Feds punish state for failing foster care standards

Feds say too many kids are re-entering the system.
By Brandon Stahl Star Tribune
JULY 10, 2015 — 11:36AM

More than 200 children have gone through Kate and Tyree Walton’s foster home in Brooklyn Park in the past four years, but for them one child stands out. The girl was 5 in 2012, when the Waltons took her in. Over the next three years, the Waltons watched the girl treated like a yo-yo. Child protection workers sent the girl back to her drug-addicted father, only to pull her from the home and bring her back to the Waltons.
Each time they’ve had her, the girl “is more withdrawn,” Kate Walton said. “She’s older, understands what’s going on, and she’s angry.”
What happened to the girl, considered foster care “re-entry,” has happened to more than 8,000 Minnesota children since 2007. That’s too many for the federal Children’s Bureau. Last month, the agency told the state that it was withholding more than $755,000 in child protection funding because Minnesota’s re-entry rates are too high.
Only four counties in the state had acceptable re-entry rates, according to records obtained by the Star Tribune through Minnesota’s public records law. The national standard is no more than 10 percent of children re-entering foster care within a year, yet 58 counties had rates double the standard. Clearwater, Norman and Winona counties had rates at 40 percent or more, the highest in the state.
Minnesota has failed to meet the re-entry standard since at least 2007, records show. In 2014, about one in every four foster kids returned to out-of-home care, often because of repeated abuse.
Cases closed
That cycle, said Traci LaLiberte, a University of Minnesota child welfare professor, can have devastating effects on children. One reason for the high re-entry rate, she said, is that child protection walks away after reuniting children with troubled families.
“What is clear is that when kids get returned home, the agency should stay involved,” said LaLiberte, the executive director for the school’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) will recover costs from the federal penalty by taking the money from counties, basing their share on the number of children who were sent back to foster care. Hennepin and Ramsey counties will shoulder about $280,000 of the penalty due to their high re-entry rates and larger share of foster children.
Since 2001, the Children’s Bureau has fined seven states and the District of Columbia for failing federal child protection standards.
The federal children’s agency is also punishing Minnesota for not making required monthly visits with foster care children. The standard is 90 percent, but the state hit that target only 78 percent of the time in 2014.
The penalties come at a time when the number of children in foster care has grown to more than 11,000, and fewer families are signing on as foster parents.
Compounding the problem is that for several years, the state has failed to meet several other federal standards that measure whether foster children are placed in safe, permanent homes, the Star Tribune has found. Thousands of foster children have been moved between several homes before they’re reunited with their families or adopted.
“We’re not meeting the needs of the child,” Jim Koppel, the assistant DHS commissioner for children and family services, said Thursday. “When we intervene in the best interests of the child … we have to continue to serve that child in all the places, in all the settings that child is in.”
Koppel and DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber will co-chair a foster care work group formed in June that will address the problems found by the federal government and the Star Tribune.
“We are going to substantially change the way we do foster care,” said Koppel, who was appointed to his post in December following the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures. “We need to make more of an effort to have the best homes for these children.”
For many kids, the lack of stability will result in years of trauma.
Saprina Kennedy is trying to adopt one such child, her 12-year-old niece, who before age 4 had already been in foster care after suffering abuse. After she was returned home, in 2008, the then-5-year-old girl was found walking around an ice-covered parking lot without shoes or a coat. Kennedy said the girl was starving and looking for food. She went back to foster care.
The girl has been through 24 foster homes in the past 10 years, Kennedy said.
She is now in a Wisconsin facility, being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and, as Kennedy put it, “rage.”

