Friday, February 25, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XV

As I've mentioned before, our state does not require social workers to be licensed if they are going to work in the Child Welfare system. Although a real social worker who possesses a Master's Degree and a license would probably take exception to the practice, anybody who manages cases, makes decisions about birth parents, foster parents, adoptive parents and children generally gets called a "social worker." Now the person's business card might show a different title, but in the day to day doings, these people are all lumped into the same category.

They are "social workers."

And this gets to the point of this week's Improving the Foster Care System post. I believe that every worker should be a licensed social worker. No more should we allow warm bodies with Bachelor's Degrees in Basket Weaving to make life-altering decisions for children.

I have several reasons for this:
  • Workers have absolute immunity. In our state (and I suspect many others) workers have absolute immunity which protects them from liability. If they make a bad call, cause a family undue or unnecessary distress, place a child in a foster home where she is molested, or even killed, the worker is protected from lawsuits. Injured parties cannot go personally after a worker who has hurt someone in the course of her work. Even if a worker deliberately misrepresents the truth, the law gives her absolute immunity from lawsuits. As a result, workers have a huge amount of leeway in what they do, and it rarely comes back on them. With the exception of criminal conduct, workers get away with pretty much everything they want to do.

  • Supervisors almost always back their subordinates. In our experience, complaining to a supervisor about a worker's conduct rarely goes anywhere. If a worker is truly being unethical, unfair, or just a plain old bitch, there's very little point in complaining. The boss will always stand by her employee, even when she's dead wrong, because that's how the system works.

  • The courts do not sanction bad workers. In our case, even when it was clear that Nasty Number Seven wasn't telling the truth in court, nothing bad happened to her. I asked my attorney why the judge wasn't smashing her for perjuring herself, and he replied that the courts are very reluctant to nail people for fibbing - unless the people are birth parents.
So if a worker is immune from consequences for her bad decisions, knows that her supervisor will back her up, and is unlikely to get in trouble with the judge, what's to keep her honest? Hopefully, it's her good character and morals that keep her in line. Unfortunately, as many of us jaded former foster parents have learned, many workers do not possess the character and morals that the job truly requires.

I think workers should be licensed because it gives birth parents, foster parents, adoptive parents and children an independent, third-party place to complain. If a worker is truly being unethical, complaining to the state licensing board might get someone's attention.

If you have a really bad doctor, dentist or therapist, there are licensing boards to which you can complain. Even public school teachers in our state are licensed, and a well-founded gripe to the right agency can land the teacher in the unemployment line. The same should be true for social workers.

Given that social workers have so much discretionary power over the lives of others, a system where they have no accountability for their decisions and actions is clearly a system that is broken.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XIV

Although I can't say that I know a huge number of foster care alumni, those I do know frequently talk about how many times they were bounced around in the system.  Most of the foster alumni I know were moved through many foster homes, group homes and even mental institutions, while different social workers drifted in and out of their lives.  They weren't told what was happening with their case plan, and they were often left wondering what would happen next.

To make the foster care system work for the kids in it, we need to cut down on the "bounce."

When I say "bounce," I am talking about the number of times that children bounce from foster home to foster home, from social worker to social worker, or from case plan to case plan.  It's confusing, it's disruptive, and it doesn't create much of a sense of stability for a child whose life has already been blown to smithereens.

So how do we do this?

Foster Homes
  1. Reduce the reliance on shelter homes.  Put children directly into waiting foster homes, whenever possible.
  2. When moving a child, make every effort to match the child's needs with the foster home's strengths and abilities.
  3. If a child begins to have serious problems in a foster home, provide support to the foster family before the placement is disrupted.  Have appropriate training, interventions and respite available.
  4. Pay foster families a living wage.
Social Workers
  1. Increase the training social workers receive.  They should know what they are getting into before they accept their first case.
  2. Reduce the average caseworker's load to a reasonable amount.  Make sure they have adequate time to do all their home visits and the myriad other things they do in a day.
  3. Assign children to a permanent worker who will be with them through their entire stay in foster care.  Use resource workers to provide expertise in specialized areas when necessary.
  4. Pay social workers a living wage.
Case Plans
  1. Require social workers to be scrupulously honest.  This means that they must be honest in their dealings with birth parents, foster parents, children, service providers and the court.
  2. Make social workers accountable for the number of times they move children.  The default assumption should be to leave the child where he is (preferably with his birth family if at all possible) before making a change.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XIII

This week's installment on improving the foster care system focuses on an area that I haven't spoken much about in my previous posts.  Much of what I've discussed in earlier Improving the Foster Care System posts has covered allocation of resources and money for foster children and the families who care for them.

