When will they ever learn? Another little boy dead on DCFS’ watch in Antelope Valley

NoahCuatro
Image: losangeles.cbslocal.com

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’ Intact Family Services: What happens when family preservation trumps child safety?

ChapinHallIllinois’ 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.

 

The foster care crisis in Massachusetts: common sense solutions, not ideology, are needed

FosterCareMass
Image: Boston Globe

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?

Strong and Thriving Families: The Unreal World of the Children’s Bureau

NCCANThe 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.

Inspector General: Child safety and well-being no longer priorities for Illinois Department of Child and Family Services

SemajCrosby
Semaj Crosby: wtvr.com

DCFS has lost focus on ensuring the safety and well-being of children as a priority. This is evidenced by several recent cases and the clear lack of attention to assuring children and families receive adequate, thorough, and timely responses and needed services. Investigators, caseworkers and supervisors are unmanaged, and unsupported. Children are dying, children are being left lingering in care, children are being left in in psychiatric hospitals beyond medical necessity causing them to lose hope. This is not just unacceptable it is HARMFUL

That startling statement was made by the Acting Inspector General (IG) for Illinois Department of Children and Families to News Channel 20 about its most recent annual report. During FY 2018, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed 97 deaths and one serious injury of children whose families were involved in the child welfare system within the preceding 12 months. Of the 98 families involved, at least 52 were the subject of of a completed child abuse or neglect investigation during the previous 12 months; fully 37 of these investigations failed to find any abuse or neglect and were closed without any action to protect the child. Twelve of the 98 families were the subject of an open investigation when the child died, eight were involved in an open family service case, and three had had a family case closed within a year of the death. (See the full count of deaths by case status at the bottom of this article.)

Not all of the deaths or serious injuries can be attributed to DCFS failure to protect a child. Twenty-seven deaths were ruled natural; most of the children involved had serious medical issues. Some of the deaths (including most the 16 youths in foster care)1 were sadly due to violence, car accidents, drug abuse by older youths and other circumstances not under the Department’s control. Heartbreakingly, two older teens in foster care died of abuse that was inflicted on them as infants and left them medically compromised.

However, many of the case reviews suggest DCFS missed danger signs and opportunities to save vulnerable children. Thirteen children were killed by a parent, step parent, parent’s paramour, another relative or unknown perpetrator within a year of an open investigation or service case.  These children were beaten, starved, stabbed, and shot to death. The cause of 23 deaths of children in families that recently interacted with DCFS is still undetermined; many are currently being investigated. Most of these children were infants; many of the deaths appeared to be linked to unsafe sleep practices and at least four raised concerns of abuse. The deaths of 24 children with an open or recently open case were classified as accidental. Fourteen of these deaths were attributed to asphyxia, suffocation, or sleep related causes; there were also two accidental drownings, an accidental hanging, and an accidental shooting of a three-year-old by an 11-year-old, as described below.

 The OIG completed “full investigations” of four cases  that have drawn extensive media attention:

  • Seventeen-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead under a couch in her home 30 hours after being reported missing. There was both an open in-home case and a pending child protection investigation of the family at the time Semaj was reported missing. The family had been the subject of 11 investigations during the two years before her death. The mother received SSI for cognitive delays but was never assessed to determine her ability to keep her children safe. Semaj’s seven-year-old brother was psychiatrically hospitalized three times for threatening to kill himself during the time the family’s case was open. A family service caseworker visited the home the day before the toddler was reported missing, and a child protection investigator had been to the house the day the report was made. No immediate safety concerns were reported by this investigator, even though the health department deemed the apartment uninhabitable after the body was found. Criminal and child neglect investigations are pending.
  • Four-year-old Manual Aguilar was killed, apparently  starved to death, and his body was burned post-mortem. Four years before his death, Manual and his three siblings were removed  from their mother’s custody after she left the three older children in a car overnight at temperatures hovering around freezing, while Manual was left in a stranger’s care. The children were returned home a year before Manual’s death despite the mother’s failure to progress in therapy and an unfounded investigation stemming from bruises to one child that his older siblings reported were inflicted by the mother during an overnight visit. Five months before Manual’s death, the two older siblings texted to their former foster parent that their mother was beating them, but the investigation was unfounded when they recanted. The mother has been charged with murder.
  • A daycare center reported that a two-and-a-half-year-old appeared to have cigarette burns on both hands. The reporter also said the child’s face had been swollen on two prior occasions, and an unknown male accompanying the mother was seen to hit the child across the face a week before. The investigator closed the case without investigating adequately either the child’s burns or the family’s allegation that they occurred at the daycare. Two days following the investigation’s closure, the child experienced cardiac arrest and died four days later. The autopsy concluded that the manner of death was undetermined and suspicious, but a child protection investigation did not find evidence to find anyone responsible for the death.
  • An eleven-year-old girl accidentally shot her three-year-old brother in the head while playing at home. This child survived and and this appears to be the only non-fatal case reviewed. The parents had left four of their children, of which the eleven-year-old was the oldest, at home alone.  The father had eight drug convictions and had been arrested multiple times for physically assaulting the mother. The investigation of the shooting was the eleventh investigation of this family since 2008. One investigation had occurred when the father barricaded himself in the home with the mother, who was eight months pregnant, and the screaming and crying children. The children’s eight-year-old sibling was in residential care in the custody of DCFS at the time of the shooting and the agency was required to monitor the at-home siblings as well. Nevertheless no visits by case managers to the home were documented in the 45 months before the shooting with one exception. A case manager attempted to visit the home 21 days before the shooting but was not allowed in. . 

