Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Information: To Share or Not to Share?

I apologize for taking a detour in my study of the recommendations of the PEW Commission, but something has come to my attention...

Two Very Divergent Responses to Sharing Information

1.) Social workers forbidden to share information about the agency where they work.

The New York Administration for Children's Services has just released an Internet Acceptable Use Agreement, dated April 19, 2006.

According to the ACS's Internal Use Agreement:
"City employees must not publicly disclose internal information that many have any negative affect on the City's image."

Anything that a social worker hears, sees or reads in that agency is now regarded as top-secret. Even on their own time and on their own computers, they run the risk of disciplinary action if they share what's really happening.

A different tack might have been:
- To try to promote accountability for the agency.
- To shed light on problems.
- To admit and learn from mistakes (it's called accountability).
- To combat bad press by sharing positive outcomes.

This top-down, fear-motivated approach is designed to effectively shut down communication with "the outside."

2.) Agencies working together to share information about foster parents.

As New York ACS institutes its virtual "gag order," Ohio social work agencies are working together to share information more freely between agencies.

In many ways, this can be a very good thing.

The one thing that makes this issue complex is that there are three categories of allegations that can be made against foster families:


When foster parents undergo training, one of the first things that they are told is to expect an allegation to be made against them. It's part of the risk of being a foster parent.

I can see this from both points of view. As a child advocate, my first concern is for the children. They've been through enough already, and do not need to be exposed to additional harm.

However, what about well-meaning, hard-working, innocent foster parents? Should they be forever blacklisted without some form of proof?

It seems wise, in my opinion, to treat allegations differently, based on what category they fall into. However, if a foster family has a series of unsubstiated allegations for the same thing, especially if they come from different foster children, that would be cause for concern.

Seasoned, experienced social workers can differentiate between the different types of allegations. But the field of social work has a high turnover rate.

Let's say that a trainee makes a bad call about blacklisting a foster family. Will that poor choice ever be recognized and rectified by the agency? Or, will they just seek to avoid liability and rationalize that decision?

The troubling message that is sent by these two very different approaches is that:

While social work agencies might have the right to privacy, foster parents do not.

Foster families who have a grievance against an agency have limited options available:

- They can appeal the decision.
- They can file a grievance against the agency.
- Other than that, their only recourse is to transfer to another agency.

So, for example, if Agency A makes a bad call, their libel of that foster family would hypothetically be shared with Agency B. Assuming that this foster family is innocent, what can the foster family do in their own defense?

Not much. They can't file charges for libel. Why? Because the agency has immunity.

Now, that's troubling.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Judicial Leadership About Foster Care

When it comes to foster care, the court is making Solomon-like decisions about complicated cases. The decisions that are being made involve more than a sum of money or a span of years, but the potential outcome of a child's life.

There are (over) half a million children in foster care. That's half a million human beings who might be short-circuited in living up to their full potential at the very beginning of their lives. Future lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses....

The PEW Commission is asking judges to take a leadership role.

1.) Judges have the opportunity to positively change judicial culture. As mentioned in a previous post, when it comes to the safety and security of a child, a traditional "adversarial" approach is out of place.

Instead of a confrontation between adversaries, there should be a focus on problem-solving, mediation and dispute resolution. Rather than a "zero-sum game," this should be viewed as a "round table."

2.) Judges should be educated to understand the issues in foster care. Recently, the judicial education budget was cut in half. When judges lack insight into the intricacies of the foster care system, who pays the price? You guessed it: foster children.

3.) Judges act as gatekeepers in the judicial system. They move things along. Judges who are educated and experienced in the realm of foster care will encourage collaboration and monitor the case carefully. Collaboration is an essential element in moving a child toward permanency.

The PEW Commision recommends that dependency court judges opt out of routine rotation.

Specialized judges would be an asset when it comes to foster care. An individual foster child will stand a better chance of wise decisions with a judge who is experienced and educated, who wants to be there and who is committed to finding a safe, permanent home.

I hope that there are judges out there who listen to the PEW Commission. Deep down, don't we all want to change the world? To make a positive difference? I (optimistically) believe that it is lack of knowledge, rather than lack of care, that leads to a lot of faulty decisions on the court's part.

Next blog entry, I plan to focus on CASA, and their role as a voice for children in foster care.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Qualified and Motivated Lawyers for Foster Children

No child leaves or enters foster care without a court decision. Courts determine abuse or neglect, whether the child will remain home or go to foster care and whether or not to terminate parental rights so that a child is eligible for adoption.

Dependency courts have large dockets and limited resources. In many cases, courts lack the tools, information and accountability to make decisions in the best interests of each individual foster child. Not surprisingly, courts often do a poor job of maintaining safety one the child is removed.

Children have the right to be represented in court. However, their attorneys often have limited training and high caseloads -- sometimes as large as 2,000, which is unconscionable. There is low compensation for dependency attorneys -- and lawyers tend to have a lot of student loan debt to repay.

