Health and Human Services Misinterprets Foster Care Data

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform executive director Richard Wexler head shot

richard wexlerHHS Now Able to Definitively Link More Foster Children to More Parental Substance Abuse,” reads the headline on a Dec. 15, 2016, story on Youth Today.

But the story itself documents, indirectly, that the Department of Health and Human Services has no real evidence for this claim. Consider:

  • The story notes that “for the first time” HHS broke down the reasons given by states for taking away children from their families. Why was this the first time? Because, the story says, “In the past, HHS … couldn’t rely on states to accurately calculate the various reasons why youth were removed from their homes.”

Yet the story goes on to say: “Parental substance abuse was the second most frequent reason for youth to enter foster care in 2015, at about 32 percent of all reasons for removal. That was an increase from 28.5 percent in 2012.” But the 2012 numbers are so unreliable that HHS refused to publish them.

  • The 2015 figure is simply a tally of allegations by caseworkers — they write in their notes that the reason for removal is substance abuse. But that can be based on nothing more than a vague suspicion — and the fact that citing alleged drug abuse is a good way to get a judge to rubber-stamp a removal decision.

But let’s assume that there has been a real increase in parental substance abuse. The biggest flaw in HHS’ logic is the implicit assumption that the only way to respond to this is to throw the children into foster care.

An earlier “drug plague” should have taught us how harmful this is to children.

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems: One group was placed in foster care, another group was placed with birth mothers who were able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out. Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called bad mothers without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with addicted parents. But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child.

There are other problems with HHS’ analysis. According to the story:

“Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona and Minnesota experienced the largest increases in youth in foster care. After interviewing child welfare directors from those states, ACYF officials concluded that increases in opioid and methamphetamine abuse contributed largely to their spikes in foster care numbers.”

But at least four of these states had something else in common: foster-care panics. A newspaper discovers that children “known to the system” sometimes die. They focus on a horrific example. Then media, politicians or both scapegoat efforts to keep families together.

Even if the head of the child welfare agency isn’t fired, s/he rarely has the guts to stand up to this kind of pressure. And frontline workers know that they can take away hundreds of children needlessly; and, while the children may suffer terribly, the workers are safe. But have the next high-profile tragedy on their caseload, and they might well be demoted, suspended, fired or even criminally charged.

Contrary to what caseworkers sometimes claim, when it comes to taking away children they are not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” — they’re only damned if they don’t.

But obviously, no child welfare agency chief is going to say, “Foster care skyrocketed because I have no backbone and I caved in to media and political pressure.” Instead they’ll say, “Hey, it’s not my fault; it’s drug abuse.” That doesn’t mean HHS, or we, have to believe it.

Even more misleading than the claims from HHS are the claims in the Youth Today story from Martha Matthews, directing attorney of the Children’s Rights Project at Public Counsel in Los Angeles.

“We don’t know if a lower [number of children in foster care] is always good,” she says.

But here’s what we do know: Alabama, a state plagued by poverty and substance abuse, takes away children at a rate 27 percent below the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. A settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law led the state to rebuild its system to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to foster care. (A member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that suit.) As The New York Times reported in 2005, Independent court-appointed monitors found that the reforms improved child safety.

Independent monitors found the same in Illinois, which now takes away children at a rate nearly 50 percent below the national average.

If every state reformed this way, there would be between 72,000 and 135,000 fewer children taken from their homes every year, and all vulnerable children would be safer.

And the Family First Act does not, in fact, take away any money from foster care. Rather, it imposes minimal — too minimal — restrictions on only the worst form of care: group homes and institutions. States would get just as much money as ever when they take away children, as long as they placed a slightly greater percentage of those children with families.

And finally, with all the attention devoted to what is alleged to be the second largest reason for taking children away from their families, we keep ignoring the No. 1 reason — a reason cited nearly twice as often as substance abuse. That reason is “neglect” — which often simply means poverty.

A better summary of the latest HHS data would be: Increase in Foster Children Caused By What Always Causes It: The Confusion of Poverty With Neglect.

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


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