child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

Category: What I’m Reading

What I'm Reading

OPPAGA’s Report on the GAL Program is Not Good

Back in 2019, which feels like a decade ago, I wrote on this blog about the ethics and efficacy of the Guardian ad Litem Program. I started that post by dismissing what I viewed as ridiculous arguments that attorneys at the Program were somehow engaged in unethical behavior because of their client’s marketing slogan, “We represent the best interests of the child.” I found those arguments both incorrect and insulting to the attorneys who faithfully represent the Program in its efforts to help kids. (I was one of those attorneys once and it is a hard job to do well. More on that below.) But I also thought the Program’s slogan was intentionally misleading and chosen for the main purpose of crowding out funding for attorneys for kids. The word “represent” is the problem: lawyers and law firms represent people, government programs and non-lawyers do not. Just pick another verb. There’s nothing wrong with “advocating” for children.

The second half of the post was about the GAL Program’s efficacy. Leadership at the Program had ramped up their rhetorical attacks on attorneys for kids, claiming that attorneys were dangerous because they would thoughtlessly advocate for children to return to unsafe homes or would keep insidious secrets from the court because a 4-year-old put her finger over her mouth and went “shush.” Neither of those scenarios are based in reality: attorneys have as much an obligation to counsel their clients as they do to advocate for them, and children aren’t particularly discerning in who they tell things to. Attorneys also have an ethical obligation to the courts to only raise meritorious claims, which includes only advocating for reunification when the attorney believes the facts and law would support it — i.e., when it’s safe. Maybe that includes situations where the GAL and DCF disagree, but also maybe the state agencies err too far in the other direction and keep kids in care who could really go home. It’s ultimately up to a judge to decide based on the evidence, but the judge can’t decide if nobody puts the facts before them. If an attorney felt the child was asking for something the law or facts would not support, the attorney should counsel the child away from the position or withdraw. End of ethical dilemma.

The GAL Program, however, went even further in its rhetoric. Not only were lawyers for kids bad, according to their press releases and public statements, but a system of community volunteers with 40 hours of training, no prior relationship to a child they see once a month, and a staff turnover rate on par with retail clothing stores was categorically and mathematically superior to any imaginable alternative. They had charts and graphs to prove it. This was just too much. In the post, I went through the Program’s performance report numbers and showed that there were no correlations between their main measure — the percentage of kids with a GAL appointed in each circuit — and any of their reported circuit-wide outcomes. I played with controlling for socioeconomics and demographics in the circuits and got some weak correlations here and there, but not in the positive direction that the GAL Program was claiming. The end result was that their numbers didn’t show anything at all. They’re just colorful charts.

And colorful charts are wonderful things, except that those particular charts had captured over $600 million in funding based on a promise of outcomes that weren’t supported by any evidence. It was a blog post. I got it off my chest and moved on.

Then the Florida Legislature asked OPPAGA to do the analysis for real.

OPPAGA report banner
OPPAGA report header. Click here to read full report.

The GAL Program’s Structure

OPPAGA is the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. One of its jobs is to assess the functioning of Florida’s government agencies. The report, which came out in December 2020, is long and thorough. The focus is on how the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is run, its structure and efficiency. Some of the report’s conclusions about the Program were good — or at least not bad. OPPAGA’s staff found the following:

  • The GAL Program follows national standards on best interest representation using a unique multidisciplinary team.
  • National organizations and the academic literature recommend attorney representation for kids in dependency proceedings. Using lay volunteers is not an evidence-based practice and has shown mixed or no results in studies on things like permanency outcomes and time in care.
  • The GAL training is good, but some stakeholders wish it would focus more on educating volunteer GALs about “the realities of foster care and challenges of disadvantaged parents.” Some GAL local programs wish they had more budget for training.
  • The Program represents about two-thirds of kids in the system with wide variations among circuits.
  • Stakeholder views on the Program’s efficacy split among groups in the system. Judges thought they were efficient and effective due to their use of volunteers and the value of best interest advocacy in general. Attorneys in the system thought the volunteers lacked expertise and too often joined the Department’s positions on issues. Everyone commended the volunteers for stepping up and trying to help.

