Monday, September 25, 2017

The Real Benefit of Child Welfare Waivers: Eliminating Title IV-E Eligibility Determination

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Title IV-E waivers that 28 jurisdictions have obtained from the federal government to allow states to develop innovative programs to address federal child welfare goals. Maybe it’s because the one in my own jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, is currently being redesigned because the services it funded were underutilized at the same time as many system-involved families received little help.

Around the country, most states are funding the same set of programs, few if any of which can document impressive effects despite being billed as “evidence-based.” Moreover, in its most recent report on child welfare financing, Child Trends found that only nine percent of waiver funds were used for purposes not traditionally reimbursable under Title IV-E

But when reading an article about Florida I suddenly realized why the loss of the waivers could be disastrous for many child welfare systems and the children they serve. If Florida’s waiver expires, the Deputy Commissioner of Florida’s Department of Children and Families is worried about the state having to return to determining the Title IV-E eligibility of individual children.

For those who are not versed in the arcane details of child welfare finance, let me explain. States receive partial federal reimbursement for Title IV-E foster care expenditures only for children who would have been eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a welfare program which ended in 1996.  To obtain their share of federal funding, states are forced to devote considerable resources to determine this eligibility for every child--a calculation which serves no other purpose..

Of course there has been inflation since 1996, so the proportion of children eligible for Title IV-E funding decreased from 67% in 2000 to under 50% in 2017. This means that every year states and counties are paying a higher proportion of foster care costs compared to the federal government.

Determining eligibility for foster care based on income makes no sense. A state or county pays for foster care even for youths who are not eligible for financial assistance based on poverty. If a child of Donald Trump or Bill Gates came into foster care, the state would pay. So federal reimbursement should not depend on the income of the parents.

I have not seen any estimate of how many people perform the soul-deadening task of determining Title IV-E eligibility, or how much governments spend on this useless exercise. That money would be much better spent on services to children in a desperately underfunded child welfare system.

Most states with waivers have been exempted from Title IV-E eligibility determination. To ensure that the projects are cost-neutral, the federal government established a cap on federal funding for each jurisdiction rather than reimbursing them on a per-child basis. These jurisdictions have been able to stop determining Title IV-E eligibility for kids entering foster care.

States should not need a waiver in order to avoid wasting human and financial resources to determine foster children’s eligibility for a defunct welfare program. Yet, advocates have been silent on this issue. There are several child welfare bills awaiting consideration by the 115th Congress in 2018. Unfortunately, none of them would eliminate the criteria for Title IV-E eligibility, not even the “Family First Act,” which has been billed as child welfare finance reform.

In his brilliant column, The Two Billion Dollar Question: Why Haven’t We De-Linked?, Sean Hughes tried to explain the reasons for this silence. He argues that “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.” Shockingly, he reports that advocates have often told him that they would not want more funding for foster care even if they could get it.

It is hard to believe that people calling themselves child advocates could turn their backs on the heartbreaking needs of children in foster care by staying silent on the Title IV-E eligibility limits. Children in foster care need great foster parents who live near their homes and schools of origin, and who might be attracted by the offer of housing in supportive communities of foster parents. They need caseworkers who have the time to assemble and coordinate the multiple services they require. They need cutting-edge trauma-informed mental health services from top providers, not the low-end providers who often choose to participate in Medicaid. They need music lessons, art and dance classes, and driver’s education.

In light of the dwindling supply of good foster parents and the recent increase in the foster care rolls, large sibling groups and harder-to-place foster youths need high-quality boarding schools where sibling can be kept together, needed services can be provided in one place and where behavioral challenges can be addressed in a safe and non-traumatizing way.

Eliminating Title IV-E eligibility determination would be a good first step to providing all the enhanced services that foster kids need and deserve, and stopping the waste of desperately needed resources on eligibility determination.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Putting the Child Back in Child Welfare

