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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

July 20, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

After listening to Molly McGrath Tierney’s excellent TEDx talk on foster care, and reading countless stories about the many failures of child welfare agencies across the country, and reading studies on children’s outcomes in the foster care system, it’s hard to read an article like this and take it seriously (Arizona Republic, 7/15/15). It’s clear that, following the debacles of Arizona’s child protective authorities over the past three years, including children dying under mysterious circumstances, a fortress mentality among caseworkers, 6,000 cases that went entirely uninvestigated and a management shake-up, the opiners are out in force. What can be done about Arizona’s child welfare apparatus to better protect kids? It seems like everyone has an idea — a bad idea.

The problem is that everyone knows there’s a problem, but no one wants to call it by its proper name — foster care. Everyone knows that the state’s child protective system is failing at its job. When children die because the agency that’s supposed to protect them knew they were at risk, but failed to intervene, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the system failed. When thousands of complaints about child abuse and neglect vanish altogether in a bureaucracy that’s so used to acting in secrecy that it reacts to the light of day like a vampire, we can all see that there’s a problem.

But where Molly Tierney calls things by their correct names, the talkers in Arizona seem incapable of grasping the simplest of concepts — that foster care isn’t the solution, but the problem. I’d like each of these people who’ve taken to the pages of various newspapers to express their opinions to take 11 minutes out of their busy days and listen to Tierney.

Unlike Herb Paine who penned the linked-to article, Tierney is actually a veteran of CPS agencies, having worked in them for decades. She knows whereof she speaks. Both Paine and the opiner he pretends to be answering are fighting old battles with old weapons. Neither will ever make a difference in the way children are treated in Arizona.

Paine spends almost all his article taking swipes at political enemies. Some of them seem to believe that cutting the child welfare budget is, in some unimaginable way, the route to an improved system. Arizona, like other states, has already tried that and failed miserably. Dramatic outflows of personnel resulting in skyrocketing caseloads for those who remained naturally made matters worse, not better. That approach in fact precipitated the crisis that resulted in the latest agency shake-up.

Now apparently, there are those who want to privatize the system of foster care. Before going that route, state officials might want to pick up the phone and give a call to their Texas counterparts. The Lone Star State already tried that with disastrous results. As but one example, a foster mother, cleared by the private company hired by the state to vet foster parents and place children with them, was recently sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the little girl in her “care.” Meanwhile, National Mentor Holdings, the private company in question, is now on the run. It’s closing its foster care operations in six different states under a cloud of incompetence and an investigation by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

So what are Paine’s bright ideas? He calls himself a “business strategy consultant and consultant to nonprofit organizations,” so it’s not easy to see how he’s qualified to state an opinion. But here they are:

  • Realignment of funding streams to require collaboration among the various entities that serve children.

  • Subsidies, general obligation bonds or public trusts that increase parental access to quality child care, early childhood education, pediatric care and training in parenting skills.

  • Incentives for employment development workshops and respite child care that reduce the stress of families at risk for child abuse or neglect.

  • An integrated behavioral health assessment and planning process that tracks children enrolled in multiple systems of care and detention and documents the outcomes and efficacy of treatment approaches.

Hmm. Mealier mush is hard to imagine. Still, it’s hard to argue against encouraging agencies that deal with children to collaborate with each other. And certainly training parents to be better caregivers to their children can’t hurt. And tracking at risk children and maintaining data on their outcomes could provide helpful information about what does and doesn’t work.

But it’s impossible to read those suggestions and conclude “now we’ve got a handle on this problem and how to solve it.” Put simply, those are the ideas of a man who doesn’t know what the problem is or the solutions to it. Again, he ought to invest 11 minutes of his time and listen to someone who does.

Is Paine aware that caseworkers have far more to do than they can possibly do well? He doesn’t mention a word about caseloads or industry standards.

But more importantly, he nowhere mentions the problem that Tierney has seen face to face, year after year. Paine doesn’t know that foster care harms children. Of course it doesn’t do so in every case and the system is replete with parents who genuinely care about their children and do their best for them. Sometimes they provide the lifeline to children the very concept of foster care envisions.

But overwhelmingly, foster care damages children. Study after study demonstrates the fact. And, dysfunctionally, federal monetary incentives ensure that state agencies take more and more children into foster care and, once there, more and more of them are adopted by foster parents or others.

As Tierney points out, that’s the exact opposite of what should be happening. We should be bending heaven and earth to keep children in their families, intervening early to give risky parents the help they need to give their kids proper care, and using foster care as only the last resort. The fact is that children do better with their parents than with others. They’ve formed attachments to their parents that they’ll never have with anyone else. That means that separation from those parents is traumatic for them; it damages their psyches, sometimes for life.

That’s why Tierney tells us that what kids in foster care want beyond anything else is “they want to go home.” We should do everything we can to make that desire a reality. We should do that by giving parents the tools they need to parent well.

Over the last three years or so, Arizona has gone through a great upheaval in its child welfare system. It’s gone from scandal to government study to government response to shakeup. But sadly, it looks like the lessons learned have been the wrong ones. Maybe they should have asked an expert. Not just any expert, but one who doesn’t have a vested interest in the existing system. Instead of the countless hours of handwringing, instead of the millions of dollars studying the matter, maybe they should have devoted 11 minutes to what’s maybe the most important video on children’s welfare in existence.

Sadly, it seems to be too late. Tierney told us the system is self-perpetuating and she was right. Even in the face of unprecedented scandal and public incompetence on a huge scale, the system soldiers on.

It’s something Herb Paine will never tell us, either because he doesn’t know or because he’s part of the system.

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