It doesn’t appear that OPPAGA was tasked with looking into any of the other structural questions that often swirl around the Program, such as whether a GAL should be a separate party or derive party status from the child. The big question — about who the Program’s attorneys represent — was answered clearly. They represent the Program.

Another big structural question not explicitly discussed in the report can be found in OPPAGA’s data. This question involves the feasibility of reaching 100% representation with a volunteer model. The report data suggest that this will never happen. The report finds that state funding for the Program has increased about 20% over the last 5 years, which has increased the number of staff but not the number of volunteers. Despite the rise in funding and staff, the number of children served by the Program has actually gone down. The core performance measure of the Program is the representation rate. Going down is bad.

The report’s data even brings the “number of children served” measure into question because the Program (discussed below) discharges off of so many cases before their conclusion that it’s not a meaningful measure unless you start using fractions. If we instead counted the number of days children spent in care with a GAL, it would be far more accurate and a smaller representation rate than is currently reported. All in all, the report does not seem to support increasing the GAL budget for the goal of increasing volunteer representation. We may have reached the natural limit of what volunteer-based representation can accomplish. And I think that’s good to acknowledge.

The Problem was Outcomes

OPPAGA’s main point of criticism was how the GAL Program measures and reports its outcomes. First, the GAL Program’s performance data includes circuit-wide measures that do not separate outcomes for children with and without a GAL. It’s therefore impossible to say whether any noted difference was an effect of the GAL Program’s efforts or just a circuit-wide variation. In OPPAGA’s language, the performance measures “may not be indicative of the program’s actual performance.”

What we need for analysis is child-specific data so that we can compare outcomes in light of case and child factors. OPPAGA attempted to compare data from the GAL Program, DCF, and the OSCA (the statewide court administration). This was a struggle because, as they wrote:

quote from OPPAGA report: "A unified data set that combines GAL case information with DCF child welfare outcomes does not exist."

Even more problematic for analysis, the GAL Program was unable to provide any of the raw data to OPPAGA. I quote: “When OPPAGA requested that program staff export all raw program data for Fiscal Year 2015-16 through Fiscal Year 2019-20, program staff was only able to provide a vendor programmed report, which made it difficult to determine the completeness and accuracy of the data and hindered analysis.”

Wait, what?

A quick web search shows that the vendor in this case is Evinto Solutions, LLC., an Arizona company that maintains the Optima database portal. The GAL Program pays Evinto $7,000 a month for access to the website and storage of the case data. I don’t understand how the data would not be available because the contract, which is available online, has the same clause that every state contract must have: the vendor must maintain public records and provide the customer with a copy of any requests “within a reasonable time” at a cost that is set by law. The deidentified records of a public agency that describe how it handles cases is undeniably a public record. If the GAL Program asked for the data and was told no, then Evinto was in breach of their contract. If the GAL Program never asked for the data, then they stonewalled OPPAGA. There is no good scenario in which the Program cannot access (or understand, as OPPAGA found) its own data.

OPPAGA found other problems with the data, too. There were no unique identifiers for each child in the reports and some data entries were clearly wrong (such as having conflicting dates). As such, they had to rely on the DCF and OSCA databases, and were only able to match up about 80% of kids to the GAL data. This means it’s not a representative sample — it’s just the best sample we’ve got. Those GAL Program performance reports that I said in 2019 had no correlation with outcomes also had no verifiable correlation with reality. This is very, very bad.

A few things jumped out at me in the report, based on what OPPAGA could figure out:

  1. The GAL Program discharged from 20% of cases because the child was in a stable placement, meaning the case hadn’t closed yet. That number has trended slightly up. Most of those cases ended in adoptions but many did not.
  2. About 5% of cases closed because of insufficient GAL Program resources.
  3. About 9% of cases were closed because the child ran away, moved to another circuit, or the case was consolidated by the court.

Permanency and time-to-exit are the GAL Program’s main system outcome measures in its reports, and the Program discharged from a third of cases before they even closed. That suggests the representation rate is even lower than reported and the supposed impact is even more tenuous. This is also very bad.

The rest of the report relays stakeholder views. One theme stood out to me, because I remember it well from my time at the Program: scheduling around volunteers’ time is hard and causes delays in staffings, hearings, and outcomes. I promise you that for every week shaved off one case through zealous advocacy, a month was added to another case because a volunteer could only attend court to do MBI testimony on Tuesdays after 2:00. Maybe Zoom has fixed some of that, but there are real drawbacks to having a part-time volunteer workforce.

