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.


Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child’s] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.


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