Pepe Le Pew? The Commission’s Report on Children in Foster Care

In late May the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care released its final report. The Commission “was charged to develop a practical set of policy recommendations to reform federal child welfare financing and strengthen court oversight of child welfare cases.”

I must admit that I was and continue to be a bit skeptical about the Commission and its underlying premise. Who exactly charged the Commission with this mission? Who identified “child welfare financing” and “court oversight” as the critical issues facing child welfare and foster care?

The Commission was premised on the notion that “current federal funding mechanisms for child welfare encourage an over-reliance on foster care at the expense of other services to keep families safely together and to move children swiftly and safely from foster care to permanent families, whether their birth families or a new adoptive family or legal guardian.”

The Commission also surmised that “longstanding structural issues in the judicial system limit the ability of the courts to fulfill their shared obligation to protect children from harm and move children safely and appropriately through the system to safe, permanent homes.”

The Executive Summary concludes “reform in these two areas is a critical first step to solving many other problems that plague the child welfare system.”

Well . . . what do you think? Is federal child welfare financing and court oversight the two lead issues in your town, county or state? Read on for the key components of the Commission’s recommendations. And stay tuned because next week I will tackle the Commission’s recommendations on courts and child representation.

The key components of the Commission’s financing recommendations are:

• Preserving federal foster care maintenance and adoption assistance as an entitlement and expanding it to all children, regardless of their birth families’ income and including Indian children and children in the U.S. territories;

• Providing federal guardianship assistance to all children who leave foster care to live with a permanent legal guardian when a court has explicitly determined that neither reunification nor adoption are feasible permanence options;

• Helping states build a range of services from prevention, to treatment, to postpermanence by (1) creating a flexible, indexed Safe Children, Strong Families Grant from what is currently included in Title IV-B and the administration and training components of Title IV-E; and (2) allowing states to “reinvest” federal and state foster care dollars into other child welfare services if they safely reduce their use of foster care;

• Encouraging innovation by expanding and simplifying the waiver process and providing incentives to states that (1) make and maintain improvements in their child welfare workforce and (2) increase all forms of safe permanence; and

• Strengthening the current Child and Family Services Review process to increase states’ accountability for improving outcomes for children.

The Commission’s court recommendations call for:

• Adoption of court performance measures by every dependency court to ensure that they can track and analyze their caseloads, increase accountability for improved outcomes for children, and inform decisions about the allocation of court resources;

• Incentives and requirements for effective collaboration between courts and child welfare agencies on behalf of children in foster care;

• A strong voice for children and parents in court and effective representation by better trained attorneys and volunteer advocates;

• Leadership from Chief Justices and other state court leaders in organizing their court systems to better serve children, provide training for judges, and promote more effective standards for dependency courts, judges, and attorneys.

From the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care Executive Summary

5 Replies to "Pepe Le Pew? The Commission's Report on Children in Foster Care"

  • Michal
    October 10, 2004 (10:06 pm)

    As a long time child welfare administrator, I’d suggest that the most critical issue facing child welfare is the workforce responsible for delivering the services. Since studies show that a professionally educated, well-trained and supervised workforce in adequate numbers is critical to improving outcomes in child welfare, the lack of emphasis in the Pew Commission’s report was disappointing.

    There seems to be widespread agreement that the federal financing strategy (IV-E) is broken…but little concensus as to how to fix it in such a way as to result in improvements as opposed to a reduction in overall funding. Any change in the financing strategy ought to preserve the IV-E child welfare training program that has been so successful training professionals – a GAO report found that these professionals experienced greater job satisfaction and greater longevity in child welfare jobs.

    While court oversight is also important, without a professional workforce to do the work, no amount of court orders will result in good outcomes for the families and children we serve.

  • Anonymous
    October 12, 2004 (1:57 am)

    McDonalds was metioned above as it has been regarded as a ‘saftey’ zone for runaways etc. Real safetey is in truth- it’s the only thing that’s permanent.

  • Jake Terpstra
    October 12, 2004 (5:25 pm)

    The Camel and the Bedouin

    The Bedouin was sleeping in his tent and his camel lay outside. After a while the camel came to the tent and said his nose was cold. “Put it inside the tent and it will be warm” said the Bedouin. “Master my neck is cold,” the camel soon said. “Put it in the tent then” said the Bedouin. Master, my body is cold.” said the camel, and his master told him to put that in the tent too. “My tail is cold,” said the camel. “Alright, alright, put it inside,” said the master. So the camel settled in the tent. After a while it spoke up, “Master, there is not room enough for both of us. Can you go outside and leave the tent to me?” Aesop

    Once upon a time (until the mid 1960s) child welfare was a social service. Now, something else has moved into the child welfare tent, and social work has largely been replaced. The process began when the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare decided that public welfare was not functioning well, and that separating client eligibility determination from services for them was necessary. Child welfare services were administered as a separate entity, with a high level of social work staff and leadership. Those organizations also worked very closely with schools of social work, to uphold professional quality. When HEW decided that public welfare eligibility and services needed to be separated, it also mandated that child welfare services be included with public welfare services in a “single organizational unit.” This was a condition for receiving federal funds.

    Public welfare programs were not administered by social workers, but were larger than the child welfare entities, so when the organizations merged, child welfare services became part of the larger organizations they lost: 1. social work leadership, 2. identity as a discrete organization, and 3. on-going connections with schools of social work. The new non-social work leadership did not understand, or some times appreciate, social work, and its role diminished steadily.

