When a child is found to be seriously or fatally abused, the perpetrator is often found to be a male caregiver. But a new study using data from pediatric emergency rooms provides powerful evidence of the correlation between caregiver characteristics and the likelihood of abuse.
The new study is the first to compare caregiver features among children with injuries due to abuse to those with accidental injuries. The article was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and a summary is available online on the Science Dailywebsite. The authors used data on 1615 children under four who were brought to a pediatric emergency department. Overall, 75% of the injuries were classified as accidents, 24% as abuse and 2% as indeterminate.
The differences between the likelihood of abuse versus accident among different groups of caregivers are striking. Abuse was determined to be the cause of injury to only 10% of the children for whom a female was the only caregiver at the time of injury and fully 58% of children who were with a male caregiver when injured. There was a big difference between fathers and boyfriends however; an “alarmingly high” 94% of the children who were alone with the mother’s boyfriend at the time of injury were determined to be abused, as compared to “only” 49% of injured children who were with their fathers at the time of injury.
Analysis of the 83 cases of severe injury (including fatalities) provided even stronger evidence of the connection between male caregivers and abuse. The authors found that “nearly all cases of severe injury in which fathers and boyfriends were present involved abuse, and for fatalities, the fathers and boyfriends were most commonly present as lone caregivers. Mothers were rarely present alone when severe abusive injuries occurred.”
Among female caregivers, one group was more likely associated with injuries and that was babysitters. Fully 34% of the children left alone with babysitters were found to be victims of abuse
The researchers point to several policy implications of their study. First, they highlight the importance of asking who was caring for the child at the time of injury as part of the investigation to determine whether an injury is the result of abuse. Second, they call for abuse-prevention strategies to focus on male caregivers and female babysitters. (Currently, such programs, like shaken baby education, often focus on mothers.)
But the authors do not mention another policy implication that is equally important. Ensuring that all low-income children have access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) is a logical implication of the study.
As I have written in an earlier post, there are many pathways by which ECE can prevent maltreatment. Free, high quality ECE would provide mothers with an alternative to leaving their children with caregivers who are unsuitable to the task–be it boyfriends, fathers, or babysitters. ECE has other child welfare benefits as well. Staff who are trained as mandatory reporters ensures that more adults will be seeing the child and able to report on any warning signs of maltreatment. Quality ECE programs that involve the parents can also improve child safety by teaching parents about child development, appropriate expectations, and good disciplinary practices. They may also connect parents with needed supports and resources in the community and help them feel less isolated and stressed.
Of course the benefits of ECE extend far beyond child welfare in the narrow sense. We are worried about school readiness for low-income children and we know that much of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 3. That’s why quality ECE has been such a priority for the early childhood community. But child welfare policymakers have not yet caught onto the importance of ECE as a means of preventing child maltreatment.
An excellent issue brief from the Administration on Children and Families recommends improving access to ECE for families that are already involved with child welfare. That is a great proposal, but the child welfare field is beginning to focus on prevention rather than only treatment. We must explore ways to provide access to ECE among children who are at risk of child abuse and neglect. Expanding access to subsidized child care among lower-income families, because income is so highly correlated with child maltreatment, would be a good beginning.
Prevention is the word of the day in child welfare. A key part of prevention is making sure children spend their time with caregivers who will not harm them.
Another little boy is dead in Los Angeles County after being left in the hands of his abusers by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). This time, the victim was four-year-old Noah Cuatro. Noah’s family had been the subject of at least 13 calls to the county’s child abuse hotline. He had been removed from his abusive parents for two years but was returned to him less than two months before he was killed.
Noah’s death is the third since 2013 of child who had been the subject of multiple reports and investigations by child welfare authorities in the remote Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County. In June, 2018, Anthony Avilas was tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend, who are facing capital murder charges. In 2013, eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez suffered the same fate. His mother is serving a life sentence and her boyfriend is on death row.
At least 13 calls had been made to the county’s child abuse hotline alleging that Noah’s parents were abusing their children, according to a devastating article in the Los Angeles Times.
Although the case file has not been released, sources revealed some of the contents to the Times reporters. In 2014, DCFS substantiated an allegation that Noah’s mother had fractured the skull of another child. In 2016, Noah was removed from his home and remained in foster care for two years. He was ultimately placed with his great-grandmother, who states that she often told DCPS social workers about concerning behavior her granddaughter displayed at her visits with Noah. She also claims that Noah begged her not to let him go.
Once Noah returned home, reports of abuse continued to be phoned in in February, March, April and May 2019. One report alleged that Noah was brought to the hospital with bruises on his back. A report on May 13 alleged that his father had a drinking problem, was seen kicking his wife and children in public, and sometimes when drinking voiced his doubt that Noah was his child.
