Book Review: A Place Called Home: a needed antidote to the dominant narrative

It’s Christmas in Manhattan, and five-year-old David Ambroz (then called Hugh), six-year-old Alex and seven-year-old Jessica trudge through the freezing nighttime streets. “I’m only five,” writes Ambroz, “and all I know about Christmas is the stories I’ve heard at the churches where we go for free meals.” “Mom, we’re close to the Port Authority, can we go inside?” asks Hugh. “Walk straight. They’re after us” is the reply he receives. “There’s a calculation I make whenever I talk to Mom: Will she hit me, and is it worth it?” Ambroz explains.

So begins David Ambroz’s harrowing account of life with a mother, Mary Ambroz, whose mental state varies from manic to apathetic to floridly paranoid. A former nurse who was once married to a doctor,* Mary has been in the grips of her untreated mental illness for as long as Hugh can remember. The family bounces back and forth between New York City and Albany, eventually relocating to Western Massachusetts. The children are condemned to a life of sleeping at all-night Dunkin Donuts shops, dining on tiny cups of creamer mixed with sugar packets, and eating out of dumpsters, interspersed with short periods of relative normalcy when the family finds a temporary home. Those periods last until Mary decides the CIA or other pursuer is back on their trail. Some years the children don’t go to school at all, other years they change schools one or more times due to their frequent moves. The children don’t receive medical or dental checkups or vaccinations and visit the occasional clinic only for emergencies. When Hugh breaks his arm at the age of four, he is taken to the emergency room to have it set but never brought back to have the cast removed; when it starts to smell, Mary removes it with a kitchen knife.

Over the years the family has been investigated many times without getting any help, reports Ambroz. Mary Ambroz usually manages to convince authorities that she is a good mother, although she has lost custody more than once–one time when she threw a shoe at a judge in eviction court and was carted off to a psychiatric ward. The children went to a friend’s mother, but were returned to their mother as soon as she was released.

When she finds work as a live-in nurse for an older woman who allows the family to live with them, Mary instructs the children to call their benefactor “Aunt Flora.” Hugh is thrilled to live in an apartment where he can take a bath and to be enrolled in third grade only a month into the school year even though he missed most of second grade. In an apparent effort to ingratiate the family with “Aunt Flora,” Mary tells eight-year-old Hugh he is Jewish, renames him David, and immediately takes him to a doctor to be circumcised. But she does not bring him back for follow-up care and the wound becomes infected. Mary refuses to seek medical care despite “Aunt Flora”‘s pleas, rippimg off the protective mesh that had become stuck to the wound. Dismayed at Mary’s refusal to seek medical care for her son, “Aunt Flora” expels the family and they are living in Grand Central station again.

Even during relatively stable periods, when they are able to rent an apartment in Albany with the help of public assistance, life is far from normal for the children. Mary Ambroz doesn’t cook and when the food stamps start to run low the children have strategies for getting fed, like sneaking into Ponderosa Steakhouse by pretending to be part of a family that has already paid. A kitten they were allowed to adopt during a good period starves to death despite David’s attempt to steal enough food to keep him alive. “He ate his own shit and died,” his mother tells him. “Enough whining, David. You should have taken care of him,” she said, putting the body in a trash bag along with the cat toys and the litter box.

Mary Ambroz uses a gift of $500 to take a taxi to Boston, and the family ends up in a domestic violence shelter in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Shelter staff try to help her get back on her feet and David tries to assist, accompanying her in selling vacuum cleaners door to door. The children are enrolled in school But that situation falls apart when Mary accuses a 65-year-old staffer groundlessly of sexually abusing David, after beating David up for allowing it to happen. “Nobody wants to tangle with my mother….And so, at this shelter for abused women, the response to our mother’s unhinged behavior is to move us to an apartment where they won’t have to witness the abuse.” And that is the same story, reports Ambroz, that repeats over and over again in their lives. Adults intervene with temporary kindnesses but don’t take steps to rescue the children from what is clearly a dangerous situation.

The children are thrilled with their new apartment, but Mary grows worse, alternating between almost catatonic apathy and violence. Twelve-year-old David realizes that foster care could be his salvation. He and his siblings been have been hiding their bruises for years at their mother’s demand but he finally understands that he must reveal his injuries in order to be saved. He shows his bruises to a DARE officer visiting his school. Two weeks later, two social workers knock on their door. “David, does your mother hurt you?” asks one of them, in front of his mother. As often happens when children are asked this question in the presence of the abusive caregiver, David retracts the allegation and the case is closed.

Mary Ambroz’s violence continues to escalate. She beats Alex severely with a curtain rod when he refuses to make a list of all the men with whom he has had sex. The children hatch a plan: 14-year-old Alex will ride a stolen bike 40 miles over the hills of Western Massachusetts at night to get help from a friend’s mother in Albany. The children gather $40 worth of food stamps, candy, and snacks and Alex is off. The family hears nothing for three weeks, and then the police call. Alex had made his way to Albany and disclosed the abuse to police and social services and is now in foster care. Once again, David is interviewed in front of his mother. Once again, denies the abuse. Once again, the social workers leave him and Jessica at home.

Just a few days later, Mary throws David down the stairs of their apartment building and then kicks his head, and everything goes dark. Covered with blood, David drags himself into the nearby courthouse and collapses into the arms of a bailiff. Finally David has had enough. From his hospital bed, he tells the investigating social worker what happened. His mother insists that he fell down the stairs, but the doctor opines that “it is not impossible, but these are pretty extensive injuries for a fall.” The CPS worker, unbelievably, tells David that while the investigation proceeds, “we think it’s best that you go home with your mom.” But a week later, the police knock on the door. A social worker tells David to pack his things. As he drives away from the apartment, David thinks, “This is it. I’m free.”

And now starts David’s life in foster care, which is only slightly less harrowing than his life with his mother. Jessica is placed in the foster home where Alex is living, but the home is not open to David and he knows why; the social workers can tell that he is gay. David spends his first night in foster care sleeping in the Department of Social Services (DSS) office, an experience of many children in foster care today. Then David is brought to a facility for juvenile delinquents, after being told by a social worker that it was not the right place for him but “we don’t have a place that can accept your kind.” At the facility he is called “fag” and “Ms. Ambroz” by a staffer, loses privileges for talking back, and is beaten up by other residents at the apparent instigation of the homophobic staffer. David’s illusion of safety is gone. “I am destroyed. It took everything I had to escape my mother. I thought nothing could be worse, but now, at twelve years old, I feel like this is it.”

David quickly cycles through several foster and group homes. He is finally placed with his siblings in the home of Buck and Mae, a couple who should never have been accepted as foster parents. After the children go to bed in their basement, they are not allowed upstairs for any reason, not even to go to the bathroom. They can’t use the shower without an escort, they can’t go into the kitchen except for mealtimes, and no snacking is allowed. Abetted by a succession of therapists, Buck and Mae try to suppress David’s homosexuality, forbidding him to close the door to the bathroom all the way and designing “manly” chores like clearing a swamp and digging out a backyard swimming pool. He is sent out to hang up wet laundry in the winter without gloves. They say he is too fat and put him on a starvation diet, and now he is hungry again and scrounging for food.

Thanks to a high school friend of David’s siblings, he is hired to work at a summer camp, and that summer changes David’s life. He bonds with the camp director, Holly, and her small daughter, a camper. Holly senses that something is wrong in David’s home. Knowing he needs support, she visits him weekly after camp ends but the visits eventually stop. Later David learns that Holly stopped visiting him after Mae became furious when she bought him new clothes. Holly called David’s social worker and asked to become his foster parent. She and her husband were working on receiving their foster care license until the social worker told them that Mae and Buck insisted it was better for him to be kept with his siblings.

Finally, Jessica and Alex run away. They disclose abuse at the foster home and refuse to go back. But there is no room in the new foster home for David, and DSS keeps David with Buck and Mae even while recognizing their abuse, requiring them to do additional training and not allowing them to take on new children. (Holly is never told that David is no longer with his siblings or invited to apply for her foster care license). Mae restricts David’s food even more while citing his obesity, even though he is dangerously underweight. Nobody at school appears to notice or care. Even when David faints in school, he does not explain that he is starving and no red flags are raised. Buck and Mae begin taking him out of school to work for an acquaintance, pocketing his pay and that too raises no concerns at school.

The torture escalates until one spring morning in 1995, Mae tells David he is staying home from school and David decides he is not going to take it anymore. He leaves the house and tracks down Holly, learning of her attempt to have him placed with her. Finally, David is placed with Holly, her husband Steve, and their two small children. He cannot believe that he is allowed to freely roam upstairs, or that he is allowed to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Steve teaches David how to drive and laughs when he destroys their mailbox, saying he never liked it anyway. Holly ensures that he, Alex and Jessica get the braces that Mae refused to let them get since her kids could not have them.

David always loved school, but the dislocations imposed by his mother, and the hunger and absences posed by his foster parents, often affected his grades. One he is stable and fed, he gets straight A’s. As a high school junior, he joins the Foster Youth Advisory Council and begins attending annual meetings in Washington. But even with loving foster parents, David is tired of the system. He emancipates himself with the help of a fictitious custody arrangement with his siblings’ father and goes off to Spain for a miraculous year of healing and fun with a loving host mother. He applies and is accepted to his dream school, Vassar, with a generous financial aid package.

Even with his financial aid, David struggles to buy books and to survive during school breaks. (It is not clear why he does not ask Holly and Steve for these things or return to them for the holidays; it seems to be a matter of pride or reluctance to burden them.) He eventually gives up on fulfilling his mother’s dream that he become a doctor and switches his major to political science and his plan to law school, remembering his experience as a White House intern the summer before. At a meeting of the Foster Youth Advisory Council, he agrees to be a liaison to a collaboration working to help gay foster youth. That’s when he comes out as a gay man. The story ends with his graduation from Vassar in May 2002. He is on his way to UCLA to study law and public policy. Now, Ambroz works for Amazon as head of Community Engagement (West) and is the founder of Fostermore.org, an organization that encourages those in the entertainment industry, businesses, and nonprofits to raise money and heighten awareness about the needs of foster children.

A Place Called Home provides some important corrections to the prevailing narrative in child welfare. That narrative features struggling parents who are doing the best they can, and who are being persecuted by an evil “family policing system” that is dead set on removing their children. Clearly, that is not the story of David Ambroz and his siblings. At every stage of the child welfare process–reporting, investigation and reunification–the deck was stacked against the children’s interest in safety and stability and in favor of their mother’s keeping them. While it has been some years since David Ambroz was an abused child (he does not give his date of birth but we know that he graduated from Vassar in 2002 and we can assume he was born close to 1980) the problems he identified are very familiar to those with knowledge of the system and indeed some of them may even have worsened due to the current ideological climate in child welfare.

Failure to Report: The number of people who knew that David and his siblings were suffering but took no action to help them is truly staggering. As Ambroz puts it, “Priests, rabbis, teachers, shelter directors, church members, welfare employees and Aunt Flora have all been witnesses to our bruises and lice, our hunger, a ceaseless tide of neglect and abuse.” David acknowledges that reports were made and the children were even removed once or twice, but the vast majority of people who witnessed their abuse apparently did not report it. We often hear similar stories in the wake of a child’s maltreatment death. For example, eight-year-old Dametrious Wilson was killed by his aunt in June 2022. Though he missed 60 days of school in the year before he died, his Denver Colorado school never reported his absences as required by law, even when his aunt said she was keeping him home “for few weeks” as punishment for his behavior!

And yet, today there is a groundswell of opposition to mandatory reporting and serious proposals to eliminate it, mostly on the grounds that children of color are disproportionately reported. It is true that a staggering proportion of Black children are investigated by CPS; it has been estimated that over half of Black children experience a CPS investigation by the time they turn 18, compared to 28 percent for white children and 37 percent of all children. It is possible that reporting is overused in some communities and underused in others. But it seems more logical to address these problems directly (and also educate ordinary citizens about the need to report suspected maltreatment) rather than eliminating mandatory reporting itself.

Flawed investigations: Even when reports were made, the investigations were often flawed. Ambroz states that “Over the years we’ve been investigated many times without getting help. Mom always fights to keep us, and it’s a battle she’s mostly won.” So what went wrong? Ambroz gives us part of the answer when he explains that social workers and police interviewed him at least twice in front of his mother. Both times he recanted and denied the abuse he had alleged earlier, knowing that he risked severe punishment for telling the truth. It seems obvious that children should be interviewed away from their parents since either love or fear or both will lead them to lie. Yet, this clueless and dangerous practice of interviewing children in front of the alleged perpetrator contnues in many jurisdictions. In Minnesota, a young woman named Maya, who was forced to report her fathers’s sexual abuse while he was listening, worked with an advocacy group to draft Maya’s Law, which required that Minnesota children be interviewed privately regarding allegations of abuse. But like the previous attempts, Maya’s Law failed. Instead, the language was revised to read “When it is possible, and the report alleges substantial child endangerment or sexual abuse, the interview may take place outside the presence of the alleged offender…” Sadly, many “advocates” for Black and indigenous children argued against the requirement for private interviews, fearing that it would increase disproportional involvement of these groups in child welfare.

Unwarranted reunifications: Even when David and his siblings were removed from their mother briefly, they were returned at least twice with no indication they would be safe. When Mary returned from the psychiatric ward after throwing a shoe at a judge, “nobody cared that we are being put in the custody of a homeless woman who’d recently thrown a shoe at a judge in a court of law.” We know that many children are reunified with their parents despite a lack of evidence of any change in their behavior or capabilities. In Lethal Reunifications, I wrote about two such cases that ended in a child’s death, but clearly that is just the tip of the iceberg. We never know about the children left to suffer in silence, unless they decide to write about their experiences.

Necessity of foster care in some cases: The current narrative holds that foster care is almost never necessary. But David Ambroz’s story reveals the stark truth that some children must be removed in order to be saved. Of course every effort should be made to help parents conquer their problems while monitoring children for safety in the home. But in cases of chronic maltreatment, ingrained patterns may be impossible to change. As Dee Wilson put it in his briliiant commentary on chronic multitype maltreatment, “Chronic neglect is marked by the erosion or collapse of social norms around parenting resulting from chronically relapsing conditions.” There is no better example of such collapsed social norms than Mary Ambroz, who had completely lost any sense of responsibility to keep her children clothed, fed, and housed, not to mention to avoid abusing them. In such cases, it is wrong to sacrifice the well-being of the child or children for the general value of family preservation.

Ambroz’s story also provides a needed antidote to the current trope that what child welfare describes as neglect is actually just poverty. The confusion of poverty with neglect is a pernicious misconception being perpetrated today by those who wish to eviscerate the child welfare system. David’s story clearly shows the difference. He says of the mother of friends they make in Albany: “Aurora and her sons are poor like us, and yet she still manages to take care of them. She feeds and clothes them. She cares about where they are when they roam around at night. She gives them a home that is stable in all the ways I’ve never dreamed.” And there, in a nutshell ,is the distinction between poverty and neglect.

