Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Evaluation of Foster Care Agency Should Look Beyond ‘Performance Scorecard’

Accountability systems can be harmful when service providers are evaluated based on outcomes they cannot control. It is common knowledge that schools in low-income neighborhoods are often blamed for the poor performance of their students. This problem occurs as well in child welfare, where a public or private agency can be rated as poorly performing because it works with a harder-to-serve population.
On January 6, 2016, The Chronicle published my column about a critical foster home shortage in the District of Columbia. The court monitor for the child welfare system blamed the crisis in large part on the decision by D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to end a contract with a private agency (Foundations for Home and Community) that had cared for many of the oldest and most troubled youth in the system.
In my last column, I discussed the impact of Foundations’ closure on the overall number of foster homes in the District. But the closure had another serious impact—on the children who lost their homes when their foster parents quit the system. I did not know this number until CFSA sent me a long-delayed response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I made a year ago and repeated last December.
The numbers I finally obtained were startling. The entire transition process took seven months, from November through May 2015. During that period, some young people aged out of care, attained permanency, or were able to stay in the same home because their foster parents transferred to another private agency. But many foster parents chose not to transfer, often because Foundations used private funds to pay them more than other private agencies in the District would have.
When the smoke cleared, CFSA reported that 40 youths who were previously in Foundations foster homes had moved to new placements during the process of closing the agency. That is a total of 40 young people who had to leave their homes because CFSA decided to shut down their foster care provider. While we don’t know if any of those young people might have moved anyway during the seven-month transition process, it seems fair to assume that most or all of them had to move because of the closure of Foundations.
The new document also sheds light on the reasons behind the decision to close Foundations. It explains that the decrease in CFSA’s caseload due to its emphasis on keeping families together resulted in a decreased utilization of available foster care “beds.” In order to “right-size” the system, the agency decided to close the two “lowest-performing providers.”
I consulted the “Performance Scorecards” that CFSA uses to rate its private providers. Indeed, Foundations did have the worst average score for the first three quarters of FY 2014. (Ratings for the last quarter were not available at the time the decision was made to close the agency.)
But as a veteran of two private agencies, I know that these agencies are rated on things over which they have no control. Most importantly, two indicators of permanency (percentage of youth achieving permanency within the past 12 months and those achieving ‘timely’ permanence’) account for 40 percent of an agency’s total score. Foundations did particularly badly on these ratings.
Yet, agencies that work with older kids who have been in foster care for a long time have little control over permanency outcomes for their clients. Foundations took in the hardest-to-serve youth. Many of these youths had been in the system for years, and all of their family connections had been exhausted. Their age and behavioral problems made them difficult to place. Expecting the agency to miraculously find permanent homes for them was not realistic.
When they made the decision to close Foundations, CFSA leaders may not have realized that it would result in the loss of homes for 40 foster youth and a citywide shortage of foster homes. But as I described in my last column, CFSA knew there was a problem as early as January 2015, two months into the seven-month transition.
Once agency leaders knew that many foster parents from Foundations were leaving the system, they had plenty of time to reverse their decision. Other organizations, like the agency charged with monitoring CFSA for the court, the City Council, and advocacy groups also had advance warnings but did not speak out.
This tale has national implications. First, child welfare professionals should beware of benchmarks that penalize agencies for factors over which they have no control. Second, legislators, advocates, and reporters need to be much more aware of what child welfare executives are doing. They should not rely on rosy reports from leaders who fear the career implications of admitting mistakes.
This column was published by the Chronicle of Social Change on January 20, 2016.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Poor Planning and Lack of Oversight Lead to Foster Care Crisis in District of Columbia

The latest report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), the agency monitoring the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), contained a startling revelation. For the first time in 15 years, children in the District of Columbia have spent the night in agency offices (and even motels) because there were no foster homes available.
Foster homes are scarce around the nation, but the crisis in the District was a direct outcome of decisions made by the child welfare agency. Like many other jurisdictions, CFSA has historically contracted with private agencies to provide foster homes to District youth. As a social worker in one of these agencies, I watched this placement crisis unfold.
Over the past few years, CFSA has been been ending contracts with one or more private foster care agencies every year. Late last year, CFSA announced it was ending its contract with two agencies that served mostly older youth with challenges. One of them, Foundations for Home and Community, was known for taking almost any youth, no matter how difficult their behaviors.
There is a reason Foundations was able to take the hardest-to-serve youth. Using private funds, the agency paid its foster parents considerably more to care for the most difficult-to-serve youth. We don’t want to think about foster parents as mercenary, and most of them are not. But working with hard-to-serve youth should be treated as a profession, as I discussed in a previous column. It requires time and it is often inconsistent with having a full-time job.
When the contract’s end was announced, Foundations’ foster parents were told that they would have to transfer to other agencies if they wanted to continue fostering CFSA youth. I began to hear that these foster parents were refusing to transfer to other agencies with lower payments. Instead, they were staying with Foundations and becoming foster parents to Maryland youth.
I heard that CFSA was pressuring private agencies to find homes for the young people whose foster parents were leaving the system, but most homes were full or not able to take such challenging youth.
When I left my position last January, I tried to spread the word about the impending crisis. CFSA had not issued a press release about the closures of the two agencies, and there had been no media coverage. I testified before the city council oversight hearing on CFSA in February 2015, but there was little interest and no follow-up from the legislators and advocates who were present.
In the spring, I began to hear about kids sleeping in offices but nothing appeared in the press until CSSP issued its report, revealing that 11 children stayed overnight at the CFSA office and four children stayed in hotel rooms while awaiting an appropriate licensed placement between April and June of 2015. According to the report, the placement problems continued in the second half of the year. After CSSP issued its report, an article appeared in City Paper  but there was no reaction from other media or advocates.
CSSP’s report blamed the placement crisis on CFSA’s decision to end contracts with the two private agencies, which “resulted in a shortage of foster care placements available to serve specific populations, including older youth and those with mental or behavioral health challenges.” At about the same time, entries to foster care increased.
Even without a placement crisis, removing young people from stable placements would be a serious concern. I tried to obtain the number of youth who were displaced but was told that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not require an agency to answer questions or create documents. So we don’t know how many of our most traumatized youth suffered yet another loss, this time at the hands of the agency tasked with protecting them.
This whole episode raises several questions. First, how was the decision to close Foundations made? In response to another FOIA request, CFSA again refused to provide a narrative response. Instead it sent a report showing the percent of contract slots that were actually utilized by private agencies. CFSA gave no reason why this should be considered as a principal measure in determining which agency should be closed as CFSA does not pay for unused slots. In any case, Foundations did not appear to have the lowest overall utilization rate.
Another question is why CFSA did not reverse its decision once it saw that it was losing foster parents. The lack of transparency and the absence of concern among legislators, the press and the public meant that there was nobody to question the decision or press for it to be revoked. Our children deserve better.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on January 6, 2015.