“She deserves better than what she’s gone through,” Kennedy said

Lawsuit says NYC has one of the worst foster care systems in US

By Bruce Golding

Public Advocate Letitia James is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Photo: Helayne Seidman
Social service officials are turning a blind eye to the horrific physical and mental abuse of kids languishing in New York City’s foster care system — which is costing taxpayers more than $2.4 billion, according to a new class-action suit.
Around 11,000 city kids are stuck in “one of the most dangerous foster care systems in the country,” according to the Manhattan federal court filing.
The massive complaint — which runs to 256 pages with exhibits — alleges systemic violations of their “right to be free from harm” and other rights granted by the Constitution and various federal and state laws.
It was filed Wednesday on behalf of 10 foster kids, including “Eliza W.,” 16, who was 4 when she was taken from her abusive, 19-year-old mom by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS, and was “shuffled … through so many foster placements that she is unable to account for all of them,” the suit says.
She also allegedly suffered repeated instances of sexual abuse, beatings and intentional starvation that were ignored by her caseworker — and led to her asking to be committed to a mental hospital in July 2014.
“Since her hospitalization, she has been placed on heavy doses of psychotropic medication; she reports that, as a result, she can barely string a sentence together and no longer looks people in the eye because she gets nervous,” court papers say.
The plaintiffs also include Public Advocate Letitia James, who the suit says “has received myriad constituent complaints concerning foster care.”
“Lives of #fostercare children are being ruined during their most formative years,” she tweeted Wednesday morning.
The suit seeks a court order requiring that ACS immediately address “the systemic failures that have been plaguing New York City’s foster care system for too long.”
“That the responsible state and city officials have known about these problems and done nothing to fix them is inexcusable,” the suit says.
Defendants named in court papers include the city, ACS and the state Office of Children and Family Services.
In a statement, ACS touted “great strides in reducing the number of children in foster care from a high of 45,000 in the 1990s” and said that “in the last 18 months ACS has taken significant steps in preventive work designed to keep families together and avoid placing children in foster care in the first place.”
“The de Blasio administration is deeply invested in improving the lives of vulnerable children, and working very closely with many partners to improve our foster care placement system,” the statement said.
OCFS declined to comment, saying it didn’t discuss “potential or pending litigation.”
Tami Steckler, head of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice, blasted the suit as “short-sighted” and warned that it could “stall the progress being made by those of us actually working with these families and children.”
“As the organization that represents almost all the children in New York City foster care, we have been working very closely with the current Commissioner to improve outcomes,” Steckler said in a prepared statement.

“This lawsuit is being brought by attorneys who have never represented clients in New York City’s foster care system, yet purport to know how to fix it, at a time when foster care numbers are at an all-time low and collaboration is at an all-time high.”

Why NYC's Foster Care System is Failing Children

•           NINA WOLPOW

City Public Advocate Letitia James, center, and child advocates hold a press conference announcing a class action lawsuit against the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) for causing irreparable harm to children, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, in New York.
New York City's foster care system has failed to protect and find stable homes for the thousands of children in its care, alleges a class action lawsuit filed by children's advocates this week.
"Foster care is supposed to be safe and temporary. For children in New York City's foster care system, it is neither," alleges the suit, filed Wednesday by children’s activist Marcia Lowry, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, and lawyers from the firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
“Our foster children are suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as a result of a system that fails them every single day,” James said in a statement. “Lives are being ruined during our children’s most formative years, and our legal action seeks to put an end to this injustice.”


“Children stay in the foster care system in New York City longer than anywhere else in the country... It's devastating to children when they don't know where they're going to be,” Lowry told Refinery29. In 2014, she founded the advocacy organization A Better Childhood. "Some children are staying in foster care and being physically harmed beyond the psychological damage of not knowing where you're going to live, who your parents are, whether you're going to change schools and make new friends, and who you can count on."
In fact, statistics from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services show that in 2013, children in New York State spent 4.2 million days in foster and adoptive homes. Of those 4.2 million days, 2.5 million were spent in New York City.
The suit details 10 specific instances of abuse, maintaining that New York City — and in particular the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and its commissioner, Gladys Carrión — is responsible. The suit alleges that if the system had been more expedient in finding these children — and thousands of others — permanent homes, tragic instances of physical and emotional abuse could have been prevented.
The plaintiffs in the suit range from three to 16 years old and are both boys and girls. Some have special needs, and all have spent significant portions of their young lives in the foster care system. Today, none of the child plaintiffs is in a permanent home, which deprives each of them of the stability experts agree is critical for healthy development.
But the Administration for Children's Services said the lawsuit is baseless, arguing that the city has made significant and costly — though possibly insufficient — progress since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office.
"We have been working closely with the courts, attorneys, parent advocates, advocates for children, provider agencies, and, most critically, the parents and children whose lives are impacted by this system," the ACS told Refinery29 in a statement. "We have made great strides in dramatically shrinking the foster care census and in finding stable, permanent homes for children who must come into care."
But the 10 cases detailed in the lawsuit tell a different story. The complaint details the experiences of children who have spent what their advocates believe is far too long in temporary care after trauma struck their households. Though these children's initial removals were legitimate, the suit claims that viable options for permanency have been ignored or overlooked.
One child, a three-year-old named Thierry, has spent 21 months in ACS custody. He was removed from his biological mother, a veteran public school teacher, after she alerted child services that his biological father had "held a knife to her throat threatening to kill her, strangled her at least three times, punched her in the face and threw household furniture at her." Thierry remains in ACS custody and has not been reunited with his mother.
Another child, two-and-a-half-year-old Ayanna, was removed from her biological mother just three days after birth. Ayanna's mother's boyfriend beat her older sister Angela to death in March 2010. To date, she has still not been adopted.
And while the goals for Thierry and Ayanna differ — Thierry wants to be returned to his mother, while ACS hopes that Ayanna will be adopted — neither has come to fruition.