In this week's post, I'm going to discuss social workers.

I've received a lot of irritated responses to some of my previous posts (both on this blog and my old one) from social workers who have complained that I'm not exactly being fair in my assessment of them as a group.  So, before I go any further, I'm going to say that perhaps there are social workers who are well-trained, take their jobs seriously, and aren't simply in the business of snatching children. My comments here are reflective of the situation in my state and county, which may not be representative of our nation as a whole.

With that said, social workers need to be better trained.

In our state, so-called "social workers" who are employed by the state's child welfare system are not necessarily folks who possess an LCSW license or a Master's Degree in Social Work.  In our county, the minimum requirement is that workers have a Bachelor's degree.  Although it's preferred if these degree-holders have studied psychology or human services, the reality is that the Department does not care.  If you are a warm body with a degree in advanced basket weaving, they will take you, especially if you are bilingual.  The population of "real" social workers with licenses is far and away the minority of caseworkers.

The majority of the workers we had were perhaps well-meaning, but completely untrained.  Many of them were inexperienced and had only been on the job a few weeks or months before taking over our daughter's case.  They didn't know how to get things done, they didn't know how to follow procedures, and they often said or did things they shouldn't have said or done.  Many of these workers quickly found themselves unprepared or frustrated by the job and its accompanying low pay, and they quit.

During the roughly three and a half years Danielle was in foster care, she had a total of nine workers. The first four were temporary workers assigned to her case as it weaved its way through the initial removal, investigation, and legal processes.  The remaining five were assigned during the remainder of her stay in foster care and her subsequent adoption.

Out of that total, only one that we know of had a Master's in Social Work.  She was the best of the bunch, but unfortunately she didn't stay on our case very long because it was transferred to other workers.  The worst of the bunch, Nasty Number Seven, also had a Master's in something, though we never learned what her area of study was.

Clearly, a high level of college education does not a good social worker make.

We also had at least four workers engage in conduct that was, in our opinion, unconscionable.  One worker completely wrote off our daughter and wanted to move her strictly for racist reasons.  Another routinely missed appointments and completely lost another foster child's belongings. A third threatened to remove Danielle from our home if we didn't agree to adopt her, even though that decision wasn't yet ripe to be made.  The last of this bunch lied in court, misrepresented facts in her reports, and went out of her way to make our lives as miserable as she could for an entire year while our lawyer duked it out in court.

So how do we avoid these problems?

Social workers should be adequately trained.  They should be expected to take courses in ethics, tolerance, customer service, as well as their own internal policies and procedures.  They need to learn that lying and manipulating is unacceptable behavior, to be tolerant of other religions, cultures, races and sexual orientations.  They need to learn that people's schedules are important, and arriving two hours late (or not at all) to a scheduled appointment isn't reasonable.

In addition to training, managers need to pay attention to their workers' behavior.  If a worker is caught misrepresenting facts on a report or lying in front of a judge, she should be fired.  If a manager receives too many complaints about a worker being intolerant, rude, or frequently late, that worker should find herself on the receiving end of a reprimand.  Lousy, lazy, incompetent or ineffective workers should be culled.

But of course the ubiquitous "they" can't do that.  The working conditions are so lousy and the turnover so high that it is almost impossible to recruit good people.  People with excellent skills and high self-confidence don't stick around.  Those that remain are often the workers with weaker skills or insufficient motivation or self-confidence to look for a better job.

Another problem is that the few workers who have their Master's in Social Work don't usually stick  around very long.  They know that the job stinks, the pay is low, and they are only there to work the internship hours required for state licensure.  As soon as  they have their required number of hours, they move on to greener pastures.

Once again, this is largely a problem that can be solved by money.  If the state spent the money to train and pay social workers decently, we wouldn't have these problems.  But again, like so many other problems in the foster care system, nobody wants to pay what it costs to make the system right.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XII

In my ongoing series on improving the foster care system, I've written about confidentiality before.  In Improving the Foster Care System - Part IV,  I suggested that eliminating the barrier of confidentiality between social workers and foster parents would help both the families and the children involved because foster parents wouldn't be left in the dark about some of the challenges their foster children face.

