Thursday, March 16, 2017

New columns on the failure of CASA and the obscene rate of removal in Iowa

Call it #CASAsoWhite: Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the most sacred cow in child welfare, is "an exercise of white supremacy" according to an excellent analysis in the City University University of New York Law Review.  I write about the article here.

In Snohomish County, Washington, a judge found what she called "prevasive and egregious" misconduct in the county's CASA program  Read about it here.

In Iowa, politicians are up in arms after two horrific cases of abuse involving children adopted by their foster parents. But, of course, they're ignoring the heart of the problem - Iowa's obscene rate of child removal. I wrote it about it in this column for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

New columns on confessions of a caseworker and the state where kangaroo court is always in session

Of all the crimes against children committed in the name of “child protection,” none is worse than when white America weaponized child welfare in an effort to destroy the culture of Native Americans.

Today, of course, people no longer say that the goal of child welfare is to “kill the Indian, save the man.” But whatever the intent, a series of federal court rulings from South Dakota make clear that Native children remain in danger from a state child welfare system out of control.


Read our column in Youth Today about South Dakota Child Welfare: Where Kangaroo Court is Always in Session.

One of the things caseworkers often say is just not true. Caseworkers often claim they are “damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.” But when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t. It’s one of the reasons so many children are needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care.

Now, a leader of a union representing caseworkers has admitted as much.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A reporter whitewashes racial bias in child welfare

In former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf’s world, white people “marshal data.” Black people rely only on “folkways.”

Therolf has left the building. But he left behind  a story
permeated with racial bias.
UPDATE, FEB. 22: Compare Therolf's failure to how Laura Nahmias covered the same issue for Politico New York.

Imagine for a moment that a reporter on the criminal justice beat wrote a story claiming that there are “two theories” about the police and the African-American community: Either there is more crime in poor Black neighborhoods - because there is more poverty - or there is police brutality, harassment, needless stop-and-frisk searches, traumatic interrogations of the innocent, false arrests, etc.

One would hope such a journalist would be laughed out of the newsroom.

But, as is so often the case, the standards for child welfare, and for reporting on child welfare, are lower.

That brings me to the last two stories begun by reporter Garrett Therolf before he left the Los Angeles Times last year. He completed them while at his new job and they were published last week.

Several years ago, Therolf faced a lot of criticism on this blog and elsewhere for his child welfare coverage. Therolf is certainly not the only reason Los Angeles tears apart children at a rate well above the average for big cities, double the rate of New York and triple the rate of Chicago, but he’s a part of it.

One of his last Times stories follows a particular case through the Los Angeles County child welfare system.  That story actually is pretty good - except when it tries to deal directly with issues of race. And there are serious problems with a sidebar devoted specifically to that issue.

The error of either/or


Therolf begins the sidebar by noting that while eight percent of Los Angeles County children are Black, they represent 28 percent of the county’s foster children.  Then he writes:

There are basically two theories, and the approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part, on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized at higher rates.

So it’s either/or, all-or-nothing.  This eliminates the obvious possibility that, as with criminal justice, because of poverty, both can be at play.

The problem is even more complicated in child welfare. Most state laws, including California’s effectively define poverty itself as “neglect.”*  So it’s easy to point to statistics and say: See? There’s more “neglect” in Black communities precisely because there is more poverty there – and that poverty is confused with “neglect.”

In addition, child abuse is related, in part, to stress. Poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, and African-Americans are more likely to be poor. So again, the key issue is poverty.

But in the main story Therolf claims that on top of all the stress of being poor, the "prevailing view" is that Black parents are more prone to abuse their children “following generations of deprivation and inequity.”  (In fact, there is no "prevailing view" - but it certainly seems to be Therolf's view.)

In other words, Therolf suggests, past racism makes Black parents abusive, but there is no present racism affecting the decisions of child protective services workers.

Sadly, there are people in child welfare who believe this.  In fact, even as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group not known to be dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, issues an apology to communities of color for racial bias in policing, a faction of liberals in child welfare denies their field even has a problem.

