Proof Positive: CWLA’s Impact On Reform Has Been Negative

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By Richard Wexler     

Any politician knows how to run to the front of the parade and pretend to be leading it. Christine James-Brown would make a fine politician.

Even as the trade association she runs, the Child Welfare League of America, supports policies that thwart efforts to keep children out of foster care, she tells us in this blog how wonderful it is that the number of children trapped there finally is going down.

Certainly that is good news. Even better news: Finally, we’re seeing a serious decline in entries into care – the number of children torn from everyone they know and love in the first place.

But that begs the question: What took so long?

It all should have happened more than a decade ago. And the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) is one reason it didn’t.

The rate of substantiated cases of child abuse peaked in the United States in 1993. But the number of children in foster care kept going up. The increases didn’t stop until 1999, and the declines afterward were quite small until 2007. Entries into care increased all the way through 2005.

So, what happened? 

At about the same time as child abuse peaked, Congress threatened to start spending real money on family preservation. Then scare stories started turning up in newspapers across the country, sometimes bearing the fingerprints of big private agencies paid for every day that they hold children in foster care. Those stories falsely scapegoated family preservation for every high-profile child abuse tragedy. 

The family preservation movement failed to fight back. Naively assuming that people wouldn’t really believe the fear-mongering, the family preservation movement almost “niced” itself to death.

All this was at a time when politicians were having field day demonizing poor people, particularly poor black women. This was, after all, when members of Congress were drawing analogies between welfare and overfeeding “wolves” and “alligators” as they pushed welfare “reform.”

Just one year after the welfare bill, Congress targeted the same demonized population. Led by a House speaker who suggested throwing poor people’s children into orphanages, Congress passed the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

A lot of people behind ASFA knew full well there was no way to adopt our way out of the foster care crisis. The real idea was to enshrine in law the take-the-child-and-run mentality by falsely equating child removal with child safety. 

It worked so well that, by 2000, one of those claiming responsibility for writing ASFA couldn’t resist a little gloating. Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania told the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch that "initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now."

The ASFA mentality dominated child welfare for nearly a decade.

And where was CWLA during all this?

* Promoting the hysteria. Even now, a list of supposed “signs” of child maltreatment on CWLA’s website confuses poverty with neglect.

* Promoting institutionalization. No sooner did former Shay Bilchik, then president of the CWLA, admit that providers lack "good research" showing residential treatment's effectiveness and "we find it hard to demonstrate success” than he suggested that the solution is to let residential treatment centers take in children with less serious problems – so the centers could then “solve” them!

* Covering up for lousy agencies. In 1999, the Dayton Daily News exposed horrible conditions at a major private agency in Ohio. The newspaper reported that when the reporters asked for comment, then-CWLA President “Shirley Marcus Allen, sent an e-mail to Joyce Johnson, the group's director of  public relations, saying ‘These are all horrible stories. I have no desire to talk to the reporters on this if I don't have to. Find something more positive for me to report on.’ ”

* Opposing real accountability while promoting the sham of “accreditation,” which gives an unearned seal of approval to agencies, including the one that had been enmeshed in that scandal in Ohio.

* And worst of all, CWLA has opposed all serious efforts to reform child welfare finance to allow – not require, simply allow – states to give up their limitless entitlement to federal foster care dollars, while alternatives are starved, and  switch to a flexible flat grant, as Florida has done so successfully through a federal waiver.

One need only look at the six initiatives James-Brown credits for the decline in foster care numbers to see the problem.  Five of them promote adoption and the sixth, national foster care month, is not likely to get children out of foster care.

But adoption has played only a minor role in the decline in foster care. Another small part of the decrease is nothing to be proud of: A 70 percent surge in children aging out of the system with no home at all, again largely thanks to ASFA.

The real declines didn’t start until states stopped taking away so many children. Clearly, CWLA had nothing to do with that, since James-Brown doesn’t even mention a real family preservation initiative.

Like a bad fever that finally broke, people looked around and saw what ASFA’s take-the-child-and-run mentality had done. At the same time, word about new research was making its way to the frontline – research like the landmark studies of 15,000 typical cases revealing that children left in their own homes usually fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. And we in the family preservation movement got serious about fighting the smears.

There’s still a long way to go. Years of progress still can be undone by a few high-profile cases and an easily-suckered media. It’s happening right now in Cleveland, where there’s been a 60 percent increase in removals in recent months. Funny thing. A lot of  quotes hyping the fear are from private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care.

One can’t really blame CWLA for this. A trade association always puts the best interests of its members first. But if you’re going to join the public parade away from foster care, you need to stop undermining real reform in private.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

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