Suffer the Children

Governor Napolitano made CPS reform a top priority. But it's been a tough four years

"The nature of this business is to have an either/or dichotomy, but we've been making efforts to think a bit more dynamically," Holder says. "There is now a growing recognition that even removing children from their homes doesn't necessarily mean they're safe."

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, agrees. Her agency is a public-interest, nonprofit law firm that litigates on behalf of kids in juvenile detention or bad foster care situations.

"Any time you get a lot of child deaths, you see a state do 'safety first, let's remove every single kid,'" she says.

Christa Drake gives Napolitano's reforms high praise. "Foster care saved my life," she says.
courtesy of Christa Drake
Christa Drake gives Napolitano's reforms high praise. "Foster care saved my life," she says.
In 2003, CPS workers left kids at Marsha Porter's Crisis Nursery for months on end.
Martha Strachan
In 2003, CPS workers left kids at Marsha Porter's Crisis Nursery for months on end.

But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do, Shauffer says. "Many, many children can be kept safe at home. Safety first should not mean removal first."

After all, most parents caught up in the CPS system aren't the sort of abusers who end up on the evening news, carted to jail after systematically torturing their kids for months.

The majority of cases involve neglect, not abuse — and it's not only the politically correct who are concerned by the gross overrepresentation of poor and minority kids in foster care across the country. Statistics show that alcoholics in Paradise Valley typically don't attract CPS attention. Single moms living in west Phoenix do.

And foster care, as it turns out, is hardly a panacea.

A study published in Development and Psychopathology earlier this year by researchers at the University of Minnesota suggests, surprisingly, that foster care may actually be worse for kids than abusive homes.

The professors surveyed records from 189 high-risk children in Minneapolis, from birth to their 16th birthdays.

Researchers split the children into three groups: The first spent time in foster care. The second group suffered similar maltreatment — but weren't removed from their homes. And the third was a control group: children from poor families, but without abuse or neglect.

Naturally, the control group performed the best; practically from the beginning, they scored better developmentally than the mistreated kids.

Initially, there was no such difference between the kids who ended up in foster care and those stuck in abusive homes. But once the kids were sent to foster care, they began to perform demonstrably worse than their stay-in-home counterparts.

Even after their release from care, the foster kids had more problems.

"[T]he results support a general view that foster care may lead to an increase in behavior problems that continues after exiting the system," the researchers concluded. The results, they wrote, "raise cautious concern regarding the impact of child care on development."

That's almost certainly not the fault of foster parents, much less the kids themselves. Few researchers blame the quality of foster homes; instead, they believe the problem comes from children being wrenched from their parents.

And that may be why CPS executives no longer present removals as an unqualified positive. Instead, they talk about keeping families together, monitoring children in their homes, and new initiatives to get support services to needy families.

Indeed, ask CPS administrator Janice Mickens what she's most excited about, and she'll cite a program called Family to Family, developed by the respected Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. In place now in Maricopa County and Tucson, CPS hopes to roll it out statewide in five years.

Its goal is to work with families to reduce kids' time in foster care and to increase placements with family members or trusted friends.

"We're saying child safety is paramount," Mickens says, "but that children belong in families. The focus is on safety and trying to help them within their families — whether that's their family of origin or relatives."

Another sign of the agency's movement since Napolitano's original mandate: The second program Mickens singles out for praise is CPS's in-home services unit, which monitors at-risk kids, but doesn't remove them.

CPS actually applied for, and got, a waiver from the feds. The waiver lets the agency use federal funds typically earmarked for kids in foster care on programs to support families, connecting them with services like drug counseling or even food stamps.

"It allows us to work with families at a much earlier stage and prevent them coming back into the system," Mickens says. "In the past, with cases like this, there was no one to send them. We'd say, 'Okay, well, I'll keep this case open.' But then we'd get another report — because they just weren't getting services."

Richard Wexler is the director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a group that believes far too many children are placed in foster care. He was a critic of Napolitano's early speeches on child safety. By "throwing gas on the fire" and focusing on maltreatment deaths, he says, she sparked a panic.

But Wexler says he's noticed a real change in Arizona. He's convinced that Napolitano has consciously backed away from her previous strategy.

"Essentially, everybody involved in fomenting the panic now realizes it was a terrible mistake," he claims.

(Napolitano's deputy, Haener, says the governor has not had a change of heart. "Safety is and must be the top priority at CPS," he says. The increase in kids, he says, was absolutely necessary, and due to "real reforms that helped us to better identify risk factors for children.")

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