A Look Back at 2016: The Year in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare

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The sun will soon set on a year of great upheaval in the American cultural fabric.

The Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. It seemed like a different famous musician or thespian died every day. And of course, a businessman without any political background or ground game trumped an establishment candidate with the backing of a president boasting high approval ratings.

For the fields of juvenile justice and child welfare, 2016’s biggest end product was angst about what comes next. Youth Services Insider will address that next week as we look at the big questions for the field heading into 2017.

In the meantime, a few of our thoughts on this year’s biggest storylines..

Family First Fades

The rise and fall of the Family First Prevention Services Act does seem to be in line with the “up is down, down is up” mood of 2016. The bill started with question marks about how high the price tag would be, and ended with a Republican senator blocking it because it cut too much spending.

The Chronicle has already devoted thousands and thousands of words to analyzing Family First, the opposition to it, and its movement through Congress (click here to read up). And as with any policy issue, it was not our job to judge for or against it.

But as we suggested in an op-ed published by The Hill, we came away from the Family First roller coaster thinking that it really sucks that Senate leadership did not see fit to get this bill to a full vote on the floor.

We’re talking about drastically recalibrating an entitlement that, in partnership with state child welfare systems, serves as the backbone of our national defense against child abuse and neglect. If the substance of that reform is problematic for a lot of states, it probably should not and would not pass.

Instead, a small group of states and their Senators were able to stop this bill because it was never marked up in a committee, and never placed on the calendar for a vote. If you opposed Family First, you’re happy with the outcome. But you can’t be all that enthused with the process.

Federal Role on Juvenile Justice in Peril

Another bill that would pass in a landslide if the Senate deigned to vote on it: reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which was stopped in its tracks by the opposition of one senator, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

The bill mostly breathes very basic, but necessary updates into JJDPA, which first passed in 1974 and has not been reauthorized since 2002. It contains one significant shift in federal standards: a phasing out of the valid court-order exception, the one loophole that permits judges to lock youths up for committing a status offense.

Cotton opposes the phase-out, even though the very group of judges who got it into the law in 1980 ­– the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges – now wants it out.

Cotton was the lone holdout last year as well, but this one hurts more for JJDPA supporters because, for the first time in a long while, the House passed a JJDPA bill. That chamber’s Committee on Education and the Workforce had ignored JJDPA completely for the entirety of the Bush and Obama administrations, first under the Democratic leadership of former Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and then under Republican chairman John Kline (Minn.).

The absence of reauthorization places the very small federal juvenile justice portfolio that exists in serious danger. It is always easier for appropriators to zero out an unauthorized program, and the House has zeroed out juvenile justice funds for several years now, leaving Senate appropriators the task of saving it.

So heading into 2017, this is the landscape for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

  • Indifferent appropriators on the House side.
  • An administration that might include several key players who are keen on gutting domestic spending.
  • No reauthorization of the fundamental law that justifies OJJDP’s existence.
  • A “new normal” of funding for JJDPA activities that is well below what states were accustomed to receiving in exchange for compliance.
  • New regulations that could make compliance infinitely more difficult.
  • And to make things more precarious, you can bet there will be a lag time between the departure of Obama-era Administrator Bob Listenbee and an appointed successor for OJJDP. So the agency will head into 2017 facing that set of challenges, without an official leader.

Beginning of the Big Bet Era?

It will be years and years before we have the full view of how this went, but it is worth noting that two philanthropic groups made swing-for-the-fence commitments this year: Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, which recently wrapped up its Models for Change juvenile justice initiative, and Blue Meridian Partners, a capital aggregation project led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

MacArthur embarked on its 100&Change initiative, through which it proposes to infuse one grantee with a single, $100 million grant to address a single social problem. It might end up being related to youth and families directly, or perhaps to a cause that’s tangential, like, you know, protecting the breathable air we have left.

The foundation planned to announce semi-finalists this month, and then a winner in the summer, but there might be delays. An update posted in early December noted that the foundation had received 1,904 applications by the October 3 deadline, and that 80 percent had been filed in the final three days before the deadline.

That field has been whittled down to 800, according to the update.

The Blue Meridian Partners gambit is much larger: Up to $1 billion, split into a few life-altering grants for organizations that have demonstrated great potential to have a larger impact on children in the United States.

