Wednesday, July 18, 2012

We've moved!

Please make sure to visit our new blog site as well as the main CAI website.  All the content you see here is also over there.  Thanks for finding us, and please make sure to connect with us on Twitter and Facebook as well.

-CAI Team

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Child Fatalities and Near Fatalities – Do We Need the Details?

The Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) continues to work tirelessly to shine light on one of our nation’s  biggest tragedies  – child deaths due to abuse or neglect.  As phrased by political cartoonist Nick Anderson, these are “very real weapons of mass destruction.”  But why are the private details of these tragedies important for public consumption?  The short answer is simply that we can learn from them and do better. We need to continue to shout from the rooftops until we see real change to protect our children.

On average, more than 4,000 children are removed from their homes and enter foster care each week.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Center, more than 250,000 children entered foster care in 2010.  Unfortunately, not all removals from a parent’s home are warranted.  The Daily Beast recently reported that in that same year, “nearly 40 percent of children who had been removed from their homes – more than 85,000 children that year – were later returned with no finding of abuse or neglect, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.”

How was it that these children were returned to their homes without a finding of abuse or neglect?  Because when a child is removed, counsel are appointed for the parents, a Guardian ad Litem is appointed for the child, and a series of hearings must occur (including an initial hearing within 48 hours of the child’s initial removal) to assure both that reasonable efforts were made to avoid removal and that reasonable efforts are being made to reunify the child and parents.  There are several checks in place to assure that when a child is removed from her home the removal decision was correctly made. 

But what about the children that aren’t removed, and instead are left in their home, perhaps erroneously?  We can’t assume that all non-removals are correctly decided.  Logic and the numbers simply do not bear that out.  Since there’s no system of checks in place for them, we can only hope to learn from their tragic cases after the fact by accessing and analyzing public records.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) established a national collection and analysis program on states’ data regarding child abuse and neglect.  States voluntarily submit their own data and it is then used to create annual reports which help better understand child abuse causes, demographics, and the systems assisting children.  As part of this data collection, DHHS looks at child fatalities due to abuse and neglect.  In 2009, 34 states reported their child fatality data.  In those 34 reporting states, nearly one in every eight child fatalities involved children whose families had received family preservation services in the past 5 years.

But it is imperative to go beyond the cases that escalated to the point of receiving services, and beyond states’ self-reports to instead take a look at cases where there were any prior child protective services contact.   CAI requested information from all of California’s 58 counties on fatalities and near fatalities due to child abuse and neglect for the period of July 21, 2006 through December 31, 2006.  During that time period, there were 30 near-fatalities and 53 fatalities reported.  Of the 30 cases of near-fatalities, 63% (19) of the children’s families had a child protective services history and 37% (11) had a child protective services history which CAI identified as substantially related to the reported near fatality.  Of the 53 fatalities, 82% (41) of the children’s families had a child protective services history and 53% (28) had a child protective services history which CAI identified as substantially related to the reported fatality. 

By going beyond the self-reported numbers, CAI can see an unfortunate trend where more than three-quarters of all child fatalities due to abuse or neglect involve families with a child protective services history.

While there are checks in place to ensure the propriety of a child’s removal from their home, this doesn’t help the children that are being left in homes where abuse was known to be occurring.  When this happens, there is no systemic check in place to save these children.  These are the cases where our system has failed and where we must step in.

Anecdotal evidence shows that when we learn from these deaths – often because they are reported in the media – positive systemic change can occur.  Reporting of various child deaths in San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles counties have all lead local agencies to revisit and improve their practices with respect to child protection.  When a child’s death to due abuse or neglect occurs, it is imperative to do more than look the other way. 

This is why CAI continues to put pressure on states to release all their information related to child abuse and neglect deaths.  The information we learn can often provide great insight into system’s failings and is the only silver lining we can hold on to from these most tragic cases.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Status of Children in 2011