At least one DCFS social worker took these reports seriously. On May 14, sources told the Times, she filed a 26-page report to the court requesting an order to remove Noah from his parents. And the judge granted that report the next day. But weeks went by–and the order was not implemented, even after new allegations came in that Noah had been sodomized and had injuries to his rectum. Noah died on July 6, more than seven weeks after the order was granted.
We do not know why Noah was not removed, because state law requires that the agency conduct its own investigation before the case file can be released in child fatality cases. We do know from another Los Angeles Times article that DCFS has already changed its policy on court removal orders to say that such a delay should be an “extreme exception” and must be brought to the director of the agency and approved by his Senior Executive Team.
Why so many tragedies in the Antelope Valley? Given its small population, Antelope Valley has a disproportionate number of deaths caused by a parent or caregiver of children already known to DCFS. according to calculations by the Chronicle of Social Change. Nobody knows if this higher death rate is due to cultural or economic features of the area or to challenges in staffing DCFS. Difficulties in attracting and retaining staff in this remote part of the county have been described in numerous reports, most recently an audit of DCFS and a report on the death of Anthony Avalos.
On July 23, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion requiring DCFS to work with other agencies and educational institutions to develop a staffing plan to alleviate staff shortages and turnover in the Antelope Valley. I It also directs DCFS to immediately develop a Continuous Quality Improvement Section and fill approximately 20 positions which will allow for increased case reviews, initially focused on the Antelope Valley section.
These are good steps that are surely needed, given the staffing problems in Antelope Valley. However, until we know the reason the court order requiring Noah’s removal from the home was disregarded, we don’t know if these steps will address the proximate cause of Noah’s death–the failure to remove him from his home when a social worker clearly recognized the need for it. It appears that this removal order was overriden by someone above the social worker – but we need to know why and by whom. This crucial decision may have little to do with staffing problems and more to do with other factors–such as an ideological preference for parents’ rights or a reluctance to remove children.
Sadly, there is no provision in California or LA County requiring an in-depth case review to be released to the public. This never happened in the cases of Anthony Avalos or Gabriel Fernandez. In order to get to the bottom of these horrendous deaths, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors should pass legislation requiring such a review. Washington’s state’s statute requires a review (by experts with no prior involvement in the case) when the death or near-fatality of a child was suspected to be caused by child abuse or neglect, and the child had any history with the Children’s Administration at the time of death or in the year prior. These reviews must be completed within 180 days and posted on the agency’s website. Florida has a similar requirement, as I have described in an earlier post.
The father and siblings of Anthony Avalos filed a $50 million suit against DCFS and one of its contractors only a few weeks after Noah’s death. They allege that the department “was complicit in the abuse and neglect of Anthony and his half-siblings.” The same attorney is now representing Noah’s grandmother, and a lawsuit is sure to follow. How many more deaths will it take before the county can be relied on to protect its vulnerable children from suffering and death inflicted by their parents?
Illinois’ child welfare services to families that are allowed to keep their children have major systemic flaws that put children at risk. Most importantly, there is extreme reluctance to remove children from their homes and place them in foster care. Those are the findings of a review from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago that was commissioned by the Governor in the wake of several deaths of children whose families were being supervised by the state.
This report follows an earlier one, discussed in a previous post, by the Inspector General (OIG) for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stating that child safety and well-being are no longer priorities for the agency. One problem area identified in that report was Intact Family Services, which are the services provided to families in order to prevent further abuse or neglect without removing the child. OIG’s 2018 annual report included an eight-year retrospective on the deaths of children in Intact Family Services cases, which concluded that in many of these cases the children remained in danger during the life of the case due to violence in their homes, when DCFS should have either removed the children or at least sought court involvement to enforce participation in services,
Increasingly, child welfare systems around the country have been relying on services to intact families (often called in-home or intact family services) in order to avoid placing children into foster care. In 2017, according to federal data, only 15% of children who received services after an investigation or assessment were placed in foster care; the other 85% were provided with services in their homes. These services may become even more predominant with implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which allows federal Title IV-E funds to reimburse jurisdictions for the cost of such services.
It is important for child welfare agencies to be able to work with families that remain intact. This allows the agency to monitor the children’s safety and avoid the trauma of placement in foster care while working to ameliorate the conditions that might lead to a foster care placement. But agencies must be cognizant that not every family can be helped this way, keep a close watch what is going on in the home, and be ready to remove children when necessary to ensure their safety. The deaths of children who have received Intact Family Services in Illinois have raised questions about whether the agency is accomplishing these tasks.
In Illinois, Intact Family Services (referred to below as “Intact”) are provided mostly by private agencies under contract with DCFS. The Chapin Hall report found systemic issues that create barriers to effectively serving intact families.
