Friday, December 19, 2008

The More Things Change...

There is an old saying that goes "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This seems to be especially true when it comes to the child welfare system in Milwaukee County.

Earlier this week, as the controversy surrounding the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare and the death of Christopher L. Thomas, Jr. continued, Denise Revels Robinson, the director of the BMCW stepped down from that position, I pointed out that this would not solve the problem.

Then a couple of days ago, the local paper reported that the private agency that was supposed to be providing case management and supervision to Christopher and his sister, was also the agency that was supposed to be providing services to Will Johnson, a five month old baby that was drowned by his mother during an unsupervised visit.

In the wake of these two deaths, said agency, La Causa, announced that they were going to terminate their contract with BMCW and get out of child welfare.

Charlie Sykes thought that this was finally a move to hold someone accountable for these tragic deaths. Likewise, the editorial board at the local paper also thought this was a good idea, but at least stated that the investigation on how this happened should continue, as well as the follow through on some meaningless changes.

What Sykes and the editorial board are either unable or unwilling to understand is that all of this means very little, if anything at all. La Causa pulling out of their contract won't fix the entire system. All that will happen is that yet another agency, probably that Children's Hospital group, will be plugged into that spot, and the same problems will continue.

It's a bit like watching a football game. If the coach has drawn up a bad game plan, it doesn't matter who is on the field, and pulling one player for the other isn't going to change the fact that it is the game plan that is faulty.

It doesn't matter who the case managing agency is, if the whole paradigm of the system is faulty. The same problems will arise, and children will continue to be murdered. This is evidenced by the fact that the BMCW has already gone through a number of private agencies over the past decade, and yet the problems, and the deaths, remain constant.

It also does not hold the ones that are truly responsible for this ongoing calamity accountable for the role that they played in adapting such a idiotic paradigm that has failed in every other state that it's been tried in. It is well beyond time for the state legislature and the governor to get off their collective duffs and actually do something substantial to fix the system.

What good are twice a month visits if the worker still doesn't know what he or she should be looking for? There is a need to streamline the system so that workers can actually do what they are supposed to do, provide services to the child and to the family, as opposed to endless, redundant paperwork. There is a need for the BMCW to actually provide comprehensive training BEFORE the worker is assigned a caseload. And if there weren't so many administrations sucking money up, there would be more money for actual caseworkers and for services. Then maybe some of these tragedies could be prevented.

The only glimmer of hope is that there are some people that do see the problem, and are trying to fix it. From the article announcing La Causa's decision to pull out of child welfare, there is this:

"It makes you wonder if this model (private child welfare services) can work here," said Susan Conwell, executive director of the child welfare advocacy group Kids Matter Inc. She said community leaders should be involved with the transition of La Causa's responsibilities elsewhere.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, the organization that filed the lawsuit, said: "Regardless of whether services are run by a private agency or directly by the county or state, the state remains responsible for the children in its custody.

"The fact that La Causa is getting out of the child welfare business is not a judgment, pro or con, on privatization. It is a judgment, however, on how Wisconsin is fulfilling its obligations to the children who depend on its child welfare system and the degree to which the state is ensuring adequate care for them.

Obviously, I agree more with Ms. Conwell, but at least Ms. Lowry is demanding real accountability and not just some whitewashing of the real issues. That is more than I can say for Sykes or the editorial board.

Another sign of hope comes from this press release from State Representative Tamara Grigsby (emphasis mine):

Today, State Representative Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) called on fellow Milwaukee legislators to join together and confront problems related to the death of Christopher Thomas.

"In the wake of Christopher Thomas' tragic death, it is essential we come together and take stronger action to prevent the senseless suffering of Wisconsin's children," Grigsby said. "Following the death of young Christopher, we learned that the mechanisms put in place to protect Wisconsin's children are inadequate. Now more than ever, we must eliminate the deficiencies in our child welfare system."

Grigsby, ranking member on the Assembly Committee on Children and Family Law in the current legislative session, member of the Milwaukee Child Welfare Partnership Council, and a passionate advocate for children in need, has asked Milwaukee legislators to meet with social workers and other public employees serving the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare to hear their perspective on the current crisis.
"This meeting will provide legislators with an understanding of the barriers and challenges that hinder Wisconsin's child welfare system on a daily basis," Grigsby stated. "Immediate action is needed to correct the shortcomings that have threatened the lives of innocent children for far, far too long."
I don't know much about Representative Grigsby, but I certainly hope she is a woman of her word, unlike State Senator Alberta "Do Nothing" Darling, who only gives out false promises.