It was the dead kids who inspired me to leave my comfortable, well-paid job as a researcher and become a child welfare social worker. Kids like Adrian JonesZymere Perkins and Yonatan Aguilar, who were killed by their parents after months or years of abuse.
The dead kids felt no more misery. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other kids living in fear of the next beating, watching child protective services (CPS) workers leave after accepting the mother’s or stepfather’s explanation of their bruises, and facing the now-angrier adult eager to punish them.
So I went back to school and added a Masters in Social Work to my Masters in Public Policy from Princeton and my B.A. in Sociology from Harvard. I was thrilled to be accepted as a CPS trainee at the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).
But my CFSA trainer told us we were not there to save children. I learned that the family, not the child, was at the center of child welfare policy. Our business was to find the strengths in each family.
We learned that “safety” meant simply the absence of “imminent danger.” A child could be “safe” but at high risk of abuse or neglect in the future. Such children should remain at home with monitoring and supervision by the agency, but since this is usually voluntary, the family can refuse to participate.
I later learned that even if the family agrees to participate, these in-home cases often closed quickly with little evidence of reduced risk to the child. I also learned of cases around the country, such as that of Yonatan Aguilar, in which these high-risk but “safe” kids died from abuse.
I never ended up being a CPS worker. I ended up instead in a private agency that provided foster care and case management to D.C. children.
Working in foster care, I learned even more about how the child is not the center of child welfare practice. Compliance with requirements, meeting benchmarks and saving money were much more important than helping children.
Assuring that a child had her physical exam on time, her two visits with the social worker within the month, her “Youth Transition Plan” every six months was paramount. But no problem if I did not have enough time to explore summer camp options, or talk to a teacher or therapist, because there was no benchmark for that.
These benchmarks could have perverse results, like the time I had to take a client for an extra physical because her placement had changed its designation from “respite,” so it was treated as a new placement. Working 60 hours a week to see my clients’ needs met, I could ill afford the time.
I learned that the field adheres to simple, feel-good policy reforms that just happen to save money and often have perverse effects on kids. Non-family residential placements are anathema in the current climate. But many excellent group homes and residential schools are far more nurturing than some of the uncaring foster homes I’ve seen.
Because of the virtual elimination of group homes in the District, social workers have to repeatedly find new placements for traumatized teens whose behavior results in repeated rejection by foster families in search of easy money with no behavior problems.
It is also accepted as gospel that children must achieve “permanency” rather than aging out of care. To increase the numbers of “permanent placements,” and reduce the number of kids aging out, workers often urge youth to accept adoption or guardianship with foster parents, relatives, or other available adults, even if they are uncaring or inappropriate. Never mind that some youth might do better staying in foster care until 21 and benefiting from continued case management and services, rather than being at the mercy of paid guardians who may divert their subsidies for their own purposes.
Once a child is off the foster care rolls, there is no mechanism to ensure that the “permanent” placement works out. And with subsidies being paid to adoptive parents and guardians, there is reason for concern. Of course, the results are not usually as catastrophic as the murder of two girls by the woman who adopted them from D.C. foster care, who collected subsidies while their bodies remained in her refrigerator.
More often, I suspect that children are left in the permanent custody of people who continue to provide the same mediocre care they did as foster parents, skimming off part of the foster care payment to meet their needs.
In my experience in child welfare, I’ve learned that too many things take precedence over the welfare of children. To share what I’ve learned, I’ve been blogging for two years as part of The Chronicle of Social Change blogger co-op. With the end of the co-op, I’ll be continuing to post my writings on my blog, at Readers can also follow me on Twitter @fosteringreform or on Facebook at Fostering Reform.
This column was published in the Chronicle  of Social Change on September 21, 2017.

Friday, September 15, 2017

No Excuse for Leaving Children to Suffer and Die in Abusive Homes

On August 30, the death of seven-year-old Adrian Jones after years of abuse was once again in the news as family members filed suit against the agencies and staff that failed him. Adrian’s remains were found in a pigsty in 2015 after years of horrific abuse and repeated reports to authorities.
The lawsuit documents ten hotline calls in both Kansas and Missouri between 2011 and Adrian’s death in 2015. The calls began only three months after Adrian was removed from his mother’s custody due to allegations of neglect, and placed with his father and stepmother, Michael and Heather Jones.
Adrian’s mother, Dainna Pearce, filed the lawsuit along with her mother and oldest daughter.
The hotline callers alleged that there were guns all over the house within reach of the children; that Adrian’s father beat the children until they bled; that Adrian’s stepmother was observed to be high on drugs; and that she kicked Adrian “with a big boot on,” and choked him.
In the course of multiple investigations, Adrian told investigators that he was kicked and punched, tied up and locked in his room. His siblings reported that Heather Jones would take Adrian into a bathroom from which they heard “choking sounds.”
Documents show that social workers in Kansas deemed Adrian to be at “very high risk” of abuse and neglect. But nevertheless, they determined that he was “safe.”
In 2013, the Missouri Department of Social Services determined that Adrian was not safe. But instead of removing him, they opted to provide “intensive in-home services.” Within two weeks, the family told workers they were moving back to Kansas. When Kansas contacted the couple, they said they lived in Missouri.
In March 2014, Adrian was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and placed in residential treatment. The lawsuit alleges that his father and stepmother refused to participate in his treatment or transition plan. But he was still discharged to them in September 2014.
The lawsuit alleges that DCF received several more hotline calls about photos of Adrian being tortured that Heather Jones posted on Facebook. But no rescue ensued. Adrian’s remains were found in a pigsty in November 2015.
Later, police found that Heather Jones documented Adrian’s abuse through dozens of surveillance cameras. Images stored online showed Adrian strapped to a table and blindfolded, standing in a swimming pool overnight, bruised and bloody, and apparently tied up with a plate of food in front of him and a bar of soap in his mouth.
Michael and Heather Jones pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison.
Adrian’s story, while horrific, is also sadly familiar. Zymere Perkins was the subject of four CPS reports and a closed case in New York City when his mother’s boyfriend killed him in 2016. Yonatan Aguilar in California, after four investigations finding him at high risk of future maltreatment, was locked in a closet for three years until he died.   
The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities found that up to half of child fatalities involve children known to CPS, and even more were from families who were known in the past.
But these children who died are only the tip of the iceberg. For every Adrian Jones, there is an unknown number of children who survive chronic abuse before being rescued. Take the experience of Tonisha Hora, a 2017 Congressional intern:
At 14 years old, my twin sister and I were removed from a kinship care placement … after experiencing severe physical and verbal abuse for ten years … Child Protective Services often visited our home, sometimes multiple times a year, after they received reports from neighbors and teachers who we often asked for food to keep from being hungry or saw our bruises …
We were aware of how the system continued to fail us by never removing us from our home when they should have. To us, the signs were obvious, yet CPS workers always left us there. The abuse worsened after every CPS visit. That was the problem: they always left without us. Every time. For ten years.
Many factors may contribute to these system failures, including misguided policy, poor training, poor pay and high caseloads for CPS workers, and poor interstate communication. It is only by a comprehensive review undertaken by an outside party, and made publicly available, that citizens can learn what caused the failure and how to avoid it in the future.
Some states, like Michigan and Rhode Island, have established an independent children’s ombudsman or child advocate who reviews the deaths of children involved with child welfare and juvenile justice. Unfortunately, such comprehensive reviews are rarely available. It took the Kansas City Star 18 months to get Adrian’s 2,000-page record from the Kansas Department for Children and Families because of confidentiality concerns.  
Neither Missouri or Kansas have made public any analysis of what went wrong in Adrian’s case, and what can be learned from the tragedy. We can do better.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 15, 2017.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Don't Expect Training Requirement to Solve Shortage of Good Foster Homes