Avoiding foster care placement: Perhaps the most important issue observed by the researchers was the high priority that Illinois places on avoiding placement of children in foster care. As a result of many years of such efforts, Illinois now has the lowest rate of child removal in the country. Intact staff expressed the belief that “recommendations to remove children based on case complexity, severity, or chronicity will not be heard by the Division of Child Protection (DCP) or the Court.” As a result, Intact supervisors are reluctant to reject referrals of families even when they believe a family cannot be served safely in the home. They are also reluctant to elevate cases for supervisory review when they have not been able to engage a high risk family.
Supervisory Misalignment: In the past, negotiations between DCP and Intact over the appropriateness of a referral occurred on a supervisor-to-supervisor level, allowing Intact to push back against unsuitable referrals. An administrative realignment that placed investigators and Intact under different administrations eliminated this ability of Intact to contest inappropriate referrals. According to the researchers, this resulted in the opening of Intact cases for families with “extensive histories of physical abuse” that Intact staff believed they could not serve effectively.
High Risk Case Closures: Intact service agencies are expected to work with a family for six months and then close the case with no further involvement by DCFS. The researchers learned that there was no clear pathway for intact staff to express concerns when they been unable to engage a family. As a result, some providers told the researcher that they may simply close the case when a family will not engage.
Staffing Issues: Caseload, capacity and turnover. The researchers found that DCP investigators are overwhelmed with their high caseloads and are desperate to make referrals to Intact to get families off their caseload as soon as possible. The prescribed caseload limit of 15 cases per worker is very hard to manage, and some workers carry even more cases. Moreover, DCP workers tend to stop managing safety plans and assessments as soon as a referral is made to Intact, which leaves children in limbo until services begin. For their part, Intact workers’ caseloads are often over the prescribed limits and are not adjusted for travel time or case complexity. Moreover, the difficulty of their clientele makes the current caseload of 10:1 difficult to manage. High turnover among Intact workers, investigators and other staff can also contribute to the information gaps and knowledge deficits mentioned below.
Role Confusion: DCP workers and Intact workers seem to have different views of the role of the DCP worker, according to the researchers. DCP workers view their role as making and justifying the decisions about whether to substantiate the referral and remove the child. However, the Intact Family Services policy calls upon them to engage the family and transmit all necessary information to the Intact staff. Cultural differences between the two sets of workers compound the problems.
Information Gaps: Because of the role ambiguity mentioned above, investigators often fail to pass on crucial information to Intact workers. Yet, these workers often cannot access investigators notes or key features of the case history. Moreover Chapin Hall’s reviews of the two recent deaths of toddlers in intact cases found that much of the family’s history was inaccessible because cases were expunged or purged. DCFS expunges most unsubstantiated reports and shreds investigators files and appears to be more aggressive about such expungements than most other states, according to a previous DCFS Director, George Sheldon.
Service Gaps: The researchers also mentioned gaps in service availability, especially long waiting lists for substance abuse prevention, which make it very difficult to engage families as well as providers.
The authors made a number of recommendations for addressing these problems they identified. These include:
Work with courts and State’s attorneys to refine the criteria for child removal in complex and chronic family cases;
Develop and refine protocol for closing Intact cases;
Direct attention to cases at greatest risk for severe harm; revisit the use of predictive models which should be transparent, based on broad input and be supported by ethical safeguards’
Clarify goals and expectations across staff roles;
Utilize evidence-based approaches to preventive case work;
Improve the quality of supervision;
Adjust the preventive services offered through Intact to meet the needs of the population;
Restructure Intact Services to address the supervisory mismatch with DCP; and
Redesign the assessment and intake process to reduce redundant information, improve accuracy or assessments to support decision-making and improve communication across child serving systems.
We would have liked to see a recommendation to modify Illinois’ policy of expunging and purging all unsubstantiated investigations. At a hearing in May, 2017, the DCFS Director, George Sheldon, expressed his support for allowing DCFS to keep records of all investigations, even if they are unsubstantiated. Research suggests that it is very difficult to make accurate decisions about whether maltreatment has occurred; moreover, unsubstantiated reports are as good as substantiated ones in predicting future maltreatment. Examples of children killed after families have had multiple unsubstantiated reports have been observed all over the country.
This report should be a must-read for all child welfare agencies. Children in many states have died of abuse or neglect after intact cases have been opened for their families. (Think about Zymere Perkins in New York or Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles.) Many of the issues identified by the Chapin-Hall report may have contributed to these deaths as well, particularly the extreme avoidance of child removals that has condemned so many innocent children to death ever since the widespread push to reduce the foster care rolls, supported by a coalition of wealthy and powerful foundations and advocacy groups.
