Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Starving the Foster Care Beast Hurts Only the Children

In his brilliant column of April 5, Sean Hughes explains why 20 years after the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced, states still have to document a child’s AFDC eligibility in order to receive federal reimbursement for foster care. This Title IV-E “lookback” has potentially cost state and local child welfare systems billions of dollars over the past two decades.
According to Hughes, advocates have been reluctant to push for eliminating the lookback for fear of encouraging placement in foster care. As Hughes put it, “the focus seems to have shifted almost exclusively toward preventing entry into foster care, with little advocacy being devoted to actually improving the continuum of care for children in out-of-home care.”
At first, it was hard for me to believe that people who call themselves child advocates would stop caring about kids as soon as they are removed from their homes. Government-hating Reagan Republicans invented the term “starving the beast” to describe the strategy of cutting taxes to force government to shrink. But child advocates withholding money from children in foster care?
But then I read Richard Wexler’s column. According to Wexler, the Title IV-E “lookback” is the only restraint on the “runaway train” that is foster care, which rampages through poor communities, “ripping” children from their families. The only way to restrain this train is to cap the funding, even if that means the kids who are removed are essentially warehoused in the cheapest placements with the worst mental health services, education and services to their parents.
Wexler supports his argument by pointing out that rates of child removal vary greatly by state. Iowa “tears apart” families at a rate four times higher than Illinois, and it is unlikely that a difference in child maltreatment rates explains this. I totally agree. Clearly, there is no easily-applied objective standard for removals. Iowa is probably too ready to remove children; Illinois may be too reluctant.
There is a delicate balance in child protection. Some children who are not removed end up dying of abuse or neglect. Federal and state policies have often followed a cyclical pattern. Outcry about child deaths has led to more aggressive removal policies, while complaints about unnecessary removals have led to an emphasis on family preservation.
The CalYOUTH data cited by Hughes shows that 57 percent of the youths surveyed agreed that they were “lucky” to be placed in foster care versus 18 percent who disagreed. That information suggests that at least from the children’s point of view, the majority of removals in California were warranted at that time. That jibes with what I saw as a social worker in the District of Columbia.
In her recent column published by The Chronicle, Mary Callahan suggests that Maine was overly eager to remove kids when she was a foster parent over a decade ago. But things may have changed since that time. The general trend in the past decade has been toward keeping children at home whenever possible, and falling foster care caseloads around the country have been the result.
Regardless of whether too many or too few children are being removed from their homes, an obsolete funding formula is not an appropriate way to prevent unnecessary removals. There is no evidence that changing the federal reimbursement rate would have any effect on the number of removals in any state. The idea that states would respond to the increased reimbursement rate by increasing removals just does not ring true to me.
Hughes argues that eliminating the lookback might make foster care cheaper for a state or county than family preservation programs, for which the state would pick up the full tab. But this whole discussion is taking place in the context of a broader financing reform in which IV-E funds would be allowed to be spent on family preservation, thereby eliminating that problem.
Moreover, the scenario envisioned by Hughes – “the lookback simply ending” and resulting in more federal funds for foster care – is unlikely in this budgetary climate. As some have proposed, Congress would probably lower the reimbursement rate or find other ways to reduce the federal costs of expanding the entitlement.
So what could jurisdictions do with more federal funds? First of all, they could address the critical shortage of quality foster homes by professionalizing foster care or creating foster care communities that provide housing to foster parents. They could implement promising models like Neighbor to Family that keep siblings together. They could create quality residential options, such as North Carolina’s Crossnore School, which graduates at least 95 percent of its seniors every year. They could provide therapeutic child care and improve mental health services.
Foster kids deserve the best homes, therapists, medical care and education, not the cut-rate care most are getting now.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on April 18, 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pay Foster Parents to Stay Home with Infants, Not Put Them in Daycare