The acting Inspector General told a reporter that understaffing may have contributed to the state’s inability to prevent child deaths. Following the death of Semaj Crosby, the OIG investigated a media report that child protection workers in the local office were offered incentives for early case closure. The IG found that while Semaj’s family was involved with DCFS, the entire region was understaffed (at times as low as 66% of staff needed), resulting in excessive caseloads for investigators. In December 2016, the field office administrator offered a $100 gift card to the investigator who could close the most cases in January. The IG found similar incentive programs for early case closure around the state.

The OIG also found that “a large contributing factor to the caseload problem was that the previous director had several management initiatives that seemed to take priority” over any attempt to redistribute caseloads. One of these initiatives, Rapid Safety Feedback, received some media attention last year. DCFS awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to two out-of-state firms using a “propriety algorithm to identify cases most likely to result in death or serious injury.” There were concerns that this contract was one of several no-bid contracts given to a circle of former associates of the previous director, as described by the Chicago Tribune. The contract was terminated after 25 to 50 percent of cases were flagged as having a a greater than 90% probability of death or serious injury in the next two years, alarming and overwhelming social workers. At the same time, the algorithm failed to predict the death of Semaj Crosby and other children who were killed while under supervision by DCFS. 

The OIG report identified two areas of “chronic misfeasance,” or conduct that is lawful but inappropriate or incorrect. One of these areas is “intact family services,” which is DCFS-speak for the services provided to families 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. The OIG 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.

A second area of “chronic misfeasance” identified in the 2019 report which has also drawn media coverage is the practice of leaving foster children in psychiatric hospitals “beyond medical necessity,” or after they are stable enough to be cared for outside that setting because there is no appropriate placement. OIG reported that the number of such episodes increased from 273 in FY 2017 to 329 in 2018. “The availability of community-based services and resources for youth with significant mental and behavioral needs continues to be at crisis levels.”

The OIG’s overall conclusion–that child safety and well-being are no longer priorities for DCFS–is sobering. But even more alarming is the fact that this description could be applied to many or even most other states.  Although we don’t have numbers for most states, every year brings stories from around the country of children killed after long histories of contact with child welfare authorities. Twenty-seven percent of the fatality cases analyzed by the Administration on Children and Families for its Child Maltreatment report had at least one Child Protective Services contact within the past three years.  State child welfare agencies tend to hide behind strict privacy protections in order to avoid releasing information on child protection failures, even though the case information could be released without including the names of the families involved. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Commission, I hear at almost every monthly meeting about one or more children who died after the family was called to the attention of CPS multiple times. And yet, I am not allowed to share any information about these cases with anyone, including legislators.

At least in Illinois, thanks to the DCFS Inspector General, the public and its elected representatives are given the opportunity to learn about failures to protect children while in the custody of their parents as well as those the custody of DCFS. This information helps make the case for change. The OIG report was the subject of a hearing in Springfield. The Governor has already requested an increase of more than $70 million for 126 new staff and technology upgrades.

Unfortunately, most states do not have an independent agency like the Illinois OIG to look out for children who are served by the agency both at home and in care. In a report issued on April 4, 2018, the National Council of State Legislators found that only 11 states have “an independent and autonomous agencies with oversight specific to child welfare,” although they seem to have missed Illinois. All states need such an autonomous agency. Somebody needs to reveal the truth about how we fail our most vulnerable children–and what it would take to do better.

