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.