child per year, free health care for each child, plus a clothing allowance of at least $248 and “$50 to help pay for a birthday gift and $100 for holiday gifts for each foster child each year.” (Let us digress for a moment and ask if any state should really be doing this: Do you really want someone who demands the government reimburse them for buying a birthday gift for a foster child to be a foster parent?) 

So you see, the stranger care parents argue, the problems in Cancel’s essay can be solved if you just make our lives easier so you can recruit more of us.  You can read Cancel’s essay for yourself to decide if this makes sense.  I do feel compelled to note, however, that Massachusetts takes away children at a rate 60% above the national average. 

● The next writer apparently figures that if you can’t co-opt the agenda, just deny the problem.  A former lawyer for the Kentucky family policing agency says there is no problem placing children with relatives because when the children are taken the agency actually asks the parents if there are any relatives available.  Well, gee, it’s not as if there’s anything else an agency can possibly do, is there? 

The former lawyer for the family policing agency continues:

[Cancel] cites his bad experiences in foster care. … I agree that there are still problems in the foster care system. But the system should not be considered broken because of a few bad cases. 

A few bad cases???? 

First, just to be clear: Cancel’s essay isn’t just a recounting of his personal experience. Think of Us combines such experiences with research and analysis – including an in-depth report cited in the Guest Essay itself.  

Second, do we really have to review the outcomes for foster youth again?  Alright then:  There are the news stories documenting how the foster care system sends more youth to prison than to college. There’s the comprehensive study finding that foster care churns out walking wounded four times out of five.  There are all those studies showing that in typical cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  And of course, the mass of research on the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. 

Oh, and in Kentucky, there’s this report from the then-inspector general of the Kentucky family policing agency itself. 

● Think it can’t get even worse? Oh, but it can.  This last letter was almost inevitable: A letter from a former director of a program that is one of the best-documented failures in child welfare wrongly claiming success. 

Yes, folks, Martha Gershun, a former director of a local Court-Appointed Special Advocates
program in Missouri, says Sixto Cancel’s essay shows the need for more CASAs. CASAs are the overwhelmingly white overwhelmingly middle-class amateur volunteers authorized to barge into the homes of overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families and effectively decide if the children will ever be allowed to live with their own parents again. 

Gershun wrongly claims that CASA 

lessens the length of time children and teens spend in care, … and increases the odds that they will be reunited with their primary caregivers or find other safe, permanent homes

Cancel’s essay never mentions CASA.  Neither does the report from Think of Us; not in its seven specific recommendations nor anywhere else in its report. I have no idea what Cancel thinks of the program.  I do know what the research really says.  And that research shows that Gershun’s claims don’t hold up.  On the contrary.  One massive study from 2004 shows that 

● CASA's only real accomplishment was to prolong the time children languished in foster care. 

● CASA reduces the chances that a child will be placed with relatives. 

●The study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA's all-purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.) 

● The study also found CASAs spend little time on cases involving white children, and less time on cases involving Black children. 

An even larger study released at the end of 2019 found that: 

“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.

Once again, the results are not due to the fact that CASAs are said to be assigned to “the toughest cases.” These researchers took even more extraordinary steps to account for that than their counterparts in 2004.

So even in terms of the holy grail of the family policing establishment, so-called permanency, CASA is a failure.  (And notice how even in her own assessment Gershun appears to equate reunifying children with their own parents to tearing a family apart forever as equally acceptable outcomes.)

So there are really two worthwhile lessons here:

● Beware of advocates superimposing their agendas on the lived experience of foster youth.

The New York Times should fact-check letters to the editor.  The newspaper also might want to consider the implications of publishing responses to an essay from a Black former foster youth that come only from (probably) white, middle-class professionals.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

NCCPR in The Imprint: Graphic evidence that child welfare surveillance doesn’t work

There is a graphic making the rounds in child welfare that’s gotten a fair amount of attention lately. The graphic tracks the rate at which caseworkers “substantiated” various forms of child abuse and neglect allegations from 1990 to 2018. 

It was created by Prof. David Finkelhor and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. In 2020, it turned up in a conference presentation from Prevent Child Abuse America. Then Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago used it in a PowerPoint presentation of its own. And then John Kelly raised it with Chapin Hall Executive Director Bryan Samuels on The Imprint’s weekly podcast. 

You’ll probably find it striking too.

“I was wondering,” one advocate said to me upon seeing the graphic in Chapin Hall’s presentation, “does slide #7 look right to you?”

No, it doesn’t look right. Because it isn’t right. Some of the numbers in the slide aren’t real.

Read the full column, and compare the real numbers to the unreal numbers, in The Imprint.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 31, 2021

 ● Wow! Those child abuse numbers sure look scary - but then they would, when you double and triple the real numbers. NCCPR has the graphic evidence in this column for The Imprint

ProPublica Illinois has a follow-up to their investigation revealing that the state routinely fails to provide Spanish-speaking families with help in their own language – or even a caseworker who speaks Spanish.  As the story explains: 

Parents — many of them undocumented immigrants who are already reluctant to come into contact with or speak out against government agencies — can for months or years be assigned caseworkers who don’t speak their language, or face lengthy delays in accessing services in Spanish, all of which prolongs their separation from their children. 

The Philadelphia Citizen has a story about Family Finding – a program in which agencies move heaven and earth to find extended family for foster children so at least they don’t have to be placed with strangers.  The story also is a good object lesson in a common child welfare practice: taking an excellent program, diluting the model while keeping the name, and then claiming that “we already have” that program. 

The Imprint looks at the controversy over so-called “family enrichment centers” – can a family really be “enriched” when the center is run by the same agency that can take away the children?