The rest of the stakeholder views were mixed, with this conclusion statement:

What’s missing: $60 million a year

I wish the report had looked at how the Program spends its funds. You have to go down to the exhibits at the end of the report to find this information: Florida spends over $60 million per year on CASA/GAL services, almost twice what the next-highest state reviewed by OPPAGA (Texas) spends, six times the median total funding amount, and 20 times the median state funding amount. Our state expenditure per child ($1,354) is significantly more than the state with the next highest state funding outlay, North Carolina ($859 per child) and the state with the next highest number of children served, Texas ($447 per child). And again that is likely an underestimate because the Florida GAL does not stay on all cases all the way through.

I don’t know where the money goes, but I do know where it doesn’t: despite years of increased funding, the GAL Program has intentionally underpaid staff since its creation. That’s had serious implications for children. The Program submitted a budget request in 2017-18 asking for more money to pay its employees, writing: “the Guardian ad Litem pay has remained at low levels, due to a focus on expanding staff to serve rising numbers of dependent children (rather than pay raises).” It listed its CAMs as making $31,459 per year and its attorneys as making $41,267. That’s below the DCF payrates and below the HUD cutoff for low-income in most metropolitan areas in Florida. They wrote the following in the budget request:

GAL Program budget request quote: 12% of staff had been on public assistance in 2014 and turnover rates for non-senior staff were all 50% or higher.

Twelve percent of staff were on public benefits and the turnover rate was over 50% for anyone not in a senior position. I can’t get over that the highest turnover was for the volunteer recruiters — the engine of a CASA program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these rates are equivalent to the retail and construction industries, while state government jobs have a typical turnover rate of 19%. The Secretary of DCF testified in a senate committee on January 12 (at timestamp 1:18) that DCF’s turnover rate for child protective investigators (an incredibly stressful job) was 43%. The OPPAGA report doesn’t address turnover directly, but does state that four GAL volunteers they interviewed reported “many of the supervisors [i.e., CAMs] appear to be overworked.” I feel uncomfortable using the budget request in a negative light, since the GAL Program got the extra money for salaries that year and they’ve made addressing staffing instability part of the Program’s long-range plan — but the numbers show the Program has a serious workforce problem and they acknowledge it impacts kids.

I’ve never seen a full expenditure report for the GAL Program and its support organizations. I’ve requested financial records from the Program but am still waiting for the response as of writing this post. Looking around the internet it seems that they advocated for and got over $300,000 per year to reimburse volunteers for mileage and have engaged in lots of extraneous activities (scholarships, internships, lobbying, very large statewide conferences that I’ve definitely been to) that are not part of the core mission of representing kids. That doesn’t include the in-kind donations and events that are meant to reward volunteers for being volunteers, with no direct benefit to the children. Those are wonderful things to do, but not while also complaining that you don’t have the funds to do the actual job or pay your employees enough to stay.

Meanwhile, along with low staff pay comes very hard work. You are told that your purpose is to save lives and protect children, and that weighs on you constantly. The report notes in a footnote that the expected caseload for GAL Program attorneys is 150 children. And, according to the 2017 budget request, there’s no official paralegal position for support (we had wonderful paralegals in Miami). It’s very difficult to do a good job under those circumstances, and when the job is “don’t let kids die,” it feels impossible. It is no surprise that nearly two-thirds of attorneys leave. I hope the pay increase reduced that number significantly.

I’m bringing up the budget because federal law changed in 2018 to permit the federal reimbursement of up to 50% of state expenditures on “independent legal representation by an attorney for a child who is a candidate for title IV-E foster care or in foster care.” You can read more about it here. The funding is triggered by having an attorney represent the child and includes funding for paralegals, investigators, and social worker supports, which would include CAMs. The GAL Program in its current structure has already been deemed ineligible for that funding. The OPPAGA report again makes clear that the GAL attorney represents the Program, not the child. Until we fix that, we are leaving millions of dollars on the table and our best shot at 100% representation.

