Open Court Proceedings Could Change the Child Welfare Narrative

March 4, 2012

Professor Matthew Fraidin sent “a small, friendly amendment” to my post on child welfare narratives. I said that he had previously focused on the need to open now-secret child welfare proceedings, but had turned his attention to narratives.

He explains that the two issues are intimately inked, as follows:

As I pointed out in an article in the Maine Law Review, the closure of child welfare courts plays an important role in creating the inaccurate narrative by suppressing stories other than horror stories.

My speech at the University of Michigan, which you discussed in your post, is an effort to depict the narrative that might exist if the much more common, much truer stories of child welfare could be told — stories of racial disparity, stories of child taken from their families unlawfully and unnecessarily, stories of lawyers who haven’t met with their child or adult clients, stories of judges who openly ignore the law.

Laws creating secret courts not only limit the people who may enter and observe the proceedings. They also limit the stories that may be told by those allowed to enter.

In other words, a lawyer involved in a child welfare case may enter the courtroom and review the documents in the court file, but s/he may not talk, i.e., tell stories, about what s/he knows or has seen or read.

In fact, the only lawfully-allowed stories are stories of criminal acts — murders, brutal injuries or severe neglect, for which adults are charted as criminals. But those don’t come from the child welfare cases and courtrooms.

In those instances, someone gets arrested, and the law places no limit on the information the policy may share with reporters. Reporters then tell the gruesome story beneath a screaming headline. And THAT creates and perpetuates the inaccurate narrative!

If child welfare courts were open to the public and press, the narrative would be much more nuanced, to say the least. We would read a diverse array of stories, including stories about lackluster lawyers, caseworkers and judges.

Most importantly, we would read about children who were taken, terrified, from their schools and homes and families, but didn’t need to be.

We’d read about children who were doing better at home than in foster care. We would read about parents who love their children, and children who love their parents and siblings, children who miss their homes and wither in foster care.

Those new stories might change our collective mindset about the child welfare system so that we would no longer think of it simply as a holding pen for animalistic parents and their children, who, inevitably in our minds, are fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Child welfare” would be a much more complex phenomenon.

The D.C. Citizen Review Panel’s recent findings suggest that there are literally hundreds of children in foster care unlawfully and to their detriment.

The many, many stories that could be told about those children would convey a much richer, more realistic and less stereotyped image of the parents.

In the meantime, the ideas summarized in my HuffPo article represent an effort to start changing the inaccurate, destructive narrative, even in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia where child welfare proceedings are held in secret.

In my opinion, secret courts protect from challenge the inaccurate narrative created by racial bias and sensational horror stories.

You got it exactly right, Kathryn. “Chang[ing] the stories in our heads” can help us tell accurate stories, which happen to be the ones made illegal by secrecy laws.


Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.


How Does DC Rank On Poverty, Opportunity And Shared Prosperity?

November 10, 2011

As I recently wrote, the Half in Ten campaign has issued a groundbreaking report that calls on our nation to do two related things:

  • Cut poverty in half
  • Create shared prosperity by increasing opportunities and supports for low-income individuals and families

For both goals, the timeframe is 10 years — less actually, since the report starts the clock running in 2010. That’s because many of the baseline indicators it uses come from the latest Census Bureau reports.

One of the most ambitious aspects of the project are the state-level indicators for both poverty reduction and progress toward the three big priorities the campaign advocates — more good jobs, stronger families and greater economic security.

The state-level indicators are online and include not only the most current figures, but rankings relative to other states. Links let us see the actual figures for all states.

So what do we learn about poverty, opportunity and shared prosperity in the District of Columbia? Here’s a sample.

Reducing Poverty

About poverty, most of us already know. The District has a higher poverty rate than all but two states — 19.2% in 2010.*

No news about food insecurity either. As I previously wrote, the District’s food insecurity rate last year was 13%. This puts the District above a majority of states, with a ranking of 20.

Creating Good Jobs

The indicators for creating good jobs are a mixed bag indeed.

On the one hand, the District tops all states for wage equity between men and women — an average of only 8.6 cents on the dollar separating them, as compared to 21.4 cents nationwide.

It also ranks first in the percent of young adults (25-34 year olds) with an associates degree or higher. Close to two-thirds — 63.6% — of residents in this age group have a college degree of some sort.

