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Press Errors on Child Protection

May 7, 2007 permalink

Stories about child protection in the popular press rarely tell the right story. Today we present an article published in the Arizona Daily Star, along with an analysis by Richard Wexler showing that the story completely misses the mark.



CPS staff to see pay cuts if goal is unmet

Target is boost in numbers of kids kept in own homes

Child Protective Services workers could take a cut in pay this year if the agency fails to increase the number of children it keeps in their own homes, instead of removing them.

The requirement is part of the new CPS pay-for-performance program, which docks employees if the agency fails to meet target goals for keeping children with their families and reducing institutional placements.

A "bonus," as state documents call it, equal to 30 cents per hour, is already included in employees' pay. But if the agency doesn't meet its performance goals, the incentive gets taken away.

"You don't gain (a bonus)," said Liz Barker Alvarez, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services. "You just lose."

CPS officials defended the performance measures and incentives, saying the agency has long had the goal of keeping more children with their families because it creates greater continuity and stability.

But in light of two recent cases in Tucson where parents have been charged with killing their children, the measures have raised the hackles of state lawmakers who are concerned that financial incentives might affect decisions about child placement.

"We're tipping the scale with performance pay," said state Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who is part of legislative hearings to examine the CPS role in the two Tucson cases. "It's kind of like telling a judge we have too many people in the jails right now, and we're going to base your pay on how many people you don't send to jail."

The Legislature authorized the "pay-for-performance program" last year. But it was left to each agency to implement the policy and set its own performance measures.

Child Protective Services is overseen by the state's Department of Economic Security.

In order to keep the bonuses, the department must meet two of the following three goals:

  • Promote economic self-sufficiency.
  • Safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care.
  • Reduce the number of children and adults placed in institutions by developing the capacity of extended families and communities. The financial incentives also apply to the placement of vulnerable adults.

Achieving those goals is measured by hitting preset targets.

For example, each year the agency must reduce the number of CPS children in out-of-home care — foster homes or institutions — by 200. It also needs to keep 72 percent of CPS children with either foster families or relatives.

"Safely reducing the number of children in out-of-home care has been a goal for this agency for a number of years," Barker Alvarez said.

CPS has had a hard time meeting that goal over the last three years.

Between 2003 and 2006, the number of children in out-of-home care jumped from 7,535 to 9,833, according to the most recent semiannual CPS performance report.

The same report shows that between 2003 and 2006, the number of licensed foster homes increased from 1,892 to 3,256.

Lawmakers say the process of providing financial incentives may have unintended consequences.

A frequent critic of CPS, state Sen. Karen Johnson, a Mesa Republican, called the policy "perverse. … We've absolutely seen that CPS workers are not being paid enough," she said, adding the base salary needs to be increased.

Salaries for entry-level CPS specialists begin at $32,342 and can be as much as $55,802 depending on education levels and experience.

The semiannual report says "the recruitment and retention of skilled case managers" is one of the agency's biggest challenges. "The Department continues to struggle with an inexperienced work force that is unable to deal with the complex issues present in the child welfare system," it says.

State Rep. Phil Lopes, a Tucson Democrat and House minority leader, said the incentives could result in families remaining intact because the caseworkers may benefit.

"It's not clear what the motivation is," Lopes said.

Also difficult to understand, Lopes said, is how much control the caseworker has had over the situation, since other entities, like the courts, are involved in making decisions.

Ken Deibert, deputy director for the Division of Children, Youth and Families, dismissed the idea that financial incentives would cloud the judgment of case managers and investigators.

"For anyone to speculate that a person who works in child welfare and has made a career commitment to safety for children, that they would jeopardize a child's well-being for 30 cents an hour is absurd," he said. "Anyone who would make that kind of conjecture demonstrates a lack of understanding of the professional and personal commitment that it takes to do child-protection work."

Moreover, he said when investigations are completed, they are reviewed by supervisors. There is also a foster-care review board, independent of CPS, which examines substantiated abuse complaints. The agency also does random reviews of cases, he said.

It's unclear if other states use pay-for-performance measures on employees.

"I have not seen a pay-for-performance like this in my experience," Deibert said.

Neither had Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Virginia-based advocacy group that agrees with the principle of keeping children with their families.

"As far as I know, linking performance in child welfare to individual pay is extremely unusual," he said.

Nevertheless, he said he supports the idea if it reduces reliance on foster care.

Will Johnson, a senior research analyst with the Welfare Policy Research Project in the University of California president's office, also said he hadn't heard of such incentives in his state.

Source: Arizona Daily Star




Last week, I was contacted by a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, the larger of two competing dailies in Tucson. He’d contacted me the week before, acknowledging he was new to the child welfare beat and knew little about the subject. This time he was calling because he’d gotten a tip.