The Evolving Background: Children and Intergenerational Equity
            It is not unusual for people in the here and now to be blind to the later judgment of human history. From any era, a view of prior history has hindsight and perspective often lost in contemporary passions.  Here in 2011, we certainly look back to find a sordid human history that includes ineffable cruelty to people who are a bit different—often in the name of righteousness.  In its time each such cruelty was, for at least a large population, insulated from the harsh judgment of cruelty and hypocrisy that the distance of time will bring.  We look back now and easily condemn numerous historical acts accepted in their time, from witch burning and the inquisition to imperialistic wars, to unspeakable genocide.  For Americans, we have some basis for national pride in our history of relative tolerance, democratic values and assistance to others.  And we also largely agree about our own egregious errors: Slavery and violent racism, the massacre of Sioux women and children at Wounded Knee, the Japanese internment camps, and other affronts to our own values that we quietly concede from the wisdom of later reflection.
            So how will current adults be viewed through that future lens, in fifty or one hundred years?  We honor our predecessors partly because of the legacy they left us—we have the feeling that we were somehow in their thoughts.  We know that the founders of America were generally wealthy, comfortable adults who risked much for political ideals, and the American generations over the last 230 years since have similarly earned our admiration and gratitude.  What Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation, in particular, has our deserved respect: Overcoming a depression, defeating fascism, rebuilding Europe, and then creating a system of public education that was the envy of the world for their children, and at the same time creating a national system of transportation, water development, parks and many other investments in their nation and children.  They enacted civil rights laws and created a safety net for children and for the elderly.  They built a nation of productivity, one that reveres human freedom and has a tradition of sacrifice for its children and grandchildren.
            But the current generation of Boomers does not appear to closely follow their precedent.  On the environmental side, there is substantial disregard for future impacts, ranging from wasteful exploitation of one billion years of accumulated oil, gas and coal accumulation, to the creation of non-biodegradable waste, over-population, ocean degradation and a host of serious future costs.  Beyond the concern over our permanent imprint on the planet is an equally troubling indicator of debt imposition on those who follow us. The collection of pension and extraordinary medical care by the Boomers as they reach senior status may have strong social justice foundations—where and if the generation benefitting pays for its costs.  Data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published in 2008 projects an accumulating deficit, primarily for Medicare and Social Security, which will exceed $52 trillion in obligations over the following 75 years.  Related obligations (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and debt interest) subsumed 48% of the federal budget in 2006 and now make up the majority of it.  Discretionary spending has declined from 67% of the budget in 1967, to less than 38% today (see   
            And it now appears that these numbers have been overly conservative.  More recent data suggests that the total projected debt may be closer to $60 trillion rather than $52.  Those factors include a $4 trillion increase in the national debt since the 2006 data.  That now $56 trillion assumes little increase in medical costs when the opposite has been the pattern.  Indeed, these costs for the elderly know little likely limitation.  It does not include unfunded increases that are likely from trends in prescription benefits and a plethora of new medical benefits — from routine hip replacements and major eye surgeries to power chairs, Viagra, and organ replacement options.  Any limitation on what could easily be an account to subsume all other accounts is subject to demagogic references as “rationing” health care, or to government “death panels” who will kill Grandma.  This focus on one group is interesting in light of the effective denial of all health care coverage to eight million children (at one-seventh the per capita cost).  But that is little discussed and is apparently quite tolerable.  
            The $56 trillion does not include unfunded, sometimes extraordinarily generous pensions for local and state employees, teachers, utility workers and others with substantial presence in state capitals.  The total is now approaching $60 trillion and is likely to grow at over $1 trillion per year through 2011 and beyond.  How much is $60 trillion?  It comes out to over $500,000 per American family.  To carry this understated sum of at a modest 4.5% (not to pay any of it off), our grandchildren will have to pay over $24,000 per family per year in current dollars, about one-half of total median family income before taxes.  
            Changing demographics makes these future consequences both more likely and of greater concern.  As noted, we have promised to the current generation of elderly (those now age 50 and above) a legally enforceable commitment to provide benefits that vastly exceed their contribution to its financing.  Adding to this unusual imbalance are two demographic changes — longer lives and smaller families. A much reduced population of young and producing adults per elderly beneficiary will now be paying their unfunded liability.  The pyramid allowing four or five persons in productive adult years to pay for each senior citizen is suffering substantial reduction.  The population pyramid is looking less like a broad Egyptian structure and more like the Washington Monument — with a lot of weight on the bottom part.
            Adding to the concern is the disastrous consequence of either another economic downturn or even a small increase in required interest payments to finance these current and future deficits. A two percent increase in the amount needed to print more money based on government bond sale would have a momentous impact on the burden of these unfunded obligations — as if they are not already frightening enough.  How ironic that the major source of current security for the United States is the full faith and credit from the People’s Republic of China, a totalitarian regime.  Our officials rightly warn of the pitfalls of dependency on Middle Eastern nations and the OPEC cartel, but less attention is paid to our supine posture before a communist regime with nuclear weapons that is now our largest national creditor.  The share of U.S. debt held by foreign investors was 28% as recently as 1996.  It is now over 50%.
            Our political vision has been clouded by the anti-government, anti-deficit demonstrations of the “tea party” movement, which has distracted from this legitimate critique with class warfare rhetoric.  The problem we have is that some of these conservatives eschew contribution to the next generation, and glorify — or at least rationalize — self-indulgence.  It is as if we are not somewhat of an interdependent community, as if we have no obligation to others, as if everything we have achieved we each accomplished alone and without assistance.  Public schools did not educate us or our colleagues or customers, the roads beneath our vehicles magically appeared, the water running through our showers was arranged by each of us acting alone, the monopolies generating our electricity are best left to exact what they will, our parks will occur through private charity alone, our cities will develop best by unimpeded market decision (until the guy next door decides to put in a gas station), and so on.  They buttress this theme with anti-government rhetoric that is the longstanding hallmark of American demagoguery.  Certainly skepticism about “the state” is well warranted, but not blind, categorical rejection.  And the “tea party” folk do not help their cause by objecting primarily to the $14 trillion federal budget deficit — which is of concern, but has some justification — while largely ignoring the much larger unfunded liability for politically sacrosanct Social Security and especially Medicare.
            In return, liberal America ignores the critique wholly.  Representative Ryan will introduce a certainly flawed Medicare reform proposal in early 2011.  But rather than acknowledge the deficit problem or propose a less flawed alternative that might involve some additional contribution from the Boomer beneficiaries, the left will seize upon the tried and true demagoguery of the right.  Mark these words: They will use the same rhetoric about “attacking health care for the elderly” that was used unfairly by the right against the President’s health care reform statute.  One part of this dilemma is the large number of high-voting/contributing elderly entitlement beneficiaries.  Another part is the excessive influence over Democrats of public employee unions — with their protection of often untenable pension burdens to be imposed on future taxpayers.
            Children suffer from a double whammy — their interests are not advanced by either political party. Democrats eschew personal responsibility and government accountability, and sign off on virtually unlimited future debt for our children.  Meanwhile, Republicans rationalize public disinvestment, except for a blank check to the Department of Defense (leading to a nation with 4% of the world’s population now expending about as much on military accounts as the rest of the world combined).
            The current political debate is a distractive argument between two “teams.”  Each of them is willing to mislead about the other.  It seems to be a reflection of human character: The love of allegiances with “groupings” and “labels” so our team can compete and vanquish their miserable adversaries.  The Yankees will prevail!  The Cardinals will win!  The Packers, with their tradition and character, will return as champions!  It is as if forty-year-old baseball or football fanatics have formed political teams and are immaturely filtering all reality to promote their side.
            It is interesting that respected Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson, who passed away in December of 2009, is often cited for legitimate government deficit spending in times of recession.  He also took the lead in warning about the combined deficit we are imposing on future generations. Neither party is really paying attention to both sides of his legacy either.
            Exacerbating the problem, it is a diffuse and gradual dilemma steeped in economics and jargon, and so it evokes little interest from the media, or from the short-sound-bite culture we have become.  A thought too long to be thumbed into a twitter message confines political discussion to sloganeering and name calling.
            And children are otherwise not at the table where political and budget decisions are being made.  One thing we at CAI have learned over the past twenty years is that government is primarily a mediator between those who contend before it.  And it is irresistible to come up with a benefit that kicks the can down the road to those who will follow — and who are not at the table.
            To add to the political weakness, children are lightly represented where decisions are made.  For example, one study has established that the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) alone spends more than 25 times as much on federal registered lobbying as do all of the child advocates at the U.S. Capitol combined (over $25 million per annum versus just under $1 million).  The elderly vote heavily, and the median age of large campaign contributors is over 68 years of age.