The dominant narrative portrays foster care as harmful for children and even abusive at times. That part of the narrative is accurate for the first part of David’s time in care, when the system proved incapable of keeping David and his siblings safe, let alone meeting their needs. Among the major reasons for this failure, Ambroz draws attention to the lack of qualified foster parents and overwhelmed social workers.

Lack of Qualified Foster Parents: David fell victim to one of the scourges of our system, insufficient numbers of good foster parents. For this reason, he was initially placed in a facility for juvenile delinquents where he was abused for being gay, and then in a totally unsuitable home. In Buck and Mae, David provides a classic example of a couple who become foster parents to make ends meet. The foster care payments they received helped Buck and Mae keep their house and clothe their children. It is not surprising that such foster parents exist: some foster care agencies leave recruiting brochures in food stamp offices and laundromats; one that I worked for advertised in in a publication called the PennySaver. And yet, even when David’s siblings ran away and their abuse allegations that were taken seriously enough that the agency decided to send no more children to this couple, they were allowed to keep David. One reason, as Ambroz points out, is that there are not enough foster parents, especially for large sibling groups, so the focus is on finding any “bed” for a child. As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I knew many foster parents who were motivated mainly by money. My recommendations to fire such foster parents were never accepted because the agency needed the beds.

To address the shortage of good foster parents, Ambroz recommends recruiting more middle and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees. In order to do this, he suggests providing benefits that might attract such parents, such as government pensions, participation in the federal employee health plan, and access to free or subsidized tuition and state colleges and universities. I’m not confident that any of these benefits will attract more educated foster parents, and financial incentives also pose the risk of attracting more educated versions of Buck and Mae. Perhaps the lesson of David’s story lies the willingness of Holly and Steve to be his foster parents and the unresponsiveness of the system to this request. There is now a big push to locate kin who can care for children who are removed–and this may be happening much more frequently than when David and his siblings entered care. Perhaps agencies can do more to find unrelated adults who may have bonded with children as their teachers, parents of their friends, mentors or employers, who might serve as foster caregivers. This is certainly done; I myself agreed when asked by CPS to provide a temporary home to a friend of my son’s. If most children who are removed could be placed with adults known to them, it would be easier to fire the Bucks and the Maes and reserve the great foster parents for the children for whom no known adults are available.

Overwhelmed social workers: One reason David’s social worker did not jump at the chance to move him to Holly’s home may be that she was overwhelmed. “I have a rotating cast of social workers, who don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to anything but immediate and obvious problems,” Ambroz reports. Based on my experience as a social worker in foster care, I could not agree more. Foster care, especially for older and more troubled children, is plagued with constant crises. With caseloads in most jurisdictions far too high, social workers have no time to deal with anything besides the latest crisis. Contributing to the problem are frivolous paperwork and metrics that have nothing to do with child wellbeing. Between the foster parents who did not perform the most basic parental responsibilities, and the caseloads that were too high for me to pick up the slack, I could not spend the time I needed to ensure that each child received the care they needed to thrive, and I eventually left the job.

David Ambroz recommends attracting more and better social workers by decreasing their caseloads and increasing their pay and benefits by either a salary increase or alternative compensation such as student loan forgiveness and home loan assistance. These are excellent ideas. There are other ideas worth considering, such expanding and publicizing the current Title IV-E social work education program that provides tuition assistance for social worker students who want to go into child welfare. Also worth considering are recruiting among populations that do not traditionally seek these jobs, such as military retirees, and perhaps changing education requirements for social workers in child welfare to allow other backgrounds besides social work.

Flaws in the Analysis

While David Ambroz’s story is powerful and carries many important lessons, his acceptance of the current child welfare zeitgeist may have prevented his drawing the conclusions that logically flow from his story. First, he buys into the currently popular misconception that parents are being found neglectful when they are simply poor. Second, he misses the opportunity to advocate for strengthening child protection services, not weakening them.

Poverty vs. neglect: While I’ve already described how Ambroz’ story contradicts the currently popular assertion that “neglect” is synonymous with poverty, he unfortunately repeats that same trope. Describing the domestic violence shelter staff’s decision to place the family in an apartment after observing Mary Ambroz’s abuse of her children, Ambroz states that “[T]his is a pattern that is repeated across the country–children in poverty are given kernels of assistance but are rarely rescued from their circumstances.” But David and his siblings were abused children, not just children in poverty. As mentioned above, he acknowledges that other poor families were not like theirs. By confusing poverty with maltreatment, Ambroz loses a key opportunity to clarify the difference between these problems and to explain that eliminating maltreatment requires more than just economic assistance .

Child protection failures: In his list of policy prescriptions, included in an appendix to the book, Ambroz does not address any of the problems with CPS that were revealed in his memoir. He focuses mainly on foster care, as if his earlier experience as an abused child did not have policy implications. Ambroz could have thrown his weight behind mandatory reporting in light of the movement to end it and could have argued for education of all citizens on the need to report suspected abuse. He could have supported reforms requiring that children be interviewed away from her parents. But these such policies are opposed to the current climate in child welfare which favors hobbling or eliminating CPS and minimizing interference with families. Ambroz appears to be determined to stay within the mainstream, saying “the best way to reform foster care is to decriminalize poverty and help families remain intact whenever possible with wraparound support–be it jobs, mental health care, or whatever is needed.” If abused and neglected children can remain safe with wraparound support that is clearly the best option, but to receive this support, these children must be identified through reporting and investigation. It is unfortunate that Ambroz did not recognize the discrepancies between some of the lessons of his story and the dominant narrative in child welfare and missed the opportunity to spell them out.

Despite its flaws, Ambroz’s story takes its place with other haunting memoirs of abused children, like Stacey Patton’s That Mean Old Yesterday, Regina Calcaterra’s Etched In Sand, and most famously Educated by Tara Westover, which put the lie to the current narrative of good parents vs. the evil state. If only Ambroz had recognized the conflict between his narrative and the dominant one, his book would be even more useful. But the story speaks for itself; the commentary is secondary. David Ambroz’s story is a must-read for anybody who cares about the abused and neglected children among us, including those who are in foster care.

*The doctor was the father of Alex and Jessica, but Mary Ambroz never told David who his father was.

The placement crisis for high-needs kids: it is residential facilities, not foster homes, that are lacking

Several housing units leased by DFPS for housing foster youth were adjacent to blighted abandoned housing development. From Court Monitor’s Report, published by Texas Public Radio, https://www.tpr.org/government-politics/2022-01-12/texas-foster-care-in-crisis-after-a-decade-in-litigation-and-5-years-under-federal-oversight

Around the country, child welfare systems are struggling with a placement crisis, especially for their most troubled youths. In North Carolina, an assistant secretary of the health and human services department told county directors that the state’s child welfare system is in crisis and could be hit with a massive class action suit due to children with emotional and behavioral health needs being boarded in offices or left in emergency rooms. In Illinois, the Director of the Department of Children and Family Services has been found in contempt of court a dozen times for not find a appropriate placement for specific children who were left in psychiatric hospitals after they were ready for discharge, left in juvenile detention centers after their sentences expired, or slept on office floors for want of a better placement. A recent case involved a girl who remained in a psychiatric hospital 170 days after being cleared for discharge.

In Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, the stories are similar. State and local agencies are unable to find appropriate placements for foster children and youth with the most severe behavioral health needs. As a result, they are being warehoused in inappropriate settings, such as temporary shelters, hotels, offices, or state-leased houses staffed by social workers; sent far away for residential care, or being left in psychiatric hospitals and detention centers after being cleared for release. Depending on the nature of the setting, these young people are deprived of normal schooling, activities, contact with their families, heathy food, exercise and opportunities to develop the life skills that they need. And equally important, they receive the message that nobody cares about them. As Cook County’s Public Guardian told a reporter about the children left for months in hospitals after a stay that should last no longer than a week or two :

“Imagine what it says to a child to see other kids come in, be treated, leave after a week. And they’re (wards of the state) stuck there for months, and months, and months because there’s nowhere for you,” Golbert said. “imagine the message that that sends to these children. It very powerfully tells these children that you don’t matter. And these are kids that often have attachment issues to begin with, by definition — they’ve been removed from abusive parents to be in DCFS care.”

Not surprisingly, the children languishing in inappropriate placements tend to be those who are hardest to place in foster homes. They tend to be older and with mental and physical disabilities, behavioral health problems, or both. Many of them have been bouncing from foster home to foster home for years until no foster home would take them. Many of these children have displayed violent or self-destructive behavior and are at risk of harming themselves or others. With fewer abused and neglected children being removed from their homes, foster care professionals all over the country are reporting that the children who are being placed today have more serious needs and often need of intensive services from professionals.

Few potential foster parents are willing to open their homes to youth who might be a threat to themselves or others in the home. Furthermore, many of these youth require a placement with intensive therapeutic services before being able to function in a normal foster home. Such a placement might be called a therapeutic group home, residential treatment center, or psychiatric residential treatment facility. Definitions of these terms vary, but the federal government’s foster care data system (AFCARS) classifies all these settings as “congregate care,” a term that has come to mean any setting that is not a foster home. Perhaps a specially trained, paid and supported therapeutic foster home could help some of these youths, but the numbers of such homes are tiny compared to the need.

So how did we get to this place where so many children with acute needs, far from having their needs met, are being housed in inappropriate and harmful settings? The foster care placement crisis is part of a larger crisis in residential care for youth (not just those in foster care) that stem from a push by advocates and governments to reduce the number of children in institutional care. Egregious cases of abuse in residential facilities have led to extensive press coverage, lawsuits, investigations, and the closure of many residential treatment centers. But they have also been used by opponents of residential care to argue that all such facilities are abusive or unnecessary, instead of recognizing that there are high-quality residential placements that can help the most wounded children who cannot be helped in another setting.

In addition to the growing opposition to residential care, other factors have also affected the supply of these facilities. Reimbursement rates have stagnated around the country, resulting in closure of some facilities. And those that are still open cannot pay their employees more than they would make in jobs in fast food or retail, with much less stress and risk. This has resulted in a staffing crisis that has caused facilities to close.

In a disturbing echo of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960’s, disappearing residential treatment facilities have not been replaced by other options for providing the necessary care. The Colorado Sun reported on the catastropic state of residential care in that state. More than 44 youth treatment centers, with more than 1,000 beds, have closed since 2007. Only “a handful” of the 40 remaining centers will take the youth with the most severe mental health problems. And the director of human services for Weld County, Colorado, told the Sun that when the county does find a residential bed for a child, the child is often kicked out for displaying behaviors to severe for them to handle.

At the same time as residential facilities for youth in general have been closing down, a series of laws and court settlements has resulted in massive reductions in residential beds available to foster youths specifically. As is often the case, California took the lead by passing its Continuum of Care law, and Congress followed by adopting the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), of which one of its two main purposes was the reduction of children’s placements in congregate care. FFPSA accomplished its purpose by limiting to two weeks the time a child could spend in congregate care, except for certain specialized facilities for youth who had been sex-trafficked, pregnant and parenting teens, and independent living facilities. The only other exception is a new facility type called a Quality Residential Treatment Program (QRTP), which must meet stringent requirements, like a trauma-informed model, accreditation, and full-time nurses on site, that would require major modifications for many existing facilities. FFPSA also required that any placement beyond two weeks be approved by a court and that a stay longer than 12 months be approved in writing by the head of the agency. FFPSA contains another poison pill for residential care, of which its framers may have been unaware. QRTP’s of over 16 beds will likely be classified by Medicaid as “Institutions of Medical Diseases,” and therefore youth who are placed in these facilities will be ineligible for Medicaid funding of any of their care.

New Mexico is a “window into challenges facing other states, as documented by Searchlight New Mexico and Pro Publica. in the aftermath of a court settlement in which it agreed to reduce its reliance on residential treatment centers for foster youth, the number of group facilities has dropped by about 60 percent over the four years ending last August. But the state has yet to build the the community-based behavioral health system that it had promised. Therefore, the highest-needs youths are spending months in crisis shelters designed for brief stays and not equipped to deal with severe mental illness. Practically every day, reports Searchlight New Mexico, someone at a shelter that accepts foster teens calls 911 with a report of young people harming themselves, attacking or threatening staff or other residents, or running away. According to Pro Publica, the state plans to train four therapeutic foster parents and open two small group homes, with six beds each, for troubled youth. The state has not yet licensed a single QRTP.

The states with the largest numbers of foster youths are facing crises as well. In California, according to a letter from four state associations in April 2022, 1,193 residential therapeutic beds available to foster youth had been lost since January 1, 2020. The writers report that they are “aware of a number of other providers who are either greatly reducing their capacity, shifting program models to serve youth with less intensive needs, or closing.” In Texas, at any time there are as many as 75 children sleeping in unlicensed facilities like hotels or state-leased houses staffed by CPS workers for lack of an appropriate placement. In New York, more than half of residential treatment facility beds for children have shut down in the past ten years, dropping from 554 to 274, according to Pro Publica. In New York City, the Imprint recently reported that at least 40 children currently in the City’s emergency Children’s Center have been there for more than a month. The center, designed for temporary stays, currently houses 72 children. Housing children with a variety of complex diagnoses and speaking multiple languages, the center is responsible frequent calls to 911 and has been the subject of public scrutiny as a result of some of these episodes.

Some commentators and media outlets persist in blaming the placement crisis on a shortage of foster homes. Confounding the foster home shortage with the shortage of placements for high-needs kids is deceptive. As mentioned above, there are not many potential foster homes that would agree to take these children or that could help them. The option of using therapeutic foster care, while politically popular, has so far resulted in only very small programs due to the difficulty in recruiting suitable parents. This is not to say there is no foster home shortage for children who could be accommodated in a foster home; such shortages probably exist in many or most states, especially when we talk about the supply of quality foster homes.

What can be done? As many advocates argue, we should help children earlier so that they don’t become so damaged that they have to be placed in residential care. Many child welfare leaders and and advocates say the answer is to reach out to families before they become involved with child welfare. But they rarely talk about intervening earlier and more intensively with families already known to child welfare agencies. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Team for years, I have observed a striking pattern among youths who are victims of gun violence. More often than not, their families have extensive child protective services case histories, often involving multiple children with repeated referrals for excessive absences from school, lack of supervision and physical or sexual abuse. The records show referral after referral being screened out, in-home cases being opened and quickly closed, and children being placed in and returned from foster care without any evidence of improvement in family functioning. Over time, the children’s behavior worsens, they acquire mental health diagnoses, become involved with juvenile justice, and those young people whose sad cases I reviewed eventually were killed by other youth and adults with similar backgrounds. We need to understand the deep intergenerational problems of chronically maltreating families and intervene with more intensity earlier–through intensive in-home services (with participation enforced by a court if necessary) and, when all else fails, removal of the child to a safer environment.

