Molly McGrath Tierney: Foster Care is a Bad Idea

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

If you want to know about our system of child welfare and foster care, this TEDx talk by Molly McGrath Tierney is a must view (YouTube). It’s 11 minutes long and is as damning an indictment of how we attempt to protect abused and neglected kids as anything I’ve ever seen or read (or written).

McGrath is a veteran CPS worker and manager. She was instrumental in turning Baltimore’s child welfare agency into what she calls a “well-oiled” machine. According to her, it does its work well and on budget. Better yet, during her tenure there, they’ve achieved a 58% drop in the number of kids placed in foster care.

And yet, Tierney is clear that the efficiency with which her agency works is the bad news. That’s because her well-oiled machine is terribly efficient “at taking other people’s children.”

“The reason child welfare isn’t working is because there are children in foster care. It’s not that government is doing it badly; it’s that foster care is a bad idea. The error is in the intervention.”

Of course to say “it’s not that government is doing it badly,” may be true in her agency, but hers is the rare exception. Look around the country and government is “doing it” very, very badly at the job of children’s welfare.

From the chaos of the Richmond, VA agency that has no idea of what is going on in many of its cases or even where the files are, to Texas where hundreds of children who were killed were reclassified so their cases wouldn’t become public, to California where one state representative called for the entire system to be scrapped, to Arizona where over 6,000 complaints of abuse or neglect were simply ignored, the system of child welfare is done very badly indeed. And if the truth were known, we’d likely find that it’s far, far worse than we now believe. That’s because almost everything that happens in CPS agencies does so behind closed doors. We the people don’t get to know what our public servants in child protective agencies are doing or why.

Tierney admits as much when she says that, of the 50 state child welfare agencies in the United States, there’s “not a one among them that’s reputed to be working well.”

So we can take her notion that government isn’t doing child welfare badly as more of a rhetorical device than a fact. But her point is rock solid. The error is in the intervention, the removal of the child from the home. That’s not just because children do badly in foster care, which they assuredly do.

Tierney points out that foster children’s “health and educational outcomes are abysmal,” but even that isn’t the worst of it. Their long-term prognosis is for “the penitentiary, the morgue or the child welfare system” for their own kids. As I’ve said many times, studies demonstrate that kids in foster care do worse across a wide range of behaviors than do other kids, even those with parents who are somewhat abusive.

Is it possible to reform the system? Is it possible to do what the system does, only better? Tierney used to think so, but no longer. Of her “successful” agency, she says “I regret this success doesn’t result in helping people.” Her agency is good at taking children from their homes, but fails miserably at the main task which is (or should be) to help them and perhaps their parents. But that would involve providing services to parents and children, and that is not what our child welfare agencies do. To be “successful,” they must take our children.

Why is that considered success? Why do we do what damages kids? Why do we continue to pursue a course of action for which Tierney says there is “an overwhelming lack of evidence that it’s working?” She offers three reasons.

First, it feels good to caseworkers. She describes the experience of taking a child from an abusive home and the feeling of “saving” that child. What could be more uplifting, short of rushing into a burning building to save a child’s life? But Tierney says that feeling unconsciously becomes an end unto itself for caseworkers. Anything that feels that good must be the right thing to do, right? Wrong. It’s only the right thing to do if it results in a healthier, happier, more productive child which foster care doesn’t.

Second, child welfare is an industry. Tierney says, “the only time the federal government pays me is when a kid is in foster care.” Of course Washington pays for kids adopted out of foster care too, but that’s just part of the same industry. The instant a child is taken into care, he/she “becomes a commodity.” And like any asset, we can be sure the system will do what it can to protect it. Children are a source of revenue and therefore must be kept in foster care. The system is a “self-protecting ecosystem” that “needs children to stay alive.” In short, the federal government incentivizes states to remove children from their families.

Third, there’s an army of experts who make a good living off the same system. Listening to them is necessary, but we shouldn’t expect them to burn their meal ticket. And while we’re listening to them, we’re ignoring what children say they want. And what is that? Tierney tells us.

“They want to go home.”

Of course they do. However dysfunctional Mom and Dad may have been, there’s still that bond between parents and children that occurs nowhere else. Breaking that bond is the most traumatic thing we can do to a child short of murder. Perhaps the most common behavior of foster kids when they age out of the system at age 18 is to return home if they can.

It’s that desire on the part of kids, Tierney tells us, that we should be listening to. Unsurprisingly, her fix for the system would do exactly that. If what kids want is “to go home,” she’d start by leaving them there in the first place whenever possible.

More importantly, she’d seek to intervene early in the behavioral pattern that can finally result in injury to the child. She rightly points out that the blow to the head that sends the child to the emergency room was almost certainly not “a seminal event.” It was the culmination of a long series of dysfunctional behaviors.

So a CPS agency that arrives before serious damage is done is an agency that can provide services — for alcohol or drug addiction, employment, parenting skills, etc. — that can help avoid child abuse in the first place and create a more positive parent-child relationship.

I would add one thing to what Tierney said. As things stand now, parents are terrified of CPS. The knock on the door by a CPS caseworker is well-known to carry with it the threat of losing their kids to foster care, perhaps permanently. Except for capital punishment, it’s the most awesome power the state wields.

But what if we did what Tierney suggests? What if the knock on the door heralded not a taking, but a giving — direction to programs to help addiction, job training, transportation, etc.? Not only would children’s lives be immeasurably improved, but the relationship between CPS and the parents in the community would be as well.

Tierney’s no Pollyanna. She realizes that the cost of early intervention to the system of foster care would be “catastrophic” and that powerful interests are sure to resist. But she also knows that the payoff for kids would be “priceless.”

And after all, as Tierney points out, Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results. Based on that, our child welfare system is crazy. It and our children need help.


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