An investigation by the Boston Globe’s Kay Lazar has drawn public attention to the foster care placement crisis in Massachusetts. The opioid epidemic has led to a spike in the demand for foster homes, but the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) has been unable to recruit and retain enough foster parents. Therefore, children newly removed from their homes often have no place to spend the night, sometimes spending it in a car with a social worker awaiting a call to say a bed is available up to 100 miles away.
And the trouble doesn’t end with the first overnight placement. One third of foster children in Massachusetts were moved at least three times during their first year in the system. According to one social worker quoted, relatively healthy children come out of care with behavioral problems and attachment issues due to their devastating experiences in foster care.
Lazar and her paper are to be commended for making the public aware of these unacceptable flaws in the Commonwealth’s treatment of its most vulnerable citizens. But by interviewing only a small group of child welfare experts with similar perspectives, Lazar missed some of the obvious common sense solutions to these problems.
Take the lack of emergency foster homes, which results in many children spending their first night in foster care in a car waiting for a bed. There is an obvious solution, and that is to establish temporary regional shelters so that every child can find a warm bed and a welcoming hug on what may be the most traumatic night of their lives.
So why was this solution not mentioned? Many states have seen their emergency shelters become warehouses for children for whom a placement cannot be found. As a result, some states have closed these facilities–instead of improving them. But these closures don’t solve the problem that homes are not available.
Smarter jurisdictions, often working with nonprofits, use emergency shelters for children newly removed from their homes. A nonprofit called Amara operates temporary shelters for children who have just been removed from their homes in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. The shelters are a haven for traumatized children where they receive loving care from staff and volunteers. And they offer social workers a much needed three to five days to find a foster home that is the best match available–not just the first to answer the phone.
There is a no obvious solution to the overall shortage of foster home beyond the first few nights of a placement. Lazar rightly draws attention to the bad treatment that foster parents receive from an agency that fails to provide information about the children who are placed with them, does not provide the therapy and services the children need, pays them too little to support the kids, doesn’t train them in caring for traumatized children, and requires them to adhere to conflicting and outdated regulations. By all means these problems must be fixed–for the sake of the children as well as the foster parents. But it is unlikely that they will rectify the shortfall of foster homes. More creative and courageous solutions are necessary.
Providing free housing and/or salaries for foster parents might help increase the supply of foster homes. An Oklahoma nonprofit is building larger homes where foster families can live rent-free in exchange for taking in larger sibling groups. SOS Children’s Villages Illinois operates several foster care communities in which full-time professional foster parents care for large sibling groups of up to six children. Child welfare agencies should work in partnership with local nonprofits to develop such programs.
But Massachusetts needs to face the facts. There will never be enough high-quality foster homes for all the children who need them. As Stan Rosenberg, former President of the Massachusetts Senate and a former foster youth, wrote in the Globe, many foster parents are loving and caring but others are in it for the stipend and the children placed with them will suffer the consequences. A high-quality group home or residential facility can be much more nurturing and family-like than a low-quality foster home. More such facilities (often known as “congregate care”) are needed in order to prevent our abused and neglected children and youth being re-traumatized by repeated moves between foster homes.
Children who have trouble finding permanent placements tend to be older and/or have more severe behavioral, neurological and cognitive problems which stem from many years of trauma, deprivation, and often in utero substance abuse. Some of these children cannot thrive in traditional foster homes, which are not trained to deal with their difficult behaviors. There are many high-quality group homes around the country where dedicated staff devote their lives to changing the trajectories of these wounded children.
But the political climate has been opposed to such facilities for a long time, as Child Welfare Monitor has often discussed. Congregate care facilities have been closing for years as states have deprived them of funding and stopped sending children there–even if they have to be left in dangerous homes, placed in barely-adequate foster homes, or bounced from home to home. The percentage of children in Massachusetts placed in congregate care facilities decreased from 22% in 2007 to 17% in 2017.
The bias against congregate care has been enshrined in the Family First and Prevention Services Act, (FFPSA) passed as Title VII of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Under FFPSA, states will no longer be able to draw upon federal funds for congregate care except for children who have been judged too disturbed to thrive in a foster home by a “qualified professional.” These facilities must meet new criteria for licensure, and congregate care placement will be reviewed at every court hearing. Moreover, a child cannot remain in one of these placements for more than 12 consecutive months (or 6 months for a child under 13) without written approval from the head of the child welfare agency.
Sadly, ideology is reinforced by the reluctance of public officials to ask their taxpayers to find room in their hearts to fund high-quality facilities to these neediest of all children. Such facilities are much more expensive than foster homes and many have been starved out of existence around the country.
