Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Why “permanency” is the “creme” of child welfare (and other problems with a new "report" from Charles Murray’s favorite think tank).

Second of two parts. Read part one here. 

I’ve often wondered why so many in the family policing establishment love to take the perfectly good, clear English word “permanence” and add an extra syllable, turning it into “permanency.”  The dictionary says they mean the same thing, so for a long time I figured it was just a way for family policing professionals to make themselves feel more important. 

But, thanks in part to Sarah Font of the Penn State University “Child Maltreatment Solutions Network” (or, as it should be called the Penn State University Penance Institute), I have a new theory.  Her new “report” on “permanency” for the American Enterprise Institute, home of  Charles Murray, is so full of false premises and false promises that perhaps “permanency” is to child welfare what “creme” is to food.  No, not crème as in crème brûlée, “creme” as in the word the law makes you use when you want to pass something off as cream – but it really isn’t.  

Similarly, “permanency” sounds like permanence – but often it is not; not when it is defined as adoption and only adoption.  

As I discussed in a previous post, the worst part of Font’s “report” is what it says about her attitude toward older foster youth – she seems to think they need money more than love.  Or as Font put it: 

Although permanency is important for older youth as well, the implications are less clear given that reunification or guardianship or living with relatives (adoption is exceedingly rare for older youth) may deprive older youth of additional resources that are conditional on aging out. 

That’s just the beginning.   But before getting to what else Font got wrong, let’s look at the two things she got partially right: 

● She’s right about the enormous emotional harm foster care inflicts on children.  She’s even right that the more time a child spends in foster care the greater the risk of harm.  But she is wrong to suggest that shorter stays are harmless – not by a longshot.  It is precisely because foster care is so harmful, at any length, that the family preservation movement exists – because the best solution to the harm of foster care is not to put children there in the first place. 

And she is wrong to dredge up the myth of the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy as the reason for prolonged foster care.  On the contrary, children languish in foster care because workers, overloaded with false reports, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with “neglect,” rush to place them there needlessly.  Then the children are filed away and forgotten as workers rush on to the next case.  Not only did the law Font loves, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act not fix it, ASFA may well have made it worse

That’s because the real purpose of ASFA had little to do with adoption or any other form of “permanency.”  The real purpose was to encourage states to take away more children.  In 2000, unable to resist a little gloating, one of those who took responsibility for writing ASFA, the late Richard Gelles declared: 

Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now. 

● Font also is right about the enormous value of permanence – but real permanence is not the same as what Font calls “permanency.”  For Font, the preferred form of permanency, by far, is rushing to terminate children’s rights to their parents, a more accurate term than termination of parental rights, and then trying to get the overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children adopted by strangers who are likely to be neither.  

That’s based on 1950s-era social science theories that we’ve long since outgrown, and in retrospect are a bit bizarre: they postulate that permanence requires children to have just one connection to one authority figure; even if that means cutting them off from everyone else they know and love – extended family, friends, teachers, classmates, in some cases even siblings. 

When this is accomplished through termination of children’s rights to their parents the termination itself can add enormously to the emotional trauma – indeed, it can create what scholars call “ambiguous loss,” which can be more traumatic for a child even than a parent’s death.  

And adoption isn’t always the happily-ever-after that it’s often claimed to be.  Because child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don’t want to know the answers, we know very little about how often adoptions fail, but what we do know is disturbing.  

As Professors Vivek Sankaran and Christopher Church write

Only 16 states had federal identification numbers that allowed children from failed adoptions to be linked to prior foster care records. Thus, any public reporting of the number of adopted children who once again enter foster care is likely an underestimate. 

Even with these limited data, a recent study found that more than 66,000 adopted children ended up back in foster care between 2008 to 2020, an average of 12 a day. A disproportionate number of those children were Black; they faced more than a 50% greater risk of adoption failure than a white child. 

That may be “permanency” but it sure as hell isn’t permanence. 

And even when the adoption lasts, Sankaran and Church remind us 

One survey showed that only 41% of children over six adopted out of foster care expressed having a very warm and close relationship with their adoptive parent.

Yes, there are rare occasions when termination of parental rights and adoption are appropriate. But where children genuinely can’t remain with their parents, there often is a far better option: legal guardianship with a relative, often a relative with whom a child already is in kinship foster care.  As Sankaran and Church explain: 

[N]umerous studies by Mark Testa and others have shown that guardianships - which do not require terminating a parent's rights - are as legally secure as adoptions - which do require termination. Testa found that a caregiver's commitment to the child, the child's sense of belonging, and the length of the placement bore very little relationship to the particular form of legal permanency chosen by the family. … Even the federal government has conceded that children discharged from foster care with legally secured guardianships have living arrangements just as stable as those in other legal statuses. 

Indeed, given the emphasis Font puts on reducing time spent in foster care, she should be embracing guardianship as a better option in many cases.  Since it doesn’t require either termination of parental rights or seeking out a total stranger, it typically takes far less time to arrange a guardianship. 

But, of course, since children are taken almost exclusively from poor families and disproportionately from nonwhite families, their extended families are likely to be poor and nonwhite as well.  Strangers who adopt are more likely to be richer and whiter – perhaps that’s the real reason this is such an attractive option to the family policing establishment. 

Indeed, Font says that “adoption is considered preferable to guardianship” in part because of, here we go again, “post-permanency financial and therapeutic support.” 

Stacking the deck when ranking the states 

So now let's see how Font’s false premises, false promises and general deck-stacking play out in her “timely permanency report cards.” 

● In discussing ASFA, she claims the law “maintained a strong preference for reunification…”  As Gelles made clear, it did not.  That’s why the law pays states bounties for adoptions over a baseline number, lesser bounties for guardianships (for most of its history it paid none) and no bounties for reunification. 

● In deciding what to measure in order to grade states, Font chooses to measure the percentage of
children exiting to some form of “permanency,” including reunification within set time periods.  She also measures the percentage exiting to every “permanent” placement except reunification.  She does not measure the percentage reunified alone.  Apparently, Font doesn’t want any state regarded favorably for reunifying families.  Font even warns that some states might look good because they do well on reunification. 

● States also are downgraded if they have a high percentage of children who remain in care “and are not legally free for adoption after 18 months and after three years.”  Notice she said legally free, but not necessarily adopted.  So a state can rate highly by creating lots of legal orphans – children with no ties to their own parents and no permanent home of any other kind either. 

● Font has a measure for what she calls “failed reunifications,” when a child is returned home and later placed again.  She implies that when this happens it's because the child never should have been sent back to those horrible parents.  In rare cases that’s true.  In other cases, the child was taken when family poverty was confused with neglect.  When the child was returned home the family was still poor – or possibly made poorer.  That can happen because of everything from being forced to quit a job to jump through various family police agency hoops to being forced to pay what amounts to ransom – “child support” payments to the state for the privilege of having their child “cared” for in foster care.  

So, if a child is taken because poverty is confused with neglect and when the child is returned home the poverty is as bad or worse, it stands to reason that poverty can be confused with neglect again and the child can be taken again.  

● Even more telling: Though Font has a whole measure for failed reunification, there is no measure for failed adoption.  And, as explained above, while a formal measure would be difficult, this crucial issue is barely even mentioned. 

● Not mentioned at all: The high rate of abuse children face in foster care itself.  I don’t blame Font for not doing a state-by-state comparison because official, laughably low figures from any state are b.s.  But she doesn’t mention the independent studies that, conservatively, find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and rates of abuse in group homes and institutions that are even worse. 

● Font concludes by claiming that there has been “a clear retreat from the idea that foster care can help children in dire circumstances.”  That is not true.  Rather, there is a growing understanding that in most cases, the circumstances prompting children to be taken were not, in fact, dire and that there are far better answers than inflicting upon children the very traumas Font herself admits can accompany foster care. 

Should we all really be like West Virginia? 

To understand how ludicrous all this is, and how many children will be hurt if Font’s approach is taken seriously, consider a state that, over and over again, scores among the best in Font’s rankings:  West Virginia. 

Now consider a few facts about West Virginia that Font doesn’t mention: 

● West Virginia tears apart families at the highest rate in the nation.  Ah, but it’s a poor state, right?  But when you factor in rates of child poverty, West Virginia still tears apart families at the highest rate in the nation. 

● West Virginia has proportionately more children in foster care on any given day than any other state.  When you factor in poverty, West Virginia still has the second-worst record. 

Right now, American family policing agencies take away just over 200,000 children every year.  If every state were like West Virginia, America would take away 945,000 children every year.  

Right now, on any given day, nearly 400,000 children are stuck in foster care.  If every state were like West Virginia, the American foster care population would be more than 1.4 million

And it doesn’t stop there.  

● West Virginia uses the worst form of “care” group homes and institutions, at a rate 30% above the national average.  Font may not view that as a problem.  Font endorses another AEI publication suggesting institutionalization has gotten a bad rap and the federal government should make it easier to institutionalize children. 

If you want to know just how much of a horror show West Virginia foster care is in terms of actual care, just Google a few news accounts. 

And we’re still not done. 

There aren’t many Black children in West Virginia, but the state’s family police agency has effectively painted a target on the backs of every one of them.  

● According to a new study, at some point, nearly one-third of Black children in West Virginia will be forced into foster care.  No other state even comes close. For the four states tied for second place, it’s 18% - which would seem appalling if not for West Virginia. 

● And 14% of Black children will, at some point, be taken from their parents forever.  The second highest rate of termination of parental rights for Black children is 6% - which, again, would seem appalling if not for West Virginia. 

And yet, if you judge family policing systems by Sarah Font’s criteria, you’d think West Virginia was – almost heaven. But then, what else should one expect from a "scholar" who co-authors an op-ed condemning only one kind of removal of Black children from homes: their removal from white middle-class foster homes, that is, because of what Font claims are "woke views on race."

That’s what happens when you take a noble concept like permanence, turn it into something fake and destructive – and call it “permanency.”