The process is not complete, but the partnership made some small grants to five organizations in February to help them develop potential expansion plans. They are:

  • Nurse-Family Partnership, a home visitation program that pairs nurses with young and first-time mothers.
  • Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, for its Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, which helps systems find families for older and special-needs foster youths
  • Youth Villages, a multi-service provider operating child welfare and juvenile justice programs in 13 states.
  • Zero to Three, for its Healthy Steps program, which puts “healthy steps specialists” in place with pediatric doctors and centers to assist parents with gaining access to early childhood resources and services.
  • Upstream USA, a D.C.-based organization that trains and assists health centers in the provision of a full-range of contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancies.

Big City See Ya

Two of the largest independent child welfare systems in the country – Los Angeles and New York City – exit 2016 without the leader that brought them into the year.

In Los Angeles County, Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) boss Phillip Browning is retiring next month after five years. Browning stepped in after a nine-month period during which the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took the DCFS job from Trisha Ploehn, and then cycled though two interim directors.

Browning came in as the initial round of Los Angeles’ IV-E waiver was winding down, a waiver that had allowed the county to spend money previously marked only for foster care on other services. There were more than 50,000 kids in L.A. County foster care in 1998; the number was down to about 20,000 by 2009. The total has since dropped to about 18,000.

During his time at the helm of the nation’s largest child welfare system, Browning weathered several high-profile child deaths, including the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013. Records show that prior to his death last summer, the 8-year-old boy was repeatedly abused by his mother and her boyfriend. The records also show that Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, should have lost custody of her three children long before due to DCFS violations.

The boy’s death sparked the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, a high-profile body that released dozens of recommendations in 2014.

In New York, Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) boss Gladys Carrión leaves on more depressing terms. She resigned months after tearfully admitting at an October hearing that the system had failed to protect 6-year-old Zymere Perkins from an abusive home life, where he was killed in September at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend.

The state has put in a monitor to observe ACS, and there will surely be pressure for Mayor Bill de Blasio to give Carrion’s successor a mandate to reform. In the context of this case, reform is likely to mean a recalculation of the city’s removal of children into foster care. The city has less than 10,000 youth in care each year, compared with 50,000 in the mid-1990s.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer told the New York Nonprofit Media (NYNM) that “City Hall must break down agency silos and put forward a clear, transparent plan for reform. Commissioners come and go, but fundamental change must be here to stay.”

But several leaders in the city’s child welfare community have publicly argued that the city needs better management practices, but not course correction.

“I don’t think ACS needs a reformer, I think there’s plenty of reforms and initiatives going on that are working,” said MercyFirst CEO Gerard McCaffery, a private provider of child welfare services, in an interview with NYNM.

Another nonprofit leader, Children’s Village CEO Jeremy Kohomban, pushed against a reform mentality in an op-ed published in mid-December by City and State:

“We will not fix this problem by going back to a time where the default posture of ACS investigators was, ‘when in doubt, get them out.’ While it is not a simple or satisfying answer, the truth is that gaps and errors in child welfare practice can produce negative outcomes in both directions – unnecessary removals at one extreme, as well as preventable abuse or child deaths at the other.

When front-line staff is overwhelmed, unprepared or inadequately monitored, these errors become a virtual certainty. We will not eliminate them through a broad change in investigative posture, but rather by making sure each and every case gets thorough, individualized attention and consistent supervisory review.”

The Rhetoric of Risk

The New York case brings into specific relief the conundrum that always arises when children die after being left at home by child protection. Of course, by anyone’s standards, the death constitutes “failure.” But was that failure one of systemic structure, where the system itself is bad, or user error, where people failed to correctly execute a well-constructed system?

Either, or both, can be true. But the discussion itself makes maltreatment-related deaths the central gauge of child welfare performance. That is a scary proposition, because it means the worst outcome for a tiny fraction of children can drive decision-making about the much-larger universe of child welfare cases.

In March, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) wrapped up its four-year process for developing a plan to prevent maltreatment deaths that would include recommendations for states, Congress and the federal government.

Right off the top, CECANF Commissioner David Sanders concedes that commission only identified one program or model that had clearly and significantly prevented child abuse and neglect fatalities: the aforementioned Nurse-Family Partnership. You’d have to consider NFP the big winner of 2016, between that and the $200 million it might receive from Blue Meridian.

