CHIP Renewal: Will the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good?

April 2, 2015

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan (yes, really) bill that would, among other things, extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years, with the higher matching rate that was part of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate will vote on the shortly after members return from their two-week break.

The bill is far from perfect. CHIP supporters and others of progressive leanings will have to decide whether — and at what point — to say it’s good enough.

A Lot at Stake and the Outcome Uncertain

Some Senate Democrats, urged on by lead children’s advocates, have insisted on a four-year CHIP extension. That would, of course, tend to avert another go round in 2017, when we could have a Republican President. And it would enable states to plan for the longer term.

But withholding support for the package could kill it, especially because it’s under fire for reasons that have nothing to do with CHIP, e.g., an offset that would raise Medicare premiums for better-off beneficiaries, the usual ban on using federal funds for abortions, except in certain limited cases. And, of course, some of those self-identified deficit hawks object because the costs aren’t fully offset.

Defeat of the bill would leave not only CHIP imperiled, but also other programs that benefit low-income children, including the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visitation program, the Transitional Medical Assistance program and a provision in the ACA that funds community health centers.

Why the Bipartisan Deal Now?

As I’ve written before, CHIP will receive no more federal funding after September unless Congress extends it. That, however, is not why we’ve got votes on an extension now. There’s an urgent need, as there is virtually every year, to prevent the Sustainable Growth Rate from taking effect.

Congress enacted the SGR nearly 20 years ago in an effort to control Medicare costs. It provided a formula to curb spending on physicians’ services to Medicare beneficiaries.

But physicians claimed — perhaps, in some cases, rightly — that the reimbursements wouldn’t even cover their costs of providing care. So Congress temporarily suspended the SGR, but left the provision otherwise intact.

And it’s done the same ever since, allowing instead very small — or in some years, no — rate increases. The so-called doc fix has become increasingly necessary because, without it, all the annual rate reductions would take effect. Doctors are thus hypothetically facing a rate cut of 21% — hypothetically because, of course, Congress won’t let that happen.

The package now pending in the Senate would, at long last, repeal the SGR, but not the intent because it establishes a new reimbursement rate scheme.

Risks for CHIP

We’ll, of course, have another doc fix if the final package doesn’t pass. But we can’t count on full funding for CHIP — let alone, at the higher matching rate. For one thing, a bill brewing in the Senate would not only repeal that rate, but cut program funding in several other ways.

For another, we’ve now got a House budget plan that would fold CHIP into the same block grant as Medicaid. States would thus have to cope with an ever-greater funding squeeze. And they’d have the “flexibility” to eliminate benefits and/or beneficiaries.

Fund Cut-Off for Home Visiting Programs

Meanwhile, funding for MIECV would remain in limbo. And it expires at the end of this month. The pending bill would extend it until October 2018, at the same funding level it has now.

The program is quite small. It has nevertheless helped agencies establish and expand programs that offer poor and other at-risk pregnant women and parents of young children the opportunity to have trained professionals come to their homes, assess their family’s needs and then provide and/or refer them to a variety of services.

These include, but are by no means limited to health-related services, e.g., advice on infant care and child nutrition, screenings for developmental disabilities.

States reported serving about 115,000 families last year — surely a small fraction of those that could benefit. Hard to believe that as many would be served if Congress lets funding for the home visiting program dry up.

Other Health-Related Programs

The bill would convert two time-limited healthcare law programs that benefit low-income people into permanent law.

One — Transitional Medical Assistance — enables families to temporarily remain in Medicaid after they’ve moved from welfare to work. That move can happen when they’re by no means earning enough to afford other health insurance because state income eligibility thresholds for welfare, i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are so low.

TMA doesn’t altogether take care of the problem, especially in states that have refused to expand their Medicaid programs. But it gives parents some additional time to increase their income — or find an employer that offers health insurance they can afford.

The other program provides states with funds to pay for the Medicare Part B premiums of qualifying individuals. Since I’m focusing here on support for children’s health and wellbeing, I’ll refer those interested to a short, clear summary by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Lastly, the bill would extend the funding for community health centers initiated by the ACA. It’s helped support preventive care and treatment for 21.7 million people, according to the latest (somewhat outdated) figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly a third of those people were children.