Apparently unlike in the police force, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, child welfare workers are simply so much better than other people that they have acquired a kind of magical immunity from the biases that plague mere mortals.

This is reflected in the willingness of some of my fellow liberals to forego everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties and due process when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.  Consider how, as is discussed here, some liberals, appalled by stop-and-frisk, embrace the use in child welfare of  “predictive analytics,” a similar infringement on civil liberties that boils down to computerized racial profiling.

Harvard’s resident extremist


Then Therolf tells us about a 2011 conference at Harvard on the topic.  What he does not tell us is that the conference was organized by the leader of the “denial” movement – Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School.  Bartholet’s views on child welfare are so extreme that if one takes the recommendations in her own book bashing family preservation seriously and literally (and surely we’ve learned by now that this is wise when dealing with extremists) states would have to take away at least two million children every year.**

She also proposes that every family in America with a young child be required to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”  Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of, her word, “surveillance.”

Bartholet says this “would simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.

Nor does Therolf tell us that the conference was an exercise in deck-staking.  Bartholet decided who was invited to speak, and almost every speaker she chose shared her views.  Having listened to this parade of people who’d already decided that racial bias is not a problem, Therolf then tells us that the “prevailing view” among researchers is that racial bias is not a problem.

He also tells us that “Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates.” Of course they did. It’s what they believed when they walked in the door.

Double standards for describing experts


But where the story becomes most condescending is in its treatment of experts on each side.  First, he gives one paragraph to one of the few dissenters Bartholet invited to speak at the conference.  He writes that those who believe racism is a problem

…gained encouragement from University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart black families.” 

He never mentions that Prof. Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) also is the author of several books on issues of race in America and beyond, including Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2001).

Bartholet gets very different treatment.  There is no mention of her extremism. Instead, in a paragraph that sounds like it should have begun with “Some of her best friends are…” Therolf writes about how she was once, long ago, a real life civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense fund!  (So of course, anything she says about child welfare and race could not possibly be tainted by bias.)  This is like suggesting Ronald Reagan could not possibly have been out to break unions or enact a radical right-wing agenda as president because decades earlier he’d been a liberal and a union leader.

Bartholet didn’t rely on mere anecdote, Therolf tells us. Bartholet “marshaled data to argue that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Compare this with Therolf’s treatment of the next expert to appear in his story, Cheryl Grills. Dr. Grills is a clinical psychologist and director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University.  She also served as Co-Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. 

But Therolf identifies her only as “a professor at Loyola Marymount” who, Therolf claims, wants to “institutionalize child protection based on African and African-American folkways, not the latest studies and academic research.” [Emphasis added.]

Got that everyone? White people “marshal data.”  Black people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.”

It is offensive, and speaks to the extent of bias not just in child welfare but in newsrooms, that the following even needs to be pointed out:

The data are overwhelming that there is, in fact,

racial bias in child welfare.


Much of that data can be found in Prof. Roberts’ book.  NCCPR has prepared a short summary of some of the studies finding profound racial bias, over and above the class bias and other problems that permeate child welfare.

Therolf goes on to suggest that caseworkers can’t possibly be biased because many of them are, themselves, Black. He dismisses the notion that institutional bias can push any caseworker to treat less favored groups differently. He ignores the scholarship of, for example, Prof. Tanya Cooper of the University of Alabama Law School, who writes:

Unconscious racism is embedded in our civic institutions; and the foster care system is vulnerable as one such institution controlled and influenced by those in power. Those in power in turn may unwittingly discriminate against people of color, which history demonstrates.

But also, the issue of bias isn’t so, uh, black and white.  If there is a racial, religious or ethnic group that doesn’t have to grapple with biases among themselves I have yet to find it. Often, though not always, the fault-line for intra-ethnic conflict is class.

In child welfare, racial bias and class bias combine to create a toxic mix for poor families of color.