If you or I went to court, we would want an experienced lawyer. One who would take the time necessary to listen to the intricacies of our case. We'd want our lawyer to be someone highly motivated to represent us to the best of their ability.

One of the many court recommendations by the PEW Commission is for Congress to explore loan forgiveness for dependency attorneys and to offer continuing education opportunities.

I will share more of the PEW commission's recommendations in order to hold the court accountable to provide safety and permanency for foster children in my next series of blog entries.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Risks for Teens Aging Out of Foster Care

Few parents cut ties immediately and irrevocably the moment that their child comes of age. But once a foster child reaches the age of 18, the system is no longer obligated to provide for them. Foster alumni emerge from foster care vulnerable and unprepared, often with no safety net. There is no nest for them to return to.

1.) Homelessness rate of foster alumni
20 times the national average
According to a study from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, in the first year after leaving foster care, one in four youths will end up homeless for a night. I remember that feeling; knowing that failure wasn't an option for me. If I failed, I would be homeless. (And, for two weeks, I was).

2.) Public assistance rate of foster alumni
3 times the national average.
Foster children are at risk for unemployment. They often find themselves disconnected from the worlds of work and education. Has anyone taken the time to teach them real-world budgeting skills?

Speaking personally, I never had trouble getting a job, but my husband could tell you I'm not a great budgeter. When he first met me, I had a lot of credit card debt. Since then, he's taught me how to be financially responsible. All our credit card debt is paid off, and there's just my student loan and the house payment to worry about...

3.) Incarceration rate of foster alumni
4 times the national average.

I've never personally experienced incarceration, but when I search through the criminal records database and look up other foster children whom I grew up with (in group homes), I tend to see a lot of familiar names. My "first crush" from a co-ed group home has a domestic violence record, for example...

Housing programs in Columbus & Cincinnati
Thinking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the place to start when it comes to foster alumni is: "Do they have a safe place to live?"

Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati has created a tiered housing program, which allows for risk-taking and failure. A former foster child is given his / her own apartment. If he or she handles it responsibly, great. If not, more structured and supervised housing is available as a second alternative.

Young Adult Community Development in Columbus has created a housing steering committee, in order to use some of the great initiatives of Lighthouse Youth Services for Columbus foster alumni.

I met with Bob Mecum and Mark Kroner, the founders of Lighthouse Youth Services, and was impressed by their dedication and sincerity. I am currently partnering with Gayle Loyola, of Young Adult Community Development, to lead workshops and some other iniatives. It's exciting to have the opportunity to support her efforts in any way that I can.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Foster Children & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Researchers from Harvard Medical School & Casey Family Program researched adults who had been in foster care between 1988-1998, and found that they exhibited symptoms of PTSD at a rate twice that of Vietnam war veterans.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition in which victims of overwhelming and uncontrollable experiences are subsequently psychologically affected by feelings of:

- Intense fear
- Loss of safety
- Loss of control
- Helplessness
- Extreme vulnerability.

After having suffered a traumatic event, children believe that if they are hyper-vigilant, they will be able to recognize the warning signs and avoid future problems.

PTSD can mitigate into a “deer in headlights” response. Older children who have been repeatedly traumatized often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and automatically “freeze” when they feel anxious.

This behavior can be misinterpreted as defiant or oppositional behavior, rather than what it is – a learned, involuntary response to physical and mental abuse. Research demonstrates chemical and electrical evidence for this type of brain response pattern.

Additional Research
"Sexually and physically abused foster children and posttraumatic stress disorder." Department of Psychology, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York 11549, USA. In this study, 3 groups of foster care children were compared. The groups included 50 sexually abused, 50 physically abused, and 50 nonabused foster care children. Results indicated that sexually and physically abused children demonstrated PTSD at a high level.

According to the National Center for PTSD: There are three factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood that children will develop PTSD:

1.) The severity of the traumatic event
2.) The parental reaction to the traumatic event
3.) The physical proximity to the traumatic event

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Impact of Foster Care on Child Development

*Nationwide, over one quarter of foster children enter care when they are under age 5. This has enormous ramifications. Children who enter foster care during their first 3-4 years of life are doing so during the most active time of brain growth and development.

Emotional and cognitive disruptions in the early lives of children have the potential to impair brain development.

Brain Development
1.) Anatomic brain structures
that govern personality traits, learning processes and coping with stress and emotions are being established, strengthened and made permanent. If unused, these brain structures atrophy.

2.) Nerve connections and neurotransmitter networks that are forming during these critical years are influenced negatively by lack of stimulation, child abuse and violence within the family.

Emotional Development
1.) The ability to attach emotionally. Paramount in the lives of children is the need for continuity with primary caregivers and a sense of permanence.

To develop into a psychologically healthy human being, a child needs to have a stable relationship with at least one adult who is nurturing and protective and who fosters trust and security.

This process is called attachment. It forms the basis for life-long relationships. Attachment is an active process: it can be secure or insecure. Attachment to a primary caregiver is necessary in order for a child to develop emotional security and a social conscience.