California’s Continuing Child Disinvestment
            California not only reflects the ethical problems of the Boomers, but it accentuates them.  California is among the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world, but we complain about our rather average burden, including property tax levels that are among the lowest in the nation.  The structure of the state’s property tax reflects the intergenerational inequity outlined above.  It is an ad valorem tax (Latin for a tax on market value).  But we have substantially frozen real property at just above 1977 levels for us older folks (rates can increase no more than 2% per annum while market growth since 1977 is many, many times that rate). This means that young adults who do not have parents to inherit property from or cannot otherwise maintain the artificially low market value assessment, commonly pay five to ten times what Boomers pay in taxes for the same value property and the same public services.  The Proposition 13 limitation of taxation to 1% of a property’s value is not the problem — instead, it is how it is assessed, on a dishonest market value basis, so the elderly who owned in 1977 and before, can take billions from younger generations.[1]  The practice of wildly disproportionate taxation favoring those who were here earlier than others is a rather naked violation of the American tradition of fairness and intergenerational equity.  The exploitation of our young by the Boomers in our state is not only unquestioned, any criticism of the arrangement is considered political suicide by those in both parties.                    
            California is perhaps the worst offender nationally in its unfunded pension and medical coverage benefits for public employees.  It has joined the ubiquitous “defined benefit” format of current public pensions.  California adds to the national unfunded liability of $60 trillion discussed above with high additional unfunded liability for state workers, school district teachers and employees, and city and county personnel.  The City of San Diego alone has an over $2 billion unfunded public pension/medical obligation liability.  Teachers, special district employees and even utility retirees have piled up substantial pension/medical obligation deficits for our children to pay.  Some public employees are now able to retire at age 55 or younger at full salary — and some make substantially more than full salary upon retirement.
            Regrettably, the California example of adult self-indulgence reaches beyond long-term debt deferral practices.  The year 2010 was the state’s fifth straight year of public child-investment contraction. The 2009–11 federal subsidies to states are not in prospect for 2011–12.  Some recovery, evident in early 2011, is likely to reduce the projected $20 billion deficit, but only marginally.  Cuts are likely to hit the child safety net yet again, as they have since 2006.  As noted in last year’s message, the Legislature’s “Suspense File” process shoves any bill costing public funds into a special category in the Senate and Assembly Appropriations Committees.  The vast majority of them die without vote or accountability — as has now been the case since 2007.
            Our manifestation of generational self-indulgence has taken many forms, as updated below from last year’s discouraging message:

