News Briefs for June 2003

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Foster Care Workers Charged in Kids’ Deaths

A county prosecutor in Michigan is making political points and shaking up the child protection system by filing criminal charges against two foster care caseworkers and two doctors for failing to report suspicions about child abuse and neglect.

The charges stem from the deaths of two foster children allegedly beaten to death in their Detroit foster homes in separate incidents this year.

Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan had already charged 47-year-old foster mother Lynda Baker with murder in the March 17 death of her foster child, Joshua Causey, 4, and 40-year-old Roderick Hall in the April 5 beating death of his foster child, 4-year-old Rufus Young.

But the prosecutor has examined the child welfare record to find someone in the system to blame.

Over the course of four days in May, Duggan filed criminal charges of abuse and failure to report against two foster care workers for a nonprofit agency and failure to report charges against two doctors at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the state’s most respected pediatric hospital.

“We’re not trying to indict every foster care worker. We’re trying to indict the system,’’ Duggan said at a news conference last month. “The apathy and incompetence are just embarrassing.’’

The two social service workers at the St. Vincent Sarah Fisher Center, a foster care agency in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, were charged with second-degree child abuse, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, and failure to report suspected abuse to the Child Protective Services division of the Michigan Family Independence Agency (FIA), a misdemeanor.

The two workers – foster care case manager Beth Kaplansky, 26, and her supervisor, Lori Ann Wright, 33 – were placed on administrative leave by the agency. But managers and supervisors at the St. Vincent Sarah Fisher Center support the workers’ actions.

Duggan said Kaplansky and Wright should have reported suspected abuse of Joshua Causey in February when bruising was noticed during a home visit, and black eyes and a sore arm were noticed during therapy sessions at the agency.

The workers’ attorneys say the women are innocent and followed all state laws and policies regarding visits and reporting.

Kaplansky’s father, attorney John Kaplansky, said his daughter was an exemplary social service worker who paid out of her own pocket for a Christmas dinner for one family on her caseload, and traveled to Alabama to escort a family of kidnapped foster children back to Michigan.

“This attack is damaging a couple of young women who have been saving kids from abuse,” John Kaplansky said. “This media frenzy is guaranteeing that the [child welfare] system is going to stay understaffed and overworked.

“As a lawyer, I think the charge is an abuse by the prosecutor.”

The prosecutor also announced misdemeanor charges of failing to report abuse against Dr. Jayashree Narayan Rao, a respected emergency room physician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and Dr. Vince Truong, a resident from Mt. Clemens General Hospital. Dr. Truong was on a rotation at Children’s on Feb. 15 when he examined Rufus Young, who was brought to the emergency room by his foster mother because of her concerns that he was not growing.

Rufus suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and other emotional problems. Rao, the attending physician, and Truong wrote in their reports that Rufus had bruises and marks consistent with a history of abuse. The doctors may have believed that Rufus had only recently entered foster care, because the foster mother reported he had been in her home for only three months, and they figured that the FIA already was closely supervising his case.

Duggan said the doctors still should have filed a report of suspected child abuse or neglect with the FIA.

Rao’s attorney, Gail Benson, said the doctor had tried to meet with prosecutors to explain what happened, but that prosecutors refused to meet with her before Duggan’s press conference. “I have done nothing wrong,” Rao said in an interview.

Dr. Herman Gray, Children’s Hospital’s chief of staff, said Rao has dedicated her life to protecting children and knows perfectly well that she is mandated to report suspected child abuse, as she has done many times.

Dr. Ashok P. Sarnaik, chief of critical care medicine at the hospital, said that “charging doctors for failing to report child abuse without a thorough investigation reeks of rotten politics and professional ineptitude.”

Advisers Fault After-School Study

Seven members of a scientific advisory board of the U.S. Department of Education reproached a recent study on the effectiveness of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers that led the Bush administration to propose a 40 percent cut in the program’s budget.

The study, written by Mathematica Policy Research and publicly released in January, “has serious methodological problems that call into question its findings and that violate basic principles governing how evaluation should be used to guide policy and affect program budgets,” the seven board members said in a statement issued May 10. The board has nine members.

In a five-page commentary, the critics from the board cite numerous concerns and study flaws, such as sample sizes, and say that using an evaluation of a program in its first year to guide policy decisions is unprincipled.

“It is inappropriate in this particular case and misleads policy-makers into thinking that it is appropriate to judge the outcomes of social interventions after a single year,” the statement said. “It reinforces the fallacious assumption that interventions such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers are capable of achieving rapid results with far fewer resources in terms of money, time and staff capacity than the schools attended by the youth they serve.”

The Mathematica report said the after-school programs do not improve student performance or behavior. Report authors said the advisory group had sufficient time to review the report before it was released, and that their report did not include policy recommendations.

The report, When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st-Century Community Learning Centers Program, drew considerable attention and criticism when it was released (“Fed Study, Funding Slash Show Results: Anger,” March 2003). The president’s fiscal 2004 budget proposes cutting the program to $600 million from $1 billion this year.

Briefly …

Single Foster Parents: A bill was introduced into the Texas state Legislature in late April that would prohibit single adults from serving as foster parents. Opponents of the bill say that it would force the closure of 1,560 foster homes and would cost the state $16 million to put the removed youth in costlier institutional care.

Sex Abuse Loophole: Lawmakers in Illinois are considering changes in a state law that allows milder punishments for people convicted of sexually abusing family members than for abusing nonfamily members. Since 1983, nonrelatives convicted of sexual assault have faced a four- to 15-year prison sentence, while someone convicted of the same offense against a family member may be sentenced to probation and counseling. North Carolina changed a similar law last year, and a similar bill has been introduced in Arkansas.

Orphans Sue State:
The state of Iowa was sued last month on behalf of five orphans who were taught to stutter in a University of Iowa study in 1939. Speech pathologist Wendell Johnson induced stuttering among the orphans to prove that stuttering is learned from parents and is not an inborn condition.

Boy Scouts Go Lee-Free: The uniforms of central Virginia Boy Scouts will no longer bear the image of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee. The council that oversees the Richmond-area Scouts, once titled the Robert E. Lee Council, will choose a new name by June 2004.

Moses’ Wallet:
The Ten Commandments Project, created to entice youth to memorize and recite the Ten Commandments by paying them $10 each, has doled out its last check. After The Associated Press reported on the project in December, nearly 15,000 affidavits from children around the country flooded project creator George Kelley’s mailbox. Kelley, who created the project after a cook killed seven workers at three Tennessee restaurants in 1997, believed that children who memorized the Ten Commandments would think about them when tempted to lie, steal or engage in other wrongdoing. Kelley planned to honor letters received through April 5, but could afford no more.