The Gordon Gekkos of Child Welfare Compare Notes

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One of the great things about the annual conference of the Child Welfare League of America – okay, the only great thing about this gathering of the foster care-industrial complex – is that every year there is at least one panel where the mask slips. 

Talking among themselves, participants shed some of the pieties about how every word they speak, every action they take, indeed every breath they inhale is only “for the children.”  Some of the agencies show their true colors.   

Last year’s classic example of mask slippage, discussed in detail on NCCPR’s child Welfare Blog, was a panel called “The Many Watch the Few Serve the Many.”  It was devoted to the problem of accountability in child welfare. But, as the obnoxious title suggests, the problem, according to the presenters, was not that this system that wields vast power and operates in near total secrecy has too little accountability. Rather, they said, there is too much accountability – with the poor, noble Gullivers of child welfare tied down by innumerable Lilliputian "watchers."

A more accurate title for the panel would have been “Give us more money and go away!”

This year, at a time when budget cuts are shattering America’s social safety net, and the rest of us are being told to do more with less, CWLA offered up a panel on how to do less with more. 

Call it the Gordon Gekko panel. Representatives of trade associations for private child welfare agencies that sued states to scarf up more while everyone else suffers gave “how-we-did-it” presentations.

First up, the trade association that dares not speak its name, the Indiana Association of Residential Child Care Agencies. (That is the group’s legal name, but they’re embarrassed to use it in public, instead going by the alias “IARCCA – An Association of Children and Family Services.”) They sued to stop a ten percent cut in rates for group homes and institutions.

Indiana has one of America’s most backward child welfare systems.  The state tears apart families at a rate 60 percent above the national average, and while entries into care are declining in most of America, in Indiana they’re increasing.

IARCCA won a settlement which stopped most of the cuts.  So money that would have been saved by reducing rates for useless institutionalization will have to be made up somewhere else – like programs to help Indiana catch up with the rest of the nation.

But IARCCA’s success pales in comparison to that of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents the group home industry in California. 

California, of course, has been reeling from some of the worst budget deficits in the nation and the shattering of its safety net for poor families.

Child welfare hasn’t been spared.  Twice, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $80 million in state child welfare funds, and the cut rises to $133 million when lost federal matching funds are added.

Opponents of the cuts have catalogued the effects, including:

*Six counties reduced and/or eliminated early intervention services to families who come to the attention of child welfare agencies.

*Five counties have cut services that provide crisis relief to parents in distress.

*Two counties reduced counseling services for sexual abuse victims.

*One county cut the number of public health nurses available to meet the basic health needs of abused and neglected children.

*Another county eliminated a substance abuse treatment program, affecting more than 3,000 families.

And that doesn’t even include the slash-and-burn cuts to California’s versions of welfare, Medicaid, child care, and children’s health insurance, which make it more likely that more children will be taken from their parents when poverty is confused with “neglect.”

But while everyone else suffers, the group homes and institutions are making out like bandits. The Alliance sued not only to reverse a rate cut, but to grab itself a rate increase. So far they’ve won at the trial court level and on appeal. If they keep winning, the state estimates that this will cost California and its counties nearly $200 million.

In other words, all the money saved by slashing child welfare services, and more, will go straight into the pockets of the group home industry.

None of this would be so bad if the money actually were going to help children.  But it doesn’t.  It goes to a form of care that is demonstrably worthless.

*A review of the scholarly literature by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, published in 2000, found only “weak evidence” for the success of residential treatment. 

* A 1996 study of children placed in residential treatment centers because of mental health problems found that seven years after discharge 75 percent of the children were back in the only settings they could understand: institutions.  They were in psychiatric centers or jails.

*Even CWLA’s former President, Shay Bilchik, admitted in 2005 that they lack "good research" showing residential treatment's effectiveness and "we find it hard to demonstrate success." 

You could take the money the California institutions grabbed for themselves and burn it on the steps of the State Capitol and it would do more good – at least the bonfire might warm some homeless families in Sacramento.

When the Alliance won at the district court level, it issued an unctuous statement claiming to favor alternatives and insisting they only want their institutions used when absolutely necessary. That's what they always say.  It's so predictable, and so phony, that we have a checklist of their excuses, and why they don't wash, on our website.

But my favorite part is where the Alliance says its members "have pioneered alternatives to group home care, such as Wraparound and intensive treatment foster care…" As a matter of fact, one of their members, EMQ Families First, really did pioneer such alternatives. But the group home industry fought them every step of the way. In fact, the very term "group home industry" doesn't originate with me. I got it from former EMQ CEO Jerry Doyle, who used it in Youth Today.

But of course, in public the group home industry always says they’re for alternatives, and, always, “it’s for the children.”

Because that’s a lot easier to sell than “greed is good.”

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org