  •      Child poverty is increasing and the public safety net is being withdrawn in a steady pattern of strangulation.  One generation ago, the basic safety net of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps approximated the federal poverty line in California; it has since fallen to  less than 50% of that benchmark.  The federal poverty line itself represents less than one-half of the California Budget Project’s calculated “self sufficiency” budget for California.
  • California has one of the lowest levels of participation in federal food stamps in the nation — as its state government gives those who need food help little priority — even when the funds to provide it are entirely federal.
  • Child care assistance is in jeopardy for 2011–12, including especially for the many single parents who require such care in order to maintain employment.
  • Despite the passage of federal health reform legislation in early 2010, almost one million California children lack basic health care coverage — while coverage is universally assured for the elderly (who cost seven times as much each).  Indeed, the state General Fund was unable in 2010 to provide even the one-third state match for new child enrollment in Healthy Families, and has had to expropriate funds intended for other purposes, including the special fund approved by voters to help children ages 0–5. 
  • For families whose children remain uncovered, this means little preventive care and reliance on emergency-room care — with billing at three to five times the cost paid by private and public insurers.  An operation and short stay in the hospital means financial ruin for working poor families.  Taking a child in for treatment continues to feed the largest source of personal bankruptcy in the state: collection of medical bills.
  • The new federal health care reform law will extend private insurance dependency coverage of children to age 26 (the median age of self-sufficiency).  And California is among the first to create an “Exchange” under the new law — one that will give families the bargaining power to buy affordable coverage.  It might help.  And Massachusetts has proved it is possible.
  •   California’s foster children suffer alarming outcomes upon reaching adulthood.  A large percentage of them do not obtain a high school diploma, and only about 3% obtain any post-high school degree.  They are substantially unemployed, have very high arrest rates, and the largest group in our homeless shelters are not military veterans, but former foster youth.   California’s dependency court judges assume parental jurisdiction of all of these children.  In a democracy, we together are their parents — and we are neglectful.
  • Our payments to family foster care providers — from which adoptions most often occur — stand at about 1/10th the amount per child paid to the commercial group homes who have skilled lobbyists at the Capitol. The amount paid to foster families is 35% below the enumerated out-of-pocket costs that federal law requires they be paid. And the number of foster children in the more desirable family foster care homes has gone from 15,000 to below 5,000 in the past eight years — as costs have increased and compensation has not. There can be little supply when taking on a child will require the sacrifice of your savings and pension — as has increasingly been the case in our state.  We hope that 2011 will rectify that violation, as the Ninth Circuit has commanded in CAI’s Wagner case (discussed below). 
  • Another fiscal shortfall occurs as foster children age into adulthood at 18.  While we all as individual parents provide about $50,000 as a median amount for our children after age 18, the state provides less than 1/5th this amount, and it is skewed to a small number.  The few former foster youth able to reach college might be able to access Cal Grants, the Guardian Scholar program, or the Transition Housing Placement Program that gives limited, temporary funds in a “top down”, social worker-administered application for a small number of youth.  This scheme is well-intentioned, and it helps some — but these programs do not approach the help we give our own children who are not parented by us through the state.  Nor is the recent federal Fostering Connections Act implementation likely to seriously rectify this shortfall as it is likely to be implemented under California’s AB 12 vehicle (discussed below).
  • K–12 education investment is in sharp decline. The state has dropped to 47th among the 50 states in per pupil spending — and class sizes now fall to 49th, with thousands more teacher lay-offs now in process. The state is also near the bottom of the nation in non-teacher support at its public schools: librarians, nurses and counselors.
  • Higher education fees and tuition are at record levels as state officials, eschewing evil “tax increases”, make an exception by increasing higher education tuition (as well as increasing fees for child care and foster care licensure).  General Fund spending on prisons used to be much less than higher education investment.  Today the General Fund spending on correctional programs is $10 billion — double the General Fund commitment to the once-famed UC and California State college systems.  Apart from General Fund retraction, federal Pell grants have now fallen to a small fraction of annual tuition.  College kids now graduate with unprecedented debt.  The Cal Grant system has not kept pace with higher education costs for the students covered.
  • Symptomatic of the overall malaise, public higher education capacity (especially classes offered) is being slashed.  And a substantial percentage of public higher education loan amounts are now directed at “for profit” vocational schools that advertise heavily, do not disclose often dismal employment success of graduates, and leave their students with six figure debts and growing default rates against public accounts.  The sacrifice here demanded of California’s adults is far less than our parents’ performance for us. 
To increase revenues to address these deficiencies, the state can select from a relatively painless menu:
  • tax corporations at a level typical of other states;
  •  eliminate corporate tax avoidance;
  •  tax alcohol at the level other states commonly assess;
  •  restore the longstanding 2% vehicle license fee improvidently reduced by former Governor Schwarzenegger, an action that caused California to lose $5 billion per annum in revenues; 
  • examine closely the nearly $50 billion in annual tax credits, deductions and exemptions that currently exist (which are not examined annually — or ever — and require a two-thirds vote to end);
  •  apply sales taxation to professional services;
  •  tax internet sales and allocate to states; and/or
  •  reform property taxation by assessing all property at actual value — perhaps reducing the 1% of value tax limit to ½ of 1% in the bargain.
            Importantly, the 2001/2003 federal tax cuts gave California’s wealthy class $37 billion per year in additional income. Some combination of the measures listed above to recapture about one-third of this amount would retain most of the tax subsidy while (a) eliminating the state deficit; (b) allowing the state to capture federal matching funds otherwise foregone; (c) restoring safety net protection and educational opportunity; (d) medically covering the state’s children (as every other civilized nation accomplishes); while (e) allowing spending decisions to be made at the state level consistent with stated principles of federalism.  While fiscal conservatives properly objected to the 90% income tax rates for the wealthy brackets applicable in the 1970s, current high rates are less than half those levels, and are further undermined by credits and exceptions that lead the net tax paid as a percentage of income to be less than that assessed the lower middle class. Meanwhile, major industries have used a burgeoning tax advice legal industry to avoid contribution and route income into or through foreign tax havens. The oil industry, in particular, which should pay an add-on fee for the external cost of unrenewable resource exhaustion visited on the future, instead receives the opposite — tax subsidies to stimulate extraction.
            The Republican philosophy has some important messages to impart about the limitations of government, the importance of outcome measurement and accountability of agencies, the need to use market and self-regulating forces rather than “top down” dictation of policy by public authority, the tendency of Democrats to sequentially expand a social service establishment by hiring more and more public employees, and the failure to demand personal responsibility.  Indeed, it appears from those of us observing liberal politics over the past thirty years that the inexorable extension of what is consistently advocated is fewer and fewer children with responsible parents, and more cared for by 10, 20, 30 or more social workers, each performing a narrow task — and for whom these children are unavoidably part of a transitory “caseload.”
The personal responsibility theme of conservative concern includes the most momentous decision human beings make — to create a child.  That message is in particular order where unwed births rise from levels of 8% a generation ago to 40% today — with most of the involved children living in poverty amidst a collapsing safety net.  Interestingly, the children of married couples live in families with median incomes well above $50,000 — almost five times the family income of their contemporaries born to unwed mothers.  Absent fathers of such children pay an average of less than $60 per month per child, and almost half of that money goes to state/federal accounts as TANF compensation.
            Regrettably, both parties appear to avoid discussing these cultural problems.  The adult-centric media characterizes such subject matter as a politically incorrect insult to “single mothers” or women in general.  Or perhaps is it subtle discrimination against homosexual adults or parents.  Or perhaps it is racially biased because of the high incidence of paternal abandonment among African-Americans.  It appears that the often similar categories of the children involved — with their due share of females, homosexuals and minorities — do not count.
            It appears that Republicans have largely surrendered their principles of personal responsibility.  Instead of a partnership for children, with support for investment conditional on this list of defensible principles, they simply demand state contraction (except for the military and prisons).  They dare not offend the elderly — the welfare state there is sacrosanct.  Personal responsibility is not demanded — they will just remove the safety net for the kids.  And people do not pay their own way, they steal from those who follow. There has been an implicit deal struck that allows each party to essentially sacrifice its laudable pro-child agenda in return for the excision of the other party’s counterpart.  There has not been a “contract with America” by public officials, but an undiscussed “contract on children” by both parties.