Let’s talk about alternatives

OPPAGA staff made a few recommendations which, in analyst-speak, they called “options.” The options included choosing concrete performance measures like other states have, using the DCF-assigned ID numbers for each child to aid in cross-reports, and gaining a better understanding of the Program’s own data. These are all fine, but they don’t address the core problem facing the Program: 100% representation of foster kids by unpaid volunteers is not sustainable, and the Program has scraped by for nearly two decades unsuccessfully attempting to reach that goal.

The GAL Program agrees that resolving the problem of 100% representation is critical to its continuing survival. In its current long-range plan, it writes:

Once the high turnover is addressed, the program will then address a key policy decision with the Office of the Governor and the Legislature; that is, 1) whether the program should request additional resources to pursue representation of all children in the dependency system (out of-home and all in their own home), or 2) work with the Legislature to limit its statutory mandate to representing only children in out-of-home care and children 0 to 3 years living in their own homes (as current funding levels permit).

Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office Long Range Program Plan for FY 2017-18 to 2021-22.

The Program has also publicly acknowledged that, in its current form, it is not able to fully advocate for the children it represents. In 2019 the Program lobbied against a foster children’s bill of rights that would have clarified the rights children have in care and required the system educate kids on those rights. In its legislative analysis, the Program wrote that if the bill of rights passed into law the Program would need significantly more funding because it “will be advocating for children’s rights in a more expansive way than it is currently doing now.” It warned that the courts and other parties would likely also see a workload increase — and I agree that would probably be true until those parties stopped violating children’s rights.

The Program’s quiet campaign to kill the bill of rights was a huge disappointment to me, even if they saw it as an act of survival. Even more than the public jabs at attorneys for kids, the Program’s bill of rights analysis convinced me that its current structure was at odds with the rights and wellbeing of children. I don’t fault the people at the Program who are doing the work on the ground at all, but I do fault people who have vehemently argued for this status quo for years even when it’s clear it’s bad for children — namely all the children receiving no or weakened representation. The Program was asked to do the impossible, and nearly 20 years of experimentation is enough. Given the changes in federal funding, it is time to address that “key policy decision” of how to move forward to 100% representation of children.

Here are my views.

I believe 100% representation can only come through 100% funding of paid positions. Volunteers have an important role in working with children, but federal law and the needs of children demand 100% representation first and foremost. Federal funding is available to finally make that a reality.

To lock down the federal funding, the attorneys must represent the children and not the Program. This means the attorneys’ primary obligations are to the child and not to a government agency. This is actually a very good thing because the Rules of Professional Responsibility will require the attorneys to hold themselves, the system and even the GALs accountable to the children they serve. (Just look at the nonsense in Pasco for an example of why the Program should not be the client.)

Attorney representation does not mean the end of best interest representation. I support a hybrid model of child representation with GALs directing the attorney’s representation for young children using a best interests model (with a healthy dose of taking the child’s attachments and wishes into account) and kids directing their own representation when they’re old enough to function as a client (with a healthy dose of mentoring and counseling from the attorney and their former GAL). We can fight about where to draw the age line. I’m also open to expanding the universe of people who can serve as a GAL and relying more on the natural advocates in children’s lives like relatives, foster parents, and fictive kin who could fill the role. This could reduce the number of volunteers needed significantly.

Once the Program is not the titular party in every dependency case in Florida (or 65% of cases for 70% of the time at less than 100% advocacy?), we need to re-align the Program’s goals into something human beings can actually do to provide direct and tangible benefits to children. OPPAGA recommends setting real measures, and I think we should go further and re-task the GAL Program back to its roots as a support for GALs and custodians. And we should get GALs out of the opinion business and give them concrete objectives to accomplish to further the best interests of the child. They can testify about their opinion on the same terms as anyone else under the rules of evidence. The quality of their advocacy should be judged by what they do.

There should be process goals for GAL Program, like “ensure children have representation for 98% of days under DCF supervision,” “ensure children are seen in person every 30 days,” “report to the court factual observations in writing,” and “provide child welfare policy guidance to the child, GAL, and custodian regarding the case.” The measures would then be the percent of days in care a child had representation, percent of visits that were timely made, the number of reports or motions filed, and the number of hours spent educating custodians and children about the system.

