Building a safety net for families in one of the country’s most aggressive child welfare systems among big cities

Last updated: 11-16-2020

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Building a safety net for families in one of the country’s most aggressive child welfare systems among big cities

The woman’s voice was flat and emotionless, delivering one-word answers — “Yeah,” “Alright,” and “Uh-huh, ” — that told April Lee almost nothing and just enough. 

Lee, a peer parent advocate at Community Legal Services, knew that the woman on the phone — who we’ll call “Jane” to protect her privacy — had already experienced her kids being taken into state custody allegedly to protect their safety, also known as a child removal.

Lee had experienced a child removal herself, losing custody for a time of her three kids. “I know what it’s like to miss your babies,” she says.

At her lowest ebb, she slept on a flattened cardboard box near the corner of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street. Today, she celebrates almost six years of sobriety, enjoys renewed custody of her kids, and works at a job she never dreamed possible — helping parents try to make the kind of shift she did.

Lee started working at CLS this past January as part of a pilot program to introduce what is known as multi-disciplinary family representation to Philadelphia. The program, funded by the city’s Department of Human Services, provides a small number of Philadelphia parents involved in the child welfare system with wraparound services — an attorney, social workers, and Lee, who is currently the only peer advocate. 

Around the nation, government social workers are increasingly being seen as an arm of law enforcement, in a system requiring as much reform as policing. This new effort stands that paradigm on its head — creating a team of social workers whose sole job is to aid parents. 

Critics characterize Philadelphia’s child welfare system as particularly aggressive, removing children from their homes at or near the highest rate of any big city in the country. So the city’s embrace of this pilot program is, according to reformers, particularly necessary here, and the city’s commitment appears to be growing. DHS’ proposed budget for the next fiscal year seeks $594,000, including $244,000 to maintain the current model and additional funding to expand it. 

Most Philadelphia parents experiencing poverty receive a court-appointed attorney — and that’s it. The new framework the city is inching toward pairs a social worker and parent advocate with that attorney to provide additional assistance to parents. “We believe that this approach will elevate the quality of parent representation,” says DHS Commissioner Kimberly Ali, “resulting in positive outcomes for children and youth. We will continue to advocate for additional funding to support this approach, and hope to have a more robust process in the future.”

“I was thrilled to see the program in their next budget,” says Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at CLS, which has been administering the new program. “Budgets are statements of values. And this felt like a statement, ‘We really value this work.’”

The result is a small but surprising step forward for Philadelphia parents, and a similarly unexpected development for Lee. “My past would normally be considered a detriment to me getting a job, but not this one.”

In fact, Lee’s past leaves her uniquely positioned to help bring reform to the child welfare system, using her lived experience to help parents like Jane negotiate a traumatic and complicated process.

“I just couldn’t readher over the phone,” recalls Lee. And so Lee said good-bye, hung up, got in her car and drove, uninvited, to Jane’s house.         

Kara Finck, director of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Unit at Penn Law, helped start the wraparound services model in the early 2000s, when she worked at The Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit. “What was remarkable to me about the interdisciplinary model is how much sense it made,” she says. “It connects the two elements of Family Court: protecting parents and children’s legal rights, and a research based, individualized, and meaningful provision of social services.”  

Around the nation, multi-disciplinary representation is increasing. And although there has not been a lot of academic research yet on wraparound services, the data collected from two early adopters — New York City’s five boroughs and Washington state — is unequivocal: The model significantly reduces the amount of time kids spend in foster care and saves money.

The New York City Family Court data, captured in a 2019 Children and Youth Services Review paper, shows that children whose parents are supported by this defense model spend an average of about four months less time in foster care. The approach also increased the chance of reunification and sped it up. Families with multi-disciplinary representation were 43% more likely to be reunited in the first year after separation than families with only an attorney to represent them, and 25% more likely to be reunited in the second year.

These are important markers within the child welfare system. Research has long shown that children do best in stable family settings. Removal from their home and each subsequent placement if children enter foster care can be traumatic to a child’s development — yielding anxiety, reduced capacity to learn, and harmful effects on employment and substance use and other health disorders.

The majority of families in the New York City child welfare system receive multi-family representation, and according to the New York City study, full implementation would yield at least $40 million in savings, including the money provided to foster families.

However, there are challenges to fully implementing such programs, which require increased staff and management. It is unlikely if not impossible, for example, that a single provider, such as Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, could expand enough to handle the city’s entire population, with 4,900 kids in foster care. In New York City’s five boroughs, with more than 7,000 kids in foster care, multiple agencies provide the service.

