Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shock and outrage as child welfare agency treats people like US the way they usually treat people like THEM

UPDATE, AUGUST 28: Now there's even MORE shock and outrage: WCVB-TV has done a third story about this case. They even asked the governor about it.  The station also reports that, according to the state Department of Children and Families "the social worker who initiated the investigation is no longer employed with the agency."

Amazing how much media and political response you get when something like this happens to middle-class white people.

           Massachusetts State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell is furious at the state child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families. She is shocked - shocked! - about how DCF treated a family.

          According to the investigative unit of Boston  television station WCVB it all began with a report to the state child abuse hotline of small bruises on one of the children. Then, according to the story, “…young children were strip-searched and emotionally scarred by state investigators who showed up at their home late at night.” 
According to the investigative reporting unit of Boston
Mass. State Rep. Shaunna O'Connell

            The next morning, the father said, “my four-year-old asked my wife, ‘Is DCF going to take us forever?’”

            Said Rep. O’Connell: “You can’t just barge into someone’s house like that when clearly there’s not evidence for it, scare their kids, scare their family …” she said. “As a mom, I can’t imagine that happening to my kids.”

            Of course you say you can’t, Rep. O’Connell.  And of course you can’t either, outraged journalists. Because this was one of those incredibly rare cases in which the victimized parents were white, middle-class foster parents.  The original report alleging abuse was made by a caseworker who noticed the small bruises on a foster child.  The foster child was immediately moved to another home. The family’s birth children were stripsearched and traumatized.

            As for Rep. O’Connell’s claim that you can’t do things like this to families with no evidence, what she must have meant was, you can’t do this to white, middle class families without evidence. CPS agencies can and do behave this way in poor neighborhoods routinely.

            In fact it’s so routine that a searing account of how such agencies really work, just published in The New Yorker began this way:
 What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. [Emphasis added].

In Massachusetts, this kind of needless strip-searching has been routine for decades. Long ago, when I interviewed Massachusetts caseworkers for my book, Wounded Innocents, one of their complaints was pressure from higher-ups to keep expanding the number of cases for which stripsearches are required.  And it continues today. As Massachusetts attorney Andrew Hoffman told me.

I have had numerous cases involving allegations of physical abuse in which DCF demands that parents allow the removal of the child's clothing to view relevant body parts, under threat of legal action.  I have also had cases in which this occurred at day care or school, without the parent present, and DCF instructs the school personnel or daycare provider that it is necessary.

It could have been so much worse


The foster family is right to be outraged at what happened to their children. Rep. O'Connell is right to be outraged as well. But keep in mind that a late-night knock at the door and a stripsearch is about the least amount of harm a child protective services agency can do.  Had the allegation been sexual abuse, the children would have faced an exam far more intrusive than a stripsearch.  And, of course, the children were never, for even a moment, taken from the home.

The fact that even this much harm happened to this particular family is roughly the equivalent of a police car pulling up alongside a middle class white man walking down a suburban street, the officers getting out and then, for no particular reason, throwing the man up against the nearest white picket fence and frisking him.  I’ve never heard of that happening to a middle-class white guy - but if it does, it will cause the kind of outrage among the middle class and the politically-powerful that routine stop-and-frisk in poor communities does not.

And stop-and-frisk is an apt analogy for another reason: According to a recent study, a majority of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. (The study did not break down the data by income level, so we can only imagine how common this kind of experience is for poor people of color.)  Oh, and in most of those cases there is no allegation of any bruise at all. It’s usually an allegation of neglect.

The reason Rep. O’Connell says she can’t imagine it happening to her kids is because, in fact, she finally can imagine it – because, on this very rare occasion, it actually happened to kids of the same status and the same color as her kids. When it happens day after day after day to poor families of color, lawmakers either never hear about it or choose to ignore it.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions such as the New Yorker story, the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and a few others, journalists ignore it, too.

In an interview with WCVB, the father whose children were stripsearched, John DeMalia, summed up his reaction this way: “Fear they were about to take my kids,” he told WCVB. The story continues:
  "You're opening your home to help these other children and now they're threatening to take away your own." That's why the family has decided to close their licensed foster home, a blow -- albeit a small one -- to a child welfare system that doesn’t have enough foster homes for the number of children in the system.

Or, as DeMalia put it:
 We can't help these children anymore because of what [DCF] put our kids through, my children have to come first and I can't expose them to this again.
 But there is one thing DeMalia didn’t say; or if he did, it never got into the story.  It’s something aggrieved foster parents almost never say.

While what the DeMalia family went through is rare, other problems, such as arbitrary treatment, lack of information, and general disrespect of foster parents are more common – even though child welfare systems urgently need good foster parents.  Occasionally, someone such as former foster parent Mary Callahan will draw the obvious conclusion.  But she’s the exception. Whenever I read stories about the legitimate grievances of foster parents, I keep waiting for just one of them to say something like this:

“I never used to believe the things birth parents told me about how they were treated. But they really need me, and if this is how they treat me, how are they treating birth parents?”