There should be advocacy goals for the individual GALs in conjunction with the child’s attorney like “ensure school services are in place,” “ensure receipt of all entitled public benefits,” “coordinate therapeutic and medical services to optimize benefit and minimize duplication of services,” and “eliminate barriers to the current permanency goal and advocate to change the goal when appropriate.” You could measure that by logging referrals and linkage to services, counting participation in IEP meetings and due process complaint hearings, summing the actual dollar amounts in public benefits received as a result of the advocacy, and measuring case plan amendments and other permanency advocacy efforts. None of these goals should change once the child is old enough to direct the representation — the work just gets harder because it also involves counseling the child towards good decisions in each of these areas.

Next, maybe outcome measures aren’t the right test. I am more skeptical of outcome measures than most people seem to be. I’ve spent a lot of time working with time-to-exit and permanency rates in the DCF data and there is wide variation in case outcomes by the age of the child at removal, type of maltreatment, race and ethnicity of the child, availability of relative placements, geography, and an unknown number of other salient factors. Very few empirical studies have managed to isolate the impact of representation on these types of outcomes, and that may be because every case is just unique. I prefer measures that are directly related to advocacy goals like described above or the child well-being measures that other states use. If people want to measure outcomes then we will need to start keeping much better data.

I have thoughts about how the GAL functions on individual cases, including how a GAL is selected and discharged, their ethical relationship to the child’s attorney, and other mechanisms that would hold the GAL and attorney accountable to the child and the court at a higher level. I’ll leave those for another day.

Florida has come a long way in its child advocacy, and there is a path to finally reach the goal of 100% representation. I hope we can have a meaningful conversation about how to give every foster child in Florida a legal advocate who can help guide and protect them through the system and make their lives materially better.

What I'm Reading

A starter reading list on how child welfare policies harm Black people, families, and communities

The child welfare system has nothing to say about anti-Black state violence because the child removal system engages in it daily. Do the reading, and then let’s get to defunding the removal system, redirecting billions in resources directly to communities experiencing problems, and stripping child welfare decisions from bureaucrats and locating them properly back with families.

All quotes are from the books and articles they fall under. Feel free to suggest other readings in the comments. [Edit: As I get offline suggestions, I will add new things.]

Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy E. Roberts (2002):

The new politics of child welfare threatens to intensify state supervision of Black children. In the past several years, federal and state policy have shifted away from preserving families toward “freeing” children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights. Welfare reform, by throwing many families deeper into poverty, heightens the risk that some children will be removed from struggling families and placed in foster care. Black families, who are disproportionately poor, have been hit the hardest by this retraction of public assistance for needy children. And tougher treatment of juvenile offenders, imposed most harshly on African American youth, is increasing the numbers incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. These political trends are shattering the bonds between poor Black children and their parents.

Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers by Dorothy E. Roberts (2012):

Foster care is more than a precursor to prison (for children), and prison is more than a precursor to foster care for children (of the incarcerated). The simultaneous buildup and operation of the prison and foster care systems rely on the punishment of black mothers, who suffer greatly from the systems’ intersection. This Article analyzes how both systems work together to punish black mothers in the service of preserving U.S. race, gender, and class inequality in a neoliberal age. The intersection of prison and foster care is only one example of many forms of overpolicing that overlap and converge in the lives of poor women of color. I investigate this particular systemic intersection to help elucidate how state mechanisms of surveillance and punishment work to penalize the most marginalized women in our society while blaming them for their own disadvantaged positions. This systemic intersection naturalizes social inequality and obscures the need for social change.

Toward the Abolition of the Foster System by Erin Miles Cloud (2019) [added 6/11/2020]

However, unlike the criminal legal system, the foster system is often excused from rigorous critique, in part because it is framed as helpful, supportive, and well-intentioned rather than punitive and retributive. Yet it is incumbent on society to interrogate all systems that disproportionately impact Black people, even those that supposedly protect us. As long-time activist Joyce McMillan says, “Do people really think that somehow the child welfare system targets Black people but targets them in a good way?” If we can agree that implicit bias and racism are at least part of why our society is more likely to shoot a Black person, call the police on Black people, or profile a Black body, why do we believe that there are more noble reasons for the disproportionate reporting of Black mothers and removal of Black children? The reality is that both the criminal legal and the foster systems are rooted in deeply violent historical narratives about Black bodies that do more to promote punishment than safety.