No matter what we do to help children earlier, it is obvious that at least in the short-run we must replace some of the lost residential facilities. These new facilities should be QRTP’s or other high-quality residential placements. But they must be established, and funded adequately enough to hire and adequately reward staff who are dedicated and passionate about their work. Some states have already taken action to boost their residential capacity for high-needs youth. The Legislature in Texas, for example, appropriated $70 million to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) for supplemental payments to retain providers and increase provider capacity, and another $20 million for new facilities for the young people with the most intense needs. Congress can help by exempting QRTP’s from the IMD exclusion. The federal government could also incentivize creation of QRTP’s through a pilot or grant program.

Around the country, and in states encompassing the vast majority of foster youth, there is a placement crisis that is affecting mostly those youth who require more intensive care and services. This is part of a larger crisis in residential care for youth, which is exacerbated among foster youth because of new laws and policies discouraging their placement in what is called “congregate care.” Those who explain this as a shortage of foster homes fail to understand the nature of the youth affected. Perhaps earlier intervention with children who are chronically abused or neglected can reduce the number of children who are in need of residential care. But at least in the short run, we must increase the supply of quality residential facilities in order to prevent further damage to these youths. It will be costly, but the costs of inaction would be far greater.

 

In New Jersey, children’s needs disregarded as blood ties take precedence over attachment and timely permanency

In my last commentary, I wrote about the tragic case of Harmony Montgomery, who disappeared after being placed with her father after four-and-a-half years in and out of foster care. Massachusetts is not unusual in keeping young children in limbo for excessive periods of time in the interests of reunifying or placing them with family members. While writing about Harmony, I heard from a foster parent in New Jersey about several children who are being sent home to their parents or placed with relatives after more than three years in foster care starting in infancy or early toddlerhood. There is strong evidence that these disruptions are harmful to young children given the attachments they form to their early caregivers. For this reason, a federal law is designed to curb this practice. Talking to foster parents and advocates revealed a conjunction of policy changes, agency culture and circumstances in New Jersey that are resulting in very young children being removed from stable pre-adoptive homes after as much as three years in these homes, starting in infancy or toddlerhood. But a group of advocates is determined to protect these vulnerable children by showing legislators the reality behind the state’s pious pronouncements about the importance of biological family.

I first wrote about New Jersey in February 2021, when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was turning away would-be foster parents, an unusual situation among states, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. My investigation revealed a dramatic decline in substantiated investigations and foster care entries between 2013 and 2020, which could have been due to policy or practice changes making it harder to confirm child maltreatment or to an increased tendency to place children informally with relatives before concluding a maltreatment investigation. Since that time, the number of children entering foster care has leveled off, changing little between 2020 and 2021, and the agency has begun accepting foster parents again. However, the agency’s emphasis on biological ties at the expense of emotional bonds has been raising concerns among child advocates.

Research has shown that “adverse childhood experiences, known as ACES, that disrupt attachment relationships between children and their caregivers are a “significant predictor of risk for child emotional or behavioral problems.” This is why the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) included a provision requiring states to file for termination of parental rights (TPR) after a child has spent 15 out of the past 22 month in foster care, unless the child is living with a relative, services to address the conditions leading to placement have not been provided, or if the state can document a “compelling reason” why TPR is not in the child’s best interests.

But New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), part of its Department of Children and Families (DCF), has been moving away from considering the importance of attachment and timely permanency for young children. In large part, this change has been a response to the current dominance of an ideology emphasizing the importance of biological family bonds, the trauma caused by family separation, and the belief that if a child must be removed from home then the best placement is with an extended family member or family friend. These beliefs were all reflected in the Family First Act, which was passed in 2018 as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. And now there are calls to repeal the AFSA timelines that encourage timely permanency to protect children from the trauma of being separated from longtime caregivers to whom they have become attached. Also contributing to the focus on blood ties was the growing attention to racial disparities in many areas, including child welfare. This focus was intensified by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which led to comparisons between police and child welfare and calls to abolish the “family policing system.” One organization making this call is upEnd, a collaboration between the University of Houston and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which just happens to be the court monitor for New Jersey’s long-standing class action suit, Charlie and Nadine H. v. Murphy.

In 2018, Christine Beyer became the DCF Commissioner. She came to New Jersey directly from Casey Family Programs, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest operating foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care in the United States.” I’ve written before about Casey’s outsized influence on child welfare policy, which the foundation uses to promulgate its mission to “to provide and improve — and ultimately prevent the need for — foster care.” With assets of $2.4 billion and spending of $111 million in 2019, Casey works to implement its mission by providing free consulting to states and localities, convening meetings, producing research and testimony, and helping place alumni like Beyer in government offices around the country.

In 2019, under Beyer’s leadership, DCF released a new strategic plan, which contained four “transformational goals,” one of which is “preserving kinship connections.” The plan dictates that family separation should be used as rarely as possible, but that when it is necessary to remove children from families to ensure their safety, DCF will ensure that children can remain with extended family or family friends. In aid of this goal, DCF set a target of placing 60 percent of children entering care with kin in the first seven days and 80 percent by the first 30 days.

The New Jersey State Legislature has endorsed the enhanced focus on kinshipn by passing legislation which was signed by Governor Phil Murphy on July 2, 2021. The new law adds a set of “findings” which states that “kinship care is the preferred resource for children who must be removed from their birth families because use of kinship care maintains children’s connections with their families.” But the findings go beyond simply establishing a preference for kinship care. They go on to negate the importance of a child’s attachment to a foster parent in decisions about kinship placement, with the following language:

f.  The existence of a healthy attachment between a child and the child’s resource family parent does not in and of itself preclude the child from maintaining, forming or repairing relationships with the child’s parent or caregiver of origin.

 g.  It is therefore necessary for the Legislature to amend current laws to strengthen support for kinship caregivers, and ensure focus on parents’ fitness and the benefits of preserving the birth parent-child relationship, as opposed to considering the impact of severing the child’s relationship with the resource family parents [bold added by author].

In accord with this finding, the legislation eliminated the provision that allowed the use of evidence that separating a child from the child’s resource family parents would cause “serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm” to the child in initiating a petition to terminate parental rights. This elimination of any consideration of emotional harm to the child, no matter how serious or lasting, is disturbing. The result may be a generation of foster children that are ripped from loving, stable homes with the only parents they have ever known, causing lifelong damage. To make matters even worse, a child’s reunification with a birth parent or placement with kin may not last, but it may be too late to return the child to the foster family that raised them. Witness the case of Harmony Montgomery in Massachusetts. After her third failed reunification with her mother, her behavioral problems had escalated to the extent that the foster family that had provided the only safety and stability she had ever known no longer felt capable of caring for her. (And that’s before she was placed with her unvetted father and disappeared.)

The recent legislation did make some sensible changes that could help children achieve timely permanency. It requires that DCP&P first make reasonable efforts to find a suitable relative or “fictive kin” (family friends or trusted adults who have a preexisting relationship with the child), before placing a child with another person. This is helpful, because placing a child with kin right away prevents the need to remove the child from unrelated caregivers with whom the child has already bonded. It also reduces (to six consecutive months or nine of the last 15 months) the amount of time that a caregiver (including a foster parent) must have cared for a child before qualifying for Kinship Legal Guardianship (KLG), a permanency option that allows an adult with a relationship to a child to raise that child without terminating the parents’ rights.

But aside from the new provision requiring an upfront search for kin and reducing the time to qualify for KLG, the bulk of the policy, practice and legislative changes since 2018 has made it more likely for children in foster care to be removed from foster homes where they have lived for as long as three years. Talking to some of these foster parents raised alarming concerns about DCP&P’s disregard for the damage done to children by tearing them away from the only families they have every known (or can remember) at the age of three or four.

The foster parent who first approached me (I will call her “Ms. R”) has been caring for a child (I will call him “A”) since he was born over three-and-a-half years ago. A was removed from his mother as a result of her substance abuse and mental illness. Although A’s mother did visit, she did not begin to complete goals necessary for reunification until he had been in care for three years. A’s father, late to arrive on the scene due to his mother’s refusal to identify him, was barely engaged. DCP&P had already tried to terminate the rights of both parents, but the judge ruled against the agency, arguing that the father was not given enough time to prepare for reunification. The agency did not appeal, leaving A in limbo beyond timelines and without a clear plan going forward. But after that ruling, the agency began working with A’s mother, whose rights should have been terminated by the judge at the TPR trial. A is currently visiting with his mother twice weekly and has begun to exhibit problem behaviors on visiting days. On one occasion, A’s school called the CPS hotline after A returned from a visit saying “Mommy hurt me,” but DCP&P declined to investigate. A DCP&P worker raised concern about the mother’s rough handling of A during visits, but A’s mother managed to get the worker removed from the case. A’s mental health provider has suggested that the visits end to stop his problem behaviors, as A’s extreme aggression jeopardizes his placement at school and endangers other children. The provider also opposes reunifying A with his mother, but DCP&P appears to be undaunted: the judge has issued a “self-executing order” allowing reunification to proceed at the agency’s discretion without a hearing.

Ms. R referred me to Ms. S, who has been caring for “B” for three-and-a-half years, since she was five days old. B was removed from her parents due to neglect related to substance abuse and mental illness. The father almost killed B in utero by attacking her mother late in her pregnancy, sending her to the emergency room. At 10 months old, B was placed with a relative, but she came back into care neglected and sick after her father had taken her back and was live-streaming himself high with her on Facebook. After the pandemic began, visits became virtual and the parents were given extra time to comply with their case plans. When B was 18 months old, her father began bringing another relative to his visits with her. In her sixties, childless and with mobility problems, the relative nevertheless wanted to raise B and the DCP&P was happy to oblige. When B was two-and-a-half, her goal was changed to Kinship Legal Guardianship with the relative. B began progressively longer visits with the relative, returning to the foster home exhausted with an unused toothbrush, gastrointestinal problems, regressed behaviors and reports that her father was at the visits against agency requirements. The relative refused to speak to the S’s or to take B to trauma therapy. B’s attorney was in favor of adoption by the S’s, and a trial was scheduled and postponed multiple times. Before it could take place, DCP&P simply placed B with the relative at the age of three-and-a-half. B’s lawyer remained opposed to the move but with the new legislation discounting the importance of attachment to the foster parent in TPR cases, told the S’s that his argument would no longer carry weight with the judge.

Ms. R also referred me to Ms. T, who has been caring for “C” for almost three years. “C” came to the R’s at the age of 13 months old malnourished, dehydrated, unable to walk or crawl, and needing hospitalization, after his mother was arrested and her boyfriend brought the three children to New Jersey. C has global developmental delays; his two siblings are autistic and were placed in another home, but the siblings had regular visits. The goal was never changed from reunification, in part due to delays caused by Covid-19. After C had spent nearly three years with the T’s, DCP&P began to plan for adoption, but not with the T’s. C’s two autistic siblings had been moved to an unrelated foster parent who was willing to adopt all three children. Ms. T received a call one morning stating that overnight visits would start that Friday–in a home C had never visited before. Since the visits have started, C has become clingy at home and his behaviors have deteriorated in school to the extent that Ms. S now has to pick him up at noon from his all-day pre-K class. C’s attorney believes he should stay with the T’s and his pediatrician has expressed strong opposition to the move. But DCP&P appears to be resolved on keeping the children together, citing the 80-20 rule, which applies to placements within 30 days, not three years.1 Clearly, the agency believes that the blood ties between siblings who have never lived together outweigh C’s attachment to a foster family that has raised him for the last three-quarters of his life–including the foster “brother” he grew up with, who has now been adopted by the T’s.

In all of these cases, DCP&P chose to remove children from foster parents who had been caring for them for three or more years and wanted to adopt them. This is far beyond the timeline contained in federal and New Jersey law, which requires states to file for TPR after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. States are allowed to make exceptions based on the best interests of the child, the lack of services for the parents, or a child already living with a relative, but it does not appear that these exceptions applied in these cases. For the two children, B and C, who were placed or about to be placed with relatives, those relatives should have been identified and the children placed with them much earlier if the placement was going to happen at all. The goal of having 80 percent of children placed with kin within a month should not be cited to justify moving a child to kin after three years; yet DCP&P staff cited it to justify “C”‘s placement with a stranger after almost three years with his foster family

We should not make policy based on individual cases and we do not know how frequent these extended stays in foster care are or whether they are increasing in New Jersey. Data on how long children stay in foster care before achieving permanency is not available either in New Jersey or nationwide.2 Nor do we know the extent to which the pandemic has contributed to delays in permanency; it did not seem to affect the case of A, whose mother did not start working on her case plan for three years, but it seems to have contributed to the delays in permanency for “B” and “C.” In addition, a historically high shortage of family court judges has also been delaying the scheduling of hearings in New Jersey; the state Senate is moving to fill the vacancies now. However, it appears that policy and practice in New Jersey are moving in the direction of delayed permanency as children in foster care wait for parents to work on their case plans or appropriate relatives to appear. And the New Jersey Legislature’s elimination of attachment to foster parents as a criterion in TPR filings is clearly designed to remove one obstacle to reunification or relative placement outside the timeframes that are considered acceptable by child development experts.

It is unfortunate that New Jersey does not seem to be interested in collecting data that might cast light on the extent and impacts of the increased emphasis on blood ties. For example, child advocates worry that DCP&P may be increasingly waiving foster parent licensing requirements for kin caregivers at the expense of children’s safety, but DCF does not provide data on the number of waivers granted. Data on re-entry into foster care after reunification or permanent placement has not been updated on the data portal maintained by Rutgers University since 2019 and data on maltreatment after reunification has not been updated since 2018. Whether DCF is simply indifferent or prefers not to share this data is not a question I can answer.

BA small but growing group of New Jersey foster parents and child advocates is determined to push back against current trends and place children’s needs front and center where they belong. Begun in response to the dramatic decline in foster care entries and fears that children were being left in dangerous homes, the Child Advocacy Association of New Jersey (CAANJ), is housed inside a nonprofit (Miriam’s Heart) that supports foster and adoptive children and families. CAANJ fought unsuccessfully against removing the provision that allowed the use of evidence that separating a child from the child’s foster parents would harm the child in initiating a petition to terminate parental rights. Currently, the group is supporting bills that would require foster parents, relatives, pre-adoptive parents, or caretakers to be party to reviews or hearings involving a child under DCP&P care; establish an Office of Child Advocate or Ombudsperson; and increase the frequency of permanency hearings from every 12 months to every six months. They also have a wish list of legislation that they would like to draft if they can find sponsors. This includes a foster parents’ bill of rights and legislation allowing foster parents to be considered “kin” for placement and adoption purposes (not just Kinship Legal Guardianship) after the child has been with the family for a specified period of time; strengthening the requirements to search for relatives at the beginning of a child’s foster care placement; requiring TPR hearings to take place within six months of a child’s goal changing to adoption; allowing open adoption to be an option in foster care adoptions; and imposing uniform standards for whether resource, kinship, or biological caregivers when it comes to agency involvement, removal and reunification.