Number of Child Deaths by Case Status from OIG Report

Case Status*                                                    Number of deaths or serious injuries

Pending Investigation at time of child’s death………………………………………………………12

Unfounded Investigation** within a year of child’s death……………………………………37

“Indicated” Investigation*** within a year of child’s death…………………………………..15

Youth in care………………………………………………………………………………………………………………16

Open Placement/Split custody****……………………………………………………………………………..3

Open Intact Case*****………………………………………………………………………………………………….8

Closed Intact Case within a year of child’s death……………………………………………………….3

Child of Youth in Care……………………………………………………………………………………………………1

Child Welfare Services Referral (no allegation of abuse or neglect)………………………….2

Preventive services to assist family but not as result of indicated investigation………1

Total……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….98

*When more than one reason existed for the OIG investigation, the death was categorized based on “primary reason.”

**An investigation in which the agency was unable to verify that abuse or neglect occurred. 

***An investigation in which abuse or neglect by the parent was found to have occurred.

****Child was in home with siblings in foster care

****A case in which the family was receiving services while the child remained in the home. 


  1. Of the 16 children who died while in foster care, a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old died of gunshots by unrelated perpetrators, two died as a consequence of abuse by their parents in infancy, three were infants in care of relatives and cause of death was undetermined for two and suffocation for one, two died of methadone or opioid intoxication, one 18-year-old died in a car accident and five died of natural causes. 

 

Therapeutic Group Homes: Needed Programs in Danger from Family First Act

Greenacres
Image: Greenacrehomes.org

It is a fact universally acknowledged that some children cannot thrive in foster care. This includes children whose behaviors are so challenging that most foster parents will be unable to cope. These children often go through many foster homes before they are finally placed in a more appropriate placement, usually a therapeutic group home or residential treatment program.

One of the goals of the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), passed last year as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018), was to reduce the use of placements other than relative homes and traditional foster care. However, FFPSA recognized that some children and youth cannot thrive in foster care and allowed for placements to meet their needs. Unfortunately, the many restrictions imposed by the Act mean that many of these young people may not able to access these facilities or will be prematurely removed from them.

Many youth who are placed in foster care have serious emotional and behavioral issues. Many have endured years of trauma, including physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect, and living in dangerous and chaotic conditions. Some have cognitive or neurological issues caused by drug exposure in utero or severe neglect. Some have violent outbursts, many are verbally aggressive, and many have difficulty in making attachments. As a result of these problems, many of these hard-to-place young people have been placed in ten or more foster homes.

High-quality therapeutic group homes are more able than foster families to work with challenging youth for a number of reasons described in an excellent video from the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission. Their staff are trained in working with behaviorally challenging youth and often operate from a trauma-informed perspective. These facilities often have therapists and psychiatrists and other mental health personnel on staff. Good therapeutic group homes create a homelike environment, with young people living in cottages with a total of six or eight youths. Staff are dedicated and passionate about what they do. Unlike foster parents, these staff usually work shifts and thereby avoid burnout. Residents also draw strength from peers with similar issues, especially older peers who have improved and can serve as role models.

Some hard-to-place youth could thrive in the right kind of foster homes, those with training, time, and willingness to work with young people whose behavior is challenging. But many foster parents refuse to take teens or any or children with behavioral or mental health problems. Some states are trying to increase the availability of therapeutic foster homes, but funding and supply constraints mean that such efforts will be far too small to replace therapeutic group homes.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed by FFPSA may make it difficult to for many needed therapeutic group homes to continue operating. FFPSA allows the federal government to share the costs of treatment-based congregate care only at facilities that qualify as Qualified Residential Treatment Programs (QRTP). These programs must meet several criteria, including accreditation, a trauma-informed model, medical staff on call, and an aftercare program, among others. Accreditation especially is a long and arduous process that generally takes 12 to 18 months and some homes may not be able to accomplish it by the time the Act takes effect on October 1, 2019 (unless the state chooses to delay implementation for two years). Accreditation is a difficult and costly requirement for a smaller facility. It is important to ensure that only high-quality group homes retain state contracts, but accreditation may not be the best way to ensure quality for smaller programs.

Even more concerning are the limits on which children can be placed at these facilities and for how long. A child’s initial placement in a QRTP will not be reimbursed unless a “qualified professional” determines within 30 days of placement that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home.  This assessment must use an approved tool and be conducted by “a trained professional or licensed clinician who is not an employee of the State agency and who is not connected to, or affiliated with, any placement setting in which children are placed by the State.” The decision must be approved by a court within 60 days and must be reviewed at subsequent status hearings. 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.