About The Author:
Professor Robert C. Fellmeth is a tenured law professor at the University of San Diego (USD) School of Law and is Founder and Executive Director of USD's Center for Public Interest Law and its Children's Advocacy Institute. He is the holder of the Price Chair in Public Interest Law at the USD School of Law, one of two such chairs in the nation. In 1997-98, the School of Law honored him for his "outstanding, balanced, cumulative career contributions supporting the mission and goals of USD." Citing his 33-year career as a tenured professor at the School of Law and his extensive scholarship, USD's School of Leadership and Education Sciences in 2009 added him to its list of "remarkable Leaders in Education" for "legendary contributions to the field of education made by individuals from San Diego and Imperial Counties."

A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Fellmeth was one of the original "Nader's Raiders," organizing the student groups in 1968 and directing the Nader Congress Project in 1970-72. As a deputy district attorney and Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego from 1973 - 1981, he litigated 22 antitrust actions and founded the nation's first antitrust unit in a district attorney's office. 

He currently chairs the Board of Directors of Public Citizen Foundation, chairs the Board of Directors of the National Association of Counsel for Children, serves as a member of the board for First Star, and is counsel to the board of Voices for America's Children. He has served on the board of directors of Consumers Union and California Common Cause. 

He has taught at the National Judicial College, the National College of District Attorneys, and the California Judicial College. He has authored or co-authored 14 books or treatises, including The Nader Report on the FTC (Baron, 1968), The Politics of Land (Grossman, 1970), California Administrative and Antitrust Law: Regulation of Business, Trades, and Professions (Butterworths Legal Publishers) and California White Collar Crime (LEXIS Publishing). His latest treatise is Child Rights and Remedies (Clarity Press, 2006), a text on child advocacy.

[1] The purported basis for this inequity, to prevent the elderly on a fixed income from losing their homes as the value rises, is easily resolved by delaying taxation until the death of the owning couple; the pressure from increased value is easily accommodated by a small portion of the sale of a property that will have increased many fold in value.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fleecing of Foster Youth

States across the country regularly confiscate the assets of foster children, including Social Security survivor and disability benefits -- all but ensuring these youths’ failure as they “age out” of the foster care system at age 18, according to a new report released today.

Each year, about 30,000 of the nation’s 500,000 foster children turn 18 and become legally emancipated. The rates of homelessness, educational failure and unemployment among these foster alumni far outstrip rates for other youths.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) and First Star report documents that many state governments have been legally confiscating the funds of foster children. These assets flow from Social Security benefits earned by deceased family members or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. States apply for the benefits – many times without informing the children -- then redirect the funds to state agencies for foster care services those agencies are legally obligated to provide.

The report, entitled “The Fleecing of Foster Children: How We Confiscate Their Assets and Undermine Their Financial Security,” released at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, describes in detail how many of the young victims end up homeless and without resources as state after state confiscates their personal assets. Child advocates believe the problem will only get worse as more states address their budget problems.

“Parents don’t charge their children for food, clothing and shelter, and states shouldn’t charge foster children, either,” said Robert C. Fellmeth, CAI Executive Director. “States are breaking their commitment to foster children by this practice of confiscating benefits and assets and applying the money toward their support.”

“Foster children are removed from their homes by the state for their own protection, supplanting parental authority. For the states to turn around and punish them by taking the children’s own money and leaving them destitute when they age out of the system is a violation of these vulnerable kids who need support to stand on their own.”

According to the report, a 2003 Supreme Court ruling opened the door for states to apply for foster children’s survivor and disability benefits and use the funds for their support. The report cites a Congressional Research Service study that found states collect over $150 million in these federal benefits, including Social Security benefits (also known as Old Age Survivors & Disability Insurance or OASDI) that children are entitled to because their deceased parents paid into the Social Security system.

The report cites an analysis that shows the cost of young people aging out of the foster care system each year who can’t function properly on their own is approximately $5.7 billion, in the form of lost earnings (and thus lost tax revenues), criminal justice system expenditures, and government cash assistance and health programs. On an individual level, each foster youth who drops out of high school costs the public sector $209,100 over a lifetime due to lost wages and greater need for public support services.

”The system is failing foster children,” said Peter Samuelson, co-founder and Chairman of First Star. “The damage these children suffer by having no assets after foster care ends up costing society substantially more than the confiscation of their small funds. They depend entirely on the courts and state officials, and they have no place else to turn.”

In addition, many foster children become victims of identity theft, as their social security numbers pass through the hands of numerous agencies and individuals throughout their time in the system. The report includes individual stories of foster children who discover that, although they have never applied for loans or credit, they have defaulted on credit cards, car loans and student loans.