Consider the very case on which Therolf focused.  The children were taken because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) alleged that, in Therolf’s words:

One: [The mother, Monique] Baker’s house is “filthy,” placing “the children at risk of physical harm, damage and danger.” Two: Baker is not taking her children for psychiatric treatment.
 Three:  Baker has “mental and emotional problems, including major anxiety disorder, major depression and PTSD, which renders the mother unable to provide regular care.”

But even if we assume all of these allegations are true, had a case such as this arisen in, say, Beverly Hills, DCFS never even would have noticed. It would have been solved privately by application of the following “preventive services”:

One: a maid.
Two: a nanny.
Three: a psychiatrist.

And that brings us back to Bartholet’s claim that “when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Back before scholars such as Prof. Roberts marshaled all that data to show how pervasive racial bias is in child welfare, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach insisted that agencies never take away children because of poverty.  Now, rather than admit to racial bias, they effectively admit to class bias.  I suppose that’s progress.

But neither bias should be tolerable in child welfare, and neither bias should be whitewashed by journalists.

* In California, neglect includes: “The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child” and “The willful or negligent failure of the parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.” 

**In her book, Nobody’s Children, Bartholet argues that children should be removed from the home in cases of “serious” abuse and neglect. In the same book (p. 61) she writes that “Estimates indicate that more than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and neglect.” Even if she could be persuaded to leave one-third of “seriously” abused children in their own homes, that would mean taking away two million children every year.



Friday, February 17, 2017

New columns on abuse in foster care in Iowa and Nebraska and #CASAsowhite: racial bias in CASA

Cowley County, Kan., a place almost exactly in the middle of middle-America, is conservative and working-class. It would seem to have little in common with coastal Marin County, Calif., one of the wealthiest places in America, where the politics are as blue as the ocean.
But it seems the two places have one thing in common: an inability to confront issues of race and class biases in that most sacred cow of child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
An advocate of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare now is claiming that a case in which a child was removed from her parents, placed in foster care, adopted by the foster parent and then allegedly severely abused by the foster/adoptive mother somehow is an example of “family preservation at all costs.”  Seriously.
And speaking of abuse in foster care: Everyone should be shocked by the fact that the inspector general of Nebraska Child Welfare, Julie Rogers, has identified 36 cases of children consigned to the “care” of the state, only to be sexually abused in foster care. But no one should be surprised.  The heart of the problem: Nebraska still is tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the country.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New columns on malice and mandated reporters, child abuse "central registries" and why the foster-care-at-all-costs crowd will never give up their horror stories

How malicious does a "mandated reporter" of child abuse have to be before immunity from all accountability applies? I have a column about it here.

What about if a false report lands you on a state "central registry" of child abusers? The lack of accountability there is the topic of this column for the Louisville Courier Journal.

And you know how the foster-care industrial complex loves to scapegoat family preservation when a child is returned home from foster care over the objection of foster parents? What happens when it's the other way around?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why journalists need to override child welfare’s veto of silence

It’s tough to verify a story when a child welfare agency won’t talk or release records. But it can be done. At the end of this post I’ve included links to 23 examples.



Imagine for a moment that it is 1972. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

One of the reporters calls the White House for comment. A spokesman (or as reporters might derisively call him, a “flack”) for President Nixon replies: “You’ve got it all wrong, but we can’t say anything – it’s all a matter of national security.”  To which Woodward and/or Bernstein reply: “Oh, well, in that case we’ll just forget the whole thing.”

Of course that would never happen – except in child welfare, where it seems to happen a lot.

A family complains that their children were needlessly taken by child protective services. They tell their story to a reporter. The reporter calls the child welfare agency and is immediately referred to their flack who says: “Oh, well, there’s really so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you but we just can’t; confidentiality, you know.”  And, of course, they won’t share any records either.

Over and over I’ve seen journalists who would never let other agencies get away with this give up when told this by a child welfare agency. Or worse, knowing that the records are secret, they won’t even try.

Most of the time, reporters won’t admit it.  But one newspaper reporter did recently during an email exchange. I won’t penalize her for her candor by naming her.

