Guest View: How the Foster Care Review Board hurts Nebraska children
StoryDiscussionBy Richard Wexler | Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 10:30 am | No
TO “GOTCHA”: HOW THE FOSTER CARE REVIEW BOARD HURTS NEBRASKA CHILDREN
By Richard Wexler
Mary Callahan is a foster parent from Maine who got fed up with the fact that almost every child the state placed with her never needed to be taken from his or her birth parents. Her activism helped transform the Maine system into a national leader in keeping children safe by keeping families together.
Callahan has a term for how most child welfare systems work. They put a family under a microscope, judge anything and everything they do, and then lie in wait, for as long as it takes for a parent to slip up. Callahan calls it the “’gotcha’ moment.”
But I’d never encountered a state where this was the officially-recommended course of action – until I read the Annual Report of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board. Now it’s no longer a mystery why Nebraska harms so many children by needlessly tearing apart families and holding children in foster care at higher rates than almost any other state.
The board is totally out-of-touch with best practice in child welfare, and clueless concerning what really works to keep children safe. Its report reads like a manual for getting to “gotcha.”
n In a state that takes children at one of the highest rates in the nation, the Review Board says removal decisions are correct at least 98 percent of the time. So either all those states that take proportionately fewer children – including those with strong records for keeping children safe - don’t know what they’re doing, or the Review Board is blind to Nebraska’s rampant needless destruction of families.
n Even the review board had to concede that in 22 percent of cases, the state failed to make “reasonable efforts” to reunify families after the child was removed, when it should have done so. So the real figure must be far higher.
n When children really can’t stay safely in their own homes, the best option is kinship care with a relative. Study after study has shown these kinship care placements to be better – and safer – for children than what should properly be called “stranger care.” But even though Nebraska uses kinship care at a rate below the national average, nearly every comment about kinship care in the Review Board report frets about the state doing too much of it.
n In contrast, the board loves the worst form of “care,” institutionalization. Even though Nebraska institutionalizes children at a rate well above the national average, the review board calls for even more of it, instead of demanding far better alternatives such as Wraparound programs. Indeed, the word Wraparound does not even appear in the report.
Worst of all is the angry, hectoring, patronizing tone the report takes toward families. Most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither sadists nor brutes. Often, their poverty is confused with neglect. Other times there are serious, real problems, but problems that can be fixed with a helping hand.
The reason to extend that hand is not for the sake of the parents, but for their children. Multiple studies document the inherent trauma of being thrown into foster care. Indeed, several landmark studies show that in typical cases, children fare better when left in their own homes than even comparably-maltreated children fare in foster care.
Yet instead of putting the children first and offering a helping hand, the Review Board puts its hatred of the parents first, and offers only a wagging finger – over and over and over again.
Yes, there are token references to prevention, but mostly, the board’s vision of prevention is really surveillance, complete with an Orwellian suggestion that every new mother be assessed by hospital staff to see if she is a potential child abuser. Best practices like drug court and pre-hearing conferences are perverted into ways to crack down on families. Visits are viewed not as a chance to help children, who desperately need to see their parents, but to hover over the parents, writing down every word and gesture, awaiting that “gotcha moment.”
Thirty-nine times, - an average of once every three pages - there are references to the need to assess parental “willingness” or parental “ability” or parental “appropriateness” and, most often of all, “parental compliance.” Reading this report was a bit like watching one of those Star Trek episodes in which the conquering Borg order those they’ve subjugated to “Comply! Comply!”
Governors and legislators come and go, but the Foster Care Review Board is always there, wagging its finger. Replacing the director is not enough. The whole Board needs to be replaced and reconstituted, with a membership that includes a far wider range of perspectives about child welfare.
Otherwise, no matter how hard Nebraska tries to move its child welfare system into the 21st Century, the Foster Care Review Board will keep dragging it into the 19th.
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.info. He has followed Nebraska child welfare for more than a decade and been a keynote speaker at two Nebraska child welfare conferences.
Posted in Columnists, Mailbag on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 10:30 am