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?

New Survey Results Offer Strategy Insights For Advocates

July 1, 2011

Washington Monthly editor Art Levine observes that the District’s safety net organizations are “mostly under-funded, poorly organized and lack media savvy” — this as a partial explanation for the spending cuts and related policy changes the DC Council seemed ready to approve.

I think Levine’s basically right about the limits of our hometown advocacy campaigns, though organization seems to be getting better. Something similar could probably be said about many safety net campaigns in cities across the country.

But, journalist that Levine is, he may be overestimating the difference “media savvy” could make — and discounting the effectiveness of some strategies that even a savvy PR specialist would find challenging to pitch.

It’s certainly true that our major media have been much more preoccupied with bickering among Councilmembers over the Mayor Gray’s proposed tax increases — even more preoccupied with the ins-and-outs of potential malfeasance.

But it’s questionable whether more and better reporting on the proposed safety net cuts would have made much difference. Many reasons for this.

One is suggested by a fascinating new report on which strategies Congressional staff think would have a significant influence when their bosses hadn’t already made a firm decision on an issue.

For strategies directed to Capitol Hill offices — the most comparable to the offices Councilmembers occupy in the Wilson building — news editorial endorsements ranked eighth among the twelve options that staff surveyed were asked about.

Only 10% of them thought editorial endorsements would make “a lot of positive difference.”

Seems reasonable to assume that straight news coverage would make less — though it could, of course, build support among the dwindling number of people who still follow what can properly be characterized as news.

But support means nothing unless it’s acted on. And here’s where some of the other survey results are enlightening.

Top of the effective strategies list were in-person visits from constituents, followed by contacts from constituents who represent other constituents. Well over 90% of survey respondents endorsed both — and 46% put the former in the very influential category.

Individualized letters and e-mails came in next, followed by phone calls. Form letters and e-mails ranked much lower. And only 1% of respondents thought they would make a big difference.

Same 1% for comments on social media sites. Not good news for us bloggers and tweeters.

Respondents were also asked which strategies they thought were important for understanding constituents’ views.

Again, in-person strategies — attending events and town hall meetings — ranked very high. So did personalized messages, whether conveyed via snail mail, e-mail, telephone or fax.

Identical communications ranked lower and were considered very important by only 4%.

Now, the U.S. Congress isn’t the DC Council and its counterparts. We’d be in even worse straits if it were. But that doesn’t mean the survey findings are irrelevant to local advocacy campaigns.

To my mind, in fact, they may be more relevant than to large national campaigns. Because local organizations have much more limited resources. Investments in strategies with a low return can mean little or no investments in the high pay-offs.

Perhaps advocacy organizations at all levels could use the survey findings as a strategy screen. At the very least, the findings seem to me a call to assess strategies that are routinely used just because they’re part of the repertoire.

What do you think?

How We Can Join The Fight Against Radical Spending Cuts

February 12, 2011

Enough — at least for the time being — about radical spending-cut plans in Congress. Here’s some good news.

The Coalition on Human Needs and allies have launched what promises to be a massive campaign against the cuts. It’s called SAVE (Strengthening America’s Values and Economy) for All.

SAVE for All is a large and growing coalition of faith-based, labor, civil rights, direct service and policy analysis organizations committed to a balanced approach to deficit reduction — and one that will foster opportunity and economic security for all Americans.

They’ve developed a statement of principles, formed working groups, initiated meetings with members of Congress and laid the groundwork for a broad-based grassroots effort.

All this in an amazingly short-period of time. I’ve been around long enough to have witnessed lots of coalition campaigns on similar issues. I’ve never seen one with as much cohesion, energy and strategic expertise.

But what can we do? At least one thing right now — maybe more depending on where we live and the type of organization we work for.

1. Put a human face on the issues.

We can all share stories about how federal programs have improved our lives and/or the lives of people we know.

It’s one thing — and an important thing — to say that, according to the latest Census figures, food stamps kept 4.8 million people from falling below the federal poverty line.

Quite another, more personally-compelling thing to tell members of Congress, the media and, through them, the public how food stamps kept you and your children from going hungry. Or if you work for a service provider, how food stamps have supported your efforts to help your clients.

Half in Ten is partnering with CHN to collect brief stories, written and video. It plans to put some of them into an online interactive map so that members of Congress can learn directly how federally-funded programs have made a positive difference in the lives of their constituents.

These stories will also be enormously helpful to advocates at state and local levels, as well as those in the halls of Congress. Just think what you could do with a good story or two in an op-ed or letter to the editor.