2.) Developing a sense of self. Foster children are spending their formative years in a state of instability and insecurity.

Adults cope with impermanence by building on a previously-built sense of self-reliance and by anticipating and planning for a time of greater constancy. Children, on the other hand, have limited life experience on which to establish their sense of self.

An adult experiencing a time of chaos can think back to a time of stability in the past in order to anticipate and plan for stability in the future. For a child, everything is now. Power is in the hands of adults.

During the first several years of a child’s life, patterns of interaction are formed, both psychologically and in the brain structure, making it more difficult (but not impossible) to improve a child’s physical, cognitive and emotional abilities.

*According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care.

Monday, April 17, 2006

How Far We've Come, How Far We Have to Go

I wanted to balance out my earlier post by saying that some positive differences have been made in foster care since the 80's... Here are two examples:

1.) The Adoption and Safe Families Act allows Children's Services to sever custody if the biological parents can’t get act together. This puts some teeth on House Bill 484, and forces the court to make custodial decisions, rather than allowing the child to languish in foster care.

Ultimately, the child deserves permanency. However, each state does it differently. In Ohio, a decision must be made within 12 months. There is an option for two 6-month extensions, in case a parent(s) is really trying and just needs a little more time.

2.) Kinship Care is a relatively new initiative. The increasing number of children entering foster care, combined with the insufficient number of suitable foster homes, have led social service agencies to place foster children with their extended families.

Potential benefits of kinship care: It affirms the value of families. A child is not uprooted from his or her biological roots and family identity. Kinship placements often provide greater stability and continuity of care, and allow for more frequent visits with parents.

Potential problems with kinship care: Since abuse is a pattern in some families, tt’s important to do just as thorough a safety check for kinship care as for foster placement with a non-relative, and just as many caseworker visits and counseling sessions afterward. What if abuse was a pattern in this family? But supervision by social workers is often less intense when a child is placed with relatives.

I want children to be safe. If the foster placement is a positive and healthy one, and the child has established positive ties with the foster parent, and if the child's biological parents are abusive and dangerous, then sever custody. Now. Don't wait another minute. Get that child safe and secure as soon as possible.

If there are safe and loving relatives available, then great. Place the child there. Give the relatives financial and emotional support.

But the problem with bouncing a child from home to home at an early age is that it violates everything we know about child development. More on this tomorrow...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Family Preservation vs. Child Safety

In response to Hillary Clinton's denouncing Newt Gingrich's 1994 proposal to bring back orphananges, Richard McKenzie, who grew up in an orphanage himself, said "If the nation had few problems with its current child welfare system, no one would consider bringing back orphanages. But the country's child care problems are grave and getting worse...

He continued, "Our child welfare system today is guided by the idealogy of 'family preservation.' Before taking children from unfit parents, we wait until they have been gravely and repeatedly abused. Then, after a short respite during which we seem to expect magical reforms, we return the children to be neglected and abused once again." - Richard B. McKenzie, National Review, 9-28-98

I'm going to start this blog by taking a risk and stating my true feelings: The emperor has no clothes. The more I research the current foster care system, the more concerned I am that in many ways and for many children, it is worse than the foster group facilities where I resided between the ages of 12-16.

Why would I say this? Let outline some of the challenges I faced and how I don't think those problems are being addressed by current foster care. I'll start with two, for this post:

1.) No incest taboo. When I spent time in an all-girls group home, a male houseparent made a pass at me. I was fourteen years old, and blossoming. He felt attraction, and since I wasn't a family member of his, there was no incest taboo.

However, his attraction to me did not culminate in sexual abuse. Why? Well, because of the group home setting, it would have been hard for him to act on his feelings. There were always other girls around. There was his wife and the other set of houseparents around. So... I got lucky.

What if I had been in a foster home and he had been my foster father? What if he had had more time alone with me? If there had been actual touching on his part and I told a social worker, would I have been believed? See #2.

2.) The turnover rate for social workers... I spoke recently with a foster mother who has had five different social workers for one little boy in her care within a period of six months. When the fifth stranger came to visit the home, the little boy freaked out, thinking that he was going to be taken away.

How could a child or teenager possibly build trust with so many changing faces? Also, once a child or teen spends time in foster care, they tend to get "labeled." If the files says that a child might be troubled, it is less likely that the child will be believed if he or she reports abusive treatment.

Also, the social workers aren't coming from the angle of being deeply invested in any one particular child. Foster care is an underfunded system. Most social workers have a large caseload. They don't have much time to concentrate on any one child's particular needs.

I've spent a lot of time lately meeting with social workers and interviewing them. Some of them have said things that let me know that they are coming from an entirely different perspective than I am:
  • “I just need to find a bed for these children.”

  • “It’s late-afternoon on Friday, and I just want to go home.”

  • “This child is almost 18 anyway. Once she turns 18, she is no longer the state’s problem.”
Let me state right now these children are all the state's problem. They are our nation’s problem. If we do not build into neglected and abused children when they are young, it will cost us in the long run. Would we rather spend money on prisons than on preventative measures?