There are several problems with these restrictions. It is not clear that agencies can find enough qualified professionals who are not employed by the agency or connected to any placement setting used by the state. More concerning are the time limits. Many therapeutic group home professionals believe that most children with emotional and behavioral problems cannot be in and out of therapeutic residential settings in six months. Many will need to stay a year or even longer.

Without needed therapeutic group homes, many children will experience a string of failed foster home placements, with each one leading to further damage to the child, who may end up on the streets or in jail. As a director of a facility that closed in North Dakota put it, new policies mean that “You are only going to refer kids to (residential child care facility) levels of care after you have exhausted all the other less restrictive options of care. That means putting them with their families, in foster care and repeating failed foster care placements several times before a referral to this level of care would be entertained.”

Group homes have already been closing around the country as states have adopted policies against congregate care (and also due to failure to provide adequate funding) and some states are already seen bad consequences from these closures. In Baltimore, the number of children sleeping in offices shot up from less than five per six month period in 2015 to 130 in the first half of 2018 due to a shortage of foster homes and a dramatic reduction in group home capacity. In Hillsborough County, Florida, hard-to-place foster youths have been spending the night in cars for lack of appropriate placements. In the state of Washington, group homes have been shutting down for years due the state’s failure to keep up with the increasing costs of care. This has contributed to a crisis in care for older, harder-to-serve youth, who are being put up in hotels, offices and $600-per night emergency foster homes and being sent out of state for care. In Illinois, hundreds of foster youths were being kept unnecessarily in psychiatric hospitals as of last August because of a decline in licensed residential facilities.

The attempt to close congregate care facilities without providing an alternative is eerily reminiscent of the closure of institutions for the mentally ill in the 1960s. These hospitals were supposed to be replaced with community health services that were never funded. We are still reaping the consequences with the abundance of mentally ill people sleeping on the streets of America’s cities.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, FFPSA’s group home restrictions were not based on ideology alone. The cost savings from reducing federal reimbursement for group homes were necessary to offset the increased cost of funding services to prevent children’s placement in foster care. But penny-wise is often pound-foolish and the future costs of eliminating therapeutic residential options for foster youth may be much greater than the present savings.

It is not too late for Congress to amend the Family First Act to reduce restrictions on therapeutic group care. Until we have an abundance of qualified therapeutic foster parents willing and able to take the hardest to place youth, cutting down on therapeutic group homes is irresponsible, short-sighted, and a recipe for possible disaster.

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Supporting homelike residential settings: a needed correction to the Family First Act

CrossnoreWith the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, much attention has been paid to Part I, which allows jurisdictions to use federal foster care money to pay for services to a family to to prevent a child’s entry into foster care. Part IV of the Act, which drastically restricts federal reimbursement for placements other than relative homes and traditional foster care, has received less coverage.

Placements that are not in the homes of relatives or foster families are often described as “congregate care.” The term is generally used to include group homes, residential treatment, maternity homes, and other placements that are not a family home. As these placements have fallen out of favor, this label has taken on a pejorative tone.

The Administration on Children and Families stated in 2015, that

Although there is an appropriate role for congregate care placements in the continuum of foster care settings, there is consensus across multiple stakeholders that most children and youth, but especially young children, are best served in a family setting. Congregate care should be a temporary placement for young people with behavioral or mental health issues who need therapeutic services in order to become stable enough to return to a family setting.

FFPSA enshrines this view by denying federal funding for placement in congregate care settings beyond two weeks, unless the setting meets criteria for a Qualified Residential Treatment Program (QRTP) as defined by the Act. These include accreditation, a trauma-informed model, medical staff on call, and an aftercare program, among others.

Moreover, a child’s initial placement in a QRTP will not be reimbursed unless a qualified professional determines within 30 days of placement that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home.  This assessment must use an “age–appropriate, evidence-based, validated, functional assessment tool approved by the Secretary”  and the conclusion must be approved by a court within 60 days and must be reviewed at subsequent status hearings. A child cannot remain in such a setting for more than 12 consecutive months (or 6 months for a child under 13) without written approval from the head of the agency.

Keeping all but the most troubled children out of congregate care would make sense in a world with enough great foster homes to accommodate all children, including large sibling groups. But we are far from having such a world. In most states there are not enough foster homes, even including bad and indifferent ones, to accommodate all the children in need. And that means some children staying in congregate care, some in hotels, and others bouncing from one unsuitable home to another.

