- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Special Report

"You can go to the car dealer and he can tell you how many cars they have on the lot, what color, what models, what year … but these child welfare people cant even come close to knowing how many kids they have. No wonder they werent getting adopted."
So said Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Iowa Citizen Foster Care Review Board, as he recalled how Iowa state officials once lost track of about 500 children who were waiting to be adopted.
It happened in the early 1990s, when the citizen review board was created and Iowa officials were saying they had around 100 foster children free for adoption, said Mr. Foxhoven.
The independent reviewers began reviewing cases and soon "saw that there were way more kids out there," he said. "So we did a hand tally and found a little over 600 children freed for adoption and waiting for adoption."
State officials quickly challenged the new number and Gov. Terry Branstad settled the matter by asking for a recount — this time using the childrens names.
"Youd better be right," Mr. Foxhoven recalled the governor telling him. "Were going to close your program down if youre not."
The recount showed that, indeed, more than 600 children were free for adoption. "We were off by three, I think," he said.
This episode "shouldnt be an indictment of the Iowa system today because theyve gone leaps and bounds since then," said Mr. Foxhoven, who is also a lawyer.
But its a classic example of how poor the data collection has been in state foster-care systems, he said.
Its been a 30-year struggle to get accurate, timely data on the status of the abused, neglected and abandoned children in foster care, and the impact on children is incalculable, he added.
"When the state thinks it has 100 kids … and theres 600 there, that means that every day, 500 kids wake up thinking, 'Maybe todays the day that theyll find me a parent.' And there isnt even anybody looking."
The nations foster-care system is jointly funded by federal and state governments, but is state-run. Given the enormous and difficult task of responding to family meltdowns, most states viewed reporting data to the Department of Health and Human Services as a low priority.
As a result, for decades national foster care and adoption data were based on voluntarily reported information from 20 to 40 states. At times, legitimate data were so skimpy that when Congress asked for a number, "wed just make it up," one federal official said privately.
Congress, however, never stopped seeking details about these children, and its requests for data intensified.
Today, after spending billions of dollars in technical assistance and passing laws mandating data collection, the long wait is about over, said officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
This summer, HHS will release foster care and adoption figures from an unprecedented 49 states, plus the District and Puerto Rico.
Alaska, hampered by computer problems, will be the lone no-show.
"This is the best data we have ever, ever had. And its going to get better," said HHS Childrens Bureau researcher John Hargrove, who handles the foster-care data in the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).
Penelope Maza, a senior HHS child welfare researcher who works with AFCARS adoption data, concurs.
The agency used to see only "sparse, kind of crazy data" about children being adopted out of foster care, she said. "Now we have real data."
The staff has a joke about the improved data systems, she said. "We started off with a Yugo. Were now in a Toyota Camry and were on our way to a Cadillac."

Life on a spreadsheet

Until recently, the quality of foster care and adoption data have been "unbelievable," wrote Jennifer Toth in her 1997 book about the day-to-day life in foster care, "Orphans of the Living: Stories of Americas Children in Foster Care."
Mrs. Toth, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote that during the 1970s the number of children in foster care "was extrapolated from small random surveys."
This information was so flawed that at one point there were claims that "the number of children in foster care had dropped by over 100,000, even though the foster care population had clearly increased," she wrote.
In 1980, Congress passed a law requiring an inventory of children in foster care and a statewide information-tracking system.
This led to the creation of the Voluntary Cooperative Information System (VCIS), which was run by the American Public Human Services Association, a trade group for human services officials.
Despite heroic efforts by such people as American Public Human Services Associations Toshio Tatara and Pat Shapiro, VCIS often received only partial data from 20 to 40 states.
The missing data had national consequences.
"With the old VCIS data, which was voluntary, incomplete and 4 to 5 years old, we didnt see the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s until very late," said Ms. Maza, HHS adoption data maven.
Haphazard data collection also affects day-to-day activities in foster care.
For instance, Ashley Courters 10 years in Floridas foster-care system were so chaotic that her adoptive mother, Gay Courter, created a computer database and spreadsheet to figure it out.
"There was a whole file drawer on her … it took us five hours to just copy it," said Mrs. Courter, a filmmaker and novelist who wrote about her experiences as a child welfare guardian ad litem in "I Speak for This Child."
Ashleys files showed 14 placements, including disastrous stays with volatile relatives and abusive foster parents.
The files also revealed a parade of caretakers who picked up Ashleys life, only to set it down.
"Every time they went to court, there was a different social workers name" on the paper, said Mrs. Courter, who noted that it took more than two years of persistent phone calls and visits to finalize their adoption of Ashley, who is now 15.
The child welfare system is, in the end, an information system, and there are legal consequences if files are lost because a social worker quits or some other foul-up, said James Marsh, a lawyer who has done pro bono adoptions in the District.
"Its like garbage in, garbage out. If the information is bad, the court wont make a good decision and the child wont end up in a good place," he said.