This reporter wrote that she would not write an in-depth story about a child welfare case unless she had access to the actual child protective services documents in the case or access to the relevant court hearings.

 Double standards


In fact, neither she nor most other reporters seem to apply this to all cases. This reporter has written many stories about deaths of children “known to the system” even though the child welfare agency stonewalled. But those are the kinds of cases reporters tend to be comfortable with. The heroes are people reporters can identify with – middle-class foster parents, and/or “child advocates.”  The villains are presumed to be birth parents – people who almost never have anything in common with reporters – different backgrounds, different life experiences, different class and, often, different race.

That also helps explain why cases in which a family alleges the children were needlessly taken are another matter entirely.  They make a lot of reporters queasy right from the start.

What all this means is that when it comes to cases alleging wrongful removal, child welfare agencies have a de facto veto of silence. All they have to do is stonewall and the story will go away.  So even as journalists who cover child welfare regularly, and rightly, complain about agency secrecy, they enable and encourage that secrecy.  I’ve long thought that every time a reporter refuses to override the veto of silence, somewhere an agency flack gets his wings.

A distorted picture


And, of course, this leaves the public with a distorted picture of how and when child protective services agencies err; that is, they seem to err only in the direction of leaving children in dangerous homes because that’s almost all that ever gets into the newspapers, online, or on television.

Among the reasons the newspaper reporter who emailed me recently gave for caving in to the veto of silence: “People lie.”

Well, yes. But case records also sometimes lie. So do caseworkers. Occasionally, caseworkers even assert what amounts to a right to lie – in court.  But somehow that doesn’t stop reporters from writing story after story about cases in which, supposedly, agencies bent over backwards to coddle abusive families – often based on nothing more than an unsupported claim by the reporter’s favorite “child advocate.” Because when it comes to who’s telling the truth, people like us always get the benefit of the doubt over people like them.

No, that does not mean a journalist can or should simply take a family’s word for what happened.  And yes, getting at the facts in a case of wrongful removal can be difficult.

Of the many people who claim a child welfare agency acted unjustly some are, in fact, guilty as sin. Some are crazy.  Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  Some have a good point on some issues while others involve many shades of gray.  And some are absolutely right.

But even when the stories are true, because most victims of child welfare agencies are poor, they often are less educated. So they may be less able to gather their thoughts – and their documents – and compose a clear, coherent narrative. So it takes a lot of work to understand the story at all, even before trying to check it.

All that is why, when journalists do focus on wrongful removal a disproportionate amount of the coverage is devoted to those rare times when the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class – as in this case and this one.

And yet, for all that, it can be done.

Some families have enough copies of documents to bolster their case. They may have lawyers or other witnesses.  And good reporters know that when an agency truly is being treated unfairly and can’t talk on the record, usually someone will still leak their side of the story. If they won’t give specifics, even off the record, odds are they don’t have a good case.

 The honor roll


All over the country, good reporters are finding ways to override the veto of silence and tell families’ stories. They’re not doing it nearly enough, but some very important stories make it into print and on the air. A previous post to this blog cited five examples, four published over a period of less than two weeks.

Here are some more:

●The New York Times got past the veto of silence to report on how parents can lose their children for smoking pot.

● NPR refused to let stonewalling stop them from exposing what South Dakota child welfare does to Native American children.


● For a brilliant examination of a case filled with shades of gray, check out this series from The Boston Globe. When it was published, more than half of the hundreds of comments – and most were surprisingly civil – disagreed with my own point of view. But it’s on this list because it is comprehensively reported, beautifully written, and gives readers the information we need to make up our own minds.

But you don’t have to be a big news organization to override the veto of silence:

● The Philadelphia Daily News, a small paper in a big city, did this storyAnd this oneAnd this one.

● The reporter who would go on to expose the Flint water crisis did this story for Detroit’s alternative weekly Metro Times about what typical child welfare agencies do in typical cases.


● And this story from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette. And this one. And this one.