Instead of discussing the need for more congregate placements, Lazar quotes advocates who state that more children could be maintained in their own homes if adequate services could be provided to their parents. Yet, as she herself states, about 80% of the children in DCF’s caseload are living at home while the agency attempts to help their families avoid foster care. A spate of deaths of children in DCF-supervised homes since 2014 has distracted the agency from any attempt to reform foster care. Do we really want to put more children at risk to avoid spending money to nurture and house our most vulnerable children?
Primary prevention is the phrase of the day in child welfare. As Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services put it in a letter attached to the program for the recent NCCAN conference, “Right now, our child welfare system typically responds only after families have lost much of their protective capacity and children have been harmed. We need to create environments where families get the support they need before harm occurs. This calls for an intensified focus on primary prevention and a reconceptualization of the mission and functioning of child welfare systems.”
Primary prevention refers to the prevention of abuse and neglect before it occurs through universal approaches. This is distinguished from secondary prevention, which focus on those at risk for a problem like child maltreatment, or tertiary prevention, which focuses no preventing on recurrence of a problem that has already occurred. (The much touted Family First Act allows funds to be used only for tertiary prevention, which is perhaps why it was not mentioned at the conference and why the Children’s Bureau has been dragging its feet on issuing guidance to states and counties.)
Yet, discussions of primary prevention (including those at NCCAN) often leave out the most primary of all–encouraging people to delay childbearing until they are ready to be parents, to wait at least 18 months between pregnancies, and to curb the overall number of children they have.
The connection between teen pregnancy and child maltreatment is well-known, but adolescence is lasting longer than ever, and even mothers aged 20 to 25 are more likely to abuse or neglect their children than older mothers. California researchers Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Barbara Needell found that babies born to mothers who were under 20 were twice as likely to be reported to child protective services (CPS) by the child’s fifth birthday as those born to mothers 30 or older. Among children referred to CPS by age five, almost 18 percent were born to a teenage mother and 50 percent were born to a mother younger than 25. Among children with no CPS contact, only 8 percent were teen births and 30 percent were born to a mother under 25.
Less well-known or discussed is the consistent evidence that larger family size and closer child spacing are correlated with child maltreatment. The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that households with four or more children had a maltreatment rate of 21.2 per thousand, compared with 11.9 per thousand for families with two children. Putnam-Hornstein and Needell found that children who fell third or higher in the birth order were more than twice as likely to be the subject of a maltreatment report as first children.
Not surprisingly, research suggest that the interaction between birth order and maternal age creates the highest risk for a child maltreatment fatality. A study using linked birth and death certificates for all births in the U.S. between 1983 and 1991 found that the most important risk factors for infant homicide were a second or subsequent infant born to a mother less than 17 years old. These infants had 11 times the risk of being killed compared with a first infant born to a mother 25 years old or older. A second or subsequent infant born to 17 to 19-year-old mother had nine times the homicide risk of the first infant born to the older mother.
And setting the research aside for a moment, anyone who has worked for or with CPS, or in foster care, knows the prevalence of larger families with closely-spaced children in the system, often with a mother that started childbearing as a teen. This blogger has observed the same pattern as a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, and it has been observed in other jurisdictions as well.1
If it is not the lack of research, why do supporters of child maltreatment prevention fail to include family planning and contraception in their suggestions? Judging from the reactions this blogger has received when raising this issue, it is our country’s shameful history of attempting to restrict childbearing by women of color through means including forced sterilization and the promotion of birth control methods like Norplant.
But advocates for children of color should not allow this racist history to prevent thinking clearly about what is best going forward. There are few if any policies that could be more helpful to the future of black children and the elimination of racial disproportionality in foster care placement than ensuring that black women have access to the most effective methods of contraception so that they can determine their own futures.
Family planning and contraception need to be included in the discussion about child maltreatment prevention. Research suggests that media messaging, better information, and use of more effective contraceptive methods contributed to the drastic decline in the teen birth rate from 61.8 per thousand in 1991 to 18.8 per thousand in 2017. However, it is still high among certain populations, including Black (27.5 per thousand) and Hispanic (28.9 per thousand) teens.
We now have safe, effective long-lasting reversible methods of contraception. Known as LARC’s, for “Long Lasting Reversible Contraceptives, these methods provide long-lasting contraception without requiring action by the user. They include IUD’s and contraceptive implants. But LARC’s are not universally available, and even when available, women desiring these methods may have to return for a second appointment. Moreover, health care professionals are often not trained to address myths and misconceptions concerning longer-lasting contraception. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative improved access to LARC’s by training public health providers, supporting family planning clinics, and removing financial barriers. As a result of this initiative, the state’s teen birth rate was cut in half in just five years.