It is especially important to critique the foster system when the individuals it claims to help explicitly characterize it as harm. In my nine years of representing parents, I have almost never heard my clients use words like “support,” “assistance,” or “rehabilitation” to describe their experiences with the foster system. Mothers and activists like Dinah Ortiz-Adames consistently denounce it. Within my own family, I have experienced it break down rather than build up bonds. Even the children who are supposed to be served by this system decry its effectiveness.

Issue 1: Anti-Black Racism, Bio-Power, and Governmentality: Deconstructing the Suffering of Black Families Involved with Child Welfare by Doret Philips & Gordon Pon (2018):

In this article, we focus on how anti-Black racism and white supremacy are embodied or manifested in tangible or visible forms in the child welfare system. Given the often heart-wrenching narratives of suffering experienced by Black children and families involved with child welfare services, we ask the following two guiding questions: 1) how are colonialism, anti-Black racism and white supremacy embodied by the child welfare system? And, 2) how can the extreme suffering experienced by many Black families involved with the child welfare system be understood? This schema of embodiment is necessary to deconstruct how anti-Black racism, colonialism, and white supremacy are manifested in the day-to-day policies and practices of child welfare.

What Can the Child Welfare System Learn in the Wake of the Floyd Decision?: A Comparison of Stop-And-Frisk Policing and Child Welfare Investigations by Michelle Burrell (2019):

The child welfare system needs a public image shift. The image of parents who have been subjected to government intrusion needs to be shifted, from a public mindset that those who are receiving intervention from child protective officials need or deserve it, to a healthy criticism and interrogation of the intrusion and family separation based on allegations that have not been proven true. Recently, the prospect of removing children from their parents at the border was met with much public backlash, and mental health professionals across the country insisted that the harm being caused by such separation was inhumane and could have longterm irreparable effects. This is also true for children removed from their parents residing in the United States. The same irreparable harm applies to children separated in communities across the country.

Racial Bias in American Foster Care: The National Debate by Tanya A. Cooper (2013):

In disproportionately high numbers, Native American and African American children find themselves in the American foster care system. Empirical data establish that these children are removed from their families at greater rates than other races and stay in foster care longer, where they are often abused, neglected, and then severed from their families forever. For the past few decades, a vigorous debate has raged regarding whether these children are actually at greater risk for maltreatment if left at home or are just targets of discrimination in a hegemonic institution. Although the research previously showed no racial differences in child maltreatment rates, the latest Congressional study has found that African American and Native American children are at greater risk for child maltreatment than children of other races. Despite the caution with which researchers have interpreted the data and implicated future policies, scholars are asking whether, as a society, we are protecting or destroying children from these historically disempowered races. Foster care laws offer little practical guidance because the overarching legal standards are too vague or not consistently applied.

Systems thinking, however, provides one useful framework for uncovering points in the foster care system where unintended bias manifests and potential leverage points to exert pressure and effect change. A systems thinking approach also reveals that the foster care system’s primary motivation is simply perpetuating itself; accordingly, to achieve meaningful reform, public policy makers in the U.S. must closely examine this billion-dollar, publicly-funded bureaucracy and the racial disparities it routinely fosters.

African American perspectives on racial disparities in child removals by Effrosyni D. Kokaliari, Ann W. Roy, and Joyce Taylor (2019):

African American children are overrepresented in foster care at twice to three times the rate of white children. Scholars argue that racism and oppression underlie disproportionality (Križ & Skivenes, 2011).

This study explored disproportionality as seen through the eyes of African American parents in the child welfare system. The aim was to understand why African American families are over-represented in child custody statistics and to improve family and parenting support for African American communities.

Who am I? Who do you think I am? Stability of racial/ethnic self-identification among youth in foster care and concordance with agency categorization by Jessica Schmidt et al. (2015):

While it has been well documented that racial and ethnic disparities exist for children of color in child welfare, the accuracy of the race and ethnicity information collected by agencies has not been examined, nor has the concordance of this information with youth self-report. This article addresses a major gap in the literature by examining: 1) the racial and ethnic self-identification of youth in foster care, and the rate of agreement with child welfare and school categorizations; 2) the level of concordance between different agencies (school and child welfare); and 3) the stability of racial and ethnic self-identification among youth in foster care over time. Results reveal that almost 1 in 5 youth change their racial identification over a one-year period, high rates of discordance exist between the youth self-report of Native American, Hispanic and multiracial youth and how agencies categorize them, and a greater tendency for the child welfare system to classify a youth as White, as compared to school and youth themselves. Information from the study could be used to guide agencies towards a more youth-centered and flexible approach in regards to identifying, reporting and affirming youth’s evolving racial and ethnic identity.

