Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review-presentation offered by Judicial Council of California

In the second presentation for dependency lawyers, the Hon. Pat Bresee hosts What Juvenile Dependency Attorneys Need to Know about Basic Child Development. This program was presented in a game show format, where four hypothetical situations taken from actual case files are described, two contestants play, and a panel of four experts discuss the hypothetical situation. 

This format facilitated the presentation of multiple viewpoints and analyses which might explain each situation. While much more balanced than the prior presentation, there was still a slight leaning toward the prevailing child saver mentality, which is predisposed against an accused parent.

There were some sterling examples of best practices presented by the panel that should apply to the administration of these cases, but the presentation was deficient in recognizing the full range of effects associated with removing a child from his parents.

The analyses tended to overlook legitimate causes for the problems a child was exhibiting that could have been attributed to certain detrimental exposures outside the family home. For example: During play therapy, a four year-old child infers inappropriate sexual situations five months after being placed in foster care. The discussion never even considers the idea that this development may be the result of sexual abuse while in the foster home rather than in the family home. This failure to objectively examine all potential origins of this development places the child at serious risk of chronic abuse in foster care.

In another situation about an older child who has been in foster care and group homes for a while, the scenario describes the child who begins acting out. The analysis ignores the effects of what the caregivers and administrators have told the child, including his parents are deficient, or don't want him or love him. It ignores the effects of the delayed reunification and minimal contact permitted under existing visitation schemes.This is a common occurrence reported by many foster children. Being children, they lack the confidence to trust their own instincts about their parents, and are severely traumatized by this kind of revelation. This posture often is a result of concurrent planning, which is intended to prepare a child for termination of parental rights.

Administrators, service providers and care givers blithely expect the child to respond to this perceived abandonment or rejection by his parents as if it isn't the most horrifying sense of loss a child could ever face. There is no discussion of preserving the protecting the parent-child bonds by forbidding anyone to disparage the parents to the child or undermine the child's relationship with the parent, nor any recognition that the the lack of meaningful and sufficient contact with his parents is a factor in a child's tendency to act out in foster or institutional care.

Despite the systemic blindness to certain realities of child welfare out-of-home placements, there are some redeeming elements in this presentation. I would hope that the credible discussions of what should be done are more than theory, and that attorneys utilizing this tool would actually dare to apply them in their representation of parents and children in child welfare cases.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Credible Child Welfare Reform Efforts Not Newsworthy?

The family rights grassroots movement is mourning the loss of former Georgia state Senator Nancy Schaefer. I did not work with her personally due to conflicts with those who were in contact with her, however I did follow her work to expose and correct the abuses in Georgia's child welfare administration. She was quite pro-active in the arena of child welfare reform. But to read the news articles, one would never know that.

Elected officials who advocate for reform or accountability in child welfare are frequently engaged in political suicide. I have seen the political careers of statesmen abruptly cut off for their pro-active attempts to reform child welfare in their legislative capacity. The stakeholders in the child welfare industry finance an opponent who invariably defeats the annoying incumbent in the next election. The boldness of their stand in support of families deserves some recognition.

In a search of articles reporting on this tragedy I found one  mainstream news article that mentioned this aspect of her career, but only in the context of a speech in Europe. Evidently the powers-that-be don't want this aspect of her work to be legitimized in the public eye.

On the other side of the coin, I have observed that the news media jumps at the opportunity to spotlight the highly vocal wackadoodles* in the family rights movement, affording them the public forum to spout their woe-is-me nonsense about their own cases and their rabid, kooky tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories, making all of us look like nothing more than disgruntled parents who deserved to have their children removed. Even now, the radicals are spouting theories of a child welfare agency conspiracy to murder her in an effort to capitalize on the headlines of her death.

Conspicuously absent from the public debate are discussions with credible representatives advocating balanced child welfare reform. Mainstream media's refusals to even acknowledge attempts by legislators to legislate reform contribute to that deafening silence and serve only to eliminate any reasonable solutions from public consideration. The public is left with only two extreme alternatives, leave children in dangerous homes or remove children who don't need to be removed and place them in foster care.

There is a third alternative, but nobody hears about moderate and sensible solutions to the problems alleged by both extremes in the child welfare debate because mainstream media panders to sensationalism in favor of solutions to controversial issues.

Based on what I have observed of former Senator Schaefer, I believe she considered her efforts to reform child welfare practices to be noteworthy among her accomplishments. I think the mainstream media has done a great disservice, both to her and to the public, by ignoring this important component of her work in their articles about her.