The Colorado initiative could be adopted nationwide, combined with a mass media campaign to explain the benefits to both children and parents of planning and spacing of pregnancies and births. We know that such campaigns can change people’s health-related behavior, as in the case of smoking cessation and HIV prevention.
The omission of pregnancy prevention from the primary prevention toolkit is particularly upsetting because very few programs have been shown to be effective in preventing abuse or neglect after a baby is born. Jerry Milner and other proponents of primary prevention in child welfare argue that we should help families before they maltreat their children. How much more efficient and humane it would be to postpone the birth of children who are likely to be maltreated and help troubled adults address their problems before they have a first or subsequent child rather than afterwards?
The 21st National Conference on Child abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) sponsored by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Human Services (HHS) took place in Washington DC from April 24-26, 2019, and there could be no better window onto the child welfare zeitgeist. NCCAN’s defining spirit was perfectly embodied in the conference theme, Strong and Thriving Families. But the main takeaway for this blogger was how far the field has strayed from its central and defining mission–protecting children.
From the first words booming out of the speaker in the hotel ballroom, the conference plenary sessions focused relentlessly on a two-part message. First, the worst thing to do for abused and neglected children is to remove them from their families and we should stop doing it right now. Second, child welfare should focus on primary prevention–preventing child maltreatment before it occurs.
Removing abused and neglected children from their families is the worst thing you can do to them. That was the main message delivered by plenary speaker Amelia Franck Meyer, one of PEOPLE Magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World. Meyer made extensive use of the animal kingdom to make her points about the mother-child relationship. She started with baby ducks imprinting onto their mothers and went on to mother bears. When one of own children is not having their needs met at school, Meyer says she will stop at nothing to ensure that the little one’s needs are met. And that’s why all kids need their mother, she explained, because your mother “always has your back.”
“Mama bear” would not be the best term to describe many of the mothers I saw as a foster care social worker, or the ones whose children’s deaths I have been reviewing as part of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee. The moms who expose their babies to brain-damaging substances in utero, sleep through the night aided by drugs or alcohol while their infants die, can’t be bothered to bring their children to school for 30 days in a semester, leave them in the care of volatile boyfriends, or inflict bruises and cuts are hardly mama bears. And, despite what we may want to believe, some children need to be rescued from such mothers.
Meyer also told us that we should not think of children as individuals but as part of families, which sounds a bit like a return to an earlier century. And of course she did not forget to the modern trope that child welfare is not about saving children from their families but rather about helping families protect their children.
In his closing plenary session, Children’s Bureau Chief Jerry Milner urged us to stop using the term “birth parent,” “which undermines the singular parent-child relationship.” That term helps separate the idea of procreation from that of nurturing–something that Milner clearly does not want to do. We also can’t talk about “dysfunctional” families, according to Milner. If only not talking about them would make them function well!
Milner urged participants to picture a different type of child welfare system, where “families are given what they need to thrive, not just survive.” In an interview with the Chronicle of Social Change, Milner suggested that what families need to prevent maltreatment includes “parenting education and support, community-based substance abuse prevention and treatment services, ready access to needed medical and mental health services and trauma-informed services to help parents heal from their adverse experiences.”
Milner did not mention child care, housing, or increased cash assistance–services that many would argue poor families need to thrive. But that’s not surprising given that he’s a member of the Trump Administration. Even expanding access to parenting classes, drug treatment and mental health services does not sound like an administration priority–unless the funds come from reprogramming current spending, which seems to be what Milner has in mind. By his own report, he tells child welfare officials who are afraid of adding a new set of primary prevention functions to their current overwhelming mandate that they should do it instead of what they are already doing, not in addition to it! Apparently he believes that cutting funds for CPS investigations and foster care would provide ample funding for primary prevention.
So what’s wrong with all this? Isn’t primary prevention the most logical approach to any social ill? Unfortunately, there are a few problems with making it the only approach:
We don’t know much about what works to prevent child abuse and neglect. The most touted programs involve home visiting, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that they work to prevent child abuse and neglect. The California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC) has rated only one home visiting program as “well-supported” by the research evidence as a means of preventing child maltreatment, and that program (Nurse Family Partnership) is limited to first-time low-income mothers. CEBC rates only one program (SafeCare) as “supported by the research evidence” as a program to prevent child maltreatment. And all of these programs have been strictly voluntary–which leaves out the families that are most dangerous to their children.
Many primary prevention programs don’t belong in the child welfare agency. Mental health and drug treatment serve a broader clientele than parents involved in child welfare and are generally provided by different agencies. And while Milner was careful not to mention housing, child care, or cash welfare, these don’t belong under the jurisdiction of child welfare agencies either.