Friday, August 11, 2017

NYC child welfare chief’s claims about entries into foster care are contradicted by his agency’s own data

David Hansell
See the update at the end of this post for a brief response from an ACS deputy commissioner - and a somewhat longer reply from NCCPR.

The deputy commissioner's own tweet makes clear there is no longer any dispute over WHETHER the number of children torn from their parents in New York City is increasing, only over the size of that increase.

I would like to think that the Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, David Hansell, was simply misled by his own staff. But for whatever reason, he made a claim on WNYC Public Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show today that is contradicted by data made public by ACS itself.

Hansell sought to refute data presented in both The New York Times and The New Yorker showing that the number of children torn from their parents in New York City soared after the death of Zymere Perkins – a classic foster-care panic.

Hansell claimed that, in spite of an increase in reports alleging child abuse (as almost always happens after a high profile tragedy), there had been no increase in the number of children placed in foster care.

But statistics provided by ACS itself show that, contrary to Hansell’s claim, entries into foster care have soared in the wake of the death of Zymere Perkins, just as The New Yorker and The New York Times reported.  Have a look at page 9 of ACS’ “Monthly Flash Indicators” report for June, 2017.

That report shows that the number of children taken from their parents in May 2017 was double the number in May 2016.  On the same page of the same report for July, 2017, the data show that in June 2017, the number of children removed was 50 percent higher than June 2016.

So not only are entries increasing, they are increasing at a significantly higher rate than reports alleging child abuse or neglect. [ACS denies the increase is this high, see update below.]

Hansell also made some comments concerning confidentiality that are not entirely correct. He implied that ACS can never comment about a particular case. But New York State law allows Hansell to comment under many circumstances, including when a parent has come forward to tell her or his side of the story. Here’s the law.

We have more about how Hansell is UN-reforming ACS here

UPDATE, 9:30PM: 


Andrew White, ACS Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Planning, has sent out some tweets arguing that the figures under the heading “Children Removed” at the bottom of Page 9 of ACS’ reports, only represent some categories of removals. He implied that other categories are down.  But he offers no specific figures.

The closest he comes to an estimate of his own is a tweet in which he writes:

Accurate number is that placements in care are up about as much as investigations this year, but census down 22% since 2014.

There are a whole slew of problems with this response:

● Even assuming White is correct, he’s still contradicting his boss. Hansell said there has been no increase in removals.  If, in fact, removals are rising at the same rate as investigations then that’s probably an increase of about 20 percent. Indeed, that’s exactly the figure used by the Center for New York City affairs in its own recent report on ACS.

● White’s implication, of course, is that an increase in removals at the same rate as an increase in investigations is perfectly normal. It’s not.  Rather, during a foster-care panic the proportion of reports alleging maltreatment that are, to use the polite term, nonsense, is likely to increase. (I call it the Sandusky Rule and discuss it, and the evidence for it, in detail in this previous post.)

● The line about the “census” being down appears to be an attempt to change the subject. The term census usually is applied to the number of children in foster care on any given day – a “snapshot” of a particular point in time. That can be influenced by all sorts of factors other than a jurisdiction’s propensity for removing children in the first place.

The issue here is entries into care – the number of children taken away over the course of a month or a year. Indeed, if the snapshot number is going down even as entries are going up it may be a further indication of foster-care panic. ACS may be rushing to take away children, quickly realizing they made a mistake and then sending them home again – much the worse for the experience.

● And whether measuring entries or the “census” 2014 is an odd, arbitrary year to choose as a baseline. The issue is not what’s happened since 2014 but what’s happened since September 2016 – when Zymere Perkins died, setting off the foster-care panic.



Thursday, August 10, 2017

Child welfare in America: In a lawless system, the laws are determined by race, class – and fate

Decades ago, when I was writing my book about the child welfare system, Wounded Innocents, a lawyer discussing the nearly unlimited power and discretion of child protective services agencies said: “This is a lawless system.”

I was reminded of that remark as I listened to segments of two programs that aired this week on WNYC, the public radio station in New York City.  Those segments were devoted to some outstanding recent reporting on how the child welfare system really works.

The two programs had much in common of course. Both dealt with the enormous harm traumatic child welfare investigations and needless removal to foster care do to children – overwhelmingly poor children and disproportionately children of color.

But most striking was how both programs featured examples of how nearly identical cases are treated depending on the race and class of the families involved.

An iron within reach of a child


On Tuesday, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show spoke to Larissa MacFarquhar, the author of  an outstanding story in the New Yorker. Also on the program: Prof. Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at New York University School of Law (and president of NCCPR).

Much of the New Yorker story was built around the case of an impoverished African-American woman who left a curling iron in reach of one of her children. The child touched it and was burned. But the mother was afraid to take her to an emergency room because she feared being reported to child protective services and having her children taken away. She wound up reported anyway – and what happened was exactly as she had feared.

That prompted a phone call from someone identified as Katherine from Manhattan.  Here’s what she said:

I’m an upper middle class white woman. I had two children, I now have four. On the first day of preschool I had forgotten to iron a name tag into a raincoat.  I ironed in the name tag; I set the iron up. My son was in the other room. He was two-and-a-half. I walked into the kitchen, ten feet away, and I turned around. He [was holding] the iron. ... He had a severe burn on his thigh.
It never occurred to me that I couldn’t call the doctor, that I couldn’t take him to the hospital. … It really upsets me that the color of my skin and my socioeconomic status makes me not hesitate to get the best care for my child.
Nobody thought I’d be abusing him.