Other child-advocacy groups, however, have said the lawsuit is not the way to fix the system's problems. “The filing of this lawsuit is shortsighted,” wrote Tamara Steckler, an attorney with the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society, in a statement. “This lawsuit is being brought by attorneys who have never represented clients in New York City's foster care system, yet purport to know how to fix it, at a time when foster care numbers are at an all-time low and collaboration is at an all-time high.”
But Gretchen Biedl and Michael Willner, foster parents who live on New York's Upper West Side, believe the system is inherently flawed. The couple told Refinery29 about the challenges and rewards of raising foster children. They also shared their experiences with the New York City Family Court, which the city government claims is to blame for delays in transitioning children to permanent homes. According to ACS, the Family Court must "approve of any action taken by ACS with respect to foster care placement or return to parent."
According to Biedl and Willner, the approval process drags on for far too long. "I get frustrated when they're asking you the same thing over and over again," Willner said. "They're intrusive. Six months after you have a doctor's approval that you're physically capable [to foster a child], you need another one. They come to your house to do inspections multiple times."
 Biedl shared a story that brought tears to her eyes. When she was volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), she saw a father drive up to New York City from North Carolina to petition for custody of his daughter.
"He came regularly," Biedl said. "He wanted her. He would be at the court hearing and the mother would not show up, so they wouldn't give him custody. It went on for months and months while [the child] was languishing in a non-family home."
That's why Biedl and Willner are supportive of Lowry's lawsuit. They said they are critical of ACS not because they believe the agency has bad intentions, but because it approaches foster care from a reprehensible policy of quantity over quality.
The couple believes that the ACS's focus on hiring more social workers diverts its attention, and its funds, from nonprofits like You Gotta Believe and the Council on Adoptable Children, which are trained in and committed to achieving permanency for foser children.
"Creating bureaucracy to solve problems doesn't solve problems; it creates more problems," Willner said, referring to the ACS and Commissioner Carrión's move to hire more than 300 new employees. "What I worry about is just hiring a bunch of people. I know where that goes, and it's not pretty."
Biedl added: "The fact of the matter is that the case workers aren't the ones who know how to achieve permanency. The case workers are there to deal with emergency situations. My case workers have never helped me work through a situation; they just ask if I want the kid removed."


The couple also fears the consequences of allowing children to "age out" of the foster care system. According to the 2011 Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, adults who spent time in foster care have lower-than-average earnings, difficulty paying bills, reliance on government benefits, and high levels of incarceration compared to other adults their age.
Since the 1990s, the number of children in foster care in NYC has dropped from 45,000 to less than 15,000.
In September 2014, Mayor de Blasio signed a set of laws that require the ACS to compile annual foster care reports that would reveal important information about the number of children who age out of the system, and about high school enrollment and graduation rates for children in the foster care system. Additionally, the laws require the ACS to intensify its efforts to connect children removed from their parents with extended family members.
But the groups filing the lawsuit believe that if it succeeds, those initiatives will be reduced to what Lowry, James, and others believe they are — good-faith attempts that have fallen dangerously short.