Stories won’t take long to write, since they shouldn’t be more than 250 words. Videos need not be professional quality. Check out the additional guidance here. Then look at the suggested topic areas, draft or record and go back to the same page to send your story for the collection.

2. Help the coalition grow.

If you work for an organization that falls into any of the categories above, sign the statement of principles on its behalf. Or share the principles and the opportunity with someone who has the authority to sign.

CHN will be collecting signatures from national organizations for the indefinite future. The initial deadline for state and local organizations is February 16. But that doesn’t mean that later endorsements won’t be added.

3. Tell your Senators to stand up for the interests of low-income people.

Those of you who have Senators can urge them to protect the programs low-income people depend on when the continuing resolution comes over to their side of the Hill — and in the challenging days beyond. Half in Ten has an editable form letter you can use.

Best we who live in the District can do is pass the word along our fully-enfranchised friends and relatives. Our community needs the at-risk funding as much as any. So I think it’s well worth our time.

Is Federal-Level Advocacy Disempowering?

January 2, 2011

As some of you know, I’ve been writing for the Poverty in America blog on as well as on federal and District-level issues here. But the powers-that-be have told me that my pieces don’t fit into their new strategy.

I’ve been thinking about this — not the loss of the gig, but the underpinnings of the strategy. I’m assuming here that Ben Rattray, the founder and CEO of, believes what he told his bloggers while I was still among them.

According to Rattray, the biggest opportunity for advocacy now is local, not national. Targeting the President or Congress is a “disempowering model of social change” — both because chances of victory are slim and because an individual voice makes so little difference.

By contrast, there are “tens of thousands of issues that people can organize around in their own communities.” These are “eminently winnable” and can be significantly advanced by a petition and/or blog postings. Rattray’s goal, in fact, is at least one victory a day.

Now, I’ve got no brief for campaigns that are genuinely futile. But I doubt that the vast majority of campaigns at the federal level are.

In many cases, advocates won’t get exactly what they want — at least, not right away. That old saw about how the sausage is made means there’s a lot of compromise. That’s frustrating I would guess for those intent on counting up victories.

But won’t things be much worse if none of us advocates for the nationwide interests of low-income and other disadvantaged people? Should we feel disempowered when the result isn’t a clear cut victory?

Consider, for example, the just-signed law reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. The bill produced by the House Education and Labor Committee was stronger in many ways than the Senate bill the House adopted.

But, at the end of the day, it was the Senate bill or nothing — at least until next year, when prospects would surely have been dimmer. And, as the Food Research and Action Center says, the new law “has many important and excellent provisions.”

FRAC doesn’t view the outcome as a defeat, though it doesn’t view it as a done deal either. Should we who advocated for the stronger bill — and against the food stamp pay-for — feel disempowered when the lead nutrition advocacy organization doesn’t?

And is it really less empowering for an individual to join in a campaign that can win only with the resources of national organizations and massive grassroots support?

I personally feel empowered when I feel connected to something big and important. The fact that my lone voice doesn’t make a critical difference doesn’t matter.

Surely other people feel this way or they wouldn’t sign national advocacy petitions, call their members of Congress when asked to, join national e-mail groups, etc.

Granted, local campaigns can achieve changes that make a difference to some portion of the population. Low-wage workers in San Francisco, for example, are better off since the local paid sick leave law was passed.

And sometimes successful local campaigns inspire others. Flaws notwithstanding, the District of Columbia’s paid sick leave law is a case in point, as are the numerous campaigns under way across the country.

But so much of what a local government can and can’t do depends on federal policy. Consider how many of our key safety net programs are so-called federal-state partnerships. Both the federal rules and the funding levels shape the services available and to whom.

We may, for example, feel that the District should allow participants in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to spend their full work preparation hours in adult basic education, English as a second language and/or literacy programs until they develop the basic skills that decent jobs in our local labor market require.

But federal regulations won’t allow this. So it’s futile to “organize around” the issue in our local community, demanding that the District adopt a more flexible definition of “vocational education training” than Councilmembers Michael Brown and Tommy Wells have proposed.

The sensible course, I think, is to join with organizations that will advocate for a broader definition of training for work when Congress gets around to reauthorizing TANF.

Same, of course, is true for a vast number of other programs that affect low-income people. That flawed new child nutrition law will ultimately help pay for the better school meals that the District’s Healthy Schools Act mandates.

All of which isn’t to say that Rattray’s wrong in asserting that there’s “widespread disenchantment with advocacy among the broader public” — meaning here the public that generally favors progressive causes.

It’s hard not to feel disenchanted these days when we see the sharp turn to the right and the compromises progressives are making.

But I’m quite sure the answer isn’t to retreat to winnable local causes. What do you think?


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