Even if we had a better idea about what worked, we might reduce maltreatment but not eliminate it. We would need a method of investigating possible occurrences and protecting (even sometimes rescuing) the children at risk. It’s like saying we need to shut down hospitals. Of course we want to prevent gun violence, car accidents, cancer, and outbreaks of preventable infections diseases. But we certainly need to have hospitals available in case we fail.
Given NCCAN’s focus on primary prevention, it is not surprising that the Family First and Prevention Services Act received almost no mention throughout the conference, even though it is the biggest change to federal child welfare legislation in two decades and takes effect in October–and federal guidance is woefully lacking. Jerry Milner has already said that Family First is only the first step toward transforming child welfare. What he really wants is a block grant that would allow states to shift funding from CPS, foster care, and family preservation to primary prevention. And that could result in further starvation of CPS, foster care and in-home services (which need more funding, not less) in the name of a mission that should be carried out by other agencies.
On Monday, conference participants returned to the real world, where media outlets in Illinois and nationwide were reporting on five-year-old AJ Freund, who was beaten to death on April 15. His parents, who reported his disappearance three days later and tearfully attended a vigil shortly thereafter, have been charged with his murder. As the Chicago Tribune put it,
Witnesses in all corners of AJ’s life saw signs of abuse or neglect. A doctor, neighbors, police and others knew or suspected that much was amiss over the years. Many of them sounded alarms that were recorded by the courts and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which once again finds itself struggling to explain why a child on its watch is now dead….Yet AJ, who was born with opioids in his system, was left to live in a filthy house of horrors where it appears he was hurt again and again.
And if Jerry Milner and Amelia Franck Meyer have their way, many more AJ’s will suffer and die without anyone to rescue them. Because they believe that child welfare agencies should not be in the business of rescuing children.
Most child welfare experts and policymakers at all levels seem to agree that our nation needs to reduce the use of group homes and other non-family placements (often called “congregate care”) for foster youth. Yet signs from around the country suggest that the drive to move foster youth quickly out of congregate care is facing some obstacles–and may be resulting in more damage to foster youth.
The child welfare establishment–including the federal Administration for Children and Families, agency leaders at the state and local level, prominent think-tanks, scholars, and foundations–is in agreement that “every kid needs a family.” These leaders acknowledge that some foster youth need a group placement to address behavioral issues that may prevent success in foster care, but such youth should be moved out of the group setting as soon as these issues are addressed.
In 2015, the California Legislature took the lead in implementing this new focus by enacting the Continuum Care Reform (CCR), which required all foster youth to be placed in families except those requiring intensive supervision and treatment for a temporary period. Such youth must be placed in Short-Term Residential Treatment Programs (SRTP’s), which must be accredited and meet rigorous standards.
Congress followed in 2018 by adopting the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA, (Title VII of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018), which imposed similar changes on the federal level, with a temporary congregate therapeutic option called Quality Residential Treatment Programs (QRTP’s) instead of SRTP’s. To receive reimbursement for a QRTP placement, a “qualified professional” must determines within 30 days of the placement that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home. The decision must be approved by a court within 60 days and reviewed at subsequent hearings (usually every three to six months). Moreover, a child cannot remain in a QRTP for more than 12 consecutive months (or 6 months for a child under 13) without written approval from the head of the agency.
California, where CCR took effect in 2017, has been widely viewed as a harbinger of what might happen after FFPSA takes effect next October. But Golden State policymakers have been “shocked shocked” to learn that children have not been moving out of congregate care settings as fast as anticipated. The reform was expected to pay for itself due to savings from moving children from pricier congregate care settings to cheaper family homes. However, this has not happened. The Office of the Legislative Analyst has found higher than projected state spending for one main reason: instead of moving from group homes into family foster homes, children are moving into “STRTPS,” the new congregate option offered by CCR.
Although the Legislative Analyst did not speculate about reasons for the slow transition, one does not have to look far for clues. A report from San Joaquin County indicates that the county is unable to find homes for the teens with the greatest needs, who remain in group homes. Efforts to recruit foster parents willing to take on these challenging youths have so far failed.
Another jurisdiction that started eliminating group homes long before the Family First Act was New York City. The city’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is reeling from an alarming report about the intake center where children are taken after being removed from their families. Workers described an atmosphere of chaos, violence, weapons in plain sight, feces-smeared walls, overcrowding and “a dangerous mix of babies and young children with special needs living alongside troubled teens and even adults straight out of jail.” This intake center was was meant as a place for children to wait for a few hours until a placement could be arranged. But staff report young people with behavioral problems or medical needs living in the shelter for months because foster families cannot be found for them. One disabled teenager lived there for a year. The president of the union representing ACF workers blamed these long stays on management decisions made years ago to close group homes, based on the belief that family homes were better for children. Unfortunately, the agency has not been able to find families to take in many children with behavioral problems, mental disabilities, and histories of trauma and abuse.