The national movement to place blood ties above attachment and bonding has found a faithful echo in New Jersey, where children’s needs are being disregarded as they are being reunified with parents or placed with relatives long after they should have been settled in permanent homes. Ironically, DCF has a “Statewide Action Plan” for addressing ACES among New Jersey’s children, but the plan does not require the agency itself to stop inflicting ACES on its own clients. But a group of child advocates is fighting back and trying to enlist legislators in the quest to put children’s needs back on the front burner. This child advocate fervently hopes that they succeed.

  1. Moreover, it is not clear that the 80-20 rule was meant to be satisfied by placing a child with siblings in the home of a non-relative.
  2. Ideally we would want to know, for each child exiting to a permanent placement, the amount of time they were in foster care, and how this “time to permanency” has changed over time. Such data are not provided routinely by states and the federal government and requires manipulation of data by researchers using statistical analysis software.

The tragedy of Harmony Montgomery: Why we must strengthen the federal permanency timeline, not repeal it

Source: NBC News

I write with heartbreak and rage about a child who was removed from her drug-abusing mother at the age of two months, placed with a loving family that wanted to adopt her, ripped from this family twice more to return to her mother in a fruitless attempt at reunification, and finally placed after over four years with a father and stepmother she hardly knew without any vetting to ensure their capacity to care for her. The case of Harmony Montgomery has made national news–but only because she is now missing after that last disastrous placement. The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) has released its report on the tragic case of Harmony Montgomery. The OCA report reveals the extent of the disruption to which Massachusetts subjected this young child, but unfortunately it does not draw the needed conclusions about policy and practice to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care. No child should be subject to the treatment Harmony received in the child welfare system, let alone the abuse and neglect she certainly endured after leaving it, but policy shifts being considered now would make it more likely that other children will suffer similar fates.

Harmony’s child protection case began almost as soon as she was born in June 2014 to Crystal Sorey and Adam Montgomery, who were not married and were no longer together at the time of her birth. Montgomery was incarcerated at the time of Harmony’s birth for “a shooting that involved illicit substances,” according to the report. Harmony was diagnosed at birth with a visual disability and was blind in one eye. Due to her disability, she received early intervention services until age three and then special education services from her local school district until moving to New Hampshire.

Shortly after Harmony’s birth, the Haverhill Area Office of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) received three reports alleging that Sorey was using illegal substances and neglecting Harmony. DCF confirmed the allegation of neglect and opened a case to provide services to the family without removing Harmony. But two more reports were made in August 2014, and DCF concluded that Sorey continued to struggle with substance abuse, putting Harmony at risk. Two-month-old Harmony was removed and placed in foster care. (A chronology at the end of this commentary provides a summary of the case history).

In January 2015, seven-month-old Harmony was returned to the care of her mother. But the following April, at the age of 10 months, Harmony was removed from Sorey again due to neglect associated with her renewed substance abuse. In July 2015, Harmony’s permanency plan was changed from reunification to adoption. In September 2015 Adam Montgomery was released from prison and moved to New Hampshire, but he did not contact DCF for a year. In February 2017, the DCF team changed Harmony’s goal back to reunification with her mother. That March, Harmony was returned to her mother for the second time. She was almost three years old and had been in foster care for a total of 28 months, including approximately 23 consecutive months since her second removal from her mother.

In January 2018, at the age of three-and-a-half, Harmony was once again removed from Sorey due to the latter’s neglect associated with renewed substance abuse, and she was placed in the same foster home where she had lived during both of her previous stays in care. In August 2018, when Harmony was four years old and after eleven months without seeing her, her father resumed supervised visits. According to OCA, in December 2018 the team began working toward “reunification”1,2 with Montgomery instead of Sorey and requested that New Hampshire conduct a home study through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).3 Nevertheless, Harmony’s goal was changed back to adoption in that same month.4

A hearing was held in February 2019 to consider both parents’ requests for immediate custody of Harmony, but Sorey was unable to attend because she was at a hearing about another of her children. New Hampshire had not yet acted on the home study request and the DCF attorney objected to the placement of Harmony with Montgomery in the absence of any information about the family. The attorneys for Montgomery, Sorey and Harmony5 all supported giving custody to Montgomery, and the judge awarded him full custody on the grounds that as a “fit parent” as defined by law, Montgomery’s right to parent his child could not be infringed by the ICPC. A week later, Montgomery brought Harmony to New Hampshire to join his household made up of his wife, Kayla Montgomery, and their two children, who were both under five years old. DCF’s involvement with Harmony was over and there was to be no agency or court oversight of the newly reunified family as there would be if Montgomery lived in Massachusetts.

A report from the Governor of New Hampshire provides a glimpse into Harmony’s troubled life after arriving in New Hampshire. On July 19, 2019, an anonymous call was made to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) hotline stating that five-year-old Harmony was seen a week before with a black eye that Adam Montgomery admitted causing. In a visit conducted on August 7, 2019, a social worker found signs of a healing black eye, but Harmony and her father said the mark was caused by “horseplay” with a sibling. The allegation was ruled “unfounded,” but Harmony was deemed to be at high risk for future maltreatment.

On January 8, 2020, another call was made to the hotline regarding another child or children in the home. When the investigating social worker asked about Harmony, Adam Montgomery said that she had been back in Massachusetts with her mother since about Thanksgiving of 2019. Kayla Montgomery later confirmed the story, stating that Montgomery told her he was taking Harmony to Sorey on the day after Thanksgiving in 2019. On January 13 and March 16, additional calls were received regarding the household, and Montgomery again stated that Harmony was with her mother and he had not seen her in a year. In September 2021, a person known to Sorey called the DCYF hotline to say that Sorey had not seen Harmony since 2019 and had not been able to reach Montgomery to schedule a visit. DCYF learned that Harmony had never been registered for public school in Manchester.

On December 31, 2021, the Manchester police located Montgomery, but he did not have Harmony in his care and gave “contradictory and unconvincing explanations” of her whereabouts. An exhaustive police search for Harmony began, making national headlines. On January 4, 2022, Adam Montgomery was arrested on charges of second degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child. On January 6, 2022, Manchester police arrested Kayla Montgomery on a charge of welfare fraud for obtaining over $1,500 in Food Stamp benefits for Harmony after she was no longer in their household. The search for Harmony continues.

The case history shared by OCA shows that DCF, the agency charged with protecting children, instead subjected Harmony to the trauma of repeated moves during her crucial infancy and early childhood, including ripping her from a loving home where she had resided for almost two years. After being removed from her mother at two months, returned to her at seven months, removed again at ten months, and then remaining another 23 months in foster care, Harmony deserved to stay with the only family who had provided a safe and stable home for her. This family had even facilitated Harmony’s contact with family members other than her parents, who visited her in the foster home and told OCA they appreciated the care Harmony received there. But DCF sent her back to her mother, only to remove her again 10 months later. There is no better evidence of the damage done by this ill-advised action than the following quote from the OCA report:

Although placed in the same foster home after each removal, each time Harmony returned she struggled with more challenging behavior and increasing feelings of insecurity. While the foster parents provided exceptional care and were committed to Harmony, with each subsequent placement the scope and depth of her behavioral and emotional needs grew. The foster family felt that after Harmony had been removed from Ms. Sorey’s care for the last time, they were no longer able to provide for her increased needs. Several months into her third placement, Harmony’s foster parents determined that it was in Harmony’s best interest to be placed in a therapeutic foster home where she would receive the specialized and dedicated attention she needed. It is evident in the record this was an extraordinarily difficult decision for the foster parents as they consistently expressed their love for Harmony. 

Office of the Child Advocate, A Multi System Investigation Regarding Harmony Montgomery, May 2022,

The harm to children of such repeated disruptions has been well documented, as Sarah Font and Lindsey Palmer explain. Humans have a fundamental need to know where and to whom they belong. Foster care sets up a “loyalty conflict” that is familiar to every social worker who has worked in the field, and the harmful impacts of repeated movement between the two families cannot be overstated. Secondly, children need predictability, and research consistently shows that unpredictable environments harm children’s development even more than harmful environments. Every member of Harmony’s case management team should have been aware of the harm that would be caused by the repeated disruptions in her living situation, the on-and-off visitation with her father and the continued uncertainty about her future.

In subjecting Harmony to over four years of uncertainty and disruption, DCF and the court also appear to have flouted both law and policy guidelines. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119 Section 26 requires DCF to file a petition in court to “dispense with parental consent to adoption, custody, guardianship or other disposition” if the child has been in foster care in the custody of the state for 15 of the immediately preceding 22 months. This law is based on the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), which requires states to observe this “15/22 rule” in order to receive Federal foster care funds. Federal and Massachusetts law provide three exceptions to the rule: if the child is being cared for by a relative, if there there is a “compelling reason” that filing such a petition would not be in the best interests of the child, and if the family has not been provided with the services that the department has deemed necessary for the child’s safe return home. DCF policy mirrors the provisions of the law by requiring that DCF review all cases of children who have been in placement 15 of the past 22 months and initiate a petition for TPR (termination of parental rights) unless one of the three exceptions described above apply.6 But there is no mention in the OCA report that such a review took place.

DCF policy includes other requirements to ensure the 15/22 rule is followed, mostly through the use of Permanency Planning Conferences (PPC’s). PPC’s are “the Department’s primary internal planning vehicle for reviewing the clinical and legal issues related to permanency decision-making.” PPC’s are required under certain circumstances, including within the first 9 months following the date of placement. At this conference, DCF policy states that:

For most families, based upon a well-reasoned prognosis about the probability of the child’s returning home given the family’s documented capacity to benefit from reunification services, the Department will decide whether to initiate a TPR action at the PPC held within 9 months after the child enters placement. In some of those cases, the Department will decide that one of the exceptions [described above] applies but will schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement to determine whether initiating TPR is appropriate given the facts as they then exist. 

Harmony’s first PPC noted by OCA took place in July 2015, about 11 months after her placement, in apparent violation of the nine-month deadline. The result of that conference was a change of Harmony’s permanency goal to adoption, which presumably entailed “initiating a TPR action” as described by the policy. If for some reason that did not happen, another PPC should have been scheduled for the 13th month after placement. OCA does not cite another PPC until the one that took place in February 2017, which was about two-and-a-half years after placement and actually changed her goal back to reunification. So it is appears that the DCF Area Office was out of compliance with agency policy requiring it to either initiate the TPR or schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement.

There are more safeguards in DCF policy to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care, but these did not save Harmony either. According to policy, “Any decision not to initiate [a TPR] when a child has been in placement for 15 of the previous 22 months must be the result of a Permanency Planning Conference and approved by the Director of Areas/designee.” Harmony had spent 15 of the past 22 months in care around February 2016. But there is no mention that such a PPC ever took place or that such approval was obtained. As noted above, the next PPC mentioned by OCA occurred after Harmony had been in care for two-and-a-half years.

The OCA report does not mention the 15/22 rule, even though it provides a link to the policy in which the rule is repeatedly mentioned. Presumably, the rule was not mentioned in the case records that OCA reviewed, and this may be typical. When the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied early state implementation of AFSA, they found that in the nine states that provided data on the use of the rule in FY 2000, “the number of children exempted from the provision greatly exceeded the number of children to whom it was applied.” This is not surprising because the exceptions can be easily interpreted so broadly as to apply to many or most cases. There is no update on the GAO survey, but available evidence suggests that application of this provision is not widespread. During child welfare monitoring visits conducted by the federal government between 2015 and 2018, practices related to timely termination of parental rights were rated as a strength in only seven of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and were rated as an “area needing improvement” in the other 44 jurisdictions, according to a federal study. Foster parents from around the country who completed a caregiver survey disseminated by the advocacy group iFoster reported that failure to observe the AFSA timeline resulted in stalled permanency for foster youth. Certainly, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled.

Whether social workers around the country are assessing cases to determine whether the exceptions apply or simply ignoring the 15/22 rule is not clear. In Harmony’s case, no discussion is noted in the OCA report of whether she was exempt from the rule. It certainly appears that her mother received more than enough services before and after her relapses; she was reported to have received both substance abuse treatment and mental health therapy. It might have been possible to argue that Harmony’s father needed more time because he was released from prison when she had already spent ten months in foster care, but since he did not contact DCF for a year after being released, such an argument seems weak.

Respect for the 15/22 rule is if anything decreasing because of the current ideological climate in child welfare that prioritizes the rights of parents over the needs of children. Indeed, there is a new movement to repeal ASFA altogether on the grounds that it is unfair to parents. Parents’ rights advocates argue that states are not providing parents with the services they need, and it is not fair to apply the timeline when parents have not been offered the services they need in time to meet the 15-month deadline. This is a valid point. Enforcement of the timeline needs to be accompanied by prompt assessment and appropriate services for both parents. But the burden should be on the parent to make use of the services offered. An agency should not be required to beg, persuade or repeatedly urge parent to pursue visits and services. if a parent falls out of touch and cannot be reached, the child should not be penalized by delays in permanency.

Parent advocates also argue that it often takes longer than 15 months to correct deep-seated problems. In particular, it is well-known that most substance abusers (like Harmony’s mother) relapse more than once before shaking their addiction. But young children simply don’t have the time to wait for such a parent to be cured without incurring irreversible developmental damage.

In this time when parents’ rights advocates have all but monopolized the current conversation, few seem to be speaking for the rights of children. But in its recent report, Voice of the Foster Care Community, the advocacy group iFoster concluded that greater efforts are needed to support parents before their children are removed, and to help them regain their children quickly once placed in foster care. But if that quick reunification does not happen, caregivers, workers and advocates surveyed stated the need to prioritize the needs of the child over the needs of the parent to avoid delays in termination of parental rights. As one Pennsylvania foster parent put it,

….if parents are unable to work their case plan, then the 15 of 22 months rule must be followed so kids don’t languish in care for years. This is a way-too-common occurrence. Parents are given many chances to work their case plan while their children languish in care, being passed back and forth between families and living in instability.”

Advocates for children in foster care should be asking Congress to strengthen the 15/22 rule, not repeal it. Perhaps there could be different timelines for children of different ages, as has been suggested by Cassie Statuto Bevan, who helped draft ASFA. Children who come into care as teens may not want their bonds with their parents to be disrupted. But the youngest children need to achieve permanency even faster than what is prescribed by ASFA. Infants and young children placed in foster care should not spend their most crucial developmental period in limbo awaiting a parent’s eventual cure.

OCA’s central finding was that “Harmony’s individual needs, wellbeing, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity.” This finding certainly encompasses DCF’s failure to seek timely permanency for Harmony. But OCA’s specific findings and recommendations regarding time to permanency are not as well-developed as they could have been. OCA has one finding regarding permanency as it relates to DCF, but it is quite weak, stating that “the delay in achieving permanency for Harmony impacted her well-being.” OCA goes on to explain that the delay caused trauma for Harmony, which in turn resulted in the disruption of her pre-adoptive placement. In reality, If Harmony had been adopted soon after she had spent 15 months in foster care, she would have found safety and stability in a loving home. The failure to pursue adoption within 15 months of Harmony’s placement in foster care did not just damage her emotionally; it resulted in her disappearance and possible death.