But that did not stop him from saying that the commission believes “we can reverse the assumption that some children will die from abuse or neglect,” which is a roundabout way of saying he thinks that eliminating maltreatment deaths is something that can be achieved.

The thrust of the report is that family preservation services (CECANF specifically endorsed the Family First Act), plus the use of a five-year review to craft improved risk analysis, is the key to preventing fatalities. That, and another $1 billion in funding from the feds, a point of contention that led one commissioner to abstain from signing off on the final report.

From the first time we heard the name of the commission, YSI felt that the initial premise of eliminating maltreatment fatalities was Pollyannaish at best, and perhaps beyond that, insulting to the field of child protection. The airline industry has a zero tolerance policy for failure,

For starters, planes crash despite those standards. But more to the point: virtually every plane that takes off in the world is on tracked. About half of all children who die as a result of abuse or neglect are not on the radar of the child welfare system when it happens.

A November meeting of child welfare leaders in Chicago confirmed our suspicion that this proposition of eliminating tragedy had not resonated with practitioners.

“In New York, I could see someone picking up [the CECANF report up] and saying, ohhh … why aren’t you doing that?” said one attendee from New York, whose name YSI did not catch.

Jim Purcell, head of New York’s Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, argued that distinguishing between accident and maltreatment is itself a folly that presumes maltreatment is intentional.

“These are stories of multiple injured people doing unpredictably dangerous things,” Purcell said. “Firefighters don’t go around saying, we’re preventing all fires. We go around saying it, then people are like, ‘This commission is saying you can do it.’  We need to be cautious in our data, and our communication.”

In his op-ed after Carrion’s resignation in New York, Kohomban echoed this sentiment:

“Despite our best efforts, children die. I know this is not what anyone wants to hear, or say, but it is true. It is also true that our system can work better and we can build in safeguards that reduce the likelihood of failures that result in preventable deaths like Zymere’s.

Next year will really be the litmus test for whether CECANF’s recommendations are taken seriously. The Department of Health and Human Services gave a lukewarm endorsement to the recommendations directed its way, but that agency and every other branch of the federal government will soon be under new management.


Dick Fischer, 71, founder and publisher of Adoption Today and Fostering Families Today. A little more than 20 years ago, Fischer and his wife Annie adopted two girls from China. That experience led Fischer, who had a background in graphic design and printing, to come up with the idea of a magazine that would serve adoptive families like his own.

In 1998 he founded Adoption Today. Soon after, he recognized the similar needs of foster families and launched Fostering Families Today. They remain two of only resources sent exclusively to the people on the front lines of child welfare services: foster and adoptive parents.

Fostering Families Today won the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services Adoption Excellence Award in 2014 and was the National Association of Social Work’s Media Award Winner in 2012.

Nick Scoppetta, 83, former head of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Scoppetta took the job in 1996 just as the city was settling one of the first class-action lawsuits brought against a system by Children’s Rights, a nonprofit litigator that still operates today.

Within the child welfare industry, the lawsuit strategy was gaining a reputation for being punitive without delivering results before Scoppetta and Children’s Rights developed an independent panel concept to oversee reform. CR stepped aside, and the panel funded partly by the Annie E. Casey Foundation worked with Scoppetta to address the settlement compliance.

Keith Hefner, who founded Youth Communications in 1980, said Scoppetta’s legacy is his belief in transparent figures and open dialogue.

“His stance, of openness, of providing the data and working constructively with advocates, set a standard that every commissioner since has followed,” Hefner told YSI. “That is a big part of the reason that the system has gone from nearly 50,000 youth in care down to near 10,000.”

Ned Loughran, 76, founder and executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA). Loughran spent his early career at the New York Division of Youth before joining the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, where he served as commissioner for eight years.

Loughran founded CJCA to connect juvenile justice leadership around the country in the hopes of fomenting best practices for serving delinquent youths. The Performance-based Standards (PbS) for youth corrections that were developed by CJCA (and are now the purview of a spinoff organization) won the 2004 Innovations in American Government Award by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

By John Kelly This post A Look Back at 2016: The Year in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare appeared first on The Chronicle of Social Change.

Written By Chronicle Of Social Change

A Look Back at 2016: The Year in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare was originally published @ The Chronicle of Social Change and has been syndicated with permission.

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