How John Burton and Trent Rhorer Almost Got Me to Support the Family First Act

Last month I wrote about why I oppose the so-called Family First Prevention Services Act: It sets up prevention to fail and it actually entrenches institutionalization.

But I have to admit, every time I read columns opposing the bill like the one from John Burton and Trent Rhorer, I’m tempted to change my mind.

Like other defenders of institutionalization, Burton and Rhorer say the bill goes too far. But you know you’ve got a problem making a case when even your own extreme, aberrational horror story doesn’t support it.

They cite the case of Melissa, sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, placed with an aunt but then coerced into child sex trafficking by an older man. After being raped every day for four months, Melissa escapes.

She is placed in an institution that, Burton and Rhorer suggest, is both the only alternative and something that would be impossible if the Family First Act becomes law.

Neither claim is true.

Burton and Rhorer write that “Melissa’s trauma likely would not meet the medical definition required in the legislation” for institutionalization. In other words, they’re claiming Melissa did not emerge from her ordeal with “serious emotional or behavioral disorders or disturbances” – that’s the definition.  If, by some miracle, that’s true, then she certainly doesn’t need to be institutionalized.

More important, in their very next paragraph, Burton and Rhorer contradict the claim that the institution was the only alternative.  They write:

Our statewide reform includes a comprehensive, team-based child assessment and expanded supportive services for caregivers, such as Melissa’s aunt. With these services, Melissa could have likely continued to live with her aunt and prevented a tragic chapter in her young life. [Emphasis added].

The Family First Act would not prohibit California from providing such services. Existing law doesn’t prohibit California from providing them either. California simply has to pay for it.  But given how much cheaper such support is than an institution, even without federal help this kind of assistance almost certainly still would have been less expensive for California.

And nothing in the Family First Act prevents California’s current plan to provide “expanded supportive services for caregivers…” so clearly there will be no need for institutionalization the next time a case such as Melissa’s arises.

Thank you, John Burton and Trent Rhorer, for providing a perfect illustration of how institutionalization is misused and overused, and why the federal government should stop funding it.

Giving up on families

Their example also illustrates how mediocre child welfare agencies – like Rhorer’s, which takes away children at a rate 50 percent above the California average – give up on families much too soon. They write that after Melissa escaped, “with the stigma of sexual exploitation hanging over her, her aunt would not take her back” – so she had to be institutionalized.

I’d like to hear the aunt’s side of that story. I’ll bet it has a lot more to do with the child welfare agency not offering her the support she needed to care for a severely traumatized niece. Watch Karl Dennis, father of wraparound services, illustrate the right way to deal with a reluctant family in a similar situation:

Burton and Rhorer also write that:

California’s approach also permits the temporary use of a group home to ensure Melissa’s safety and start her on the path to recovery, something that is not permitted in the federal legislation.

 There are several problems with this:

  • The Family First Act also permits this – unfortunately – for up to two weeks.
  • After those two weeks, it’s still permitted; state and/or local governments just have to pick up the tab.
  • Most important, parking young people in institutions does nothing for the young people; it just enriches the institutions.

So, with thousands upon thousands of cases to choose from, Burton and Rhorer could not find even one that actually justifies institutionalization but would not be permitted under the Family First Act.

Why, then, am I still on the same side as these guys? Precisely because young people like Melissa, and many more children whose cases are vastly less serious, still could be institutionalized under the Family First Act, and the status of such institutionalization would be sanctified in federal law. And because the “prevention” funding, while properly targeted toward cases of imminent risk, offers mostly the wrong kinds of help and sets absurd criteria for which programs qualify for reimbursement.

And please, spare us all the Goldilocks defense; the one that goes, if some people think the law is too tough and other people think it’s not tough enough, it must be juuuuuuuuust right.

No. The fact that some in the foster care industrial complex have the gall to claim this law is too tough just shows how spoiled they’ve gotten after all those years getting to eat all the porridge.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

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