Strangely, OCA made no recommendation to DCF regarding reducing the time to it takes to achieve permanency for children in foster care. There was no mention of the 15/22 rule and the failure to enforce it or follow the procedures designed to ensure its observance. It is only in the section on the legal process that OCA stated (but did not label as a “Recommendation”) that “For children whose parents will not accept services or to whom children cannot be safely returned to their home within the first two years of their removal, DCF should expeditiously move toward another permanency plan.”7

OCA had a number of other findings and recommendations. The Office rightly highlighted DCF’s exclusive focus on Sorey as a potential caregiver for Harmony throughout most of the life of the case, resulting in the failure to complete an assessment of Montgomery and his wife and develop an appropriate service plan for them. This was particularly important in light of Harmony’s disabilities, which required that a caregiver be able to provide adequate care. Clearly, DCF should have done more to engage Montgomery during the first 15 months of the case. If he and his wife had been assessed and provided with an appropriate service plan, perhaps they would have been ruled out as as caregivers long before the fateful hearing. This failure to engage Montgomery resulted in OCA’s only recommendation directed at DCF, which was that “DCF should develop a comprehensive plan to ensure both parents are adequately assessed and receive the support and access to services needed so that their child(ren) can achieve permanency.”

OCA devoted the bulk of its findings and recommendations to the legal process, and specifically to the many problems with the February 2019 hearing that resulted in Harmony’s placement with her father. Clearly, the placement of Harmony with her father in the absence of any assessment of him or his wife or any examination of their home was the immediate cause of the the tragic outcome. But that hearing, conducted over four years from Harmony’s entry into foster care, should have never taken place. OCA’s findings regarding the process are certainly worth consideration, but there should have been much more attention given to the need to ensure permanency for children much earlier.

Despite the flaws in its findings and recommendations, the OCA report is invaluable for its revelation of the problems in social work and legal practice that led to the disappearance and probable murder of Harmony Montgomery. Harmony’s story should be a cautionary tale for anyone supporting, or considering the value of, proposals to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or at least the requirement that states initiate a termination of parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. Rather than eliminated, that provision needs to be strengthened by reducing the scope of the exemptions that make it toothless and perhaps by adjusting it according to the age of the child. No other child should be subjected–by a system designed to protect children– to the suffering that Harmony underwent while in the system and after leaving it.

Timeline of Harmony’s case based on the OCA report

DateMonths in Foster CareEvent/Activity
June 2014Harmony is born. DCF receives three reports of substance abuse and neglect by her mother. A case is opened
August 2014DCF receives two more reports. Harmony is removed.
January 20155Harmony meets her father for the first time, in prison, and is returned to her mother
April 2015Harmony is removed from her mother again due to substance abuse
July 20158Harmony meets her father for the second time, in prison; Harmony’s permanency plan changed to adoption
September 201510Harmony’s father is released from prison and moves to New Hampshire
February 201615Harmony has spent 15 months in foster care out of the last 22 months
September 201622Adam Montgomery contacts DCF for the first time since his release from prison a year earlier
October 201623Harmony meets Adam Montgomery for the third time.
February 201727Harmony’s permanency plan is changed back to reunification. After visiting with Harmony once a month for five months, Adam Montgomery stops responding to DCF’s efforts to schedule further supervised visits.
March 201728Harmony is returned to her mother for the third time. Over the next few months she has unsupervised weekend visits with her father.
September 201728Adam Montgomery contacts DCF after a seven-month lapse, and has one supervised visit with Harmony.
January 201828Harmony is removed from her mother for the third time due to substance abuse.
August 201835Adam Montgomery resumes supervised visits after a lapse of 11 months.
December 201839Harmony’s goal is changed back to adoption.
February 201941A Juvenile Court Judge awards custody of Harmony to Adam Montgomery. One week later, Montgomery takes her to New Hampshire and DCF involvement ends.
September 2021A person known to Crystal Sorey contacts the New Hampshire child ause hotline to report that she has not seen Harmony since April 2019.
December 2021Manchester police announce Harmony’s disappearance and their search for her. She has not yet been found.
Notes to Table: For purposes of calculating months in foster care, All dates assumed to be the first of the month

This commentary was updated on June 8, 2022 to incorporate the results of a federal study entitled Freeing Children for Adoption within the Adoption and Safe Families Act Timeline.

Notes

1. Child welfare law and policy refer to “reunification” with a parent even if the child has never lived with that parent.

2. According to OCA, “the Foster Care Review panel kept a permanency goal of reunification for Harmony but for the first time changed their focus of reuniting Harmony with Ms. Sorey to placing her with Mr. Montgomery.” But OCA explained in an earlier text box, foster care review panels make recommendations, not decisions. Therefore this statement appears to be inaccurate.

3. The ICPC is an agreement between the states that allows a state considering placement of a child in another state to request a home study of the family with whom the child will be placed.

4. This goal change raises many questions which are not addressed in the OCA report. It is not clear why the goal was changed so soon after the team reportedly agreed to continue the goal of reunification with a new focus on Adam Montgomery. This discrepancy could be related to OCA’s confusing statement that a Foster Care Review panel made the decision to continue the goal of reunification but shift the focus to Adam Montgomery. Perhaps that panel only recommended this new focus. According to OCA, the panel also recommended convening a Permanency Planning Conference (PPC), which is the body empowered to change the goal and which indeed did change the goal to adoption.

5. According to OCA, Harmony’s attorney supported custody for Montgomery because she was bound to advocate for the expressed wishes of the four-and-a-half-year old, not her best interests.

6. While federal law and DCF policy speak of initiating a TPR petition, Massachusetts law prescribes “dispensing with parental consent,” as described in the previous note. Some jurisdictions, in order to avoid creating “legal orphans” through a TPR, take this approach of dispensing with parental consent to an adoption or guardianship. The practical result would be the same, ending parental rights.

7. In its list of recommendations for the courts, OCA strangely includes a recommendation for the agency, stating that “DCF should review and determine the length of time from permanent custody to a final adjudication of adoption, guardianship or return to parent for a child in order to ensure that the case achieves a safe and expedient resolution.” In addition to being misplaced, this is a very weak statement of what needs to be done.

“Five Myths about the Child Welfare System” misleads more than it corrects

Source: UAlberta.ca

by Marie Cohen and Marla Spindel

The following was submitted as an Op-Ed to the Washington Post in an effort to ensure the. public has the benefit of various viewpoints on this topic but, unfortunately, the Post chose not to publish it.

We were troubled to read Dorothy Roberts’ “Five myths about the child welfare system” in the April 17th Outlook section of the Washington Post. Roberts’ version of reality does not agree with what we see every day as child advocates in the District of Columbia, nor with the research on child welfare.

“Myth” No. 1: Child welfare workers mainly rescue children from abuse. Roberts is correct that at most 17 percent of the children placed in foster care in FY 2020 were found to be victims of physical or sexual abuse. But she is wrong when she implies that most neglect findings reflect parents who are too poor to provide adequate housing, clothing and food to their children. Many of the neglectful parents we have seen have serious, chronic mental illness or substance use disorders that impact their parenting, and they are unwilling or unable to comply with a treatment plan. Meanwhile, the children in their care are often left to fend for themselves because their parents cannot feed and dress them, change their diapers, or get them to school. Many children neglected in this way develop cognitive and social deficits, attachment disorders, and emotional regulation problems. Most poor parents do not neglect their children. Even with scarce resources, they find a way to provide safe and consistent care.

“Myth” No. 2: Homes are investigated only if children are at risk of harm. The purpose of an investigation is to determine whether children are at risk of harm. Professionals who work with children are trained to report concerns about possible maltreatment, not to investigate on their own. The system is not perfect. Some reports are too minor to meet the definition of maltreatment, or even maliciously motivated. A surprisingly large number of children are reported every year and only a minority of these reports are substantiated—but that does not mean they are not true. But to propose that investigations should take place only if it is first determined that children are at risk puts the cart before the horse and disregards the safety of children.

“Myth” No. 3: Foster children are usually placed with loving families. Roberts’ statement that large numbers of children are placed in some form of congregate care — group homes, residential treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals—is misleading. Only eight percent of children in foster care were in a group home or institution at the end of September, 2020, though the percentage is higher for older youth. The problem is the lack of quality therapeutic placements for children who have been so damaged by long histories of abuse and neglect that they cannot function in a family home. It is true that many children bounce from one foster home to another, but these are often youths with acute behavior problems that make it difficult for them to function in a home. Roberts also fails to mention that 34 percent of foster children were residing in the homes of relatives as of September 2020, and that they have more placement stability than children placed in non-kinship homes.

“Myth” No. 3: Foster children are usually placed with loving families. Roberts’ statement that large numbers of children are placed in some form of congregate care — group homes, residential treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals—is misleading. Only eight percent of children in foster care were in a group home or institution at the end of September, 2020, though the percentage is higher for older youth. The problem is the lack of quality therapeutic placements for children who have been so damaged by long histories of abuse and neglect that they cannot function in a family home. It is true that many children bounce from one foster home to another, but these are often youths with acute behavior problems that make it difficult for them to function in a home. Roberts also fails to mention that 34 percent of foster children were residing in the homes of relatives as of September 2020, and that they have more placement stability than children placed in non-kinship homes.

Myth No. 4: Placing children in foster care improves their well-being.” Arguing that foster care is harmful is like arguing that treatment in a cancer ward increases the risk of dying of cancer. Foster youths are likely to have poor outcomes given their history of maltreatment, which foster care cannot erase. It is difficult to assess how foster care placement affects children, since we cannot do a controlled experiment in which some children are placed and a similar set of children are not. Roberts quotes only one study, from 2007, that shows harm from foster care—and that study included borderline cases only, leaving out children suffering severe and obvious maltreatment. She does not quote the same author’s brand-new paper, which finds both positive and negative effects for different contexts, subgroups, and study designs.

“Myth” No. 5: This system was founded after the case of Mary Ellen Wilson. This is an esoteric myth, as few people have heard of Wilson. Roberts is right that many histories trace the roots of today’s child welfare system to the case of that little girl. We appreciate Roberts’ clarifications but are not convinced of their significance. We believe other myths are much more relevant, such as that neglect is synonymous with poverty, or that all children are betteroff with their parents no matter how badly abused or neglected they are.

It is disappointing that the Post allowed Roberts to use this series to propagate new myths, rather than dispel old ones.

Marie Cohen is a former foster care social worker, current member of the District of Columbia Child Fatality Review Committee, and author of the blog, Child Welfare Monitor. You can findher review of Dorothy Roberts’ new book here. Marla Spindel is the Executive Director of DCKincare Alliance and a recipient of the 2020 Child Welfare League of America’s Champion for Children Award.

Torn apart: A skewed portrait of child welfare in America

In her 2009 book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, Dorothy Roberts drew attention to the disproportional representation of Black children in foster care and child welfare in general and helped make “racial disproportionality” a buzzword in the child welfare world. In her new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, Roberts revisits the issues addressed in Shattered Bonds and creates a new buzzword, renaming child welfare as the “family policing system.” Those who liked Shattered Bonds will likely love Torn Apart. But those who value accuracy in history or in data will find it to be sadly misguided, although it does make some valid points about flaws in the U.S. child welfare system.

Roberts starts with a horrific anecdote about a mother, Vanessa Peoples, who was doing everything right–she was married, going to nursing school, about to rent a townhouse and was even a cancer patient. But Peoples attracted the attention of both the police and child welfare and ended up hogtied and carted off to jail by police, placed on the child abuse registry, and subjected to months of monitoring by CPS after she lost sight of her toddler at a family picnic when a cousin was supposed to be watching him. But citing these extreme anecdotes as typical is very misleading. This particular story has been covered in numerous media outlets since it occurred in 2017 and continues to be cited regularly. One can counter every one of these horrific anecdotes with a story of a Black child who would have been saved if social workers had not believed and deferred to the parents. (See my commentary on the abuse homicides of Rashid Bryant and Julissia Batties, for example).

Roberts’ book restates many of the old myths that have been plaguing child welfare discussions as of late and that seem to have a life of their own, impervious to the facts. Perhaps the most common and pernicious is the myth that poverty is synonymous with neglect. Roberts embraces this misconception, suggesting that most neglect findings reflect parents who are too poor to provide adequate housing, clothing and food to their children. But parents who are found to have neglected their children typically have serious, chronic mental illness or substance use disorders that severely affect their parenting, and have refused or are unable to comply with a treatment plan. Many are chronically neglectful, resulting in children with cognitive and social deficits, attachment disorders, and emotional regulation problems. Commentator Dee Wilson argues based on his decades of experience in child welfare that “a large percentage of neglect cases which receive post-investigation services, or which result in foster placement, involve a combination of economic deprivation and psychological affliction…., which often lead to substance abuse as a method of self-medication.” Perhaps the strongest argument against the myth that poverty and neglect are one and the same is that most poor parents do not neglect their children.  They find a way to provide safe and consistent care, even without the resources they desperately need and deserve.

Roberts endorses another common myth–that children are worse off in foster care than they would be if they remained in their original homes. She argues that foster care is a “toxic state intervention that inflicts immediate and long-lasting damage on children, producing adverse outcomes for their health, education, income, housing, and relationships.” It is certainly true that foster youth tend to have bad outcomes in multiple domains, including education, health, mental health, education, housing and incarceration. But we also know that child abuse and neglect are associated with similar poor outcomes. Unfortunately, the research is not very helpful for resolving the question of whether these outcomes are caused by the original child maltreatment or by placement in foster care. We cannot, of course, ethically perform a controlled study in which we remove some children and leave a similar set of children at home. We must rely on studies that use various methodologies to disentangle these influences, but all of them have flaws. Roberts cites the study published in 2007 by Joseph Doyle, which compared children who were placed in foster care with children in similar situations who were not. Doyle found that children placed in foster care fared worse on every outcome than children who remained at home. But Doyle focused on marginal cases* and left out the children suffering the most severe and obvious maltreatment. In a brand-new paper, Doyle, along with Anthony Bald and other co-authors, states that both positive and negative effects have been found for different contexts, subgroups, and study designs.

