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Sacramento is now California’s capital in more ways than one.Data released today by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform show that Sacramento County is the child removal capital of California.
Among the state’s larger counties, Sacramento County takes away proportionately more children than any other, when the number of children taken away is compared to the number of impoverished children in each county. Sacramento takes children at a rate nearly double the average for these counties.
NCCPR released its latest California Rate of Removal Index Monday. It’s available on our website here.
The Index shows that in recent years, much of California has made remarkable progress in reducing the trauma of needless foster care and making children safer. But that hasn’t happened in Sacramento. And while progress is threatened everywhere by budget cuts, in Sacramento County, progress also is threatened by the take-the-child-and-run mentality that makes all children less safe.
(NCCPR’s ranking of counties factors in child poverty because we believe it is the fairest way to compare county performance. But when entries are compared to total child population, Sacramento County still performs atrociously, with the second worst rate of removal, only slightly better than Imperial County).
HOW FAMILY PRESERVATION MAKES CHILDREN SAFER
Given the kinds of child welfare stories that have made headlines in Sacramento for the past few years, some may be tempted to applaud the county’s status as number one in child removal. After all, “gut instinct” says that if we just take more and more children from their parents, those children will be safer.
But the best way to fix a child welfare system often is to listen to gut instinct – and do the opposite. That’s because tearing apart families unnecessarily doesn’t just do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken. It also steals time and resources from finding children in real danger – and that almost always is the real reason for the tragedies that make headlines in Sacramento County.
Many counties that take proportionately fewer children do better than Sacramento on the two key measures of child safety used by the federal government to evaluate child welfare systems.
That’s because, contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which a family’s poverty is confused with child ‘neglect.’
Several studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing. And single parents, desperate to keep their low-wage jobs when the sitter doesn’t show, may have to choose between staying home and getting fired, or going to work and having their children taken on ‘lack of supervision’ charges. Other cases fall between the extremes, the parents neither all victim nor all villain.
Sacramento County children are victims of a “take-the-child-and-run” mentality that has been part of the culture of Child Protective Services for at least 14 years. And every time there is an attempt to bring needless removal under control, scapegoating of family preservation by The Sacramento Bee, in the wake of a high-profile tragedy, starts another “foster-care panic” – a sharp, sudden increase in child removals, fueled by caseworkers terrified of landing on the front page if they leave a child in his own home and something goes wrong.
One sign of such panic can be found in a report released Thursday by the Sacramento County Grand Jury. According to that report, of all the children torn from their families by Child Protective Services, about a third are sent home again within 30 days. That’s plenty of time to do great harm to a child’s psyche. But if a child can be sent back home in a month, odds are that child never needed to be taken away in the first place.
THE MOST DANGEROUS PHRASE IN CHILD WELFARE
Attacks on family preservation typically are justified with the false claim that only adults suffer when children are taken needlessly and agencies have to “err on the side of the child.”
In fact, there probably is no phrase in the child welfare lexicon that has done more harm to children than “err on the side of the child.”
When a child is thrown needlessly into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates. For a young enough child it can be an experience akin to a kidnapping. A major study of foster care “alumni” found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be ‘doing well.’ How can throwing children into a system which churns out walking wounded four times out of five be “erring on the side of the child”?
Two more studies, of more than 15,000 typical cases, found that even maltreated children left in their own homes with little or no help fared better, on average, than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
All the harm of foster care can occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than revealed by official statistics, which involve agencies investigating themselves. That same alumni study found that one-third of foster children said they’d been abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.
Switching to orphanages won’t help -- the record of institutions is even worse.
Furthermore, the more a foster care system is overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. That probably goes a long way to explaining the tragic case of Amariana Crenshaw, who died under mysterious circumstances in a foster home with a long history of serious problems.
If a child is taken from a perfectly safe home only to be beaten, raped or killed in foster care, how is that “erring on the side of the child”?
None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in small doses. But for more than a decade, Sacramento County has been prescribing mega-doses of foster care.
CPS: ONLY DAMNED IF THEY DON’T
Sacramento County child protective services might well respond by claiming to be “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
Don’t believe it. In 34 years of following child welfare, I have never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended, reprimanded or so much as slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of these things have happened to workers who left even one child in her or his own home and had something go wrong.
When it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are not damned if they do and damned if they don’t – they’re only damned if they don’t.
And that’s one reason why Sacramento is the child removal capital of California.
Former journalist Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria Va. The full NCCPR California Rate of Removal Index and comprehensive recommendations for reforming child welfare in California and nationwide are available at www.nccpr.org