He’s Baaack! Richard Wexler Takes Down Foster Care

December 6, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s a piece of good news (Youth Today, 12/3/15). It seems that Richard Wexler has once again picked up the mantle of advocate for children in foster care or under the threat of being placed there. Wexler’s been absent from the scene for at least a couple of years, and everyone with a grasp of issues related to foster care welcomes him back with open arms. Put simply, he’s the most knowledgeable person I know of who’s battling the child welfare system’s penchant for taking children from their parents, sometimes on the slimmest of pretexts. Wexler’s is a voice that needs to be heard.

That’s particularly true because there’s recently been a backlash against the growing awareness that taking children into foster care is rarely the best alternative for them. The overwhelming weight of social science on children’s well-being demonstrates that children do best when they’re left with their biological parents, even when those parents are somewhat abusive, e.g. they believe in spanking as punishment.

The sensible thing has always been for CPS to analyze the situation in the family in question and, if necessary and possible, provide services that can make the child’s home environment better. Does one parent have a drug problem? A referral to a treatment program may be in order. Is the child left alone at home after school because the parent is working? The caseworker can put the parent in touch with after-school programs in which the child can take part until the parent is present.

The point being that far too often, CPS takes children out of the home, traumatizing them in the process, when far less extreme – and far more helpful – interventions may be available. Of course the federal largess that encourages states to take children from families, place them in foster care and adopt them out of foster care is one of the major motivating factors in the entire process of family breakup.

But for the last many years, the movement against foster care and on behalf of services to needy families while keeping those families together has gained steam with many states adopting policies that try to keep families intact. Predictably, that momentum has raised hackles in certain quarters of the child welfare industry. Recently I wrote a piece excoriating an article by Marie Cohen whose enthusiasm for foster care violated basic rules of logic and ignored virtually all pertinent facts.

Wexler zeroes in on the backlash against intact families in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

They’re following the script to the letter in Minnesota.

Act 1: A newspaper reports on the horrifying death of a child “known-to-the-system.”

Act 2: The ritual sacrifice of the agency chief.

Act 3: The naming of the OBRC — Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission.

Act 4: The invocation of the swinging pendulum. The OBRC declares that “Minnesota’s child protection system has moved from one end of the spectrum to the other since 1999,” and now supposedly puts too much emphasis on family preservation.

The report is seized upon by those who want to tear apart more families — those whose 19th-century counterparts proudly called themselves “child savers” — as part of an ongoing effort to discredit one of the few large-scale efforts to avoid needless foster care: differential response.

What is “differential response?” That’s an industry term for a policy that allows caseworkers flexibility in how they respond to different family situations. Occasional spanking may be termed “abuse,” but shouldn’t be treated the same as routine physical brutality. Differential response allows the caseworker to differentiate between the two. Here’s a handy definition (NCSL, 10/26/15).

The approach allows CPS to respond differently to accepted reports of child abuse and neglect allegations, based on factors such as the type and severity of the maltreatment, number and sources of previous reports, and willingness of the family to participate in services. The National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR) describes core elements of differential response systems:

Use of two or more discrete response pathways for cases that are screened in and accepted;

Establishment of discrete response pathways is codified in statute, policy or protocol;

Pathway assignment depends on an array of factors, such as the presence of imminent danger, level of risk, number of previous reports, source of the report, and/or presenting case characteristics, such as the type of alleged maltreatment and the age of the alleged victim;

Original pathway assignment can change, based on new information that alters risk level or safety concerns;

Services are voluntary in a non-investigative pathway;

Families can choose to receive the investigation response or   

Families can accept or refuse the offered services if there are no safety concerns;

Families are served in a non-investigative pathway without a formal determination of child maltreatment; and,

The name of the alleged perpetrator is not entered into the central child abuse registry for those individuals who are served through a non-investigative pathway.

So the backlash in Minnesota and Massachusetts is aimed at differential response and the claim is that “the pendulum” has swung too far in the direction of keeping families together. But has it?

There’s just one problem. The pendulum never actually swung. In 2013, the most recent year for which state-by-state data are available, Minnesota took away children at a rate more than double the national average, when entries are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state. Nationwide in 2013, some 255,000 children entered foster care. Were every state like Minnesota, it would have been 540,000. And that was before Act 5 — the foster-care panic — the huge spike in children taken from their homes that inevitably follows Acts 1 through 4.

An almost identical scenario is playing out in Massachusetts, again with differential response as the scapegoat. Massachusetts takes children at a rate 45 percent above the national average.

In short, the people who pine for the bad old days during which CPS’s routine response to any family problem was to remove the child from the home aren’t exactly telling the truth. In those two states in fact, child welfare workers have actually never progressed to an emphasis on leaving families intact. On the contrary, they’re as enthusiastic about family breakup as they’ve ever been and maybe more so. That inevitably means that the latest death of a child known to CPS is probably not the result of an over-emphasis on family continuity, but the opposite – the very thing the “child savers” espouse.

Of course those attacking the move toward intact families never get around to citing any science to support their theory for the good and sufficient reason that they have none, a fact Wexler is happy to point out.

A 2011 literature review, looking at 23 studies, found none concluding that differential response compromised child safety. Three more studies, all using random assignment and designed specifically to deal with alleged flaws in earlier research, have been published. Two found no indication that children in differential response were less safe; one found worse safety outcomes by one measure…

One child welfare intervention has been proven over and over again to be unsafe: foster care:

Study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is worse.

Two massive studies involving more than 15,000 cases documented that in the typical cases seen by child protective services workers, not the horror stories, children left in their own homes consistently fared better in later life than children consigned to foster care. These are also the cases best suited to differential response.

Nearly 40 years ago, a leader of an adoption agency told me something I’ve never forgotten: “The burden of proof should always rest with those who think children don’t belong with their families.”

But that’s been stood on its head. Instead, here’s what “evidence-based” means in child welfare: If you want to challenge the foster care status quo, you’d better be able to dot every i and cross every t on a huge pile of randomized controlled trials. If, on the other hand, you just want to conduct business as usual and shovel children into substitute care, no evidence is required.

It’s good to have Wexler back and fighting the good fight. He’s a powerful, knowledgeable voice for sanity in the huge industry called children’s welfare.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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