There is one myth that Roberts does not endorse: the myth that disproportional representation of Black children in child welfare is due to racial bias in the child welfare system, rather than different levels of maltreatment in the two populations. After an extensive review of the debate on this issue, Roberts concludes that it focused on the wrong question. In her current opinion, it doesn’t matter if Black children are more likely to be taken into foster care because they are more often maltreated. “It isn’t enough,” she states, “to argue that Black children are in greater need of help. We should be asking why the government addresses their needs in such a violent way, (referring to the child removal). Roberts was clever to abandon the side that believes in bias rather than different need as the source of disparities. The evidence has become quite clear that Black-White disparities in maltreatment are sufficient to explain the disparity of their involvement in child welfare; for example Black children are three times as likely to die from abuse or neglect as White children. As Roberts suggests and as commentators widely agree, these disparities in abuse and neglect can be explained by the disparities in the rates of poverty and other maltreatment risk factors stemming from our country’s history of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, Roberts’ continued focus on these disparities in child welfare involvement will continue to be used by the many professionals who are working inside and outside child welfare systems all over the country to implement various bias reduction strategies, from implicit bias training to “blind removals.”

In Part III, entitled “Design,” Roberts attempts to trace the current child welfare system to the sale of enslaved children and a system of forced “apprenticeship” of formerly enslaved Black children under Jim Crow, whereby white planters seized custody of Black children from their parents as a source of forced labor.** As she puts it, “[t]hroughout its history US family policy has revolved around the racist belief that Black parents are unfit to raise their children. Beginning with chattel slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow, civil rights, and neoliberal eras, the white power structure has wielded this lie as a rationale to control Black communities, exploit Black labor, and quell Black rebellion by assaulting Black families.” In other passages she adds other groups to the list of victims, adding “Indigenous, immigrant and poor people to the list of communities that are being controlled by the “family policing system.” But most of her statements refer to Black victims only.

Roberts’ attempt to connect slavery and Jim Crow practices with child welfare systems highlights a major flaw of the book. She herself explains that due to racism the child welfare system served only White children when it emerged in the nineteenth century with the creation of child protection charities and the passage of state laws allowing maltreated children to be removed from their homes and placed in orphanages. Foster care was established in the middle of the century and also excluded Black children. The system did not begin serving Black children until after World War II, so it is difficult to understand how it could stem from slavery and Jim Crow practices. It seems much more plausible that the child welfare system arose from basically benevolent concerns about children being maltreated, and that with the rise of the civil rights movement, these concerns were eventually extended to Black children as well.

While Black children’s representation as a share of foster care and child welfare caseloads rose rapidly starting in the 1960’s, and Black children are much more likely to be touched by the system than White children, the system still involves more White than Black children. According to the latest figures, there were 175,870 White non-Hispanic children in foster care (or 44 percent of children in foster care) and 92,237 Black (non-Hispanic) children in foster care, or 23 percent of children in foster care. Moreover, the disparity between Black and White participation in child welfare and foster care as a percentage of the population seems to be decreasing.*** So the idea that this whole system exists to oppress the Black community and maintain white supremacy seems farfetched.

Roberts’ attempt to make Black children the focus of the book results in some awkward juxtapositions, like when she admits that though the Senate investigation of abuses by a for-profit foster care agency called MENTOR “highlighted cases involving white children, we should remember that Black children are more likely to experience these horrors in foster care—not only because Black children are thrown in foster care at higher rates, but also because government officials have historically cared less about their well-being.” A page later she states that the “child welfare system’s treatment of children in its custody is appalling but should come as no surprise. It is the predictable consequence of a system aimed at oppressing Black communities, not protecting Black children.” It is hard to understand how White children being maltreated in bad placements supports this narrative.

Fundamental to Roberts’ critique is her system is “not broken.” “Those in power have no interest in fundamentally changing a system that is benefiting them financially and politically, one that continues to serve their interests in disempowering Black communities, reinforcing a white supremacist power structure, and stifling calls for radical social change.” Even if one believes there is a white supremacist power structure, it is hard to see the direct connection between the abuses Roberts is highlighting and the disempowerment of Black communities; it seems more likely that the more abusive the system, the more protests it would generate. And at a time when the federal government and some of the wealthiest foundations and nongovernmental organizations are echoing much of Robert’s rhetoric, her reasoning seems particularly off-target.

Roberts makes some valid criticisms of the child welfare system. Her outrage at the terrible inadequacies of our foster care system is well-deserved. She is right that “The government should be able to show that foster care puts Black children [I’d say “all children”] on a different trajectory away from poverty, homelessness, juvenile detention, and prison and toward a brighter future.” Any society that removes children from their parents needs to be responsible for providing a nurturing environment that is much, much better than what they are removed from. And we are not doing that. As Roberts states, “The state forces children suffering from painful separations from their families into the hands of substitute caretakers…..who often have unstable connections, lack oversight and may be motivated strictly by the monetary rewards reaped from the arrangement.” As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I was driven to despair at my inability to get my superiors to revoke the licenses of such foster parents; the need for “beds” was too great to exclude anyone was not actually guilty of abuse or severe neglect. Roberts is also right to be concerned the outsourcing of foster care to private for-profit organizations that may be more concerned with making money than protecting children, sometimes resulting in scandals like the one involving MENTOR Inc., which was found to hire unqualified foster parents and fail to remove them even after egregious violations like sexual assault.

Roberts also raises valid concerns about children being sent to residential facilities, often out of state, that resemble prisons rather than therapeutic facilities. But she ignores the need for more high-quality congregate care options for those children who have been so damaged by years of maltreatment that they cannot function in a foster home, no matter how nurturing. Instead, she repeats the usual litany of scandals involving deaths, injuries, fights and restraints, without noting the undersupply of truly therapeutic residential settings, resulting in children sleeping in office, cars, and hotels or remaining in hospital wards after they are ready for discharge. Ironically, she supports defunding the system, even if that would mean even worse situations for these children.

Roberts decries the fact that parents sometimes relinquish custody of their children in order to get needed residential care, arguing that “rather than providing mental health care directly to families, child welfare authorities require families to relinquish custody of children so they can be locked in residential treatment centers run by state and business partnerships.” That statement is completely backwards. The child welfare system does not provide mental health services but, like parents, it often struggles to secure them for its clients. Some parents are forced to turn to the child welfare system because their insurance will not pay for residential care for their children. That is not the fault of child welfare systems, which clearly do not want to take custody of these children. The underlying problem is the lack of adequate mental health care (including both outpatient and residential programs), which has destructive consequences for the foster care system. This is exacerbated by the lack of parity for mental health in health insurance programs. It’s hard to believe Robert is unaware of these well-known facts.

Roberts is correct that parents as well as children are shortchanged by inadequacies in our child welfare program, such as the “cookie cutter” service plans which often contain conflicting obligations that are difficult for struggling parents to meet. But she is wrong when she says that parents need only material support, not therapeutic services. But this error flows logically from her concept of neglect as simply a reflection of poverty. In fact, many of these parents need high-quality behavioral health services and drug treatment, which are often not available because of our nation’s mental health crisis, as well as the unwillingness of taxpayers and governments at all levels to adequately fund these services.

In her final chapter, Roberts concludes that, like the prison system, the child welfare system cannot be repaired because it exists to oppress Black people. “The only way to end the destruction caused by the child welfare system is to dismantle it while at the same time building a safer and more caring society that has no need to tear families apart.” In place of family policing, Roberts favors policies that improve children’s well-being, such as “a living wage and income support for parents, high-quality housing, nutrition, education, child care, health care; freedom from state and private violence; and a clean environment.” I agree with Roberts that aid to children must be expanded. The US is benighted when compared to many other Western countries that invest much more heavily in their children through income support, early childhood and K-12 education, healthcare, and housing. But family dysfunction occurs even if a family’s material needs are met. That is why every other developed nation has a child welfare system with the authority to investigate maltreatment allegations and assume custody of children when there are no other options. Moreover, some of the countries with the strongest safety nets for children also have higher percentages of children living in foster care than the United States.****

Torn Apart is a skewed portrait of the child welfare system. In it Roberts restates the common but easily discredited myths that poverty is synonymous with neglect and that foster care makes children worse off than they would have been if left at home. The underlying flaw in her account is the idea that this system exists to repress the Black community, even though it was established solely for the protection of White children. Roberts makes some valid criticisms of child welfare systems and how they shortchange the children and families they are supposed to help. But when she talks of dismantling child protection, she is proposing the abandonment of abused and neglected Black children in homes that are toxic to them, an abandonment that will perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect. These children are our future; abandoning their well-being to prioritize that of their parents is a bad bargain with history.

*Doyle’s study included only those cases that would have resulted in foster placement by some investigators and not by others, leaving out the cases in which children were in such danger that all investigative social workers would agree that they should be placed.

**In various places, she also attributes it to different combinations of slavery and apprenticeship of Black children with the transfer of Native American children to boarding schools, the exclusion of Black children from charitable aid and the servitude of impoverished White children.

***A recent paper reports that disparities between Black and White children began to decrease in the twenty-first century in nearly every state, closing entirely in several Southern states.

****Unicef’s report, Children in Alternative Care, shows that Denmark has 982 children in “alternative care” per 100,000 and Sweden has 872 per 100,000, compared to 500 per 100,000 for the United States.

When parents’ rights trump children’s needs

Photo by Filipe Leme on Pexels.com

Sometimes it seems like basic humanity and common sense get lost in the scramble to affirm parents’ rights at all cost. Nowhere was this more clear than in a quote from Aysha Shomburg, the former New York City child welfare official who was appointed by President Biden to head the Children’s Bureau. As quoted in The Imprint, Schomberg cited a 15-year-old father facing a termination of parental rights as evidence for the need to eliminate the timelines imposed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Speaking of this teen dad, Schomberg said, “That stays in my mind and makes me think, how many young fathers are out there and maybe want to take care of their children, but are maybe up against this timeline?”

After picking my jaw up off the floor, I wondered whether Schomberg thought a fifteen-year old was actually capable of parenting an infant, or whether she thinks ASFA should be amended so a child can stay in foster care as many years as it takes for the parent to grow up.

Schomburg’s statement reminded me of one of the saddest cases I carried as a social worker in the District of Columbia’s foster care system. A two-month-old (I’ll call him “Shawn”) came into care when he was removed from his teenage mother (“Shameka”) after she swung him wildly in his carseat and then stalked off in a temper from a home for teen mothers, abandoning her son there. Shawn was placed with one of the best foster families I have ever known–“the Smiths,” a couple who was Black like Shawn and had raised their own children and fostered numerous others. They quickly fell in love with Shawn and gave him the kind of parenting that textbooks envision. Mrs. Smith stayed home with Shawn all day, talking to him, playing with him, and loving him, until the Smiths placed him in a carefully-chosen early childhood education setting at the age of two. Shawn was the center of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s lives and part of their extended family of children and grandchildren. I’ll never forget that when he fell in love with trains, they found every train-related toy, game or event.

As the months and then years rolled by, Shawn’s mother stopped visiting him. She had named a father for Shawn, but a paternity test came back negative. Shawn’s goal was changed to adoption with the Smiths and I imagined the happy life awaiting him in their loving home. But one day, Shameka admitted that she had lied about the name of the biological father for the sake of revenge against him. She named the real father, and the paternity test was positive. The father (“Antonio”) soon showed up at the agency, a pleasant seventeen-year-old who was delighted to meet his adorable young son. Shawn’s birth father lived with his parents and siblings in subsidized housing and relied on government assistance. Shawn’s grandfather was excited about the new family member. He told me that two of his older sons also had children as teenagers, and that becoming fathers is what made them actually grow up, finish high school, and get jobs.

The Smiths were devastated, but I assured them that the court would not rip a two-year-old away from the only parents he had ever known. But then I talked to the agency attorney and realized there was no question in her mind that the agency had to change the goal to “reunification” with the father, a perfect stranger. And that is exactly what happened. The goal was changed and the Smiths had to bring Shawn to the agency for progressively longer visits with his birth father. At one visit, Mr. Smith was heard crying in the bathroom.

I am glad I was no longer at the agency when Shawn went ‘home’ with his father. But I’ll never forget the day I ran into Shawn’s Guardian ad Litem, the attorney appointed to represent him in court. “We ruined his life,” she told me. She had visited him often in the months following his return home, and and reported that his new household was chaotic, with none of the routine and predictability so crucial for growing children. And we will never know the effects of being ripped away from the Smiths after two years of security and attachment.

I thought about Shawn when I read Aysha Shomburg’s post. I wondered whether Schomburg cared more about the fifteen year-old than about his son. It was not about the infant’s future. It was about the father’s rights. And indeed, most child welfare officials would say Schomburg was correct in not speculating about the child’s future. Child welfare agencies are not in the business of choosing the best parent, just ensuring that the birth parents can provide the minimal acceptable care. But what about the attachment that Shawn had developed over two years with the Smiths? The importance of attachment, and the consequences of disrupting it for a young child, is why the timelines were included in ASFA–the timelines that Schomberg wants to eliminate. So attachment – and the trauma of disrupting it – does not seem to be a significant issue for her.

Schomburg’s citation of a fifteen year old father as an argument against permanency timelines is an illustration of what’s wrong with mainstream child welfare thinking today. It’s all about parents’ rights, while the most basic of children’s needs are disregarded. It is based on an idealized vision of families rather than the way they really are. It’s the kind of thinking that allowed a child named Noah Cuatro to die when the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services told social workers to emphasize his family’s strengths more than its weaknesses. We must stop using that kind of thinking to prescribe our actions toward our most vulnerable citizens–our youngest children.

New data show drop in foster care numbers during pandemic

Source: US Children’s Bureau, AFCARS Report $28, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/afcarsreport28.pdf

A long-awaited report from the federal government shows that most states saw a decrease in their foster care population during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, which included the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both entries to foster care and exits from it declined in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 compared to the previous fiscal year. These results are not surprising. Stay-at-home orders and school closures beginning in March 2021 resulted in a sharp drop in reports to child abuse hotlines, which in turn presumably brought about the reduction in children entering foster care. At the other end of the foster care pipeline, court shutdowns and a slow transition to virtual operations prolonged foster care stays for many youths. One result that is surprising, however, is the lack of a major decrease in children aging out of foster care, despite the widespread concern about young people being forced out of foster care during a pandemic.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lockdowns and shut down schools around the country, child welfare researchers have been speculating about the pandemic’s impact on the number of children in foster care. While many states have released data on foster care caseloads following the onset of the pandemic, it was not until November 19, 2021 that the federal Children’s Bureau of the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) released the data it received from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico for Fiscal Year 2020, which ended more than a year ago on September 30, 2020. The pandemic’s lockdowns and school closures began in the sixth month of the fiscal year, March 2020, so its effects should have been felt during approximately seven months, or slightly over half of the year. The data summarized here are drawn from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis System (AFCARS) report for Fiscal Year 2020 compared to the 2019 report as well as an analysis of trends in foster care and adoption between FY 2011 and FY 2020. State by state data are taken from an Excel spreadsheet available on the ACF website.

The nation’s foster care population declined from 426,566 on September 30, 2020 to 407,493 children on September 30, 2021. That is a decline of 19,073 or 4.47 percent. According to the Children’s Bureau, this is the largest decrease in the past decade, and the lowest number of children in foster care since FY 2014.* Forty-one states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico had an overall decrease in their foster care population, with only seven states seeing an increase. The seven states with increases were Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota and West Virginia. The change in a state’s foster care population depends on the number of entries and the number of exits from foster care. And indeed both entries and exits fell to historic lows in FY 2020. The reduction in entries was even greater than the fall in exits, which was why the number of children in foster care declined rather than increasing.