*Wackadoodles are those family members who have truly abused or neglected the children in their care and who are attempting to use the family rights movement to achieve public vindication for that abuse or neglect. The designation also includes batterers, con artists, control freaks and the mentally unstable. The family rights movement has more than their fair share of these unstable elements who seek leadership positions and undermine the efficacy and credibility of this movement. To be fair, the cadres of child welfare workers also demonstrate a disproportionately high percentage of wackadoodles, including a disproportionately high percentage of providers who were or believe they were abused as children. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review-presentation offered by Judicial Council of California

This is the first in a three part series reviewing Continuing Legal Education information provided to attorneys who represent children and parents in dependency cases in California. I requested and was graciously provided with a copy of the presentation for the purposes of this review. The DVD includes two discussions and a video game. Today's topic is a review of the first presentation, Substance Abuse: The Web of Addiction.

This presentation represents that addiction is a factor in majority of dependency cases. However, based on government statistics, neglect is the major factor. Anecdotal reports indicate that poverty is the root of most neglect cases. It seems to be lazy reasoning to conclude that because substance abuse is more prevalent in poorer areas, that substance abuse is directly responsible for child abuse. 

I do not dispute that substance abuse is a major factor in some child welfare cases, however, many jurisdictions have ruled that substance abuse is not in an of itself, a legitimate reason to remove children from the family home. If the use of substances affects the welfare of the children, i.e. the children's minimum basic needs are not being met by the caregiver, only then can the state justify intervention into the family unit. But even then, as the judge in this presentation noted, if the parent's or the child's attorney can demonstrate to the court that the child can be safely kept in the home, the state is not permitted to remove the children from the family home, or obstruct speedy reunification. Just how to accomplish that outcome was never discussed. 

During the presentation of the discussion on the biology of addiction, the spokesperson lawyer comments," We're talking about the abuse and neglect of little children, here." This is a graphic illustration of the effectiveness of the child saver's pervasive fear-mongering campaign which equates substance abuse with child abuse. 

An examination of the facts reveals that these are two distinct states which may have a cause and effect relationship, but which are equally likely not to have a cause and effect relationship. This video as much as admitted that there are functional addicts in every walk of life, including sitting on the benches of our courts. He asks where to draw the line between use of drugs and a presumed effect it is having on the children, ignoring the legal fact that the state bears the burden of proof that there is a legally sufficient reason to intervene into the family based solely on the parent's use of substances, including tobacco or alcohol. 

Attorneys on the panel recommend using the child as a way to leverage the parent's participation in agency recommended treatment as an effective tactic. The brutality of this practice, especially the effect of the prolonged removal and isolation from their parents upon the children, is a shocking illustration about how casually participants in these cases view the forced separation of children from their parents. They promote holding the children hostage  as part of the coercive methods employed in the imposition of inappropriate case plans which are in reality not designed to effect the purported rehabilitation of the parent. 

The presentations states that parents need support and services to overcome their addiction, But, the panel's suggestions for support do not include the services offered by trained and certified family advocates. This type of community based service has proven an effective model in other jurisdictions to insure parent's compliance with appropriate case plans, speeding up reunification, and providing non-abusive motivations for the parent's compliance coupled with forcing the agencies to fulfill their statutory mandates in child welfare cases. 

But while this presentation stresses the importance of parents seeking help with rehabilitation, we have received many report of parents seeking help in overcoming their addiction have had their children removed. This video seems to support the agency posture that any use of substances, even moderate use of legal substances, is grounds for state intervention and the removal of children. This obstacle to rehabilitation was never even addressed. 

This presentation is better directed toward addicts. It is an effective reinforcement for the child saver line that substance use is automatically a threat to the child, a premise that is unproven by the facts and unsupported by law. 

As a tool to train attorneys who represent parents and children in child welfare cases, it is a complete bust. It gives excuses for  the agency not to provide appropriate services to address alleged addiction, including lack of resources. 

The administrators and judges expect the parents to make change without requiring the agency to provide appropriate and effective services which will give the parent effective tools to overcome the substance abuse. It does not even enlighten attorneys as to what constitutes appropriate treatment plans and services in cases involving substance abuse, much less teach the attorneys how to vigorously represent the rights of the parents and the children during this kind of case. 

It was even advocated that the agencies heap extensive case plan requirements on the parents, totally oblivious to the fact that placing this kind of burden upon addicted parents who are already in a critically traumatic situations is a fail-safe recipe for failure.  All of this appears to forward the premise that parents must be nearly perfect as a condition of exercising the right to family association, rather than the legal reality that parents are only required under the law to provide the minimum of care, supervision, education, medical to maintain the integrity of the family unit. 

This presentation does have the redeeming feature of illustrating exactly what is wrong with the court-appointed representation that parents and children in child welfare cases must endure. They don't even properly present the applicable law with respect to representing parents and children in child welfare cases involving alleged substance abuse. 

This provides nothing substantive to attorneys who desire to vigorously represent parents and children in child welfare cases. 

Next: What Juvenile Dependency Attorneys Need to Know About Basic Child Development presentation.