A Difficult Balancing Act

What all this means, I think, is that advocates for children — and for appropriate, affordable health care generally — have to balance priorities and prospects. They understandably want CHIP funded at the higher matching rate for the full four years the ACA envisions. Backing off now could doom efforts to get that in the Senate.

On the other hand, once Congress has taken care of the SGR problem — permanently or just for another year or two — chances it will renew CHIP at the higher matching rate don’t look good. What will happen to the other programs that benefit low-income children is a question mark.

Recall that both House and Senate Republicans seem set on drastically reducing federal spending (except for defense, of course). Not a good time to leave some many healthcare programs for vulnerable people wide open.

 

 

 

 


What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?  Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?

 

 


Senate Votes to Debate Long-Term Unemployment Benefits, But Renewal Far From Certain

January 8, 2014

I spent part of last Thursday participating in a Twitter blast at Republican Senators whom lead advocates had targeted as potential votes in favor of reviving the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

For those unfamiliar with this tactic, it involves recruiting as many Twitter users as possible to send messages within a brief period of time. Everyone who follows them sees the messages and can join in by simply clicking the retweet link at the bottom.

Our blast targeted 14 Senators. We had sample tweets we could adapt, including the number of jobless workers in the state they represent who’d just lost their benefits.

Some of those Senators just voted to begin debate on a bill to renew the long-term unemployment benefits. Without their votes, the bill would have languished — perhaps indefinitely.

The tweet blast was interesting to me for several reasons.

First, it shows how social media like Twitter have become such an important element in advocacy campaigns. They not only rally supporters and provide a means of sharing information. They are themselves a way of communicating messages to policymakers.

I know this is obvious, but it’s really quite new. Back in the day, as my husband says, the closest advocates could get to a Twitter blast was mass fax messaging.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I collected duplicative messages off the fax machine daily — and dumped them, as instructed. No one could know they’d been sent or received except subscribers to the mass fax services. Well, that was then.

And now Twitter and the like have also become something that many elected officials apparently see as advantageous to their own campaigns. After all, we couldn’t blast at the Senators if they didn’t have Twitter accounts.

Second, the blast shows how much so many have invested in preserving EUC. I recall few, if any campaigns pursued so energetically and with as much coordination among so many and diverse organizations.

The blast was just one small piece of a campaign that has included, among other things, polls (see here and here), online petitions, outreach to local media, link-ups to jobless workers they could talk to, op-eds, a wicked TV ad, several toll-free numbers to Congressional offices and a plethora of action alerts to generate e-mails and/or calls.

And we couldn’t have blasted the Senators with tweets that spoke directly to what the end of EUC has meant for their constituents if the U.S. Department of Labor hadn’t earlier produced state-by-state estimates of the number of jobless workers who’d immediately lose their benefits.

These perhaps because Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee asked for them. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent reported that they were also compiling county-by-county figures, some of which I’ve seen in the press.

In short, each Senator was on notice of what his/her vote would mean back home — and at the risk of cynicism, how a vote against renewal could be messaged there.

Well, the Senate voted yesterday — not to renew EUC, but to debate the proposed short-term extension. The motion squeaked through with just the 60 votes needed — all Democrats present, the two Independents and six Republicans.

But the Republicans won’t necessarily vote to renew the EUC program. They still insist that the cost of any renewal be offset — and only by spending cuts, The New York Times reports.

Democrats worry that these would offset the economic boost that EUC benefits deliver — the equivalent of 240,000 jobs, assuming a year-long extension.

And it’s hard to know whether an offset would satisfy. Senator Susan Collins, who’s tried to broker a deal, reportedly wants to condition receipt of the longest-term unemployment benefits on enrollment in a job training program.

Without these changes, Republicans may block a vote on the EUC bill itself.

Over on the House side, Speaker John Boehner has again let it be known that he’d consider a renewal if it’s paid for and paired with “other efforts that will help get our economy moving again.”

Specifics from two of his colleagues include eliminating “back-breaking, job-breaking regulations,” approval of the Keystone pipeline and tax policy changes.

Not a recipe for a swift renewal — or any perhaps.

But one never knows about these things. What we do know is that many of the 1.3 million or so jobless workers and their families who’ve lost their benefits could be in dire straits. And even a bill that restores those benefits won’t undo the damage, though it would stave off more.

