With vacations and some summer projects in the works at Youth Today, it's been awhile since we posted to the ChildWelfare Today blog. Following is a roundup of CW news from the past month or so. By no means is it comprehensive, so if you feel we left off something important, get in touch!
*** New private and federal grants were made available over the summer. Check the "Grants" section of our ChildWelfare Today page for all the details. Among the grants available: bridge grants for struggling CASA programs and financial assistance for under-funded child support enforcement agencies.
*** There is some talk that Ismael Ahmed, director of Michigan's Department of Human Services, is D.C.-bound, in line for a job with the Obama administration at the Administration for Children and Families.
Ahmed is at the helm of an agency that is just beginning its attempt to reform around a consent decree it entered after settling a class-action lawsuit with nonprofit litigator Children's Rights. We've written already about the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform's critique of the reform process thus far; its executive director, Richard Wexler, is not a fan of the approach taken by CR or Ahmed, and has been very prolific in his criticism of the process on NCCPR's blog.
Heard this from a local Michigan watchdog: Whatever one thinks of Ahmed, a headless state DHS this early in the reform process would be a setback.
***Once upon a time, Michigan considered opting for a waiver offered by the federal government that would allow it to spend some of its child welfare allotment money on a more flexible array of services, including efforts to keep families together. The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) took that waiver three years ago, which we covered at the time. The New York Times' Erik Eckholm reports that the effort has precipitated a significant decline in the number of children entering foster care, a 32 percent drop statewide.
Obviously, a decline in the number of kids in care isn't a victory in and of itself. Let's say a once-diligent system worsened over time, and simply did not bother to investigate each abuse/neglect claim vigorously; the number of youths entering care might drop, and it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing.
But if social workers are making educated decisions on what families can be engaged and assisted without foster care, and the number of youths in care continues to drop, it's hard to see that as anything other than progress.
The summer has not been as kind to the rest of Florida DCF, though. The agency is figuring out how to fix its medication procedures after the April death of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, who allegedly killed himself in state care and who was prescribed multiple antipsychotic medications during his time with DCF.
*** Give this much credit to Florida on the handling of the Myers case: it has handled an ugly situation in a very public way, with live-broadcast meetings of the Myers work group and a website with updates on the investigation and various reforms. In New Jersey much the opposite is happening. New rules on sharing child fatality information might have prevented the state from publicly airing what was happening with psych meds in the system.
There are downsides to publicizing the information. Lots of details about a family's private life can come out. Further, child fatalities are a weak indicator of an entire system's performance; a bad system could go a year with no fatalities while a functional one suffered four. Because of the ugly imagery of events related to a fatality case, coverage can often go a long way toward fueling a foster care panic. But no advocate whom New Jersey paper The Star-Ledger could find said those concerns warrant a compromise in transparency.
***We don't often go off on personal tangents here but I think this might warrant it. I am a horror movie fan. I abhor violence, but love the sensation of being freaked out a by a film (when there are only imagined, and not real, tragic consequences). The true test of a classic horror film, to me, is that it makes the viewer think twice about doing something...go in the water ("Jaws") or backpack in Europe ("Hostel"), to name two examples.
So when I saw that Warner Bros. had decided to release a horror flick simply titled "Orphan," my stomach turned. Really? A film aimed at freaking the audience out about a girl, traumatized by a life without parents, who terrorizes the family that takes her in? Making moviegoers afraid of the woods is one thing; making them fear adopting a child in need is very different.
At least one group of foster care alums felt the same way, and posted a very moving video response to the film on YouTube.
One of the alums featured in the response wonders why the orphan anglet couldn't have just been an aspect of the plot, not the title; why not just name the movie "Esther," the character's name? Totally agree.
***A study of 250 Romanian children found that youths moved into high-quality foster care from placements in institutions developed increased brain activity. "This study is one of the first to document the neural consequences of early institutionalization," according to Margaret C. Moulson, the study's lead author.
Interesting collaboration on this study: Romanian children, U.S. researchers, and money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
***The National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures are hosting a policy academy entitled "Achieving and Sustaining a Safe Reduction in Foster Care." It will be Nov. 5-6 in Tampa, Fla. State agencies interested in applying should contact Jody Grutza.