The shortage of foster homes is no secret, which is why foster home recruitment has been such a big topic in child welfare circles. Unfortunately, there is no sign that any of the highly-touted and often-expensive new efforts taking place around the country will make a dent in the gap between demand and supply. Society is changing in many ways, including the influx of women into the workforce,  and there are simply not enough people who are willing and able to provide foster care in the same areas where it is needed.

Yet there is another model of foster care that has not drawn sufficient attention and is in great danger from the implementation of FFPSA. These are residential homes and boarding schools providing “residential (home-like) non-treatment related services to children living away from their families,” according to the Coalition of Residential Excellence (CORE), which represents such programs. These programs often consist of one or more cottage-style homes with live-in cottage parents, with or without an onsite school.  Some of the well-known examples are the Crossnore School and Children’s Home in North Carolina, the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in South Carolina, the San Pascual Academy in San Diego, A Kid’s Place in Tampa Bay and the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches.

Like QRTP’s, these residential programs are generally accredited, seek to involve families, and provide aftercare services, and they often have a trauma-informed model of care. But because these programs are not designed for children with severe behavioral problems who could not flourish in foster care, they cannot receive reimbursement under FFPSA.

So what is the problem? Couldn’t the children in these programs do equally well in traditional foster care?  There are numerous reasons why that may not be the case.

  1. There are simply not enough foster homes. If cottage-based residential facilities can no longer take children, that will worsen the situation and will lead to more stays in hotels, offices, sibling separations, and foster homes that are not well-matched to children’s needs. Unfortunately, FFPSA specifically says that “a shortage…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.”
  2. Due to the scarcity of foster families, few jurisdictions can afford to be choosy enough about whom they accept and retain. And that is why we never stop hearing stories of abusive foster homes that were not closed despite numerous complaints. And that is why every foster care social worker (and former workers like myself) can tell you multiple stories about foster parents who simply don’t care. They may not be abusive or neglectful, but they won’t lift a finger to take the doctor, visit their schools, or drive them to and from extracurricular activities. Of course there are many great foster parents, who treat their charges as their own children but these are a minority. Many foster homes are only slightly less deprived or chaotic than the homes from which the children were removed. When you contrast these homes to the enriched environments of a place like Crossnore (with its house pets, rope-based adventure playground, on-site school, medical care, and 19 kinds of therapy (including equine assisted therapy), it is hard to imagine anyone preferring an indifferent foster home.
  3. Many children must be separated from their siblings because most foster homes cannot take larger sibling groups. Many residential cottage-based programs like Crossnore, the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches,  and A Kid’s Place in Florida pride themselves on taking large sibling groups.
  4. Even the best foster parents can have trouble making sure the children’s needs are met in school and coordinating the wide variety of educational, mental health and medical services the child may need. Many of these residential facilities, benefiting from private donations, provide high-quality mental health services  and extracurricular activities on site. Those that have schools provide a seamless integration of home and school and education tailored to children’s needs and saving transportation time and funds.

Richard McKenzie, a professor of economics who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, responded to the contention that children always do best in loving and responsible families as follows: “Well, duh! Clearly, families are the bedrock of all societies. The basic problem in child welfare is that many parents, biological and foster, are far from loving and responsible. Indeed, many are derelict in their duties.” (His article, The Success Story of Orphanages, is well worth a read.)

So why is Congress, along with other federal and state policymakers, so oblivious to the benefits of family-like residential settings? It is clear that the high cost of residential care contributed to Congress’ eagerness to restrict it. Savings from Part IV of FFPSA were needed to offset the cost of adding services under Part I. But cost comparisons are often deceptive and short-sighted.  Residential home-like programs provide therapists, case managers, after-school activities, and more. Moreover, they bring in substantial private funding in addition to state support. And the future savings that come from providing high-quality, trauma-informed care and education will doubtless reduce future expenditures caused by dropout, crime, and drug abuse.

CORE supports amending FFPSA to treat residential programs that use a house parent model as foster homes for the purpose of federal reimbursement. It is essential that Congress make this improvement this year before the provisions of FFPSA take effect in October. (A state can delay implementation for two years, which means it foregoes receipt of TItle IV-E funds for in-home services for the same period).

Cutbacks on residential programs have already resulted in sibling separations in states like California. From 2006 to 2015, Sonoma County Children’s Village was a haven for 24 foster children who lived in four homes, with surrogate grandparents living on campus. But after California began to limit group home placements to children requiring high levels of care, the village had to close.  Sixteen children, including a group of seven siblings, had to leave. Let us hope that Congress will have the compassion to prevent such senseless actions from taking place on a national scale.