● And this series from the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

It’s not just print reporters who do good work. 

● There’s this story from WXYZ-TV in Detroit. (There were many more from WXYZ, but broadcast websites tend to be less good about keeping their stories online.)


And then there’s what happened when the Biloxi, Miss. Sun-Herald ran into the veto of silence. Instead of backing down they made how secrecy harms families the theme of a six-part series.


When reporters cave in to child welfare’s veto of silence it’s usually not because there’s no way to get around it.  Usually, it’s because they don’t want to get around it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Attn: Liberals. If you sound like Kellyanne Conway, you’re getting child welfare wrong

Photo by Gage Slidmore
Kellyanne Conway justifies the Muslim ban in much the
same way many on the Left justify child welfare's  
infrigements on civil liberties.


Child welfare systems have vast power and little accountability. 

Caseworkers usually can take away children entirely on their own authority; parents often have to go to court after-the-fact to try to get them back. The poor often are not guaranteed a lawyer, and rarely get a good one. The standard of proof is far lower than in a criminal case, and in most states the hearings are secret. NCCPR documents those abuses, and more, in our Due Process Agenda.

Though the system was largely created and is now largely justified by people who consider themselves liberals, when they seek to justify running roughshod over due process they sound remarkably like Donald Trump and his top aides.



Not that many are detained


Liberals justifying a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare often will say something like: “Only a small portion of the children investigated as possible victims of child abuse actually are removed from their homes.”

Here’s what Kellyanne Conway said about the Muslim ban – and make no mistake, that’s what it ison Fox News Sunday today:

And so, you’re talking about 325,000 people from overseas came into this country just yesterday through our airports.  So, 325,000, you’re talking about 300 and some who have been detained or are prevented from gaining access to an aircraft in their home country.  They must stay for now.  That's 1 percent. 
And I think in terms of the upside being greater protection of our borders, of our people, it's a small price to pay. 

In fact, of course, the consequences often were far more serious. I’m sure that's one reason my fellow liberals found her comments as infuriating as I did. But consider what happens in child abuse investigations:

The definitions of neglect are so broad that neglect often is confused with poverty. And all it takes to “substantiate” an allegation is a caseworker checking a box on a form stating it is slightly more likely than not that the abuse or neglect occurred. And yet the percentage of children in “substantiated” cases who are “detained” in foster care is more like 35 percent. And the detention can last months, years, or an entire childhood.

It’s only temporary


Many times I’ve heard my fellow liberals in child welfare say “Foster care is only temporary. If we make a mistake, we can always give the child back.” They say they’re just erring on the side of safety. 

They argue that the harm of foster care is a small price to pay for making sure children don’t die of child abuse. They argue that if they are not allowed to run child welfare exactly as they see fit – civil liberties be damned – children will die.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway put it:

…this is what we do to keep a nation safe.  I mean, there are – [the] whole idea that they’re being separated and ripped from their families, it’s temporary … as opposed to the over 3,000 children who will be forevermore separated from the parents who perished on 9/11.

We know stuff that you don't


Over and over, when people in child welfare agencies are confronted with a case of wrongful removal they say "Oh, there's so much more to it, but we can't tell you - it's confidential." And their liberal supporters say: Trust them, they know more than we do and they are just acting in the best interests of the children.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway said:

[Tump] is privy to information that the rest of us aren’t, particularly the media.  The political media aren't national security and intelligence experts receiving briefings every single day like our president is.  

The Muslim ban and the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare have something else in common: They backfire. In the case of child welfare, the infringements on civil liberties overload child welfare systems so they have less time to find children in real danger – and more children die.

I’ve written before about just how much people on the Left start to sound like Donald Trump when the topic is child abuse.  And, as noted above, NCCPR has documented in detail the lack of due process.


So while we on the Left are fighting the horrors the Trump administration is inflicting on men, women - and children - abroad by denying them entry into the United States, let’s also take a moment to do something for children here at home: Stop casting aside everything we claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears.