Three months ago, NWI Times reporter Giles Bruce documented the problem at the heart of Indiana’s child welfare failure: The state routinely confuses poverty with “neglect.” That in turn leads to Indiana tearing apart families needlessly at one of the highest rates in America.
Unfortunately, it appears that Marcia Lowry never read Bruce’s story, because she’s brought a lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Child Services that ignores this issue. As a result, the lawsuit could end up making Indiana child welfare even worse. It’s not that DCS doesn’t deserve to be sued — but this isn’t the way to do it.
Lowry brings these McLawsuits across the country. First, she did it with a group she founded called Children’s Rights and now, having left CR, for another group she founded — A Better Childhood. The lawsuits typically end in settlements that lead to years, sometimes decades, of micromanaging. They often make systems bigger. They almost never make them better — and sometimes they make child welfare worse.
That’s because the lawsuits ignore the problem that Bruce’s reporting documents: Too many children needlessly taken from their homes in the first place, often because those families are poor.
At least in the Indiana suit, Lowry feels compelled to admit this problem exists. But the lawsuit suggests the real problem is that Indiana still isn’t taking away enough children — and isn’t rushing to take them away forever.
So, according to the lawsuit “While DCS often removes children inappropriately, the agency also fails to remove children and make effective safety plans when necessary.” That’s true. But the lawsuit fails to recognize that the problems are directly related. The more that workers are overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect,” the less time they have to investigate any case properly, so more children in real danger are missed.
Yet the remedies sought by the lawsuit amount to calls for a caseworker hiring binge, more foster parent recruitment and rushing to terminate parental rights. There is not one word about remedies to reduce the needless removal of children from their homes.
Lowry actually admitted she doesn’t know if Indiana’s obscene rate of child removal is a problem. But if you don’t know the problems, how can you be trusted to craft solutions? In contrast, in its in-depth study of Indiana child welfare, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group found that needless removal was at the heart of Indiana’s problems.
The refusal to face up to this helps explain why, in state after state, similar McLawsuits actually have made systems worse.
In Michigan, Lowry’s lawsuit allowed the state to fund its caseworker hiring binge by slashing its already-meager funding of prevention and family preservation. And that’s exactly that the state did. Michigan cut basic assistance to poor families — and said it wasn’t a problem because they also were hiring more child abuse investigators (thanks to the settlement).
The Michigan settlement also has led to the expulsion of many children from the homes of grandparents and other relatives because those relatives were unable to meet pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements, many of them unrelated to health and safety. (The same licensing obsession can be seen in the Indiana suit.)
In Tennessee, Lowry successfully strong-armed the legislature into repealing a law that took a tiny step toward balancing the profound incentives judges face to take children needlessly with a small incentive to think of better options.
In Georgia, Lowry sought to undermine alternatives to full-scale child abuse investigations that have reduced entries into foster care and demonstrably improved child safety. Indeed, the monitor for CR’s own settlement in Georgia declined to help in this effort.
Also in Georgia, Mother Jones reports, the state did what Michigan did: "cut spending on child care and put the money into child protective services in the wake of a lawsuit against the state over the mistreatment of children in foster care."
There is a right way to sue a child welfare agency: When the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law sued Alabama, the settlement required the state to rebuild its system to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to foster care. The settlement turned that system into, relatively speaking, a national model. (A member of my group’s volunteer Board of Directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that suit.)
It can happen in Indiana. DCS can turn this lemon of a lawsuit into lemonade by demanding an Alabama-style settlement.