Monday, December 11, 2023

The failure of the child welfare McLawsuits, Part One

There have been years of court hearings, orders and, in one case, even a settlement and a declaration of victory.  But things in Texas and Tennessee are as bad, or worse, than ever. 

Instead of making the dreadful Texas "child welfare" system better,
"Children's Rights" and "A Better Childhood" set off what amounts to
a giant game of whack-a-mole.

News from Texas and Tennessee in recent weeks illustrate the futility – or worse – of those massive McLawsuits brought against “child welfare” systems, mostly by two groups, the one founded by Marcia Lowry (with a lot of help from corporate raider Carl Icahn) called “Children’s Rights” (CR) and the one founded by Marcia Lowry when she split from Children’s Rights and formed a group called “A Better Childhood.” 

I call them McLawsuits because they’re like fast food franchises – nearly identical massive class-action lawsuits that say pretty much the same things, call for the same micromanaging remedies, and, most important, ignore the problem at the root of all the others – the needless removal of children, often when poverty is confused with neglect. 

That’s why, in most cases, they accomplish nothing, and in some cases they make things worse.  In Michigan, where CR has a consent decree, Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan School of Law says the best thing CR could do would be to get out. 

With Lowry’s departure, CR changed a lot and for the better.  They now have an outstanding public policy arm that has joined groups like NCCPR in calling for progressive changes such as radically curbing the use of institutions and facing up to the racism that permeates family policing.  But that can actually put the public policy arm of CR at odds with the litigation arm. 

For example: The public policy side has wisely joined NCCPR and other family advocacy organizations in condemning the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act - putting it way ahead of other big, mainstream “child welfare” groups.  But CR’s lawsuit complaints in Texas and in Michigan call for stricter enforcement of ASFA! 

So let’s see how that’s all been working out lately.  In part two, we look at Tennessee.  We’ll start today with Texas: 

When Lowry “divorced” CR to create A Better Childhood each group got custody of some of the McLawsuits underway at the time of the split, with one exception.  They share custody of the one in Texas. 

The one thing the McLawsuits do well is offer thorough, vivid descriptions of how awful “child welfare” systems typically are.  In January 2016, I described federal judge Janis Jack’s first decision in favor of CR as a guided tour of the hellscape of Texas foster care.  Not that this was a surprise.  Nearly 12 years earlier, NCCPR documented the same hellscape in a comprehensive report on Texas “child welfare” – and that report relied on the work of  Texas journalists and advocates who had come before us.  

There are two differences between our report and CR’s McLawsuit: 

● We proposed better solutions.

● We didn’t have a court to enforce those solutions. 

CR and A Better Childhood have no such excuse.  Despite all the might of these two organizations, their high-powered law firm partners and a sympathetic judge, Texas “child welfare” is still a hellscape – as we predicted it would be in 2016. 

In fact, what CR and A Better Childhood set in motion in Texas is a giant game of whack-a-mole.  The lawsuit demanded that hellacious institutions be fixed up or shut down.  Since institutions are largely unfixable, some of them shut down.   But, because the lawsuit did not demand that fewer children be taken away, there was no place to put the kids who used to be consigned to those horrible institutions. 

So they were housed in state family policing agency offices. 

There followed demands to stop stashing the children in offices. 

So they were forced into hotels – including hotels known to be centers of sex trafficking. 

These children are known as “children without placements” and, as Texas Public Radio explained, 

“… children have died, they were sex trafficked and they were impregnated while under [that] status. … if parents behaved the way [the Texas family police agency] does with [these] kids … multiple judges TPR spoke to said they would remove its kids.” 

So surely it should be obvious by now to Children’s Rights and A Better Childhood that they need to go back to the drawing board and seek a settlement to their McLawsuit built around safe, proven ways for Texas to stop taking so many of them in the first place.  

And yes, Texas takes a lot of kids.  Officially the state’s rate-of-removal is low, but that’s only because Texas may make more use than any other state of “hidden foster care” – off-the-books placements that are not reported in official figures.  If they were, odds are the number of children reported as entering foster care would nearly triple. 

The Legislature steps in 

One group gets this -- albeit not the one you might expect: The Texas Legislature.  They passed a series of bills to curb the vast nearly unchecked power of the family police to needlessly tear apart families.  If those new laws are allowed to remain on the books unchanged, they, alone, won’t solve all the problems.  But their enforcement is an essential prerequisite to solving all the problems – since that will open up spaces in actual family foster homes for the children who really need them.  

Opening those spaces alone won’t be enough.  Those foster families, and birth families whose children can safely remain at home or be reunited, are going to need far more support in order to care for children, some of whom were damaged by actual abuse, almost all of whom were damaged by the abuse inflicted on them by being forced into the hellscape of Texas foster care. 

Instead, of course, there is a media-fueled campaign against the new laws. They are being scapegoated for every horror story – even horror stories that took place before the new laws took effect.  Apparently, those wedded to the take-the-child-and-run status quo want Texans to believe that, before the new laws, there were no horror stories.  No child ever died of abuse because they all were rescued and lived happily ever after in the rainbows and unicorns land of Texas foster care.  

Unfortunately, a lot of media seem to be buying it – especially in San Antonio, which always has been the most trigger-happy city in Texas when it comes to taking away children. 

The attacks against the new laws are spearheaded by exactly whom you would expect: the Texas chapter of Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).  Study after study has shown that CASA makes outcomes for children worse – and one of those studies was commissioned by Texas CASA itself.  

That study found that when Texas CASA gets involved:

“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, Texas 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.

Yet now, when Texas CASA – a group that should have the least credibility of any organization in Texas – leads a smear campaign against the first changes in decades that offer real hope to children many media buy their snake oil and beg for more. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some other big organization, also beloved by Texas media, that could step in and set the record straight; say, an organization that is on record as supporting reforms much like those passed by the Texas Legislature?  An organization that is revered by the same Texas media who smear the Legislature’s reforms – almost all passed with strong bipartisan majorities – as part of some vast right-wing conspiracy? 

Oh, wait, there is such a group: It’s called Children’s Rights.  But they’re still too busy playing whack-a-mole.

Click here for part two, in which we discuss CR's failure in Tennessee