But only one state — Nevada — ranks lower in the percent of high school freshmen who graduate four years later. Barely more than half — 56% — of District students graduated on time in 2008.

Strengthening Families

Huge variations in the indicators for this priority as well.

Only one state — Massachusetts — has a lower percent of residents without health insurance. For D.C., the figure is 7.6% — just 3.2% higher than for Massachusetts.

But no state has as high a rate of children under 18 in foster care. No state, in fact, even comes close.

For every 100,000 children in the District, 2,058 have been taken away from their families. In the highest ranking state — Nebraska — the ratio is 1,188 per 100,000. Nationwide, the ratio is 533 per 100,000.

Promoting Economic Security

No big point spreads here, alas.

Last year, only 36.3% of jobless workers in the District received unemployment insurance benefits, putting the District below all but two states — South Dakota and Virginia.

The District also ranks below all but two states in the percent of residents (adults presumably) who don’t have bank accounts — a somewhat primitive, but useful measure for asset building.

Finally — no surprise — the District ranks lower than all but six states for affordable housing, which is here measured as the number of affordable, available rental units per 100 tenants with incomes at or below 50% of the state median.

Only 53% of lower-income tenants here have a chance at an affordable unit.

Why the Indicators?

Half in Ten provides these indicators — and plans updates — so that we can advocate for legislation that “moves … [them] in the right direction” and hold our elected officials accountable for progress.

The campaign focuses mainly on federal policies. Yet when we look at the District’s indicators, we can see that some of them have solutions close to home.

Many, I think, speak to the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots in our city.

New evidence of this — and another indicator — from the Census Bureau, which reports greater income inequality in the District than in all but two other major cities.

That’s something our local government can address, though we need radical shifts in federal priorities too.

As at the federal level, the core issue is political will. Creating and sustaining it is our business.

Think what could happen if we all asked our policymakers — and aspiring policymakers — what they intended to do about the deplorable numbers here.

* This figure comes from the American Community Survey. As I earlier wrote, it is more reliable than the much-reported one-year figure from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.


10 Things I’ve Learned About Twitter

August 6, 2011

About three months ago, I decided to launch myself into the Twitter world — this after a very good Half in Ten webinar on how to use social media strategically.

Here’s what I’ve learned — and tentatively concluded.

  1. It’s possible to express a thought in fewer than 140 characters — even for someone as voluble as I. And it’s good discipline because you need to bore down to the core message.
  2. It’s not possible to express a thought of any complexity or even to qualify a relatively simple thought. No room for “possibly,” “unless,” etc. And, of course, no room for acknowledging different views.
  3. Tweeting infects one’s thought processes. I often think through issues while taking my daily constitutional. Find myself talking to myself in little blips. This also happens when I read something I like (or don’t).
  4. Twitter is a great distraction. When I get to a tough place in a draft, I have yet another way to put off the inevitable slogging through. And I take advantage of it, though I know I shouldn’t.
  5. Twitter is truly a social medium — much more collaborative than a blog. Many cryptic conversations. Lots of tweets and retweets to help others get information out to broader networks.
  6. For some people, Twitter seems to fill a void. Maybe they need a sense of connection and there’s no one around they’re really connected to. Or maybe it’s something completely different. I just don’t get why some people tweet fragmented streams of their daily lives. Do get why some people tweet — how shall I say? — fragments of themselves.
  7. Twitter can be part of an activist communications campaign, but only by facilitating networking among organizations and individuals who are already engaged — and communicating with one another in less confining ways. Mini-messages — often comprehensible only to those in the know — don’t grow grassroots.
  8. Tweeting can subvert activism. It’s easy to feel one’s doing something for a cause by tweeting or retweeting a message. But one’s not really doing anything that will make a direct impact on the powers-that-be. At best, Twitter is a way of letting others know what they can do, but only via links.
  9. Malcolm Gladwell is partly right when he says the next revolution won’t be tweeted. Successful campaigns for social change have leaders and lieutenants. Also a critical mass who’ll put real skin in the game. Twitter followers aren’t the same as, for example, the people who followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. across the bridge at Selma.
  10. But the next revolution — assuming we have one — may be tweeted in ways Gladwell doesn’t allow for. Social media could help keep participants connected. They might help get the media coverage needed to build support — and provide some measure of protection. Twitter might have gone the way of the telegraph by then. But I doubt we’ll see a replica of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

What do you more seasoned tweeters say?


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