In “California Bill Aims to Create Better Foster Homes,” Holden Slattery reports on new legislation (AB 507) that would require social workers to help foster parents develop training plans tailored to the needs of the children in their homes. This legislation is the top priority of the California Youth Connection (CYC), an Oakland-based advocacy organization led by current and former foster youth.
Slattery leads with the story of CYC member Serena Skinner, who experienced three placements in one year after coming into foster care at age 17. Skinner believes that with better training, her foster parents might have understood and been able to deal with her behaviors.
CYC’s legislative coordinator told Slattery that the success of California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) depends on passage of the bill. CCR attempts to move most foster youth from group and institutional settings into foster homes.
Of course, foster parents should receive training that is relevant to their specific circumstances. In my experience as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I observed foster parents choosing classes based on time and proximity rather than subject matter. As a result, a foster parent with normal teenagers might take a class in fetal alcohol syndrome; that’s a real-life example.
I can attest to the importance of receiving training in all the important knowledge about trauma, attachment and brain development that we have acquired in the past ten years. Much of this new knowledge helps explain some of the behaviors that foster parents might otherwise misinterpret as hostile or disrespectful.
But I’m a bit skeptical that this legislation will achieve its grand purposes of ensuring the success of CCR, for a couple of reasons.
Simply ensuring that foster parents develop relevant training plans does not ensure that they will actually receive appropriate training. For that to occur, there has to be enough training available that a busy foster parent does not have to find child care in order to travel an hour to a training class. And the bill does nothing to ensure a supply of relevant training throughout the state.
Moreover, even if great training were available, the foster parent has to be interested and open to learning new information and new ways to look at human behavior. The foster parents I knew who would absorb this kind of information were already doing a great job. Good training might help them do their jobs even better.
I hate to say this, but in my experience, the foster parents who are doing a bad job – the ones who give their kids back at the first sign they are not perfect – are probably not going to be open to the lessons of training. Their lack of flexibility, openness to new information, and compassion are exactly the factors that will prevent them from benefiting from training.
In order to understand better the expectations that advocates have for AB 507, I searched the Internet, and found only a Facebook video of a CYC rally to support the legislation. It was disappointing. There was no discussion of the specifics of the bill. One foster care alumna spoke of her wonderful experience being cared for by a loving foster mother and adoptive family. She suggested that the bill would somehow ensure that other children in care would share her experience, but no explanation of how it would occur.
Even if training could turn bad foster parents into good ones, I don’t see how it could increase the supply of foster parents to accommodate the children being removed from congregate settings in the wake of CCR.
It is much cheaper to create a training mandate than to invest in alternatives to unsuitable foster parents, such as quality boarding schools for foster youth. One California example: San Pasqual Academy in San Diego, where more than 90 percent of students graduate high school or achieve a GED, 60 percent of alumni have attended college, and less than one percent have been incarcerated. But San Pascual is only half full.
A San Diego County Grand Jury report found that San Pasqual alumni had significantly better outcomes than other youth in foster care and recommended that the academy be fully utilized to better serve foster youth.
According to a 2013 article about San Pasqual, “The academy believes teenagers should bond with a community of their peers and a group of adults rather than be folded into a series of potentially dysfunctional families.”
But that solution would be a lot more expensive, and require a lot more courage on the part of legislators, than mandating a training plan for foster parents.  
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 5, 2017.