Jaleesa Suell, 21, is a George Washington University student who was in foster care in California. At the congressional briefing and press conference, she described her ordeal when she discovered someone had ruined her credit by stealing her social security number and defaulting on loan. She is now unable to obtain a student credit card and build a credit history that will enable her to rent an apartment or acquire a car loan.

The CAI and First Star report recommends passage of two federal bills that would give children the start they need to find a home, or begin college, and live independently once they are ineligible for foster care at age 18. These two bills, which would result in long-term revenue savings, would end the confiscation of their existing assets, and require states to inform these children that they may have assets. The two bills are:

The Foster Children Self-Support Act, which would ensure that foster children are able to use their
Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits to address their needs, improve their
lives and create a basic safety net when they age out of foster care. Key provisions would:
  • Restrict state agencies from using a child’s benefits as a general revenue source;

  • Exclude conserved funds as well as personal earnings, inherited assets, and civil judgments from the $2,000 resource limit under the SSI program;
  • Require that all foster children be screened for OASDI and SSI eligibility while in care, and require child welfare agencies to notify the child's attorney and/or guardian;
  • Develop and implement a “Plan for Achieving Self Support” that is specific to each child receiving Social Security benefits;
  • Create an Individual Development Account (IDA) for each child receiving benefits, so that these Social Security assets would be conserved to assist the youth in obtaining housing, education, or job training after emancipation from foster care.
The Foster Youth Financial Security Act would require that states assist children in foster care in making the transition to independent living by redressing identity theft or credit fraud issues. It would ensure that youths transitioning out of care have basic documents and tools for achieving independence. The bill would protect against identity theft and credit fraud by requiring that foster care agencies review the credit reports of all foster children, and take action to clear them if there is an inaccuracy, prior to leaving care, and end the use of a child’s Social Security number as an identifier. The bill would ensure that youths leave foster care with the documents they need, and require agencies to help them apply for state benefits and financial aid, educate
them about obtaining health and auto insurance, and provide them and any interested caretakers with financial literacy courses.

Both bills died in the House Ways & Means Committee last year, but are expected to be reintroduced this session.

About the Authors:

The Children’s Advocacy Institute
The Children’s Advocacy Institute, of the University of San Diego School of Law, works to improve the
health, safety, and well being of children. In addition to its academic component, CAI engages in
regulatory and legislative advocacy, impact litigation and public education in order to ensure that
children’s interests are represented effectively whenever and wherever government makes policy and
budget decisions that will impact them. Visit

First Star
First Star is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit that improves the lives of America’s abused and neglected
children by strengthening their rights, illuminating systemic failures, and igniting reform to correct them.
We pursue our mission through research, public engagement, policy advocacy, and litigation. Visit

The primary authors of the report mentioned in this blog are Melanie Delgado, Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) Staff Attorney; Kriste Draper, CAI Staff Attorney; Amy Harfeld, CAI National Child Advocacy and Policy Consultant; Christina Riehl, CAI Senior Staff Attorney; and Elisa Weichel, CAI Administrative Director / Staff Attorney.

Monday, February 28, 2011

I’ve Always Had my Voice

In a single lifetime it is amazing what obstacles can be overcome and the successes that reveal themselves. Being taken away from my home at the tender age of ten gave me a 1st hand account of State Dependency.  I can personally say State Dependents cannot escape the system or how others view them. Foster care meant constantly paying for the mistakes my parents made at a very high price. I no longer had a Mom and Dad, I lost out on having a childhood, I was often judged,  I moved from home to home, I was stripped of everything I knew,  and I moved from school to school.  I was forced to live my life as a State Dependent; however, I turned my life into a success.

Being a State Dependent made me pay for my parents’ mistakes. Both of my parents made bad choices which lead to significant family problems. My Mother and Father were both drug addicts long before I was born. After my arrival the drug use worsened; my Father used drugs to calm his schizophrenia, and my Mother used drugs just for the high. As years went by, my Father became a raging alcoholic. He began to batter my Mother until her face was purple and his hand was red and swollen. My Mother did not just stand there; fights would break out daily between them until my Mother threated to call the police if he did not leave. After my Father moved out, my Mothers’ drug use continued. When she didn’t have money for drugs, she looked the other way while her friend took a payment he felt was just. In many cases I was the payment. My mother did many of things to make me feel she did not love me. Each time my Mother would enter a relationship things seemed good, until the drugs over took both of their minds. I have been beaten with a hose, cooking pan, thrown into walls, thrown through a window, pushed out of a moving car, and so much more. My Mother would put it out of her mind, and act as though the abuse towards me did not exist.  My Mother always went shopping whether or not she had the funds. She got away with shop lifting for a while, but ultimately she was arrested and we were removed from our home. 

Being a State Dependent took away any hopes of getting the chance to have a childhood. Since age 7, I was forced to stay home and be a mother to my younger sister. I didn’t go to school, I no longer had friends, and I had to grow up much faster in order to gain the knowledge necessary to fend for myself and a young infant.  When my two sisters and I were taken away, my social worker said nobody would want three girls. I used my voice to make it very clear that I did not care what happened to me as long as my sisters stayed together, it did not take long for me to wish I had not said it. Because I did not only miss my family, but I missed being able to protect them and spend time with them.