On April 1 in The Chronicle, Jeremy Loudenback reported on a California budget proposal that would allocate $31 million to provide emergency child care vouchers to foster parentscaring for children ages 0 to 3. Based on my experience as a social worker for foster children in the District of Columbia, I would recommend moving in the opposite direction and using the funds to pay foster parents for staying home with younger children.
To illustrate the need for infant child care, Loudenbeck spoke to a couple who took in a newborn. They were unable to find a spot in a child care center and had to hire a nanny. The couple spent between $400 and $500 per week for child care, compared to their foster care stipend of only $688 per month.
Loudenback’s example raises questions about the policy. It is generally accepted that new parents should take some leave to bond with the baby, cope with sleep deprivation, and adjust to a new lifestyle. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks for unpaid leave for eligible employees after the birth or adoption of a child or the placement of a child in foster care.
Perhaps a prospective foster parent who expects to put an infant into full-time childcare should reconsider her intention on fostering. Moreover, foster parents need to be available to care for sick babies and take them to frequent doctors’ appointments; something that is hard to do when working full-time.
The economics of paying for infant care plus foster care are also questionable. Californiacurrently pays up to $1,292 per month for subsidized child care for infants and toddlers aged 0-2, which dwarfs the $688 foster care stipend. Talk about the tail wagging the dog!
But what’s better for the children? A major study of child care impacts found no difference between children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers and those who were also cared for by others. There were some modest negative impacts on behavior for those who spent many hours in child care.
Sheila Kuehl, the county supervisor who authored the current plan, says it will help in foster parent recruitment. I’d be willing to bet that Los Angeles could find more than enough foster parents for infants if they added $1,192 to the $688 foster parent stipend, for a total of $1,880 per month.
Loundenback mentions the situation of relative caregivers, who may have only a few hours notice that a child is being placed in foster care. An emergency child care voucher for these relatives does make sense. We cannot expect them to quit their jobs in order to care for a relative who might be with them temporarily.
Perhaps the best option is to limit the emergency child care vouchers to relatives. Or the state to offer the choice between a child care voucher and a higher stipend for non-relatives who wish to stay home with foster children between zero and three.
The current plan would allow foster parents to use the new vouchers for licensed or unlicensed settings, and adds no provisions for ensuring quality. This is short-sighted. Many young children enter foster care already behind developmentally due to neglect or abuse. Except for newborns and very young infants, most are traumatized by their removal and perhaps by the conditions that caused the removal.
The concept of trauma-informed schools is sweeping the nation, but the concept of trauma-informed child care does not seem to have advanced beyond Seattle’s Childhaven program. Kuehl’s proposal pays lip service to the concept of trauma-informed care by “making trauma-informed training available to providers,” but does not apparently require such training or the use of any particular practices.
In addition to being trauma-informed, child care for foster children should be developmentally appropriate and enriching. If California is going to allocate funds specifically for child care for the youngest foster children, only high-quality, trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate programs should be funded.
I hope that the California legislature will modify the proposal currently before it so that foster parents who want to stay home with babies and toddlers instead of sending them to child care can be paid to do so. In addition, the proposal should be modified to ensure that when the state pays for child care, it is both licensed and designed to meet the needs of young children in foster care.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on April 11, 2016.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Traumatic Removal of Six-Year-Old from Longtime Home

On March 21, six-year-old Alexandria P. (“Lexi”) was carried screaming away from the home where she had lived for two-thirds of her life. This traumatic removal has drawn attention around the world to the negative consequences of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). But careful study shows that ICWA is only part of the story.
Seventeen-month-old Lexi was removed from her father in 2010 when he was jailed for auto theft and selling stolen auto parts, according to Indian Country Today. Her mother had a long history of substance abuse, and had lost custody of at least six other children. Lexi’s father initially denied any Indian heritage but his mother alerted the court to his membership in the Choctaw tribe. The court found that ICWA applied, and the tribe was brought into the case.
By October 2011, the “R” family in Utah had expressed an interest in adopting Lexi. The family is very loosely related to her father; Ms. R’s uncle is Lexi’s paternal step-grandfather. The R’s now have custody of Lexi’s half-sister, according to the Children’s Law Center, which represents Lexi in court.
The tribe decided to keep Lexi in foster care in Los Angeles, so that her father could visit as he tried to reunite with her. But if reunification failed, the R’s would be its choice to adopt Lexi, in accordance with the preference for family embodied in ICWA.
Lexi lived in two foster homes before she was placed with Rusty and Summer Page at the age of two in December 2011. According to testimony before the California Court of Appeal, within a few months she had bonded with the entire family and considered the Pages to be her parents and their children to be her siblings.
Lexi’s father stopped visiting, and indicated in September 2012 that he no longer wanted custody. The Pages expressed their interest in adopting Lexie, but were told that the tribe had selected the R’s as Lexi’s adoptive parents. The Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Lexi’s attorney, and her father all agreed with this plan. So the Pages hired their own lawyer and challenged the plan.
On July 13, 2013, the court began a hearing that spanned five days over the course of three months. The court reached its decision on December 9, 2013, almost five months after the trial began. The court decided that the Pages did not have good cause to prevent Lexie’s placement in Utah but granted their petition to keep Lexie in their home, pending appeal.
On August 15, 2014, the appeals court ruled that the Pages did have good cause to challenge the adoption, and sent the case back to the original court.
One year and seven months later, the original court issued its decision. Lexie was going to Utah.
There is more than enough blame to go around here.
ICWA gave jurisdiction over a child who was 1/64 Choctaw to a tribe that her father did not even know he belonged to. This goes well beyond the purpose of the act, which was designed to stop the wholesale removal of Indian children from their families and tribes.
DCFS and Lexi’s attorney supported the tribe’s decision, and might have made the same choice in the absence of ICWA. A definition of family which prioritizes the ties of blood and even marriage over the realities of bonding and attachment may not be in the best interests of children, as I discussed in an earlier column.
The Children’s Law Center reports that Lexi’s half-sister is also with the R’s. Lexi never lived with this half-sister. She has three foster siblings with whom she has lived for four years.
In my opinion as a former child welfare social worker, DCFS did not manage the case in accordance with best practice and state law. When a state wants to place a child in another state, it must formally request that the second state evaluate the proposed guardians, a process that can take six months or longer.
DCFS waited until reunification failed before filing this request, even though California law calls for “concurrent planning” in such cases. By the time the approval was received, the Pages were able to claim “de facto parenthood” and delay the placement.
But the foster parents also bear considerable responsibility for Lexi’s suffering. If they had not challenged the decision of the agency and the tribe, Lexi could have been placed with the R’s years ago and the trauma of her transition would have been much less.
Finally, the greatest share of blame belongs to a legal system that ignores a child’s sense of time, and to the politicians that refuse to provide the funding that would enable the courts to act with more urgency. It has been over four years since the Pages filed their first motion. Lexi has now spent over two-thirds of her life with the same family. Removing her from them is truly abuse by the state.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on March 29, 2016.