As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said, many have gone “from a position of hardship” to a “catastrophe.” You can’t retroactively feed a child or reverse an eviction for unpaid rent.

No one in Congress can claim ignorance of this — or of the catastrophes the big numbers represent.

On the one hand, I’m enormously impressed by the strategies, coordination and sheer size of the renewal campaign — most impressed perhaps by its success in getting stories of struggling workers into the news.

On the other hand, I’m depressed that the human suffering just doesn’t seem to matter — at least, not enough to enough Republicans in Congress.

We should have had a year-long EUC extension before they went home for the holidays. As it is, they seemingly won’t go for a swift, simple three-month renewal to tide their long-term jobless constituents over during the back-and-forth on a longer-term deal.

Ah well, it’s not over. I’m inclined to think that Republican leaders will decide that leaving so many jobless workers and their families in the lurch is bad for the brand.

But meanwhile catastrophes loom — approximately 72,000 more every week.


Grassroots Network Gets Human Rights Into Budget Law

February 21, 2013

A recent briefing introduced me to a state budget campaign launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center. It’s quite different from most budget campaigns I’m familiar with.

And I think there are things that advocates –and everyday concerned citizens — can learn from it. So let me tell you a bit about it.

The Workers’ Center is a grassroots network that’s branched out from workplace issues to “the full range of issues of concern to working people.”

Two years ago, they racked up a significant victory — a law that promises to make publicly-funded health care a right for everyone who lives in Vermont.

Now the Center has turned its attention to the broader issue of state spending and revenue policies. And again, they’ve racked up a victory.

In this case, it’s an amendment to the state’s budget law that establishes basic principles for the budget — what it should do and how it should be developed.

The latter has to do with processes for public participation. These are still in the development stage, but apparently moving toward completion.

The what-the-budget-should-do part is potentially more revolutionary — and for two reasons.

First, it adopts a human rights framework. “Spending and revenue policies,” it says, will “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.”

This is far more than the symbolic gesture the DC Council made when it declared the District a human rights city. And it’s much broader than the Illinois anti-poverty strategy I wrote about some time ago.

The Vermont law essentially provides a test for virtually any spending proposal. Does it “advance human dignity and equity”? Does it help meet any of the specified needs — or more generally, “promote economic well-being … and a vibrant economy”?

Also revolutionary is the notion that the costs of meeting the Vermont people’s needs should drive revenue policies.

That, at any rate, is how a director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative — one of the Workers’ Center’s lead partners — characterizes the “reframed” budget purpose.

As we all know, budgeting generally works very differently.

First, there’s a revenue projection and some sort of account of what the government spent and would have to spend to keep operating as it has. Also, in some cases, a spending target, e.g., the federal deficit reduction targets enshrined in the Budget Control Act.

Then the money gets divvied up — first by the chief executive, e.g., the President, the state governor, then by committees in the legislature and finally by the legislature as a whole.

Okay, I know this is over-simple. In most states, for example, the governor can veto particular items in the budget the legislature has passed — or in all but one state, the whole damn thing.

And, of course, Congress can do whatever it chooses with budgets enacted by the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, there’s always a fixed amount of money to spend — even if the evolving budget includes revenue raisers.

Organizations representing different interests and/or communities contend for the biggest share of the budget pie they can get. This often means defending the share of the pie they’ve got — over and over again as the years roll on.

Conflicts among them may be smoothed over. That’s part of what broad-based coalitions are for. But I doubt any interest group has sat out a budget season in deference to another.

The end result is winners and losers, even within what we might call the human needs community.

This is what the Vermont Workers’ Center seeks to replace with its People’s Budget, which would stand the customary budget process on its head.

Costs of meeting people’s basic needs would come first. Revenue raisers would follow, if needed to meet those costs.

I’ve some doubts about how this process will fare when the rubber hits the road.

Will Vermont legislators actually pass tax increases sufficient to fulfill the human rights vision embodied in the budget law?

Or will there be the usual push-and-pull between spending and revenue policies? And the usual competition among interests, including the big one between those who want more spending and those who think their taxes are already too high?

Guess we’ll have to wait and see. And hope that the experiment pans out. Because it could become a model for budget reforms elsewhere.

Even in its infancy, it gives us a fresh way of thinking about how budgets are made — and what we do (and don’t). We all, I think, can benefit from that.


Did Twitter Decide the Presidential Debates?

