Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What is government if words have no meaning?

This post is not about Jared Loughner--but it is curious that, of all his disjointed remarks quoted in media recently, this is the single challenge that can stand by itself as a worthwhile question. Words are exactly what define government, through and through, from debate and discourse to the "consent of the governed" to laws to judgments made according to those laws. Sometimes those words are hollow. Which brings me to an email I received today from the state director of Child and Family Services. A proposed bill amends the existing juvenile court act to create a proceeding by which a child aging out of foster care can elect--willingly--to stay in, subject to conditions (e.g. work or go to school), by means of a petition to juvenile court. The bill included provisions I thought were simply odd: there can be no grounds on which to pursue termination of parental rights, and reasonable efforts to reunify the child with his or her parents must have been made. Since the whole point is that the child is no longer a child, how could these elements be relevant? And how would they not--at least theoretically--create a basis upon which a child turning 18 could be denied access to these services based on what adults--his or her parents or the child welfare agency--had done or not done?

Here is the director's reply to my email asking about the bill language:
 The TPR and RE issues you address are simply language required by the feds to access IV-E funds-they determined the language….we just included it in the bill.  
TPR means termination of parental rights; RE means reasonable efforts. "Simply language required. . . to access [federal] funds". Language, by the way, that is incorporated into a court findings and order. I continue to delude myself into thinking that court findings and order reflect fact-finding and legal interpretation. Well, that they are supposed to, even when it is vividly apparent that too often they are mere word-formulas delivered in order to sanction executive action by the government (child welfare agencies are executive agencies) and ensure the agency has every possible opportunity to reimburse itself. Can anybody say "boilerplate"?

I doubt this will have much impact--any impact--on the situation of those youth who opt to stay with foster parents. (Some stay anyway, with or without agency involvement. ) A colleague in efforts to reform child welfare (and reform what passes for child welfare reform) is suspicious of the bill and its possible coercive uses. I'm sure we will see at least some misuse once it is passed (it will be passed, no doubt about that) and I suspect it will be the kind of misuse that is hard to pin down--but which you understand if you can see it close up. But what I read loudly and clearly into the director's email is that this is what "TPR and RE" always mean. They are word-vehicles for unlocking federal funds. The surest way to challenge a child welfare agency is to threaten the money supply. Do they profit from child welfare? I don't believe so, although some disagree.

But what is government when words have no meaning?

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