Colorblind Must Not Mean Blind to the Realities Facing Black Children by Zanita Fenton (2006):

The interaction of state agencies and administrative bodies, especially those of the justice system (including police, prosecutors, and judges) with communities of color is a major factor that contributes to a dynamic that is central to understanding the pervasiveness of institutional racism. People of color have a general distrust of the justice system that is well founded in history. This foundation includes both legal and extra-legal persecution of Black males, an entire era of extrajudicial lynching, the more recent documentation of racial profiling, and police brutality against people of color. The disproportionate numbers of Black children in foster care easily leads one to believe there are biases operating in this system as well. Thus, there is a real reticence in inviting state involvement of any kind into the private and family lives of people within the Black community.

However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs by Amy Mulzer & Tara Urs (2016):

Although CASA programs are a relatively new development, emerging as an experiment of one judge in Seattle in the 1980s they are part of the larger historical story of child welfare. The demographic make-up of CASA programs—mostly middle-class white women over the age of 30—easily recalls the women who, after the Civil War, played the primary role in establishing the modern child welfare system. The ability of white women to speak for the best interests of poor children of color, to advocate for their removal from their families, and to receive deference and praise from legal systems, comes to our modern legal system with
deep roots. Understanding the role of race, gender, and power in forming the structure of the child welfare system explains in part why our legal system so comfortably tolerates a volunteer advocate whose role, in any other context, would not survive even a halfhearted due process challenge. And a full picture of the racist underpinnings of the modern child welfare system helps develop a fuller view of CASA programs.

What I'm Reading

We don’t know enough about peer violence in foster homes

An article this month in Child & Family Social Work looks at the scant amount of research on peer violence in foster homes.

Whilst evidence on peer abuse in residential settings is limited even less is known regarding peer abuse in foster care. Although no specific research has been undertaken, work by some (e.g. Farmer & Pollock 1998) indicates the issue of peer abuse is as salient in these settings as in the residential context. Many of the specific dynamics associated with abuse in residential settings, including peer cultures, are either absent or very different in relation to foster care placements. The populations of children in foster and residential care also vary considerably by age and care histories. In addition, the ‘family’ situation of foster care holds unique characteristics and risk factors not present in residence. The relative isolation of young people in foster care from other looked-after children means that the nature of peer abuse may be different. These differences highlight the importance of considering the distinctiveness of peer violence experiences in foster care. In addition, foster families’ own children may be vulnerable to victimization from looked-after children (Höjer et al. 2013). The manifestation and experiences of peer violence in foster care are particularly relevant within a policy context that favours family-based care and a resulting reduction in the use of residential care since the 1970s (Berridge et al. 2012).

We know, because our clients tell us, that peer violence happens too frequently in foster homes. Violence often goes unreported by children and youth for a wide range of reasons, including fear of not being believed, fear of retaliation, and fear of placement disruption to a potentially worse situation. Some foster parents likewise fail to seek help for peer violence in their homes for fear of losing their license or being perceived as unable to care for children appropriately. The result is a culture that minimizes problems for the sake of preserving appearances, until the problems are too egregious to ignore.

The article offers several policy implications:

  • There should be a focus on identifying children and young people who are or have been involved in negative peer interactions including ways of reporting that are accessible by young people. This identification should lead to appropriate responses and support for these young people.
  • The careful placement and supervision of the instigators of peer violence in foster care is required as there may be risks posed to other children and young people in the placement and to placement stability.
  • Placements of children and young people who have instigated peer violence need to be effectively supported including support for the fostered young people and other children within the placement (including children of foster carers), and support and training for foster carers to manage this behaviour.
  • Research is needed about the full extent of all forms of exploitation and violence that are experienced and instigated by young people in foster care, the circumstances in which it takes place, the young people who are more likely to be affected and its co-occurrence with other difficulties. Research should also focus on the neglected area of children and young people’s perspectives.