Being a State Dependent offered justification when others judged me as if I was psychotic. Altering the way my teachers, mentor, peers, and paid staff looked at me.  When asked how the comments made me feel, I tilted my head back and laughed heartily. Cringing inside from nervous laughter, I retreated into my mind, sometimes running away at top speed, and then as I open my eyes, I turn and walk away like stars on the red carpet. How many people could handle being raped in their Mother’s house and know nothing was done to bring their rapist to justice?  After this horrific incident I was the subject of an uncomfortable interrogation.  I was made to feel like a common criminal.   I was also made to relive my ordeal by recording two videos of the incident forcing me to say all the devastating details of what he did to me step by step, over and over for law enforcement. After this incident I began to care not how I look to others but how I look to myself.

Being a State Dependent stripped me of my identity, my freedom, and my family. The only things the system gave me were a county judge and a court appointed social worker. A judge cannot visit me and sooth my hurt or discomfort. When I was 12, I was placed at Polinsky Child Center. The neighborhood was not well known to me, making it hard to plot an escape route. I was denied the privilege to communicate with, or see any of my family members. Without my family I felt lousy, and I did not really know what to do. I chose to be defiant because I was very angry. I would try to make deals with my social worker. I would be good, and in exchange, I was allowed to see members of my family and talk to them. When denied, I would do anything rebellious to make her rethink her decision and I did not care how I looked to other people. Once you become a State Dependent it becomes stamped on your forehead for everyone to know, for everyone to see, without the option to hide. I would run away on a daily basis, but no matter how far I ran I could not change the fact that I was still a foster child.

Being a State Dependent was not something I was proud of; I lied about my life to all of my (so called) friends, with hope they would never know the truth. In eight years I lived in 14 different placements (either in a foster home or a group home) and went to over five different high schools. When moving to a new placement I used my voice to fight for the right to attend public school. No matter what school I was attending I always expressed how I didn’t want to be treated any differently.  One very exciting and interesting event took place in my life on August 10, 2007, the day my case was terminated by the Juvenile Court System of San Diego. I shall never forget overflowing with joy and happiness.  I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I am not homeless. I am a high school graduate. I am employed. And I am chasing my dreams. I beat the statistics of a foster child making me the person I am today. Through all my hurt I learned to take all the bad and use it to fuel a better tomorrow. I would like people to see me as accomplished. I beat everybody’s doubt and negativity.

After being a State Dependent I turned my life into a success story.  I still have times where I struggle with flashbacks of my childhood but, then again, I am only human. I am a college student, a mentor, an intern with The County of San Diego, a P.R.I.D.E. speaker (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education), on the HYPE board (Helping Youth Pursue Excellence,) and a new member to the CAI Youth Board (Children’s Advocacy Institute).  I am a former foster youth who wants to make a difference in the system, to help current youth know that there are options, and provide resources to succeed. I am no longer a victim of the system, I am a survivor.

When dealt a sour hand in a game of cards, the option is always there to redeal the cards. However, in life we do not get that option. It is truly amazing how many obstacles can be overcome and how many successes can be revealed in a single lifetime.  I was treated horribly while I was in the system, and I was only there because of my parents. I have finally escaped the stereotypes and negative views due to the foster system. I have since been reunited with my family. I aim to fix the system and help youth know what is available to them. While growing up in the system I just wanted to be loved and cared about. If I can offer a glimmer of hope to those who feel hopeless, my experiences will have meaning.

About the Author:
Helena Kelly is a passionate advocate for foster children. She spent several years of her childhood in the Dependency system and strives to improve the system for those children who will follow her. Helena is a college student, a mentor, an intern with the County of San Diego, a P.R.I.D.E. speaker (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education), she serves on the HYPE board (Helping Youth Pursue Excellence) and she serves on the Children's Advocacy Institute's Youth Advisory Board.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What Sort of Parent are You?

Pitching Foster Children’s Issues in an Era of Financial Conservatism and Program Cuts 

As I conduct my advocacy work for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, I am often faced with the challenge of trying to convince socially conservative legislators, staffers, and wonks that it is in their moral, economic, and political best interest to support positive outcomes for foster children.  In an environment where big business continues to spend billions of dollars on lobbying to protect and promote their issues, I am at a distinct disadvantage.

What I do have cornered is the moral high ground, and I have learned some effective tactics to leverage that.  My currency? Guilt, shame, and “family values.” This is how I often spin it:

How many children do you have?
What kind of parent are you?
How are your kids doing?

Many will answer these questions intuitively -- perhaps you have three children, or are one of three children. You are a loving parent who sacrifices for your child, who works to provide your kids with every educational and other advantage, and one who prepares from early on for your child’s financial and educational stability.  Or you were fortunate to have had parents who did so for you. Your children are thriving, or if they aren’t, you are doing everything possible to give them the best chance to do so.

But your family is actually larger than you think -- much larger. Every child who is removed from his or her home and placed into foster care each year (over 500,000 nationwide) becomes a ward of the state. This means that the biological parents temporarily lose the right to care for and make decisions for their children, and the state takes over that role. Perhaps you live in California. As a taxpayer, you are one of the legal parents of the over 68,000 children in foster care in the state.  You probably never considered this before and feel shocked and overwhelmed at the idea. Good. Imagine how they feel.

The children who live in foster care have done nothing wrong. Quite the opposite. They have been abused and or neglected by the very people charged most intimately with their care and well-being--- their parents. This is a devastating experience with serious and far-reaching emotional and practical consequences. Once they are placed into state custody, they depend on the state (which breaks down to each and every taxpayer in a state) to take care of them, provide for their needs, protect them from harm, and plan for their futures. That’s what parents do. Yet, as well as you might be providing this to your own biological children, you have overlooked your responsibility to do so for the many foster children who are counting on you.