New day for data

Decades of horror stories notwithstanding, there is a widespread belief that the foster-care system is getting its act together.
"When I first started collecting data, some states were still doing it manually," said Mrs. Shapiro, the researcher at the American Public Human Services Association who crunched numbers with a calculator for the old VCIS system.
During the 1990s, all the states began to switch to computer systems, and as a result, "the data is greatly improved. The states are making huge strides," she said.
Good data can only lead to good outcomes for children, said Lynda Arnold of the Child Welfare League of America.
The League has periodically been publishing a comprehensive "Stat Book" since 1993, not long after federal funding for VCIS dried up. In 1999, the trade group went online with its National Data Analysis System (https://ndas.cwla.org), a user-friendly database of state child welfare data.
Switching social workers and supervisors from a paper-based system to computers will make a big difference in childrens lives, said Ms. Arnold, who once ran Oklahomas child welfare agency.
In Oklahoma, a new computer system helped caseworkers become more regular in their visits to foster homes, as "the computers could tell you when a visit was due," she said.
It is the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, however, that is establishing new benchmarks for data, performance measures and accountability.
The federal database issued its first reports a few years ago, and "its getting better and better … theres some real excitement about getting good data for the first time," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution scholar and former House aide.
Over the years, Congress tried many approaches to move things along, offering federal funds for computers, technical assistance, and an annual $20 million in bonuses or incentive funds to states that increased their adoptions of foster children.
It also levied fines: In 1998, 35 states and the District were sanctioned $5.3 million for not providing proper data.
The penalties, which included nearly $84,000 for Virginia, $55,000 for Maryland and $5,000 for the District, are under appeal.
But all these efforts, carrot and stick, are paying off and a stable database is being built, said Sally Flanzer, director of HHSs Division of Data Research and Innovation.
"Were in the middle of an evidence-based, data-based revolution," she said.
States often had the data in their in-house systems, "but they just couldnt get it out," said Terry Lewis, deputy associate commissioner of the HHS Childrens Bureau.
Programming changes now have erased many of those problems, she said.
The immediate payoff is in the adoption of children from foster care, said Ms. Maza.
National adoption data "used to be the worst data… . Nobody bothered with reporting it," she said.
Then in 1998, Congress issued its first round of adoption bonuses.
When it was announced that 35 states qualified for the funds, "the phones rang off the hook" with states seeking more information on what they had to do to qualify for the program, said Ms. Maza.
In 1999, all 50 states had full adoption data to report, with a nationwide total of 46,000 adoptions from foster care — a number that is probably "within 500 of the true number," she said.
"So this is an example of where, because of a federal program, there was finally some really good reason to clean up that data. And it got cleaned up."

Problems remain

Marcia Robinson Lowry of Childrens Rights Inc., a legal activist group in New York City, remains skeptical.
States may be reporting numbers, "but they dont necessarily stand for anything," she said.
"Every one of the systems in which weve looked at data has had tremendous problems with the accuracy of the data itself," said Ms. Lowry, listing Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, Kansas, Florida, and the cities of Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and Washington, D.C., as places where the group has filed lawsuits on behalf of foster-care children.
Ms. Lowry said she also has not seen a system that ensures "that whats on the computer system has any reasonable relationship with reality."
"There are no auditing procedures that are at all meaningful," she said.
Madelyn Freundlich, a research colleague with Ms. Lowry, said that child welfare data remain beset with "definitional" problems.
For instance, one state may count a childs death as a "child-abuse fatality," while in another state a death under the same circumstances would not be counted as such, she said.
Such inconsistencies — and there are many — make it hard to get accurate and reliable national data, said Ms. Freundlich.
Still, Mr. Foxhoven, the Iowa reviewer, believes there is at last a sea change in the child welfare arena.
"For us to make things better for kids, we need data-driven decisions," he said. "And I think theres at least some people in the child welfare community who have come to recognize that."

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