October 22, 2012

Shortly before the first Presidential debate, I got an e-mail urging me to tweet three specific questions to Mitt Romney. The subject line read, “The debate will be decided on Twitter.”

Oh sure, I thought. A bunch of us tweet Romney and he’ll address these questions. “How do you plan to create jobs when you keep shipping them overseas?” Etc.

But this wasn’t what the sending organization had in mind by deciding the debate. It had borrowed its subject line from a recent Politico post, which itself was borrowing from a couple of other sources.

They were saying that real-time tweets would shape the post-debate story reporters would tell.

At the very least, the initial Twitter conversation among political reporters would decide who won and who lost, Nathan Gonzales at The Rothenberg Political Report predicted.

New York Times political blogger Michael Shear also views Twitter as a tool to influence debate coverage, but for the campaigns, not the likes of thee and me and only when neither candidate is the obvious winner.

Both Gonzales and Shear focus on what we could call insider conversations. The promise in my e-mail was that I, along with lots of other tweeters, could interject ourselves and thus shape the post mortems.

We’ve no way of knowing, I suppose, what prompts journalists to fix on particular story lines — other than obvious things like what they and their editors think is newsworthy, e.g., winners and losers, and the political bias of the source they write for.

There may, however, be some limited evidence for the influence of mass tweeting.

For example, we know that some major progressive organizations tweeted fact-checks as the first two debates were going on. They’ve got reporters following them — and others who presumably broadcast the more notorious non-facts to their own followers.

And it’s certainly the case that we’ve had a spate of columns on misstatements, distortions, evasions and Romney’s latest disclaimers of positions he’d espoused, even just a few weeks ago.

But they weren’t the post-debate narrative. And they don’t show much of anything about how we grassroots tweeters can shape — let alone decide — a major political debate.

Which brings me to a somewhat different Twitter campaign.

Greg Kaufmann at The Nation launched it with a hashtag — #TalkPoverty — a shorthand, as hashtags must be, for an effort to “push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.”

The post I’m linking to here was the first in a series that focused on questions posed by experts. We could tweet the articles and/or the individual questions, of course.

The Half in Ten Campaign called on its supporters to tweet about poverty issues, using the #TalkPoverty hashtag. It even sponsored a webinar to get novices up to speed on Twitter and created a prefab tweet for anyone who was still timid or just plain busy.

Kaufmann and others, including Half in Ten, gave us the Twitter handles, i.e., user names, for the debate moderators so that we could tweet factoids and questions directly to them.

Well, there sure were a lot of #TalkPoverty tweets — a new crop every day for weeks. I’m told they reached, on average, nearly 350,000 Twitter followers a day — twice as many on debate days.

Anyone who watched the first debate knows what happened — or rather, didn’t happen.

One use each of the words “poor” and “poverty” — both by Romney and neither in the context of saying what, if anything, he’d do to help the people he fleetingly referred to.

Even a broader content analysis, including words and phrases like “low-income,” “welfare,” “food stamps” and “Medicaid,” found that only 10% of the candidates’ statements focused on poverty.

On the other hand, the virtual silence on poverty as a policy issue did become one of the post-debate storylines — not, of course, as often told and retold as the emergence of yet another Romney, the President’s apparent funk or the mystifying tax numbers.

Some columnists were prompted to write about the issue that “went missing,” as the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart put it.

Did this secondary narrative — Twitter-shaped or otherwise — influence the content of the second Presidential debate? Did the ongoing tweet stream itself have an impact?

Not so as you’d notice. But then the second debate consisted largely of answers — or talking points passed off as answers — to questions from the audience.

Not much interest in the plight of poor people there, we gather.

Or perhaps moderator Candy Crowley, who chose the questions, thought that the rest of us wouldn’t be all that interested, judging from her many years of experience as a political reporter and post-debate narrative creator.

Kaufmann thinks that Obama did talk poverty, though without using the p-word.

The policies he cites would certainly be better for poor people than Romney’s tax cuts for small businesses. But I think it’s a stretch to view them as policies specifically designed to fight poverty.

Perhaps, as Kaufmann’s expert interviewee says, the word “poverty” evokes such negative stereotypes that candidates can’t break through if they use it.

If that’s true, then doubly so for proclaiming a renewed war on poverty.


Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?


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.


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