How Maryland robs its most vulnerable children

The state has long taken foster children's disability and survivor benefits without notifying them

By Daniel L. Hatcher

Try this on for size: The Maryland agency overseeing foster care has been appropriating foster children's assets — orphaned children's survivor benefits, for example — and handing them over to the state.
There's more: Not only does this agency take assets from children, but Gov. Martin O'Malley and the head of the Maryland Department of Human Resources encourage the practice, going so far as to hire a private company to help obtain Social Security disability (SSI) and survivor benefits (SSDI) from foster children to use as government revenue.
Children's Social Security benefits are intended to serve the children's best interests, not to pay the state back for foster care. But our foster care agency is targeting abused and neglected children who are disabled or have dead parents, applying for Social Security benefits on their behalf — and then diverting the money to state coffers. The practice has been occurring for years, but in secret. Children and their lawyers are not notified.
Despite litigation regarding the practice, Maryland hired a private contractor — MAXIMUS (tag line: "Helping Government Serve the People") — to help broaden these efforts to "maximize revenue gain." Records obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act request expose:
•MAXIMUS recommendations "designed to promote the identification of and subsequent acquisition of all SSI/SSDI benefits for all qualifying foster care children;"
•MAXIMUS' encouragement of caseworkers "to refer any child suspected from suffering from any illness — from a quadriplegic to ADHA [sic];"
•A goal to increase the number of Maryland foster children determined disabled for Social Security benefits from the current 2 percent to 15-20 percent
•Plans to convert up to $9 million annually in resulting children's benefits to government revenue;
•And a warning that Maryland may be double-dipping by possibly obtaining foster children's assets and other funds to reimburse itself for state costs more than once.
Two foster children challenged the agency practice, and their cases worked through the Maryland courts. I represented Alex, and the Legal Aid Bureau represented Ryan. Alex entered foster care at age 12, when his mother died. His father died shortly thereafter. Ryan entered foster care at age 9, and then both of his parents died. Both boys were shifted between numerous group homes and foster care placements. The boys never knew their parents left them with survivor benefits because the foster care agency never told them — and never told them it applied for their benefits, that it became representative payee to gain control over their money, or that it routed their money into state coffers. Both boys left foster care penniless.
The Court of Appeals denied hearing Alex's appeal, but it granted review of Ryan's case, and I filed an amicus brief on behalf of several advocates. The court just issued a ruling in Ryan's case, concluding that Maryland violated Ryan's constitutional due process rights by applying for and taking his funds without notifying him or his lawyer. This is an important ruling for foster children's rights. If children can find another representative payee, the state can no longer force them to hand over their money.
But unfortunately, the court upheld the state's argument that when it serves as payee it can divert children's benefits to repay state costs and thus bolster government revenue — even though children have no debt obligation to pay for their own foster care. This part of the decision is incorrect in my view. But even if it's correct, the court recognizes that Maryland has discretion as representative payee to consider the best use of the children's money.
So, since the state has discretion, I posit this question: what should our governor do? If our state and foster care agency need more revenue, is the answer really to take resources from the very children this agency exists to serve?
Other states do it too, but that doesn't make it right.
Consider how the children are fairing: Twice as many foster children suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans; over one-third of children aging out of foster care never graduated from high school; only 3 percent complete college; less than half find employment; 85 percent suffer from mental health issues; over one-third are homeless; and almost 75 percent of males become incarcerated by age 26.
A better approach would use children's money to actually help the children, such as conserving the children's funds in individualized plans to help their specialized needs and to help them achieve independence once they leave foster care.

Daniel L. Hatcher is a professor of law in the University of Baltimore's Civil Advocacy Clinic. His email is dhatcher@ubalt.edu.

Thousands of California students in foster care are suffering from an "invisible achievement gap,"

Thousands of California students in foster care are suffering from an "invisible achievement gap," with worse academic performance, a higher dropout rate and placement in more failing schools than their statewide peers, according to a study set for release Monday.

The study, which provides the first detailed statewide look at foster youths and their academic challenges, was made possible by a new data-sharing agreement between the state education and social services agencies. It comes as school districts across California prepare to launch the nation's first effort to systematically address the yawning academic deficiencies among foster youths, using additional money provided by the state's new school financing law.

The report shows that Los Angeles County had by far the most public school students in foster care — 12,648 of the 43,140 students identified — with the largest number attending L.A. Unified schools. Although Latinos made up the biggest group at 43%, African Americans were disproportionately represented at 26% — more than three times larger than their share of the population —followed by whites at 23% and Asians at 2%.

Only 37% of foster youths were at grade level in math — scoring lower than all other student groups, including those with disabilities and limited English. Their high school dropout rate in 2009-10 was 8%, more than twice the rate of their statewide peers.