Opinion: Even Strength to Succeed can’t make up for DCYF’s failure

By RICHARD WEXLER

Published: 09-21-2023 6:00 AM

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (nccpr.org)

Both the Strength to Succeed program and Michaela Towfighi’s excellent story about it for the Monitor reflect a rare understanding that parents who lose children to foster care usually are not the monsters we read about in horror story cases, and helping those parents is the best way to help their children.

The story also reveals the chronic failure of the Division of Children, Youth and Families to recognize this, and the enormous harm its failure does to those same children. The statistics about entries into care also are revealing, when you factor in one key variable.

Consider two cases discussed in the story.

In one case, Ashley Cheney’s children were taken because she herself was a survivor of domestic violence. Research shows that the enormous emotional trauma inflicted on a child when torn from her or his home is compounded when the child is taken from someone who is, herself, a survivor of domestic violence. That’s why removing children in these circumstances is illegal in New York state, thanks to a class-action lawsuit. (My organization’s vice president was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)

As one expert testified in that case, taking a child in these circumstances is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.” But in New Hampshire, policy apparently boils down to “please pass the salt.”

Three of Ms. Cheney’s children lost the chance to live with her forever. Only with the birth of her fourth child and the intervention of Strength to Succeed did things change. That raises one simple question — What took so long?

Research confirms that the most dangerous time for a battered mother is when she tries to leave. So of course Ms. Cheney couldn’t do it until Strength to Succeed wove a net of support around her. Why couldn’t that have been done before any of her children were taken? Why didn’t DCYF step in with that kind of help? Why is there no indication of any effort to remove the abuser from the home? (There’s a mechanism for that: It’s called arrest. And there’s a placement available: It’s called jail.) But DCYF apparently was more intent on punishing a “bad mother” than actually doing what was best for her children.

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The case of Lori Hebert, who now runs a Strength to Succeed program, illustrates the single biggest problem in American “child welfare” — the confusion of poverty with neglect. Ms. Hebert’s only crime was losing her home. For that “crime,” her children were punished.

Multiple studies find that the emotional trauma of placement is so severe that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. That can be only the beginning. Studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes and the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. That’s particularly alarming in New Hampshire which institutionalizes children at one of the highest rates in America.

New Hampshire is fortunate to have the lowest child poverty rate in America. But that means if you only compare entries into foster care to the total child population, it hides the extent to which DCYF targets the poor. Just as was the case for Lori Hebert, for most middle-class families “acronyms like TANF or even DCYF [don’t] mean anything…”

When you compare each state’s entries into care to the number of children living below the poverty line, New Hampshire looks very different. Using that method, New Hampshire tears apart families at a rate nearly double the national average; the second highest rate in New England and the ninth highest in all of America.

As a result, workers are so overloaded with poverty cases that they have less time to find the relatively few children in real danger. All that needless removal creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, which explains why New Hampshire rushes to institutionalize children. In short, New Hampshire’s take-the-child-and-run mentality makes all children less safe.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Programs like Strength to Succeed should be available the moment a family comes to DCYF’s attention, not after a child already has suffered the trauma of needless separation. The legislature should explicitly prohibit taking children from domestic violence survivors and should remind DCYF that even the state’s broad, vague neglect law does not countenance taking children because their parents are homeless.

All of this should be enforced by providing high-quality legal representation for families. That has been shown to reduce foster care with no compromise of safety. No, that’s not to get “bad parents” off, it’s to demand alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” often forced on families by DCYF and ensure families get the custom-tailored approach of programs like Strength to Succeed instead.

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