Entries into foster care fell drastically around the country, from 252,352 in FY 2019 to 216,838 in FY 2020 – a decrease of 14 percent. This was the lowest number of foster care entries since AFCARS data collection began 20 years ago. Foster care entries dropped in all but three states – Arkansas, Illinois, and North Dakota. These three states were also among the seven states with increased total foster care caseloads. It is not surprising that entries into foster care dropped in the wake of pandemic stay-at-home orders and school closings. While we are still waiting for the release of national data on child maltreatment reports in the wake of the pandemic, which are included in a different Children’s Bureau publication, media stories from almost every state indicate that calls to child abuse hotlines fell dramatically. This drop in calls would have led to a fall in investigations and likely a decline in the number of children removed from their homes. Monthly data analyzed by the Children’s Bureau drives home the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on foster care entries. More than half of the decrease in entries was accounted for by the drops in March, April, and May, immediately following the onset of stay-at-home orders, which were later relaxed or removed, as well as school closures.

Source: Trends in Foster Care and Adoption, FY 2011-FY 2020, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/trends_fostercare_adoption_11thru20.pdf

Reasons for entry into foster care in FY 2020 remained about the same proportionally as in the previous year, with 64 percent entering for a reason categorized as “neglect,” 35 percent for parental drug abuse, 13 percent for physical abuse, nine percent for housing related reasons and smaller percentages for parental incarceration, parental alcohol abuse, and sexual abuse. (A child may enter foster care for more than one reason, so the percentages add up to more than 100.)

Exits from foster care also decreased nationwide from 249,675 in FY 2019 to 224,396 in FY 2020 – a decrease of 10 percent – a large decrease but not as big as the decrease in entries, which explains why foster care numbers decreased nationwide. Only six states had an increase in foster care exits: Alaska, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode island, South Dakota and Tennessee. Along with the decrease in exits, the mean time in care rose only slightly from 20.0 to 20.5 months in care, while the median rose from 15.5 to 15.9 months in care. Again, it is not surprising that the pandemic would lead to reduced exits from foster care. In order to reunify with their children, most parents are required to participate in services such as therapy and drug treatment, to obtain new housing, or to do other things that are contingent on assistance from government or private agencies. Child welfare agency staff and courts are also involved the process of exiting from foster care due to reunification, adoption, or guardianship. All of these systems were disrupted by the pandemic and took time to adjust to virtual operations. Monthly data shows that about 68 percent of the decrease in exits was accounted for by the first three months of the pandemic, when agencies and courts were struggling to transition to virtual operations. It is encouraging that the number of exits was approaching normal by September 2020; it will be interesting to see if the number of exits was higher than normal in the early months of FY 2021.

Source: Trends in Foster Care and Adoption, FY 2011-FY 2020, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/trends_fostercare_adoption_11thru20.pdf

Most exits from foster care occur through family reunification, adoption, guardianship, and emancipation. The proportions exiting for each reason in FY 2020 remained similar to the previous year, while the total number of exits dropped, as shown in Table 3 below. Children exiting through reunification were 48 percent of the young people exiting foster care in FY 2020, and the number of children exiting through reunification dropped by 8.3 percent from FY 2019. Children exiting through adoption were 26 percent of those leaving foster care, and the number of children exiting through adoption fell by 12.6 percent. Exits to guardianships fell by 11 percent and other less frequent reasons for exit fell as well. The drop in reunifications, adoptions and guardianships is not surprising given court delays and also the likely pause in other agency activities during the pandemic. However, nine states did see an increase in children exiting through adoption.

Table 3

Reasons for Exit from Foster Care, FY 2019 and FY 2020

Exit ReasonFY 2019
Number
FY 2019
Percent
FY 2020
(Number)
FY 2020
(Percent)
Decrease
(Number)
Decrease
(Percent)
Reunification117,01047%107,33348%9,6778%
Living with another relative15,4226%12,4636%2,95919%
Adoption54,41526%56,56825%7,84712%
Emancipation20,4458%20,0109%4352%
Guardianship26,10311%23,16010%2,94311%
Transfer to another agency2,7261%2,2631%46317%
Runaway6080%5280%8013%
Death of Child3850%3600%256%
Source: US Children’s Bureau, AFCARS Report $28, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/afcarsreport28.pdf

It is surprising that the number of foster care exits due to emancipation or “aging out” of foster care fell only slightly, to 20,010 in FY 2020 from 20,445 in FY 2019, making emancipations a slightly higher percentage of exits in FY 2020–8.9 percent, vs. 8.2 percent in FY 2019. There has been widespread concern about youth aging out of foster care during the pandemic, and a federal moratorium on emancipations was passed after the fiscal year ended. At least two jurisdictions, California and the District of Columbia, allowed youth to remain in care past their twenty-first birthdays due to the pandemic. It is surprising that this policy in California, with 50,737 youth in care or 12.45 percent of the nation’s foster youth on September 30, 2020, did not result in a bigger drop in emancipation exits nationwide. California’s foster care extension took effect on April 17, 2020 through an executive order by the Governor and was later expanded through the state budget to June 30, 2021. And indeed, data from California via the Child Welfare Indicators Project show that the number of youth exiting through emancipation dropped by over 1,000 from 3,618 in FY 2019 to 2,615 in FY 2020. Since total emancipation exits dropped by only 435 nationwide, it appears that the number of youth exiting care through emancipation outside of California actually increased. This raises concern about the fate of those young people who aged out of care during the first seven months of the pandemic.

In December 2020 (after the Fiscal Year was already over), Congress passed the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act (P.L. 116-260), which banned states from allowing a child to age out of foster care before October 1, 2021, allowed youth who have exited foster care during the pandemic to return to care and added federal funding for this purpose. But this occurred after the end of FY 2020 so it did not affect the numbers for that year. Moreover, The Imprint reported in March 2021 that many states were not offering youth the option to stay in care despite the legislation, raising fears that the number of emancipations in FY 2021 may not have been much lower than the number for FY 2020.

Among the other data included in the AFCARS report, terminations of parental rights decreased by 11.2 percent in FY 2020. This is not surprising given the court shutdowns and delays. Perhaps this decline in TPR’s explains why the number of children waiting to be adopted actually decreased from 123,809 to 117,470, contrary to what might be expected from the decrease in adoptions.

It is disconcerting that some child welfare leaders and media outlets are portraying the reductions in foster care caseloads during FY 2020 as a beneficial byproduct of the pandemic. Despite the fact that maltreatment reports dropped by about half after the pandemic struck, Commissioner David Hansell of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services told the Imprint that “It was just as likely that the pandemic was ‘a very positive thing’ for children, who were able to spend more time with their parents.” Based on an interview with Connecticut’s Commissioner of Children and Families, an NBC reporter stated that ‘With the pandemic, the last two years have been difficult, but something positive has also happened during that time span. Today, there are fewer kids in foster care in Connecticut.”

Even In normal times, I take issue with using reductions in foster care numbers as an indicator of success. Certainly if foster care placements can be reduced without increasing harm to children, that is a good thing. But in the wake of the pandemic, we know that many children were isolated from adults other than their parents due to stay-at-home orders and school closures, and we have seen a drastic decline in calls to child abuse hotlines. Thus, it is likely that some children were left in unsafe situations. Moreover, the pandemic caused increased stress to many parents, which may have led to increased maltreatment, as some evidence is beginning to show. So when Oregon’s Deputy Director of Child Welfare Practice and Programming told a reporter that “Even though we had fewer calls, the right calls were coming in and we got to the children who needed us,” one wonders how she knows that was the case, and whether her statement reflects wishful thinking rather than actual information.**

There have been many predictions of an onslaught of calls to child protective services hotlines once children returned to school. And indeed, there have been reports of a surge of calls after schools re-opened in Arizona, Kentucky, upstate New York, and other places, but we will have to wait another year for the national data on CPS reports and foster care entries after pandemic closures lifted.

The FY 2020 data on foster care around the country provided in the long-awaited AFCARS report contains few surprises. As expected by many, foster care entries and exits both fell in the first year of the pandemic. Since entries fell more than exits, the total number of children in foster care fell by over four percent. These numbers raise concerns regarding children who remained in unsafe homes and those who stayed in foster care too long due to agency and court delays. The one surprise was a concerning one: the lack of a major pandemic impact on the number of youth aging out of care. The second pandemic fiscal year has already come and gone, but it will be another year before we can get a national picture of how child welfare systems adjusted to operating during a pandemic.

*Our percentages are slightly different from those in the federal Trends report because the Children’s Bureau calculated their percentages based on numbers rounded to the nearest thousand.

*There is evidence that maltreatment referrals from school personnel are less likely to be substantiated than reports from other groups, and this may reflect their tendency to make referrals that do not rise to the level of maltreatment, perhaps out of concern to comply with mandatory reporting requirements. Data from the first three months of the pandemic shared in a webinar showed that referrals which had a lower risk score (measured by predictive analytics) tended to drop off more than referrals with a higher risk score. However as I pointed out in an earlier post, that low-risk referrals dropped off more does not mean that high-risk referrals were not lost as well.

Ten common child welfare misconceptions: essential reading for child welfare commentators and policymakers

In the current rush to make child welfare more “family-friendly,” many proposals are being made for major changes, and even for the total abolition of the current system. But many of these proposals are based on misunderstandings of what we currently know about child abuse, child neglect and child welfare programs. Acting based on these misconceptions may produce policies and practices that actually harm children. A group of eminent child welfare scholars, headed by Richard Barth of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, (and also including leading child welfare scholars Jill Duerr Berrick, Antonio Garcia, Brett Drake and Melissa Jonson-Reid and Johanna Greeson) have addressed ten of the most common misconceptions in one essential article, a must-read for anyone promoting change in our child welfare system.

The article, entitled “Research to Consider While Effectively Re-Designing Child Welfare Services,” was published in the journal Research in Social Work Practice on October 18, 2021. It highlights 10 common misconceptions which the authors assert (rightly in my view) are “inconsistent with the best available contemporary evidence.” Their treatment is structured around ten questions to which a wrong answer is commonly cited and used to justify policy changes. Unfortunately, a paywall blocks access to the article for readers who do not have access to the journal from their institution, though this link provides a one-paragraph summary and the reference list. This post provides a more detailed summary of the article. Readers can contact author Richard Barth at RBarth@ssw.umaryland.edu with questions.

Are Low-Income Children Inappropriately Referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) Due to Implicit Bias?

As the authors describe, there is no doubt that low-income children are referred to CPS at a higher rate than their higher-income peers. One theory is that mandated reporters, who are often middle-class professionals, are biased against low-income parents and their parenting styles. Barth and colleagues cite studies that look at this question in several ways, all suggesting that bias is not the major reason for higher reporting of poor children. First, low-income children experience bad outcomes (in the worst case, death) at differentials consistent with or higher than the differentials in reporting rates. Second, lower-income people are much more likely to self-report maltreatment than their higher-income counterparts. And finally, low-income children who are reported to CPS are more likely to have a range of negative outcomes than their low-income peers who are not reported to CPS.

Are Families who Receive Public Social Services and Have Contact With Mandated Reporters Disproportionately Likely to be Referred to Child Protective Services?

It is often asserted that families that receive more public services (such as clinics rather than private doctors to whom they are known) and encounter more mandated reporters are more likely to be reported to CPS. But the authors show that available evidence does not support this assertion. Two studies estimated “surveillance bias” to increase CPS reporting by less than two percent. Another study found that among children in families receiving income support, those who were reported to CPS also had higher rates of delinquency, mental health problems, and hospital visits for injury. Finally, national and state data show that “as individual or community poverty increases, the proportion of mandated reporters among all reports decreases, making low-income people less likely to be reported by mandated reporters.”

Is the Racial Disproportionality of Black Children in CPS Substantially Driven by Bias?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that Black children are more likely to be involved with child welfare than their share of the population would predict. The latest federal data shows that Black children are more than twice as likely to be reported to CPS than White children. But as I’ve often written, the evidence suggests that bias is not the main reason for this disparity. Among the reasons cited by Barth and colleagues, Black children are more than three times more likely to be poor than white children. Studies suggest that when compared to children with an equal income, Black children are at the same risk or at a slightly lower risk of being reported to CPS. The authors also cite a recent study suggesting that Black substance-abused infants are actually less likely to be reported to CPS than White or Hispanic substance-abused infants. Furthermore, they cite evidence that Black-White disparities in other objective indicators of well-being, such as child mortality, are actually greater than Black-White disparities in CPS reporting. The writers therefore contend that, in order to address racial disproportionality in CPS reporting, we need to address poverty itself, as well as the factors that place Black children at higher risk of growing up in poverty.

I do differ from Barth et al in believing that factors other than poverty affect racial disparities in child abuse and neglect, and the resulting disparities in reports, substantiations, and foster care placements. The importance of factors other than poverty is illustrated by the fact that Hispanic children are less likely to end up in foster care than White children even though their poverty rates are higher, while Native American children, with similar poverty rates, are much more likely to be placed in foster care than Black children. Hundreds of years history of slavery, racial violence, and segregation have left a legacy of intergenerational trauma that has affected mental health, substance abuse, and childrearing styles. Therefore equalizing Black-White poverty rates would probably not immediately equalize their rates of placement into foster care.

Are Decisions to Substantiate or Place in Foster Care Largely Driven by Racial Bias?

Not only are Black children disproportionately more often reported to CPS; they are disproportionately more often the subject of substantiated allegations and placed in foster care.  This is clearly a concern of the authors although their analysis indicates that what is commonly asserted– that this discrepancy is largely due to a racist decision making in the child welfare system—is not supported by the evidence. The authors report that the large majority of recent studies find that “as they move through the system, socioeconomically disadvantaged Black children are generally less likely to be substantiated or removed into foster care compared to White children.” Black children do stay in foster care about 25 percent longer than White children, perhaps because they are less likely to be reunified with their parents or adopted. However, the frequently-cited idea that they are more often substantiated once economic status is taken into account has been roundly disproved, according to the paper’s authors. As I have pointed out relative to this question and the previous one, attempting to reduce disparities that are due to different levels of need might require establishing lower standards for the care of Black children by their parents, allowing them to remain in situations that would cause White children to be removed.

Is Child Neglect Synonymous With Family Poverty?