This week's post also advocates eliminating confidentiality.  A recent paper published by Georgetown University law professor Matthew I. Fraidin makes a strong case that the confidentiality restrictions placed on the foster care system mask a growing body of research discussing the ineffectiveness of child welfare interventions.  Furthermore, the cover of privacy also stifles public debate about these important issues.

Professor Fraidin's paper discusses the following:
In most states, child welfare hearings and records are sealed or confidential. This means that by law, court hearings and records may not be observed. The same laws and court rules also preclude those who are authorized to enter and watch from discussing anything learned or observed in a closed courtroom or from a sealed court record with anyone not involved in the case. It is the restriction on speech—on telling stories about child welfare—with which this Article is concerned.

The master narrative of child welfare depicts foster care as a haven for child-victims savagely brutalized by “deviant,” “monstrous” parents. Notwithstanding this shared public understanding, however, most children in foster care have experienced, or are alleged to have experienced, neglect—deprivation of food, clothing, shelter, education, or another necessity of life—not physical abuse. There is also a growing understanding that some children in foster care ought not to be there at all. In addition, research and experience indicate that many maltreated children would be better off if simply left at home—with those responsible for the maltreatment—rather than placed in foster care.

This Article argues that confidentiality laws perpetuate the inaccurate master narrative, and preclude other stories from informing or influencing that narrative. Stated simply, laws prohibiting the discussion of child welfare cases silence a vast number of stories. By their terms, these laws define the stories that may not be told, and the putative storytellers who may not speak, while designating as acceptable other stories and other voices. The unchallenged dominance of the inaccurate, law-sanctioned narrative affects even those involved in child welfare as a profession, and by affecting their worldview, diminishes the quality of care provided to children. The laws that require silence outside the courtroom permit the acceptance of pervasive dysfunction in child welfare, and affect the administration of justice inside the courtroom.

I absolutely agree with Professor Fraidin's assesment.  In our case, our social worker Nasty Number Seven probably wouldn't have been able to continue her lies and misrepresentations of facts had she had to make them under the gaze of public scrutiny.  The current system allows workers to say and do pretty much anything, without fear of public reprisal.  Because court proceedings are secret, there is little consequence for workers who misrepresent the truth.  A worker who lies will probably never face public condemnation, and likely will never be caught unless her lies are so egregious that the judge catches her or the case is overturned on appeal.

Professor Fraidin is also correct in saying that the current system of secrecy prevents dissenters from criticizing the effectiveness of the system.  Because it is so difficult to see how well the system is actually working, and because the people who do see it aren't allowed to talk about it, no meaningful debate can take place.  Professor Fraidin states that a growing body of research suggests neglected children are often better off left in their homes than taken into foster care.  Yet, because the public has no visibility into the system, this reality garners little or no attention.

Professor Fraidin also points out, and our experience validates, that the system often removes children from their homes and returns them within a few days or weeks.  It is unlikely this action makes the children any safer, but it is highly likely that being removed from their homes results in lasting emotional harm.  According to Professor Fraidin's paper, approximately one-third of children removed from their homes in Sacramento County, California, are returned home within the first 30 days.  Also, according to U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services statistics, as many as a third of children removed from their homes in 2001 were later found not to be maltreated at all.

These realities do not match the public perception of the foster care system.  The public narrative of Child Protective Services is that the system exists to remove abused children from immediate danger caused by monstrous parents.  However, statistics show that this story describes only a tiny fraction of children taken into foster care.  Professor Fraidin's research points out that most kids taken into foster care are removed due to neglect, and that definition overlaps a great deal with what poverty looks like in America.  Minority children are removed at far greater rates than white children, and receive poorer quality of services while in foster care.

Certainly this was the case with our child.  Her third worker, the Mistress of Unfair Remarks, suggested that Danielle should be moved to another home, because she was never going to amount to anything and at least deserved to remain within her ethnic and cultural heritage.  Our friends, who were adopting white children, had a wide assortment of services, therapies and counseling given to them and their children, while we had to fight tooth and nail for comparatively inferior services.

I'm not advocating that child welfare proceedings should never be confidential.  Certainly, there are cases where the needs of the child or extreme media scrutiny might argue in favor of keeping a specific case confidential.  I agree with Professor Fraidin, though, that the presumption should be in favor of openness, rather than secrecy in most cases.  That's the only way a reasoned and accurate debate about the effectiveness of child welfare services can take place.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend you read Professor Fraiden's paper.  You can download a copy for free from: