Milwaukee- Child welfare report called misleading..

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Milwaukee- Child welfare report called misleading..

Postby tommixx » Tue Mar 24, 2009 6:45 pm

Child welfare report called misleading

By Crocker Stephenson of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Mar. 24, 2009 4:04 p.m.

The 2008 progress report the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare presents to the child welfare community Tuesday afternoon is critical in understanding how the bureau is performing and in setting goals for the coming years.

It is also, child advocates say, confusing if not downright misleading.

For example, 2008's most infamous cases of child abuse in Milwaukee County - the beating death of 13-month-old Christopher Thomas and the torture of his sister - are not even counted in the report.

Also, the bureau calculates the percentage of staff turnover - a key indicator of the system's stability - in such a way that the number it comes up with is all but meaningless.

"We should throw this thing away," said Susan Conwell, a local child welfare advocate and executive director of Kids Matter Inc.

A bit of history places the importance of the report in context:

Children's Rights Inc., then the American Civil Liberties Union's Children's Rights Project, filed a suit in federal court in 1993 on behalf of some 5,000 children receiving welfare services in Milwaukee County.

By all accounts, Milwaukee County in the early 1990s had one of the worst foster care programs in the nation. An unconscionable number of children languished in the system for years. They bounced from one home to another until they turned 18 and simply aged out. Many of them had no caseworker checking on them. Many drifted in and out of foster care without a coherent plan that would enable them to either reunify with their parents or be adopted.

In response to the lawsuit, the state took over the county system in 1998, creating the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, which is part of the state Department of Children and Families. The DCF, headed by Secretary Reggie Bicha, is itself not quite a year old.

There have been significant improvements.

The number of the children in the system has been reduced. The number of children reunified with their parents or adopted has increased. Caseloads are lighter. Monthly face-to-face to contacts are the rule rather than the exception.

The suit, settled in 2002, requires the bureau to reach specific outcomes in areas such as permanency and safety. A handful of those of those outcomes have yet to be met, and so the bureau issues a report twice a year that not only tracks its progress toward reaching its goals, but also provides the community with a broad, statistically loaded profile of what's going on in Milwaukee County.

The report is presented, as it was Tuesday, during the semiannual Community Meeting on Child Welfare. Among the attendees was Children's Rights senior litigation counsel Eric Thompson.

Thus, the report is critical in two ways: For many, it is the clearest picture of what the bureau is doing and failing to do to protect our abused and neglected children, and it is the basis upon which the bureau and Children's Rights set goals for improving service year after year.

But is the report reliable?

Take, for example, its section on maltreatment.

According to the settlement agreement, "no more than 0.60% of children in BMCW custody shall be the victims of substantiated abuse or neglect allegations by a foster parent or staff of facility required to be licensed."

According to the report, the bureau last year achieved an annual performance of 0.39%. In other words, the bureau more than met that standard during 2008.
Some abuse not counted

But drill down a bit, and the number isn't what it seems.

According to the report, 16 children suffered maltreatment in 2008. But those 16 are only children who were in foster care or in a licensed agency. Not included are the hundreds of children in any given month placed with unlicensed relatives.

Among those children during 2008 were the two Thomas siblings, who were in the court-ordered kinship care of their unlicensed aunt and uncle.

Confusing matters further, even though children in court-ordered kinship care are not counted among the mistreated, they are counted by the bureau in its tally of children in out of home care.

If the seven children identified by the bureau as mistreated in court-ordered kinship care had been counted, the percentage would jump from 0.39% to 0.56%.

Still within the standard, but just barely.

"It isn't a useful number," child welfare advocate Conwell said.

Conwell said it is impossible to tell from the report how well the bureau is doing in protecting the abused and neglected children for which it is responsible.

"This measure excludes more abuse than it includes," she said.

"It doesn't include abuse in kinship homes or abuse in intact families under court supervision or abuse in respite homes or abuse in emergency placements or abuse by other kids in the homes.

"Here's an example," Conwell said.

"Last fall, a 5-year-old foster child was raped by a teenager in a respite home. The 5-year-old ended up with gonorrhea and the teenager was criminally prosecuted. But that rape doesn't count in child abuse statistics because the teenager doesn't have a foster care license and the rape happened in a respite home.

"We should be looking at child safety in every supervised placement, rather than excluding abuse by license and location. We need to be concerned with the safety of the child who was raped, not with how it looks in the numbers," Conwell said.

Mark Sarvela, Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare program evaluation manager, said the maltreatment percentage presented in the report is calculated in accordance with the settlement agreement with Children's Rights, a position Conwell dismissed as too narrow.

"Taxpayers are paying a lot of money for a lot of evaluators to write reports that don't answer essential questions about child safety. People keep blaming the quality of these reports on the settlement agreement, but the settlement is a floor, not a ceiling. We can and should count all child abuse."
Staff turnover

Staff turnover, a serious and perennial problem at the bureau, is also reported in a confusing way.

According to the report, the bureau started the year with 179 ongoing case managers. By December, 105 had left. That would seem to mean the turnover in 2008 was 59%.

The bureau, explaining that it "continues to use the method described in the Settlement Agreement" inflates the number of caseworkers it started the year with (179) by adding to it the number of caseworkers hired over the course of the next 12 months and comes up with a turnover rate of 34.8%.

Again, Sarvela said, this number is calculated in accordance with the settlement agreement.

"That is certainly not how the children in the system experience turnover," Conwell said.

Nor is it the way Children's Rights experienced it, calling the bureau's 59% turnover rate "a crisis in its workforce."

"While BMCW has made progress under the court order mandating reform," litigator Thompson said, "the agency must address the current crisis and ensure that the reforms don't falter and the children in its custody get the protection and care they need."

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