The trope that child neglect is synonymous with poverty is one of the most common myths used by advocates of child welfare reform, and I devoted part of a recent post to dismantling it. It is true, as Barth and colleagues state, that 70 percent of maltreatment reports and fatalities include neglect as a factor. And they acknowledge that there “is clear evidence establishing the relationship between poverty and child neglect.” However, this association does not mean that poverty and neglect are one and the same. Barth et al point out that studies examining the impact of both poverty and neglect have found distinct negative impacts on children for each one. They also found that studies using both officially reported and self-reported neglect found “unique constellations of risks and/or parenting behaviors” for neglect as opposed to poverty. As the authors point out, much of of the confusion between poverty and neglect is due to the fact that some states allow parents to be found neglectful when a child’s material needs are unmet, even when this deprivation was involuntary on the part of the parent. In those cases, neglect could be seen as reflecting poverty alone. But the authors point to a study showing that only a small proportion of neglect referrals (maybe one in four) is due to material needs, and that these referrals are only about a quarter as likely to be substantiated as other neglect referrals. This is not surprising, since many jurisdictions would respond in such cases by helping the family address the material need rather than substantiating an allegation of neglect by the parent.

Barth et al make an important point that “[N]arratives that conflate poverty and child neglect unfairly characterize low-income families, the majority of whom provide appropriate care for their children.” Most poor parents do not neglect their children, and eliminating poverty alone would not eliminate neglect caused by mental illness, substance abuse, or other non-material factors. Moreover, characterizing neglect as nothing more than poverty risks obscuring the harms caused by neglect, which the authors discuss in their response to the next question.

Is Child Neglect Harmful to Children?

The seriousness of child neglect is often minimized by those who say it is just a reflection of poverty. Yet, Barth and colleagues remind us that severe neglect means “the lack of the basic nurturing, care, and supervision needs of a child.” When such severe neglect is chronic or occurs at critical periods in child development, it can lead to death, hospitalization, and impaired development. The authors cite multiple studies showing the many poor outcomes that have been associated with neglect, including poor cognitive outcomes, mental illness, trauma symptoms, and substance abuse, and point out that such poor outcomes have been found even when controlling for poverty.

Are Research-Supported Practices Effective for Families of Color?

With the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act allowing Title IV-E funding to be used to pay for “evidence-based practices” to keep families together, some advocates are asserting that programs deemed evidence-based are not actually shown to be effective for people of color. Barth and colleagues cite a study showing that four of popular programs in the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare – Parent Child Interaction Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Level Four Triple P and Multi-Systemic Therapy – have been found to be well-supported in studies with samples that include at least 40 percent children and families of color. Moreover, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the basis of many interventions, has been shown to be broadly effective across populations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the interventions in the clearinghouse have not included many people of color. I am more persuaded by the authors’ suggestion that just because an intervention study did not include people of color does not mean it would not be effective for them with modifications to make them more relevant to families of color. However, I do feel compelled to report on my skepticism about many of these programs that have been found to be “evidence-based,” regardless of the nature of the families served. In the enthusiasm to replace foster care with family preservation, at least one popular program (Homebuilders) has been approved for Family First funding even though the evidence does not strongly support its effectiveness for any families, as I have discussed previously.

Do Children Grow up in Foster Care?

It is very common to read about children “growing up” in foster care, but as Barth et al point out, that is a rare occurrence today. While long-term foster care was common in the past, today’s emphasis on permanency has made stays much shorter. Barth et al cite “overwhelming” evidence that fewer than one percent of infants and ten percent of children 13 and under who enter foster care grow up in care. Infants entering care spend only about 10% of their time between 0 and 18 in care; children who are older when they enter care spend less time in care. Children who “age out” of care are mostly those who entered as teenagers, and many of them were admitted to foster care because of behavioral problems. As the authors point out, talking about children who “grow up” in foster care overemphasize the importance of the foster care experience as part of the life trajectory for most children and understate the importance of foster care as a temporary, last-resort option.

Does Foster Care Cause Poor Outcomes for Children and Youth?

There is no doubt that studies of young adults who have spent time in foster care show that they have worse outcomes than those who have not. Sadly, some commentators use this research to argue that being in foster care leads to worse outcomes than remaining at home. But as Barth and his colleagues had already explained in a previous section of their paper, child maltreatment has been shown to have many negative outcomes, which should not be confounded with the effects of foster care. Another review by Barth and others of “dozens of methodologically rigorous studies” examining outcomes in multiple domains suggests that it is unlikely that foster care worsens outcomes, and it improves them in some areas like child safety–as one would hope. Barth et al attribute the widespread misstatements about the role of foster care in adult outcomes to the strong impact of anecdotes from some foster care alumni about their bad experiences. This is despite the fact that studies reviewed by the authors show that most young people reported satisfaction with their foster care experiences.Majorities of young people in multiple studies reported that they had positive relationships with their caregivers, received quality care, felt safer in their foster homes than in their original homes, and felt that their removal was justified by the circumstances. Another reason for inaccurate conclusions about foster care, according to the authors, may be an over-reliance on studies of youth who aged out of care. This is a group that tends to have more issues even before entering care than other youth. In summary, as the authors state, “an evidence-informed understanding of the role of foster care in the lives of maltreated children indicates that the average experience of care is more favorable than conditions in the birth home at the time of removal.”

Is Adoption Breakdown Common for Former Foster Children?

The final misconception addressed by Barth and his colleagues is that a large fraction of adoptions end in breakdown. They mention commentators who have expressed concerns that the push to permanency may result in some adoptions being finalized too quickly, resulting in later dissolution. Instead, Barth et al show that research suggests adoption dissolution rates typically fall below five percent across a range of studies. Instead of the embracing the misconception that adoptions are likely to dissolve, Barth and his colleagues suggests that advocates for children in foster care should think of adoption as “a stable permanency alternative for children who otherwise cannot be reunified.” As they rightly state, “reform efforts that seek to curtail the opportunity for adoption among children who cannot be reunified would deny… children the lifetime of permanency that our laws seek to promote.”

Policy based on wrong assumptions is likely to be bad policy. Yet, the daily child welfare news is full of reports of child welfare leaders spouting these misconceptions–and worse, making policy and passing legislation based on them. In just one recent example, the New York City Council recently passed legislation requiring the Administration on Children’s Services “to report on various demographic information including race, ethnicity, gender, community district, and primary language of parents and children at every step of the child welfare system and to create a plan to address any disparities identified as a result of such reporting.” Perhaps those voting for this legislation had no idea that anything besides bias could contribute to these disparities, nor that “creating a plan to address them” could mean imposing a lower standard of parental care for children who come from over-represented groups–leaving aside the waste of time and money that could be better spent in helping children.

The misconceptions highlighted by Barth and his colleagues are already affecting child welfare policy and practice around the county in ways that are likely to put abused and neglected children at risk of further harm. This magisterial review, with its more than 140 references, is essential reading for anyone who prescribes or develops child welfare policy or practice. Let us hope it receives the attention it deserves.

No Way to Treat a Child: a needed corrective to the dominant narrative

No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives

These days, It is a bit difficult to be a left-leaning liberal while also being an advocate for abused and neglected children. I would never have expected that a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Naomi Schaefer Riley, would be one of my closest allies in child advocacy. Or that my proudest achievement since starting this blog would be my service on a child welfare innovation working group that she organized out of AEI, or that, with a few quibbles over details, I would agree with the main points of her new book. But that is the case in these strange times, in which many of my fellow liberals appear effectively indifferent to the fate of children whose parents they view as victims of a racist “family policing system.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist, a former editor for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of five previous books. In her new book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives, uses examples, data and quotes from experts to show in heartbreaking detail how policymakers from the left and the right have converged in creating a child welfare system that puts adults first. Much of this occurs because in deciding how to treat abused or neglected children, the people who create and carry out child welfare law and policy “consider factors that are completely unrelated to and often at odds with a child’s best interests,” as Riley puts it.

Take family preservation and reunification, for example. Instead of placing the safety of the child as the highest priority, Riley illustrates that child welfare agencies leave many children in dangerous homes long past the time they should have been removed, with sometimes fatal results. They give parents more and more chances to get their children back, long after the law says that parental rights should be terminated. The book is full of stories of children ripped away from loving foster parents (often the only parents they have ever known) only to be returned to biological parents without evidence of meaningful changes in the behaviors that led to the children being removed.

Not only do today’s advocates of “family first” wrest children away from loving families to return home, but Riley describes how they send other hapless children to join distant relatives that they never knew, on the grounds that family is always best even if the relative does not appear until as much as two years after an infant has been placed in foster care. The fact that a relative may display the same dysfunction that the parent showed may be ignored. I would add, based on personal experience, that in my foster care work I often met grandmothers who seemed to have gained wisdom (and finally, for example, gave up drugs) with age, as well as aunts and uncles who avoided the family dysfunction and went on to lead productive lives, making their homes available to the children of their less well-adjusted siblings. But Riley is right to say we should consider not just blood, but also fitness and bonding before removing a child from a good pre-adoptive home to live with a relative.

As Riley describes, one of the primary factors that is now taking precedence over a child’s best interest is that of race or ethnicity. Riley explains how data on the overrepresentation of Black and Native American children in foster care in relation to their size is being attributed to racism in child protective services, as I have explained elsewhere, ignoring the evidence that the underlying disparities in abuse and neglect are largely responsible for these differences in foster care placement. And they don’t seem to have a problem with holding Black parents to a lower standard of parenting than White children to equalize the ratios. Moreover, many of these “racial activists” are recommending eliminating child welfare systems entirely along with abolishing the police. As Riley states, Native children are the canaries in the coal mine, “for what happens when you hold some parents to a lower standard, as we have done with the Indian Child Welfare Act with devastating effects for Native children.

Another way we subordinate the interests of children is by minimizing their parents’ responsibility for their treatment by saying it is simply due to poverty. Riley addresses the common trope that “neglect,” the reason that 63 percent of children children were removed from their families in 2019, is “just a code word for poverty,” a myth that I have addressed as well. I’d venture that anyone who has worked with families in child welfare knows there is often much more going on in these families than poverty alone, including substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. Riley puts her finger on an important issue when she suggests that part of the problem may be that we use a general category called “neglect” as the reason behind many removals. However, I don’t agree with her recommendation to discard neglect as a reason for removal. As I explain in a recent post, we need to distinguish between the over-arching categories of “abuse” and “neglect” and the specific subcategories of neglect such as lack of supervision, educational neglect, and medical neglect. Contrary to Riley’s suggestion that they are types of neglect, substance abuse and mental illness are factors that contribute to it. This important information should be included in the record but should not be confounded with types of neglect.

Another way that policymakers disregard the best interests of the child is by deciding that foster homes are better than institutions for almost all children instead of recognizing that some children need a more intensive level of care for a limited time, or that others can thrive in group homes that simulate a family setting but provide more intensive attention than a typical foster home can provide. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which went into effect for all states on October 1, does allow for children to be placed temporarily in therapeutic institutions, although it sets some unreasonable limits on these institutions and on placement of children in them. But it does not provide any funding for placement in highly-regarded family-like group settings such as the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches. (I’m not sure why Riley says in later in the book that FFPSA “is looking like another piece of federal legislation that will be largely ignored by states, many of which have already been granted waivers from it.” Those waivers were temporary and there is no way states can ignore the restrictions on congregate care).

In her chapter entitled “Searching for Justice in Family Court, Riley describes the catastrophic state of our family courts, which she attributes to a shortage of judges, their lack of training in child development and child welfare, and their leniency with attorneys and parents who do not show up in court. As a model for reform, Riley cites a family drug court in Ohio that meets weekly, hears from service providers working with parents, and imposes real consequences (like jail time) on parents who don’t follow orders. But this type of intensive court experience is much more expensive. These programs are small, and expanding this service to everyone would require a vast infusion of resources.

I appreciated Riley’s chapter on why CPS investigators are underqualified and undertrained.” Having graduated from a Master in Social Work (MSW) program as a midcareer student in 2009, I could not agree with her more when she states that the “capture of schools of social work and child welfare generally by a social-justice ideology has produced the kind of thinking that guides social welfare policy.” I’d add that some students are ill-prepared for their studies and may not get what they need while in school to exercise the best judgment, critical thinking, effective data analysis, and other important hard and soft skills. Riley suggests that the function of a CPS worker is really more akin to the police function than to the type of traditional social work function performed by other social workers in child welfare–those who manage in-home and foster care cases. As a matter of fact, Riley quotes my post suggesting that CPS Investigation should be either a separate specialty in MSW programs or could be folded into the growing field of Forensic Social Work.

Riley’s chapter on the promise of using predictive analytics in child welfare shows how concerns that using algorithms in child welfare would exacerbate current discrimination are not borne out by history or real-world results. Use of an algorithm to inform hotline screening decisions in Allegheny County Pennsylvania actually reduced the disparities in the opening of cases between Black and White children. As Riley states, this should not surprise anyone because data has often served to reduce the impact of bias by those who are making decisions. As she puts it, “if you are concerned about the presence of bias among child-welfare workers and the system at large, you should be more interested in using data, not less.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is Riley’s two chapters on the role of faith-based organizations in child welfare that made me uncomfortable. Riley describes the growing role of these groups, especially large evangelical organizations, in recruiting, training, and supporting foster and adoptive parents.” Like it or not,” she states, “most foster families in this country take in needy children at least in part because their religious beliefs demand such an action.” But the Christian Alliance for Orphans, an organization often quoted by Riley, was one of the groups behind the “orphan fever” that took hold among mainstream evangelical churches in the first decade of this century. Many families were not prepared for the behaviors of their new children and some turned to a book by a fundamentalist homeschooling guru named Michael Pearl that advocated physical discipline starting when children are less than a year old. Many of the adoptions were failures, some children were illegally sent back to their own countries, some children were abused, and at least two died of the abuse. But Riley’s narrative suggests that many evangelical churches working with foster youth are using a trauma-focused parenting model (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) that is diametrically opposed to the Pearl approach. Nevertheless, the association of evangelical Christianity with a “spare the rod” parenting philosophy as well as the possibility that saving souls is part of the motivation for fostering or adoption, make me a bit queasy about over-reliance on evangelical families as foster parents, and I would have liked to see Riley address this issue.

In her esteem for religious communities and their role in child welfare, Riley is worried that some jurisdictions will bar all organizations with whom they work from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, driving religions institutions out of business. Since the book was written, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that the City of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment when it stopped referring children to Catholic Social Services for foster care and adoption because the agency would not certify same-sex foster parents. So this threat may be dwindling for the time being. In general, unlike many liberals, I agree with Riley that, as long as there is an agency to work with any potential foster parent, we should “let a thousand flowers bloom” rather than insisting that every agency accept every potential parent.

Riley ends the book with a list of recommendations for making the system more responsive to the needs of children rather than adults. She agrees with liberals that we need an influx of financial resources as well as “better stewardship of the money we already spend.” We need both a massive reform of our child welfare agencies and a family court overhaul, she argues. She wants recruitment of more qualified candidates for child welfare agencies and better training for them. She urges the child welfare system to move away from “bloodlines and skin color” and allow a child to form new family bonds when the family of origin cannot love and protect that child. I certainly hope that policymakers on both sides of the aisle read and learn from this important book.