    When child welfare services gradually deteriorated it seemed that the reason for it was not recognized, but it was assumed that social workers still were occupying the child welfare tent; each time service problems were recognized, the general perception seemed to be that social work services were at fault. During this time the number of social workers in public agency child welfare services dropped to where less than a fourth of child welfare line staff have had any social work education; the percentage of supervisory and administrative staff is similar. But the perception that child welfare is a social work service lingers on.

    As service inadequacies were recognized, various methods were added to shore them up and to add “accountability.” The additions, occurring over many years, included greatly increased reporting, (most workers now state that over half their time is spent doing “paperwork”, much more client lawyer representation, CASAs, guardian’s ad litem , foster care review boards, and frequent periodic reviews by judges, even when no change of legal status is involved. Many judges give more credence to psychologists’ reports than to caseworkers’ assessments, and in some areas psychological tests are used in nearly all cases. Some other changes were instituted internally, such as management by objectives, more emphasis on case management than on casework (many staff now are called “case managers”), and over-emphasis on collaboration with other disciplines. The value of collaboration cannot be questioned, but the emphasis has been heavily weighted one-way, with the central role of social work virtually ignored. For example, case assessments and counseling, which once were major components of child welfare staff receive little emphasis. A disturbing thread running through all this is that the connections between child welfare and its academic base, social work, have been drastically weakened.

    That has led to child welfare services that are the envy of no one. Nationally 580.000 children currently are in family and group foster care, and 800,000 total annually. Approximately 134,000 were awaiting adoption recently, with only 36,000 adopted in the same year. This suggests that 98,000 children were legally disconnected from their families, and not connected with other families. Consequently it is not surprising that the lowest estimate of teens “aging out” of the system leave without family connections is 20,000. Further it should not be surprising that studies have shown that over 40% of our homeless people have been in foster care. Or that other studies have shown that nearly half the people in prisons have been in foster care.

    The problems are staring us all in the face—if we are willing to see them. Our question is what do we need to do now? There are no simple answers, and absolutely no “answer.” There is no single answer or panacea, but there are multiple answers that cumulatively can make a major difference. This also will require genuine candor; it has been all too easy to view agency services as successful, even when they are in fact failing kids. A scrupulous honesty will be needed if the system is to be fixed.

    It also must be recognized that the child welfare tent now has more than a camel; it has a virtual menagerie. And they all seem quite comfortable there. Do we try to move the occupants out, or ask them to share some room with us inside?

    It is not likely that anything will improve until social work and social workers are respected, and recognized as having a role that is uniquely suited to child welfare. That in turn can happen only if we are able to put child welfare into social work and social work into child welfare. Again.

    There have been notable efforts to do this, and they are increasing. It appears that some good models are emerging, but they are not characteristic of general pactice. Studies collected by the Counsel on Social Work Education show that social work education in child welfare staff improves worker satisfaction, tenure and case outcomes. We know it can work. How many child welfare administrators are aware of this?

    It would seem essential that each school of social work review it’s curriculum, with child welfare agency staff, to consider what content is needed, and if there are sufficient courses. Schools within states would do everyone a favor by agreeing on at least a few basic child welfare courses that they all teach—hopefully increasing statewide consistency without increasing rigidity. The agencies undoubtedly would be more willing to hire staff who’s professional education included practical child welfare content.

    There are other necessary actors. NASW and CSWE can be major supportive players. Michigan NASW for example, recently appointed a child welfare committee to stay in tune with service issues and to inform the chapter when its involvement is needed. It can be assumed that CWLA, NFPA, APHSA and other national organizations will be supportive of efforts to improve services, but it is not easy to support something that barely exists.

    The Government Accounting Office March 2003 report on Child Welfare, suggests that while HHS, (the U.S. Children’s Bureau) provides valuable grant funds for training and educational program development, it also is strongly encouraged to be a more active partner in recruitment and retention of child welfare staff.

    Can we rebuild child welfare? No one knows the answer to that question, but there is no question about our ability to improve services. It will require strong and concerted effort from many directions and that isn’t easy. But does it sound trite to suggest that the kids are worth it?

  • Anonymous
    October 13, 2004 (6:05 pm)

    I like this part:

    Pew defines the problem:

    Simply put, current federal funding mechanisms for child welfare encourage an over-reliance on foster care at the expense of other services to keep families safely together and to move children swiftly and safely from foster care to permanent families, whether their birth families or a new adoptive family or legal guardian. (Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being, p. 9)

    The Commission offers this solution:

    2. Because every child needs to be protected from abuse and neglect, the Commission recommends that the federal government join states in paying for foster care for every child who needs this protection. (p. 16)

    If my logic is correct, providing more money to pay for more children to be in foster care will discourage over-reliance on foster care.

    Where is Orwell when you need him?

  • Anonymous
    October 26, 2004 (3:38 pm)

    As greater minds than mine would say – oy vay!

    They have tapped some standard reform arguments/premises that have had no traction over the years and a variety of arguments that support entrenched interests. Implementing many of their recommendations would certainly make the public child welfare industry more profitable with no certainty of improving outcomes. Generally, more, more, more is not a very radical approach to reform.

    Given all of the history and given the political and economic environment regarding funding and given anyone with a rational view of reality it seems that everything that is old is new again.

    Providing cash benefits to the principals at a multibillion dollar savings and just accepting a certain natural rate of failure as a more realistic alternative (at least it would save money and perhaps there would be no greater number of tragic outcomes…) I really think this report is communicatig a coded paradoxical message. In fact, the report is so profoundly out of touch with reality (funding, political will, and capability of the existing interests, industries and systems to undertake and successfully implement change under any circumstances, etc) that it is in fact a call to just do away with the whole enterprise.

    Just a few thoughts.