David Hansell, the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City, said in a video conference call this summer touting the model: “The results … are very powerful for us. Based on the success we’ve had with the model in New York, I can enthusiastically recommend that other child welfare agencies across the country consider the benefits of adopting the multidisciplinary approach.”

Casey Family Programs, a national foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care, also touts interdisciplinary services as a new gold standard.

With data and endorsements like this, the model is spreading. New Mexico has developed a robust program of its own and several more states, including California, have either started their own pilot programs or are considering implementation. Philly funded Lee’s parent advocate position in January, but CLS’ Family Advocacy Unit had made social workers available to its clients for years beforehand. Internal data published by CLS boasts similar results to New York, including faster times to reunify families. 

The presence of Lee is perhaps the most innovative piece of this defense model — incorporating a parent who has faced losing her kids. But the social work component of multi-disciplinary representation is also vital. Government caseworkers with high caseloads can sometimes assign parents what industry professionals call “cookie cutter” service plans.  

Michele Cortese, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Family Representation, a multidisciplinary provider in New York City, says that parents often feel that they must accept whatever demands the city caseworker presents in the service plan.

For example, says Cortese, a client might be asked to take a parenting class that is simply too far away. But she agrees to the plan, thinking she has no choice, and finds herself set up to fail.

“Having a social worker looking out for her interests encourages clients to be proactive in their own case,” says Cortese. “The social worker lets the parent know it’s ok to speak up, for instance, so a different class that works in her schedule can be found.”

Despite these results, multi-disciplinary representation still encounters resistance. In Monroe County, New York, officials declined a $2.6 million grant in 2018 to pay the cost of implementing the model within the county, which covers the city of Rochester. One concern was that increased services for parents would potentially allow dangerous caregivers to retain custody of their kids.

Martin Guggenheim, who co-directs the Family Defense Clinic at NYU School of Law and co-authored the New York City study, notes that “the data tells the opposite story.”

The study of multidisciplinary defense teams, which looked at results for 9,582 families and 18,288 kids, also looked at safety — and showed that children whose parents received these services were reunited with their families much faster, with no compromise of their safety at all. 

A quicker reunion might seem counterintuitive: The child welfare system and related media stories generally refer to youth being removed from their homes for “abuse” and “neglect,” words that trigger associations with kids like 14-year old Danieal Kelly who was tragically starved to death in Philadelphia in 2006. 

Actual physical or sexual abuse, however, are among the least common reasons for child removals — about 15% of cases, nationally, each year. More families are separated for reasons of “neglect,” a category that critics of the child welfare system call vague and misleading.

As Penn Law professor Dorothy Roberts has noted, in the context of child welfare investigations “neglect” is often just a different word for “poor” — assigned to parents who are experiencing poverty.

Everyone would agree that cases in which physical or sexual abuse is alleged require a “vigorous response,” says Finck, but the wraparound model helps parents — the majority of whom just need some help — to get connected to housing, employment, drug treatment or whatever it takes to stabilize the family.

An October 2017 draft report issued by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a nonprofit with a mission of assisting child welfare agencies, determined that over the previous five years the percentage of kids removed for physical or sexual abuse ranged from 7% to 9% in Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia has long been an outlier in child welfare,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, “removing a far greater rate of kids than almost any other big city.”

Wexler occasionally publishes a “Big City Rate of Removal” list, in which Philadelphia regularly appears near the top. Wexler’s newest list, using child welfare department data, shows that when rates of family poverty are factored in, children in Philadelphia are taken from their homes at a rate more than twice that of children in New York City or Chicago.

“Does anyone really think parents in Philadelphia are more than twice as likely to abuse their children than parents in New York or Chicago?” asks Wexler, rhetorically. “No. Of course not.”

Here in Philadelphia, the pushback against DHS, which administers child removals, has grown.

City councilmember David Oh has led hearings on DHS practices in the past, and is co-chairing a committee on child separations with fellow councilmember Cindy Bass. Wexler will serve as a committee member.

Further, the mother-led group DHS Give Us Back Our Children put moms who might be experiencing poverty or a substance use disorder and just need some help at the forefront of their movement.  

The criticism does appear to have had some effect.

“Since 2016, the focus of DHS has been to ‘right size’ the system,” wrote the agency’s communications director, Heather Keafer, in an email. “ … DHS’s priority became decreasing the number of children placed with the department and supporting families to safely care for their children.”

Among other changes, says Keafer, DHS implemented better procedures to screen out unfounded child safety hotline calls and upped its preventive services, including help for families to pay utilities and Family Empowerment Centers, which offer parenting groups, housing support, access to funding for food, cribs, and clothing, and education and employment support.

