Richard Wexler: Direct Resources Away from Foster Care Toward Helping Parents

I’ve rained pretty hard on Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic for her enthusiastic embrace of breaking up families and placing children in foster care.  As a counterpoint to her article, I ran two pieces on a Canadian video about Ontario’s Children’s Aid Society that described in excruciating detail just what people – parents and children alike – experience in the clutches of CAS.

As I pointed out, although Roberts may not realize it, that’s what she’s arguing for.  Greater intervention by CPS into family life inevitably leads to the type of abuses the video – tellingly entitled “Powerful as God” – describes. 

So, having criticized Roberts, I’m now glad to see her presenting at least some of the flip side of the foster care vs. parental care debate.  Here it is (Arizona Central, 10/19/11). 

I commend her for doing an article extensively quoting Richard Wexler, Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.  I’ve quoted Wexler myself in the past and consider him perhaps the go-to guy for information on the child welfare system in the United States.

Wexler has long decried Arizona’s approach to child welfare – what he terms the “foster care panic’…  “With Arizona, it’s always take the child and run, year after year after year.’

That’s interesting.  What he’s saying is that in fact Arizona has been administering exactly the medication Roberts prescribed in her previous article.  With Arizona CPS it’s take the child and ask questions later.  It’s the instances in which CPS didn’t do that and children were severely hurt or killed by their parents that Roberts cites as reasons to ramp up foster care placements still more.  What foster care actually consists of and what results it has for children are topics Roberts scrupulously overlooks.

But, like the video “Powerful as God” suggests, there’s a mid-ground between the extremes of leaving children with their parents even though they may be at risk of harm, and taking children into care on the slimmest of pretexts, just so the CPS caseworker can say she was “proactive.”  As one mother in the video exclaimed incredulously, “No one ever asked me if I needed help.”

As long as CPS caseworkers are faced with a simple choice of taking children from- or leaving with- parents, they will take them when they shouldn’t and leave them when they shouldn’t.  But what if CPS had a third option – helping parents deal with the situation that’s got them stymied and the child at risk?

As one of the attorneys for Ontario’s CAS pointed out in the video, a parent may be perfectly good and capable 360 days out of the year, but those other five days are problematical.  Does it make sense to take that parent’s child because abuse or neglect occurred on those days?  Not necessarily.  Maybe what the parent needs is help.

Wexler’s life’s work is now devoted to making the case that children, even the ones who’ve been mistreated, are best left with their families. Breathe people. Hear the man out. If we help stabilize families – providing intensive help, real drug treatment, subsidies for things like daycare and rent – he says we could actually do what we claim we want to do, which is to help children.

What a concept.  But, as Wexler told Roberts, “Arizona has never seriously tried any of this stuff.”

What it did, during the term of Governor Janet Napolitano, was panic at a spate of deaths to children (very much like what Roberts urged in her last column).

“Err on the side of protecting the child,’ she said at the time, “and we’ll sort it out later.’

The problem, says Wexler, is that we never sorted it out. Two years after Napolitano’s proclamation, the number of children in foster care jumped 40 percent, with more to come. As caseloads bulged and budgets shrank, it was simply safer to take away children.

Safer, that is, for the caseworkers who live in fear of making a mistake that results in the death of a child. Studies suggest that kids are actually better off when left with their families, even with minimal support, rather than bouncing around in foster care.

Good for Roberts that she tells her readers what she didn’t in her previous piece – that children in foster care actually do worse than children in parental care.  I’ll get more into that in a future post.

Meanwhile, Wexler has some very specific ideas about what Arizona should do to help fix things.

… Shut down places like the Crisis Nursery – what he calls “parking place shelters’ – and use the money to instead provide services to families. If a mother is reported for leaving her kids alone while she works, help her with daycare. If a parent can’t provide a decent place to live, offer a rent subsidy. If drug addiction is the problem, offer treatment.

… Offer a program of more intense services when warranted, allowing a social worker to spend several hours a day to helping a parent when a child is deemed unsafe. If after six weeks nothing changes, move to terminate that parent’s rights.

…Seek a waiver from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so that $83 million in federal funds now designated for foster care can instead be spent on keeping families together.

…Provide quality defense lawyers and parent advocates, to help families get out of the CPS system when they don’t need to be there. To free up caseworkers to focus where they’re most needed – on the children who will die if no one comes to their rescue.

…Open all CPS records, so we get a truer picture of what’s really going on in the agency.

As Roberts points out, those may be good ideas, but they won’t meet with a very favorable reception in a legislature bent on cutting budgets. 

But is that really an issue?  The Canadian video raised the issue that Ontario spends about $30 per day per child on foster care.  How much drug counselling and parenting classes can that buy?  My guess is that, if Arizona and every other state redirected its resources away from foster care and toward helping parents, the balance sheet would remain the same, but the results for children would be immeasurably better.

As Roberts says, “eleven thousand kids in foster care means that something’s not working.” 

True, and that “something” is a child welfare system that, for all its failure the other way, still errs on the side of taking children from their parents.  The results are predictable, costly and entirely unnecessary.

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