In Georgia, there are more children in foster care than ever before and not enough homes for them. Wanting to address this problem, long-time foster and adoptive parents John and Kelly DeGarmo started the Never Too Late (NTL) foster home for boys. But when they applied for a license to accept youth from the foster care system, they found it was too late. Due to the Family First Act, Georgia was not going to license any new residential group homes. State administrators instead asked NTL to serve as a Transitional Living Program, (TLP), for youth ages 16-21 as the boys transition from foster care to independent living. These programs are also needed, but one can’t help but wonder about Georgia’s plan for meeting the needs of the many children who cannot find foster homes and could have thrived in atmosphere of loving care at Never Too Late.
In my own jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, the Child and Family Services Agency is proud of the low percentage of foster youth that are in group homes, attributing it to “the agency’s success in supporting children and youth with higher needs in traditional foster homes.” Yet, advocates are declaring a foster care placement crisis. There is a lack of appropriate foster homes for many children, particularly older teens and those with behavioral problems. As a result, according to the Children’s Law Center, foster youth experience multiple placement disruptions, with devastating consequences to their mental health. CLC also blames the placement crisis for delayed removals of children from unsafe homes, youths remaining in poorly matched placement, and youths leaving their official placements for unofficial community settings. Yet, there is no voice advocating for more therapeutic group homes, the most appropriate setting for many such youths.
The state of Washington has about 100 youths in out-of-state facilities due to a lack of in-state beds. A scathing report recently described abusive restraint practices and other problems at an Iowa facility where Washington was sending some of its foster youth. In a letter to the legislature, Ross Hunter, director of the Department of Children Youth and Families, acknowledged that the agency has an insufficient array of therapeutic group homes and residential facilities for children with severe behavioral problems that make it impossible to maintain them in foster homes. Among the consequences of this shortage, Hunter cites the following: (1) children being repeatedly placed in homes that can’t handle them, resulting in damage to the children and loss of foster parents to the system; (2) over 2000 office and hotel stays for children last year; and (3) use of expensive one-night placements “at extraordinary cost and detriment to the child,” in addition to the out-of-state placements. Hunter proposes to bring all of Washington’s children home and eliminate office and hotel stays by expanding the number of therapeutic group home beds, as well as increasing the quality of existing congregate placements.
Washington and Oregon are among the states with the highest proportions of foster children placed in families, according to federal data cited in a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that drew extensive press coverage. The report provided state-by-state numbers, generating media coverage (but not in Washington and Oregon) that praised those jurisdictions with lower group home percentages and chastising those with higher rates. But nowhere did the authors mention the fact that eliminating too many congregate placements may lead to foster youth staying in offices, hotels, emergency placements, and abusive out-of-state facilities.
We are not taking this opportunity to argue that many group homes (especially those using the house parent model) are more family-like than many foster homes–which we have argued elsewhere. Even if we accept the premise that no young person should be in a group home one minute longer than necessary once ready to function well in a foster home, there are several problems with implementing this premise in the real world.
We don’t have a diagnostic instrument capable of determining in advance who “needs” a congregate placement and who does not. As of now, it is a subjective determination, making it difficult to project a specific decline in congregate care placement. There is concern that the FFA may make it too difficult for children to gain access to the therapeutic placements they need.
Whether a child is “ready” for family life depends upon the families available. Some very gifted, well trained and dedicated foster parents can nurture high-needs youth who would not thrive in the average foster home. But when such a parent is not available, a child might be better off in a high-quality therapeutic group placement.
Often a family simply cannot be found that is willing to accept a teen with troubling behaviors or a history of residential treatment or delinquency. The most ridiculous sentence in FFPSA is this one: “A shortage or lack of foster family homes shall not be an acceptable reason for determining that the needs of the child cannot be met in a foster family home. ” What should be done then with a child that has no place to go?
A year (or six months for a preteen) may not be enough time for a troubled child to become “family-ready.”. Many children and teens in foster care have suffered years of trauma in their homes, and perhaps multiple placements in foster care. The time required is more likely measured in years than in months.
It may be difficult for smaller, high quality group homes to meet the criteria for QRTP’s.
There is no doubt that many congregate care facilities are of poor quality–witness the horrors suffered by Washington and Oregon youths who were shipped out of state. The framers of FFPSA were right in wanting to ensure that these facilities entrusted with our most fragile youth are up to the task, although they adopted a blunt instrument for doing this. Let’s hope that other states follow Washington’s plan and respond to FFPSA by ensuring that therapeutic group homes are adequate in quality and quantity rather than eliminating them.