But I would make a couple of suggestions to Rep. Grigsby. Meeting with the front line workers is fine, given that it is done correctly. The case managers for the private agencies are non-union, and will probably be coached, intimidated and threatened by their employers on what to say. These interviews would have to be done with complete confidentiality of the worker, if you want an honest answer.

Secondly, don't just ask the case managers. Many, heck, even most of them are relatively new to the job. They might not know how dysfunctional the system is, if that is the only system that they are familiar with. You also need to speak to other people that work with the system. People like foster parents, both current and former. Same with the social workers. There is a reason why these people no longer want to have dealings with the Bureau. They would be the ones to tell you what the real problems are.

Also talk to the attorneys and the judges out at Children's Court. They would also be invaluable to their insight of what is happening in the BMCW, especially the untenably high turn over rate. I am still in contact with some of the judges and attorneys out there. When I ask them about the BMCW and of any news, almost each and every one of them will start out with the complaint that there is never the same worker on a case from one month to another. That only serves to delay the process and bog down the courts. Meanwhile, the children would continue to languish in limbo, with no efforts being made to get them into a permanent home.

Until real, substantial changes are put into effect, we cannot allow ourselves to be beguiled by the false promises of the bureaucrats until the next tragedy strikes. We have had that for too long now, and too many kids have paid the price for our apathy and indifference and our all too willingness to take the easy or cheap way to fix the problem, which aren't fixes at all.


  1. Two objections:

    1) Children's Hospital has NOT had any reported problems (yet.) While we may agree that contracting child welfare is a bad idea, it's not helpful to cast rocks until there's an incident.

    2) Your underlying assumption is that Gummint workers WILL BE 'better' than contractors. That implies that there were ZERO deaths under the Gummint regime.

    If that is true, then you have an argument which is sustainable.

    No, I don't have a better answer; but obviously, WHO gets hired is far more important than "procedures."

    And finally: what is the impact of court decisions and regulatory bodies on the system as a whole? That, too, must be accounted for.

  2. Two of the previous agencies that have since left the system were affiliated with CH. They've done earned their rocks.

    There were deaths under the County's tenure, but not to the same extreme. There was also a study that I was linking to last year (the site has since been allowed to expire) that showed the public sector gave twice the value to the tax dollar in productivity.

    As for the who v. how, I disagree. To go back to my football analogy, average players can do well with a good game plan, but good players will stink up the joint if they aren't given good plays.

    The same holds true for child welfare. Even good workers can't function in a system with a piss poor design, but average workers can do well if the right paradigm is in place.

    The court decision was that the state failed to do it's job. Instead of directing the necessary resources to correct the problems, the state decided to try smoke and mirrors. The requirements are the same for every state, handed down by the feds. Why is Milwaukee County having so many problems when other counties aren't. They don't have to follow the BMCW methodology is the most likely explanation.

  3. No, not THAT 'court decision.'

    Decision(s) which limit the actions of social workers (whether private OR public) and set up failures...

    And I agree that average people can do the job--but I think that distinctly below-average people can NOT do the work, no matter the procedural method.

    Having said all that...

    I suspect that we are in different times (they are worse) than when County was doing the work. That's not to absolve LaCausa, et al.; that's to say that, just as with Madoff, there are some things one cannot anticipate.

    It may well be that we go back to public social workers. Fine by me. But I caution you that in making a case for public, rather than private, agencies, you should not over-promise.

  4. Murphy's essay in Milwaukee Mag tells us that ACLU sued the County for 'endangering children' in 1993, which was the proximate cause of removing child welfare from the County's control.

    So things musta been just perfect then, eh?

  5. I never said it was perfect, just a helluva lot better.

    But get your eyesight checked Dad, Murphy pointed out the problem was stemming from Tommy shorting the county to pay for your supposed tax breaks.

    But then again, Murphy got it wrong. The lawsuit was due to the kids' civil rights being violated due to lingering in foster care too long.