Gathering Places


Friday, November 30, 2001

What is the real problem
with Felix decree compliance?


PHILADELPHIA >> When my colleagues and I began our examination of the State of Hawaii's compliance with the Felix consent decree, we soon realized that the well-intended efforts of the Federal Court had degenerated into something more akin to a soap opera than a properly conducted state response.

As we found, and as the joint legislative committee's hearings revealed, the Felix compliance process has had all the ingredients of a soap opera -- money, sex and deceit.

The problem is, the Felix compliance process is not a soap opera. It has become a runaway train of cost reaching some $400 million per year. This cost could not be borne by most states during economic boom times, and surely cannot easily be borne in a recession.

Since state resources are finite and the federal government provides very little cost sharing for special education, the funds must come from other parts of the state budget. Most clear to us was the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul aspect of Felix compliance. Many of the schools we visited were in disrepair, with antiquated texts and resources. The more important human resources in the schools -- the human capital of education -- were overwhelmed by having to come up to the standards established by the court monitor's service testing protocol.

As unsettling as the funding and human capital problems were, we were most appalled by three of our findings:

>> First, the Department of Health sought and secured funding for a program called Multi Systemic Therapy (MST). This funding initially was secured in February 2000 as part of an emergency appropriation. Such a request normally would be made if the service or program were required or necessary to achieve compliance.

According to the scholar who developed MST, the service holds promise and is potentially beneficial. MST certainly could not then, and cannot now, be considered a necessary service for children in the Felix class. The husband of the DOH administrator who pushed for MST ended up running the program; perhaps that is why the program was deemed essential.

>> Much has been made of the need for the school complexes to meet the standards of "service testing," which is an evaluative standard required by the court monitor. As the witching hour draws near (today Judge David Ezra is expected to decide whether he will appoint a receiver), most of the school complexes are in or near compliance.

Hurrah, except service testing is an assessment of process, not outcome. As a measure, it has no reported scientific validity -- at least none that has ever appeared in peer-reviewed journals. Perhaps the fact that a private company in which the court monitor is one of the two named principals developed service testing is the reason for its required use in Hawaii.

>> Last, and by no means least, we found no evidence that the billions of dollars and years of effort have actually yielded any improvement for children in the Felix class. No one -- not Bruce Anderson, not the departed Paul LeMahieu and not Russell Suzuki -- acknowledged that they were interested in or were pursuing information on whether the required services (like MST) and processes (like service testing) actually helped the children covered by the Felix consent decree.

We found the sex, lies and even videotapes when we studied the Felix compliance process. What we did not find was any real concern for the children. This is a dismal state of affairs for a process as costly and time consuming as the Felix case has been. Whether Ezra appoints a receiver or not, the real need of the Felix children is concern that the programs provided for them actually work and help.

Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D., is interim dean at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work. He was lead consultant for the legislative auditor's study of the state's compliance with the Felix consent decree.

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