Lutman, E., and Barter, C. (2016) Peer violence in foster care: a review of the research evidence.Child & Family Social Work, doi: 10.1111/cfs.12284.

What I'm Reading

Amplifying Ferguson and Race in Child Welfare

One lesson from Ferguson for those of us who talk and write for a living is that now is (always) the time to amplify voices that normally are silenced. For those of us who work in child welfare, another lesson is that the children we work with have a social, historical, and political identity that is not amenable to rounds of individual therapy. So here are some readings from the #FergusonSyllabus that have to do with youth and families, shared from the list curated by Marcia Chatelain writing at and from I’ve added four suggestions for child welfare folks at the end. 

“A Talk to Teachers,” in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985
James Baldwin

Ferguson Killing Inspires Young Black Activists
Frederica Boswell, NPR

On Recognizing My White Privilege as a Parent in the Face of Ferguson
Elizabeth Broadbent, xoJane

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown
Chris Lehman, blog

What White Children Need to Know About Race
Ali Michad and Eleonora Bartoli,

Healing Days: A Guide For Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma
Susan Straus

How the Children of Birmingham Changed the Civil-Rights Movement
Lottie L. Joiner, The Daily Beast

“‘We have to make them feel us‘: Open Letters and Black Mothers’ Grief”
Emily Owens, African American Intellectual History blog

Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
Beryl Satter

Noughts & Crosses
Malorie Blackman

Smoky Night
Eve Bunting and David Diaz

What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?
Margaret Burroughs

I am Rosa Parks
Brad Meltzer

Ruth & the Green Book
Calvin Ramsey

Tar Beach
Faith Ringgold

As Fast As Words Could Fly
Pamela Tuck

The Skin You Live in
Michael Tyler

The Other Side
Jacqueline Woodson

Shining Star
Paula Yoo

U.S. Schools: Desegregation court cases and school demographic data
Brown University

Race and the Ferguson-Florissant School District
Shaun R. Harper and Charlee Davis, III, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson
Robert P. Jones, The Atlantic

Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this? ” Daniel Katz, blog

Michael Brown’s High School Is An Example Of The Major Inequalities In Education
Rebecca Klein, Huffington Post

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
Jonathan Kozol

Stepping over the Color Line: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools
Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crane

How Does it Feel to be a Problem?
Relando Thompkins, blog

“Want to Help Marginalized Students in Schools? Stop “Stop and Frisk” and Other Punitive Practices, Too.” – Markus Gerke

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. 2014. “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review.” Available online:

Ferguson, Ann. 2001. Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Especially chapter 4: Naughty by Nature. Google link:

Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Dorothy Roberts.

“Prison, Foster Care, and the Systematic Punishment of Black Women.” Dorothy Roberts.

“Black Club Women and Child Welfare.” Dorothy Roberts.

“There is no Santa Clause — The Challenge of Teaching the Next Generation of Civil Rights Lawyers in a ‘Post-Racial’ Society.” Deborah N. Archer.

What I'm Reading

ICYMI: John Oliver on the American prison system — racist, stupid, and nothing but a business

This segment was serendipitous timing for the two incarceration opinions that I wrote about earlier this week. Watch it and then argue that a TPR ground based on length of incarceration should exist at all. 

I lost my legal innocence in law school on the day I learned that there is a private prison industry, that it has lobbyists, and that those lobbyists actively seek and successfully obtain stricter sentencing laws to keep more people incarcerated longer. We, as law students, then study the doctrines derived from those systems as though they were natural facts or logically required outcomes. They aren’t. Says John Oliver, “Just think about that: we now need adorable singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain number 7 or what the moon is.” Except the moon isn’t a horrible choice some people have made to hurt other people for profit. Unlike the moon, it’s also something we can change.

What I'm Reading

Addressing the Harm of Silence and Assumptions of Mutability

The article’s full title is Addressing the Harm of Silence and Assumptions of Mutability: Implementing effective non-discrimination policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in foster care, found here at SSRN.

This quote caught me:

Children walk the streets today because they were kicked out of a home that saw their struggle as a moral choice rather than a fact of their identity development.

Elvia R. Arriola, The Penalties for Puppy Love: Institutionalized Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Youth, 1 J. Gender Race & Just. 429, 440 (1998).