April 14, 2013

Maine Voices: Foster care system repeating old mistakes

Continuing to offer financial incentives to take kids into care undercuts efforts to keep children with their birth families.

By MARY CALLAHAN

LISBON — I spent years working to reform the child protective system here in Maine, first by organizing a group called Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform to get public attention to the problems with picketing and marching and writing letters to the editor. The next stage was getting appointed by Gov. John Baldacci as a member of the reform committees.

The death of Logan Marr, 5, at her Chelsea foster home in 2001 added urgency to concerns about Maine’s child protective system. A reader fears that state officials are backsliding on implementing major reforms to the system.

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I am proud of the work we did and the resulting focus on keeping kids with their birth families because no matter how chaotic kids’ lives are, they want to be with the ones who loved them first, most of the time.

But I could have told you that things would start to drift back, as this newspaper has reported recently.
They are drifting back because we failed to solve the root cause of the problem: the financial incentive to bring kids into care and keep them there.

Kelley Bouchard’s recent article (“Poor planning adds to foster care crisis,” March 24) exposes that beautifully. The key is in how the foster parents are paid: by the child, by the day. Almost everyone in the system gets paid the same way. And the recipients of that money have bills to pay.

It is very difficult for individuals, like foster parents, to work against their own financial interests. I know because I was one of them.

When asked how my foster child did after family visit, I was careful not to be too positive because I was enjoying raising him and making good money doing it. Without ever admitting it to myself, the money was always in the back of my mind.

And if it is difficult for individuals to rise above the financial incentives, it is nearly impossible for businesses.

Foster care agencies are businesses. Guardians ad litem and counselors who see these kids are running businesses, even if it is a one-person business. If any one of them made a habit of recommending that kids stay with birth families or get returned to birth families, they would go out of business.

Why didn’t the reform committees fix the problem of perverse financial incentives when we had the opportunity? Some of us tried. But the committees were top-heavy with the people who made money from the system, with very little representation from those affected by the decisions they made.

We put Band-Aids on problems that needed much more than that, and those Band-Aids are starting to fall off.

The second thing exposed in Ms. Bouchard’s article is just how cagey Department of Health and Human Services people can be. The fact that they were so dishonest with her, claiming not to have records that they did have, says to me that they are intentionally drifting back. If they had nothing to hide, why were they hiding it?

The committee work was tedious, but I learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes.

I listened to folks who ran the foster care agencies talk about how committed they were to supporting birth families, then went to foster parent meetings and heard the same people promise they would not let the reforms happen and that they would “get placements up to where they were before.”

Finally, I want to point out something I saw in the “Removals and Risk Factors” chart the newspaper was given, which the story described as “lacking.” (I agree completely.) 

Look at the number of removed children who were abused in their birth families. It was 19 percent in the first year and 23 percent in the second. Don’t most people assume that almost all children who are removed have been abused? I know I used to.

How do you think kids feel about being ripped away from parents who never hurt them to live with strangers? I can tell you how they feel because that is what drove me to turn against the system that was supporting me. They are devastated. Some never recover.

Neglect is the reason given for 80 percent of the removals. That may mean that Mom was swinging from the treetops after doing bath salts, as the DHHS would have you believe. But it usually means the parents are young, poor and may have no idea how to parent because they grew up in the foster care system. Half of the kids I fostered had parents who grew up in foster care.

The system creates business, not just for today and tomorrow but for the next generation as well.

Let’s go back to the drawing board and learn how other states pay for success instead of failure – and define success as supporting families so that they can raise their own children.

Mary Callahan of Lisbon, a former foster parent, is an advocate for reform of the Maine child protective system.

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