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?

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Hi, again
I live in Texas, and right now, Texas is working through a CPS reform bill that will outsource case management to the private sector. State CPS will still do inestigations and intake, and the private sector will do case management.
This was also done in Kansas and Florida. I would be interested in hearing your opinion on such a move.
Columbus Ohio is doing outsourcing as well...
In 1999, Franklin County Children Services started sending 25 percent of its cases to two private, nonprofit agencies in an effort to save money and improve performance. The agencies -- Ohio Youth Advocate Program and Permanent Family Solutions Network -- started to pull ahead of Children Services on several measures this past spring, although they didn't always meet their goals. How the groups fared on average for 2005 in some areas Children Services tracks:

* 93 percent of children in managed care were seen by a caseworker at least once a month, compared with 90 percent for Children Services. (Goal: at least 83 percent)

* 3 percent of children were abused or neglected while in managed care or Children Services' care. (Goal: no more than 5 percent)

* 45 percent of children in managed care spent their time in only one foster home, group home or treatment center, compared with 39 percent for Children Services. (Goal: at least 55 percent)

* 10 percent of children moved three or more times while in managed care, compared with 18 percent for Children Services. (Goal: no more than 8 percent)

* 88 percent of children in managed care and Children Services' care returned to their families. (Goal: at least 88 percent)

* 82 percent of children younger than 13 in managed care remained at home with their families, compared with 67 percent for Children Services. (Goal: at least 78 percent)

* 57 percent of teenagers in managed care stayed with their families, compared with 52 percent for Children Services. (Goal: at least 63 percent)

Source: Franklin County Children Services
My opinion? It depends on who the state is outsourcing to. If the private sector does a better job, then great.

There was an article in the Columbus Dispatch on March 20, 2006 discussing pros & cons:

*Pros: Private companies can offer greater flexibility and use money more creatively to help families keep their children.

*Cons: Private companies often cost more money and might have less experience at overseeing caseloads.

Here's a really interesting thing mentioned in that article:
*Child welfare agencies, like Children's Services, gets federal dollars to provide care for children outside their homes.

Therefore, according to Director John Saros, "Under the traditional system, it pays to keep children in foster care and other out-of-home placements, even if it's not in the kids best interests."

Now, the federal government is allowing some child welfare agencies to use a lump sum to try new creative endeavors. Some of these endeavors will succeed and some will fail.

It's really important to look into the qualifications of these private agencies.
Thanks for the info, Lisa. I am studying CPS reform in Texas, and was unaware that Ohio was also doing it. I wonder if many more states than I am aware of are doing it?

I wanted to ask your opinion on it, because you said that thing about the children being the "states responsibility". A lot of people feel that by outsourcing, the state is sluffing its responsibility to the private sector.
Thanks for talking with me!
I have also gotten the feeling that some workers are just going through the motions, especially now that caseloads are increasing. In 2003, Iowa's Dept. of Human Services underwent a very expensive redesign in which they brought in a number of experts (both local and national) to see what we could do to improve things. One of the national experts about lost it when we told him that our state had an average social worker case load of 70 cases (higher now)and even then it was as high as 90 in some places. He stated that in order to be effective, the caseloads should be in the high teens to low 20s. It is hard for me to get angry with the workers when I know that the problem is much bigger than them and that their apathy is likely as a result of feeling overwhelmed, unsupported and out of resources. At the same time that their caseloads were increasing, our state was decreasing funds that were available to help meet the needs of foster children and not doing a good job of educating workers about the funds still in existence. It is a big problem and one that will have to be tackled from all sides to be effectively improved.
in illinois, i work for a private agency that handles strictly foster care and adoption (in our office) from what i've read, even though illinois is supposed to be one of the worst child welfare states in the nation--we're doing some things right--right now I only have 19 kids on my caseload and im still exhausted.
Great discussion on increasing caseloads and funding... There's a lot that can be explored there.

After I finish my current blog series on the PEW Commission and their recommendations regarding:

1.) Qualified, motivated lawyters for foster children

2.) CASA and guardians to speak for foster children

3.) Judges who display leadership and ownership over the safety

4.) Collaboration in dependency courts, for the best interests of the child (rather than the traditional adversarial approach)

Then, I think what you are discussing right now would be a great new series for me to explore -- with your insights:
"Caseloads for Caseworkers."

The reason I'm delving into the PEW Commission right now is because, in May, my friend Gayle and I are meeting with some judges to share the PEW Commission's court recommendations.

Hope the judges show up... and I hope they listen!
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