Thursday, January 29, 2009

Child Welfare: The Fix Is In - Or Is It?

In this morning's paper, Crocker Stephenson keeps up his diligent and excellent reporting on the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare.

Today's story deals with an agreement between the BMCW and Children's Rights, the advocacy group that had filed the federal lawsuit against the state regarding the Milwaukee County Child Welfare System.

On the surface, it looks wonderful. It would make one think that after the horrific murder of Christopher L. Thomas, Jr., the BMCW has finally recognized the error of their ways and mean to fix the system. That's how it appears anyway.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), JSOnline also includes this pdf of the actual agreement. When compared to the article, and using my knowledge of the system based on the years I used to work there, it becomes depressingly apparent that my previous cynicism was not in vain.

Mr. Stephenson first points out some of the statistics regarding BMCW's performance versus the expectations, noting that the Bureau has failed in most of these benchmarks.

Mr. Stephenson also correctly notes that the numbers regarding children being abused in foster care don't apply to the kids that are in relative care, under Kinship Care, like Christopher and his sister were. This is significant as that most of the children that are under the Bureau's supervision are in Kinship Care, and the relatives are not licensed, and thus are not under the same kind of scrutiny as a licensed home. If the BMCW is failing to meet their goal in protecting the safety of kids in the homes that they watch, how much worse is in the homes that they don't keep an eye on as closely?

The article then has a list of bullet points that are supposed to be key stipulations by the BMCW. But are they really that much of a change?

The first point is to increase the number of foster homes from less than 700 to 875. Even if the BMCW manages to meet that goal, it is still about 40% of the homes that they had inherited from Milwaukee County ten years ago. And even then, we were running into shortages of homes.

The second bullet is:
Assess placements and services needed by children in state custody and develop a foster home recruitment and retention plan.

This plan, according to Children's Rights, must include specific strategies to increase support for foster parents at all stages of recruitment, licensing and placement of children in their homes.

Two things on this one. One is that the BMCW was supposed to be doing the assessments all along. That is a prerequisite to writing a court report, so that the court would know what conditions to set on the parents before a return home of the child would even be considered. I don't want to know how the BMCW were making recommendations if they did not know what the needs were int he first place. The other thing about this is that according to the pdf, the plan includes hiring an outside consultant, agreed upon by both parties of the lawsuit, to come in and do a study with recommendations. There is no word on how this will be paid for. Will they raise taxes, or will they cut services somewhere else in the system?

The next point is:

Add staff to help quicken placement of children in permanent families.

The bureau must create new "relative coordinator" positions to support unlicensed providers of kinship care and create new "permanency consultant" positions to expedite the placement of children with families. A total of 11 new positions would be created.

Again, this is something we had under the old system. Each unit had a long term case planner and the licensing unit also checked on the relative placements, whether they were licensed or not. But I doubt the addition of 11 workers for 2600+ children is going to make that much of a difference. And again, there is no word on how these extra workers are going to be funded.

The fourth point is:

Improve mental health assessment and crisis services for children.

The bureau must make sure that all children entering foster care receive initial health screenings, including mental health assessments and follow-up services.

See what I wrote under the second point. The same thing applies to this. It should have been done even before a Court Order was issued.

The last point was to improve training, but no specifics were given.

I also noticed in the pdf of the agreement that there are actually going to be two different consultants hired to improve different sections of the Bureau, one on how to do assessments and another on how to recruit and keep foster homes. This along with the dozen or so new workers will need to be paid for somehow, but no word on how. I am concerned that they will cut services back even further, which will defeat whatever gains they were trying to make.

But the most alarming thing about the actual agreement is that the language contained in it. There is a lot of phrases to the effect of "The Bureau will continue to do this," or "The Bureau will continue to do that." To continue does not mean changing anything, which means that the entire system will continue to be dysfunctional.

If they really were intent on making improvements, they should start with a top to bottom analysis of the system, and finding ways to streamline it. This would make it less cumbersome on the case workers, which in turn would allow them to go out into the field and actually do their jobs. Furthermore, there is no detail on how they will work on enhancing the monitoring of the private agencies that are contracted to the Bureau to provide case management.

The Bureau already has Program Evaluation Managers, or PEMs that are supposed to be monitoring these cases on a consistent basis. Christopher Thomas and his sister had one, but we know what happened there, don't we? So did the other 20 children that have died while under the BMCW's supervision. If that doesn't set off alarms and red flags to these people, I don't know what would.

One can only hope that with the removal of Denise Revels Robinson, and the actions of certain state legislators (this does not include Alberta Darling, who is as much of the problem as anyone) that real change will be coming to the foster care system. But based on what I've seen so far, I won't be holding my breath.

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