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.

Child Waste And Abuse In The DC Child Welfare System

January 8, 2011

I generally discount claims that government agencies are riddled with fraud, waste and abuse. But a great piece of investigative journalism by Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis exposes an exception that proves the rule.

It’s waste and abuse in the District’s child welfare system that makes squandering money look trivial.

As Cherkis painstakingly (and painfully) shows, four major District agencies routinely “outsource” their responsibilities for helping youth in trouble.

Those they choose to institutionalize include not only young people who’ve run afoul of the legal system, but those our public schools have found difficult to handle, even those whose only offense is to have been victims of parental abuse and/or neglect.

The agencies could focus on community-based services and stable, secure foster care placements, when needed. Instead, they routinely ship kids off to residential treatment centers, where, as Cherkis says, they generally “come out worse than when they went in.”

The waste here is partly financial. RTC placements are extremely costly. Last fiscal year’s bill exceeded $41 million, not counting spending by the Child and Family Services Agency or federal Medicaid funds.

The bigger waste is in human lives — children who suffer grave and lasting psychological damage, loss of educational opportunities and, in many cases, physical harm.

The abuse is perpetrated by a number of the RTCs and, more importantly, by the District agencies that know (or ought to know) what they’re doing. Seems that out of sight, out of mind takes precedence over child welfare here.

If you think I’m hyperventilating, read Cherkis’s account of the District’s “addiction” to RTC placements — “the most costly and most scary way of treating vulnerable kids.” Then tell me if you’re not outraged too.