When these youth leave foster care to forge independent lives, their prospects are grim. A recent study reveals that by age 24, 22–33% of foster youth are not connected to the labor market. At age 24, foster care alumni who are employed earn less than half, on average, than their counterparts who have no history of foster care. Although most foster youth express a desire to attend college, only about 3% of foster care alumni have earned a four-year degree. Many studies have found that former foster youth experience homelessness at high rates -- some estimate that nearly half of foster youth will have been homeless by age 24.  Many foster youth experience chronic health problems as a result of the abuse and neglect they endured before their entry into the foster care system and up to 85% of foster youth experience mental health issues. Further, recent studies have found that less than one-third of foster care alumni are employed full-time at age 24.

These children in foster care are not “somebody else’s” children. They are our children. Yours and mine. They have nobody else.

It is all too easy to shirk our responsibility for these children. Somebody else had them and failed to take care of them adequately. You have your own kids to worry about. This is their problem, right?  Wrong. If your heart is cold to the sadness and pain of these children, perhaps your wallet is a better listener.  Think again about your own children or childhood.

What would happen if you did not provide your children with proper medical care and treatment? They would endure worse illnesses, increased need for medication, more frequent and longer hospital visits, and probably a greater chance of acquiring a serious and chronic physical or psychological condition. Who pays for these increased medical costs? Yes, you, the taxpayer.

If you didn’t encourage your child to graduate from school and/or attend college, and save for those expenses, what would happen? Job prospects and earning potential are greatly diminished. Chances of relying on public support are much higher. The costs of unemployment, underemployment, or poverty are passed along.  To whom? Right again -- to you, the taxpayer.

If you weren’t there to support your children as they transitioned to adulthood -- by providing them with a place to live during school vacations or during the summer, and then while they saved up for their own place, they would face a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness and ending up either in a shelter, in an ER, or on public benefits. Who does this cost? You got it- you, the taxpayer.

These are the tactics that elicit the greatest understanding and support in this very difficult economic and political climate. Politicians in Washington, DC not only don’t want to hear anything about spending or, heaven forbid, “investing”, they aren’t interested in hearing about anything that doesn’t reduce the deficit or slash spending.  I try to address that mentality in this way: If you take a long-term view of the economic impact of our collective bad parenting, it is clear that not only is it morally wrong to treat these children so thoughtlessly, but it is fiscally irresponsible as well.  Let us work towards reducing the deficit and slashing spending by minimizing the huge financial drain that these children will present us with if we do not provide them with the tools and resources to become responsible and self-sufficient adults.  The 5.7 billion dollars that are spent on the needs of this population once they leave foster could be greatly reduced if we simply committed to being better parents.

Whether you are driven by moral or fiscal considerations, let’s take responsibility for these children who are relying on us to parent them well. We owe them no less than we owe our own children, and they deserve not to be penalized any further for their own parents’ mistakes.

The first step towards doing the right thing by these kids is by answering the questions presented at the beginning of this piece and acknowledging that we ourselves are neglectful parents to the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care, that our kids aren’t doing well, and that we must do better. I must confess that I am not at all sorry when I bring a legislator, staffer, or pundit to tears by framing this issue in such stark terms.  If it is true that the heartstrings are a direct line to the purse strings, let us usher in a flood.

Amy Harfeld has been an advocate, educator, and public interest attorney for over 15 years. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she served after graduating as a Teach for America corps member in Los Angeles, where she taught 7th grade and coached basketball. While in Los Angeles, she obtained her secondary teaching degree from Cal State LA. After getting a front line view into the myriad social injustices faced by at-risk children, she decided to pursue social justice through the law. She obtained her JD from the City University of New York School of Law. While at CUNY Law, she published an article on juvenile and human rights in the New York City Law Review, clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and completed several public interest internships. After graduating, Amy prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases for New York City's Children's Services. She was then hired to pioneer a legal services program for formerly incarcerated parents at the Fortune Society. From 2007 to 2010, Amy served as the Executive Director of First Star, a national child welfare non-profit in Washington D.C. Currently, Amy works as a consultant, directing national policy for the Children's Advocacy Institute and the National Association of Counsel for Children, and working with the ABA's Commission on Youth at Risk.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A few cracks in the system

 Many people who are not aware of the cracks that the system has will tell me, “You are doing so well, I guess we are doing something right,” however, deep down inside I know of all of the behind the scenes injustices that are going on. One in particular is that when a youth ages out he/she is not told that their medical insurance will expire unless it’s renewed each year. Failure to renew leads to insurance being cancelled, reapplying down at the county building which takes forever, a three to sixth month response period, then finally insurance may be activated or not.  Yet what’s worse to come is that if the application is denied, this “achieving” adult will be left with no health insurance. Which poses the question: what is the child welfare system doing right?

As I look back at the many obstacles that I have  overcome and still overcoming since my first year in college, one that stands out is fighting for my CHAFEE grant. Since my freshman year until now I have calculated an average of five to six visits per academic year to the financial-aid office too simply check the status of my CHAFEE grant. One reason that the financial-aid counselor will tell me that the CHAFEE grant is late is that the state has yet to release its budget. So my options become very narrow with the registrar’s office when having to pay up front registration fees, tuition fees and so forth, or face the consequence of being dropped from classes with a $75 late fee charge. Since my freshman year I have learned my lesson, work extra hard during the summer and save my financial-aid from the previous year in order to pay for the upcoming fees of the new academic year. Even though it limits me to a very strict budget and picking up two jobs in order to pay for everything on time, while the state figures out when to release its new budget. One thing that I keep hoping for is for the state to take education seriously and moreover the education of foster youth since we only make up about 1% of the population who actually graduate from college.

About the Author:
The Author is a member of CAI's youth Advisory Board and a full time college student who spent several years in foster care in San Diego, California.