He’d been sent a memo showing that in Arizona, state employees receive 30 cents an hour of their pay as an incentive bonus. They lose that 30 cents if their agencies fail to meet certain goals each year. The state human services agency, which includes child protective services, needs to meet any two of the following three goals:

  • Promote economic self sufficiency
  • Safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care (by less than one-third-of-one percent) [emphasis added].
  • Reduce the number of children and adults placed in institutions by developing the capacity of extended families and communities.

I told the reporter I certainly understood why this was newsworthy and why he was calling, but I told him it also was a bit frustrating. I explained that child welfare was a system filled with pervasive incentives, financial and otherwise, and almost all of them encouraged everyone in the system to do the wrong thing.

These incentives include:

  • Bounties paid to the state by the federal government for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.
  • Per diem reimbursements for private agencies, encouraging them to hold children, needlessly, in foster care.
  • Avoiding the risk of negative news coverage by taking away huge numbers of children needlessly, since no caseworker ever has been attacked in the press for taking away too many children, whereas such attacks are common if a worker leaves a child in his own home and something goes wrong.
  • Avoiding firing, suspension, demotion or any other penalty of any kind by doing the same thing. Though caseworkers often claim they’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” that’s simply not true; when it comes to taking away children, they’re only damned if they don’t.

But reporters almost never write about these incentives.

In our previous conversation, I’d told the reporter how Arizona was in a state of perennial foster-care panic. Between 2002 and 2004, removals of children had soared 40 percent - -and, as usual, this had left children less safe. By 2005, deaths of children known-to-the-system had set a record, as workers, overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who didn’t belong in foster care, actually had less time to find children in real danger.

And, of course, as a result, thousands of children needlessly were torn from everyone loving and familiar; they were forced to endure the emotional devastation of foster care and they were placed at risk of abuse in foster care; where there probably is abuse in at least one foster home in three.

In most states, after a year or two of foster-care panic, people calm down, look around, say, in effect, “Oh, my God, what have we done to these children?” and change course. But in Arizona, the foster-care panic has never stopped. Children still are being taken at the same rate as when the panic was at its height.

To counter the state of never-ending foster-care panic, the financial incentives to take away children and the non-financial incentives to take away children, the State of Arizona offered one puny counter-incentive: 30 cents an hour, which also could be retained by meeting other goals.

And to top it off: It didn’t work. The incentives didn’t, in fact, reduce removals. There is no evidence that the incentive, which required maintaining safety, compromised that safety. But there is plenty of evidence that foster-care panics, including the one in Arizona, leave children less safe.

But one thing deeply disturbed the reporter: Why, he asked, should there be any incentives at all in child welfare? Why can’t workers exist in a state of noble purity, immune from all base influences and able to make decisions based solely on what was best for the children?

I told him that was a nice idea - but it could work only if the public knew about all of the incentives and if policymakers then were able to eliminate all of them. I pointed out that incentives, good and bad, are a fact of life in every endeavor, including journalism.

Reporters self-censor, avoiding stories they know management hates, and pursue stories that appeal to editors’ interests in order to curry favor. Or they work harder when they know there’s a vacancy in a coveted bureau – or rumors of still another round of layoffs. Or they work a little less hard if it’s the Friday before vacation and they’re anxious to get out of the office - -just as a caseworker may not make the extra phone call to find, say, a relative with whom to place a child if she can just dump that child in a shelter instead.

It’s human nature in journalism, child welfare, or any other line of work.

So what could good leadership in a child welfare agency do about this? They could try to repeal the laws of human nature and eliminate all incentives. Or they could do everything possible to balance the incentives, so workers are encouraged to do what’s best for the children, and discouraged from doing anything else. That’s exactly what Arizona tried, except the attempt at balance was so feeble, so pathetic, that it changed nothing.

But readers of the Arizona Daily Star would learn none of this.

On May 3, they would find, instead, a lead story headlined “CPS staff to see pay cuts if goal is unmet.” They would finish the story left with the impression that there existed one, and only one, incentive in child welfare: The 30-cents-an-hour for goals that include safely keeping families together. CPS did nothing to correct this misimpression (or if they did, the reporter omitted it) saying only that the incentive would not prompt workers to compromise safety. (Going only to CPS - an agency nobody ever believes, often for good reason - is the standard way reporters with an axe to grind give the illusion of presenting all sides, without the substance.)

Readers probably weren’t alone in being left in the dark by the Star story. Editors read what a reporter turns in, not what he leaves out. So I don’t know if the reporter’s own editors know about all the other incentives. At least one editor from another part of the paper had no idea there were any financial incentives other than the one in the story (and when I explained this, didn’t much care).

It does not appear that the reporter explained this to people he contacted for quotes, either. So it is no wonder the story was filled with comments like this one from a legislator: “We’re tipping the scales with performance pay,” he said. In fact, the incentive did not tip the scales at all; rather it was a puny, pathetic, failed effort to bring them back into balance.

And soon, even that will be gone. You can bet that within a week a memo will go out rescinding the incentive either in fact or by implication. And, of course, the story itself will give one more kick-start to the never-ending Arizona Foster Care Panic.

When I e-mailed the reporter to complain about the omission of all mention of other incentives, I discovered that in just a few days, his question about “why are there incentives at all?” had morphed into a decree; a dictat from which no dissent shall be permitted. He wrote:

You seem to miss the point. It is not that keeping kids with the family is good or bad. It is not that putting them in foster care is good or bad. It is, rather, the issue of linking employee bonuses to outcomes. Those decisions should be made based strictly on the best interest of the children involved. Financial motivations, or even the perception someone could be swayed by financial motivations, are inappropriate.

There are several problems with this.

For starters, while such a comment is appropriate coming from a columnist or an editorial writer, such pronouncements have no place coming from a reporter. Whether financial incentives are or are not appropriate is something for readers to decide - after being given enough information to make an informed decision.

Second, the story deals with only one kind of incentive - and since that incentive deals with only one kind of outcome, keeping kids with the family, the story does indeed deal with the issue of whether “keeping kids with the family is good or bad.” Only a story which dealt with incentives in both directions could be genuinely neutral on this point.

And third, by pressuring CPS to abolish an incentive in one direction while leaving all the others intact, the story does the opposite of the reporter’s own alleged goal. Arizona’s vulnerable children are a large step farther away from a system that makes decisions purely on the basis of best interests than they were five days ago, because the scales are now father out of balance. And that means, these children are less safe. (Of course, if the reporter’s real goal was to encourage more foster care, then his goal was accomplished; and I’ll leave for another day the whole issue of defining best interests and what happens when the best interests of the child conflict with the best interests of children.)

As it happens, on the very day the Star story appeared, the need for balance in incentives was illustrated, albeit indirectly, in a story in Tucson’s other daily, the Tucson Citizen.

It reported on the trial of a foster mother charged in connection with the death of her foster child, Dwight Hill. Dwight died in November, 2005, within weeks of the death of another Tucson area foster child, Emily Mays. These cases got far less attention than the recent deaths of children in the same community at the hands of birth parents. (Nothing new, there.)

Dwight was born with cocaine in his system. He was confiscated at birth and parked at the local parking place shelter. Then he was placed in a foster home recruited and overseen by a private agency. They also were caring for three other foster children, including two toddlers, and a birth son with medical problems. The foster father listed his occupation as unemployed, the foster mother listed hers as “foster mother” – raising a question about financial incentives a lot bigger than 30 cents an hour.

Eleven days later Dwight Hill was dead. According to the Citizen: “A Pima County coroner's autopsy report indicated the baby died of blunt-force trauma, bleeding in the brain and a fractured skull.” The prosecutor said he died "in a way no person should have to endure."

The foster mother says she has no idea how Dwight died and was not negligent in getting him medical attention. That, a jury will decide.

But here’s what we do know:

There was every incentive for the caseworker to confiscate Dwight at birth - and no incentive for her to, say, fight extra hard to find a drug treatment program where mother and child could live together, which research shows is far better for a child’s well-being than even a good foster home. There was every incentive to just dump Dwight at the shelter – nothing could be easier, and no one would ever question it - and no incentive to work extra hard to find a relative, if Dwight really couldn’t stay with his mother. There was every incentive for the private agency, paid for every day Dwight was held in foster care, to push to keep him there as long as possible. There was every incentive for that private agency to stuff as many foster children into that home as the law allowed. And there was no incentive for anyone to ask if four very young foster children and a disabled birth child were too much for the foster mother.

This all happened before the state tried to balance the scales with that tiny incentive to think more carefully and work a little harder to keep children like Dwight and Emily out of foster care.

So by the logic of the reporter who wrote the Star story, the decisions to remove Dwight Hill from his own home and place him first in a shelter and then in the foster home where he died were perfect in their purity, utterly untainted by filthy lucre, and so, must have been made solely based on Dwight Hill’s best interests. The same must have been true with the decisions in the case of Emily Mays.

One thing puzzles me, though.

How was it in the best interests of Dwight Hill and Emily Mays to die?

Source: Richard Wexler's blog