The result isn’t victory. Reformers, including Casey Family Programs, have called for a 50% reduction — or more — in the number of children in foster care. According to DHS reports, the number of Philadelphia children in foster placement has declined by about 18% since 2016.

Keli McLoyd, director of The Philadelphia Coalition on Children and Opioids, describes DHS’s current state as nuanced. In her role aiding collaborations between substance misuse and child welfare professionals, she interacts with DHS often. “I’ve found them to be compassionate,” she says, “and aware of the system’s flaws.”

She is also familiar with Lee, saying she “works so hard and I’ve never seen the woman complain. Just when you think she can’t do any more, she shows up at my house near Christmas as part of some toy drive she’s doing.”

The coalition McLoyd manages advocates for systemic change, including robust preventive services that will help families avoid being separated. Point being, says McLoyd, “April cannot be the solution. Right? Because there is one of her, and the idea that having this very passionate, committed woman drive around the city is the answer is wrong.”

That said, the idea that DHS upped its commitment to multi-disciplinary representation is “absolutely a good sign.”

In fact, she says, during this time when she’s still pushing for systemic changes, “I would like to see 100 Aprils.”

When Lee knocked on Jane’s door, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But Jane immediately let her inside.

She offered to Jane some version of the same initial talk she gives all her clients, sharing a few details of her own past, her status as a veteran of the child welfare system and saying: “If you let me, I will walk with you this whole way.”

A big part of her job is acting as a kind of guide — connecting the client to social services or drawing connections for the client between where they are now and where they’d like to be.

In person, she quickly developed a relationship with Jane, whose case involved substance misuse and poverty. She says her decision to jump in her car and drive over to Jane’s house was a matter of “putting principles over personalities.”

If Jane had been like thousands of other parents in the city, with only an attorney to represent her interests, her case might have deteriorated. But Lee, as a parent advocate, felt responsible for trying to create a sense of engagement in Jane — to energize her with hope that she could navigate the process and succeed.

In some respects, this kind of work isn’t entirely new for Lee. She has been a community activist since the early days of her recovery. She serves on The Philadelphia Coalition on Children and Opioids, and started a charity called “Caring, Helpful Hands,” in which she collects food, blankets, toys and whatever else people might need and distributes them.

Along the way, she met Creamer of CLS at a “know your rights course” for parents, and when she heard about the peer advocate job at CLS, she applied. 

In the broader picture of Philadelphia’s child welfare services, the impact Lee can make on her own is small.  The current program is set-up in a single room of Family Court, the cases sent there essentially randomized, which will enable the program’s successes or failures to be measured later against the results obtained by parents without multidisciplinary support.

At any given moment, she works closely with about 40 clients, who might have between them about 80 kids. To put that in perspective, about 7,400 kids in Philadelphia are currently receiving in- or out-of-home services.

The difference she makes for the clients she does touch, however, is profound.

In a recent Zoom interview, Creamer fought back tears as she described the difference Lee has already made. “The child welfare system is a system that whether it intends to or not, creates profound feelings of despair amongst parents, and despair makes it very hard for our parents to succeed.”

Giving her clients a connection, she says, to someone like Lee who represents hope is “the best gift you can give to someone going through this.”

Parents facing ongoing involvement in the child welfare system are often reluctant to speak publicly because of the social stigma involved, a desire to get along with the government caseworkers who stand between them and their children, and a fear of retaliation. But CLS did receive responses from a pair of parents who are receiving wraparound services.

“When she told me that she went through the same thing as me,” says one parent, “it broke my heart, but it felt good to have someone who has been through the same thing as me on my team. She calls to check up on me. She is on top of my case. She is on top of everything.“

A second parent agreed, saying Lee is “someone who can understand because she has been through what I’ve been through. She’s been to the courtroom with me, held my hand; [she] calls and checks up on me on her own not because she was told to by her boss; she does things on her own because she really cares.” 

Most of the cases Lee has taken on this past year are still ongoing. Jane’s case, however, has undergone a major change: She has her kids back. 

Lee served as a coach and mentor along the way, helping Jane ward off the initial despair she felt and fulfill her service plan.

“She called me after the reunification. She thanked me, and was crying over the phone, she was so happy,” said Lee on a Zoom call, with a little camera mounted on her dashboard as she drove, and broke into a smile of overwhelming joy, till finally, she burst out laughing.  

“It’s unbelievable to me,” she said, “that I get to do this.”  

Then, she had to go. She had just pulled up in front of a client’s house, having promised to give the woman a ride to wherever she needed to be.

Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly. Our Kids is a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative examining the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system. Steve Volk is an investigative solutions reporter with Resolve Philly.

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