A child wanders out of the house


The day before, on the Leonard Lopate Show, guest host Jonathan Capehart spoke to Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, co-authors of the other recent milestone in journalism about child welfare - the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”  One of the cases featured in that story dealt with a mother whose children were taken away because a young child had wandered out of her apartment unsupervised. Not only was the child placed in foster care for several days, the mother was jailed.

After the story ran, Silver-Greenberg said, she got an email from an editor at the Times who said something similar had happened to him. One night “one of his daughters woke up and couldn’t find him, or couldn’t see him immediately, and she wandered out in her underwear to a neighbor’s house.” Yes, it was “panic-inducing” at the time, but now it’s just a funny story. The editor told Siver-Greenberg that “This has become family lore.”

But, said Silver-Greenberg, “The population of women we were talking to, they don’t have that luxury. They’re scrutinized to a much greater degree - and penalized.”

The rule of fate


Then Capehart asked a question the reporters couldn’t answer: What does the law say about the age at which you can leave a child unsupervised? They couldn’t answer because no one can. In almost every state the law is silent. Yes, lack of supervision is defined in state laws as “neglect.” But what is “lack of supervision”?

It’s whatever the caseworker who comes to the door says it is. Which means it’s determined largely by race, class and fate.

The arbitrariness, capriciousness and cruelty of all this was explored in this 2003 New York Times story by Nina Bernstein. It illustrated wide discrepancies in how such cases are handled, both by child welfare and the criminal justice system.  As Prof. Guggenheim said: ''It puts all parents at peril in making parental choices, without warning them that certain choices are forbidden.”

I also was quoted in that story. I told the Times that

Although news stories repeatedly say there is 'no firm rule' concerning when a child can be left alone, actually there is one. It's the rule of fate. If something goes wrong, then you are a bad parent and you will be charged. If nothing goes wrong, you won't.

But that isn’t quite right. As the more recent reporting makes clear, what I should have said was: if nothing goes wrong you won’t – if you’re white and middle-class.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Brilliant reporting on child welfare in The New Yorker – made possible by open courts

It’s another example of why “sunshine is good for children.”


The late Judge Judith Kaye opened New York's
family courts to the press and the public

On the heels of the outstanding story in The New York Times about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” comes another brilliant deep dive into child welfare in New York City – this time from The New Yorker. (Once again, as you read it, please keep in mind that in most places, the child welfare system is worse, often far worse, than in New York City.)

Almost as striking as the story itself is why reporter Larissa MacFahrquhar wrote it. Here’s how she explained it in the New Yorker’s daily email newsletter:

How do you decide whether to take children from their parents? For the most part, we read about child-protective services only when they fail spectacularly—when a child is killed at home. The press then excoriates the usual suspects—the caseworker (How could she miss signs that now seem so obvious?), child protection (How could they train their workers so poorly?), and the city (Does it care so little about children that it won’t pay for enough caseworkers to protect them?). 
Because of this, most of the pressure on child protection is in one direction—in favor of removal. But it’s no small thing to take a child from his family. It seems strange to me that removal has come to seem the safe and cautious thing to do, and, since the press has played a large part in promoting this idea, I thought it might be useful to have a journalistic account of both sides of the story.
I sat in on the Bronx Family Court for several months and watched judges grapple with this awful decision. One mother had been coming to family court for eight years, since her young daughter had burned herself on a curling iron. For much of that time, her children had been in foster care. The foster-care agency believed that the foster parents should adopt the children. Child protection was nervous about their safety if they returned home but also knew that children often fared badly in foster care. The mother’s lawyer said that the mother loved the children and that her mistakes didn’t justify keeping them apart.
Everyone was arguing for the best interests of the children. The mother sat, mostly silent, as the lawyers made their cases

Several things stand out about this story, but it may be most notable for how well it answers one question.  Research has told us over and over again that in typical cases children placed in foster care fare worse even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.

As the reader is placed in the position of the mother in this case, forced to watch helplessly as the children deteriorate in foster care, we understand why this happens.

Something else that stands out about this story: In most states, it would have been impossible to do it. That’s because it relies so heavily on the reporter’s ability to see the process for herself, by spending months in what, in New York, is known as Family Court.

In most states these hearings are closed. That’s not to protect children, it’s to protect almost everyone except the children – CPS agencies that do terrible things to families and lawyers and judges who either can’t or won’t do their jobs.

In 2001, another superb journalist, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Barbara White Stack examined this issue in what is still the definitive series on the topic, Open Justice. She found that none of the excuses for closing hearings held up to scrutiny and all over the country onetime opponents became supporters. (We summarize some of the key findings of that series, and update some of the data in NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda.)

So along with MacFahrquhar, the courageous mother at the center of the story and some great lawyers from the Bronx Defenders, someone else deserves credit for this particular piece of outstanding journalism: the late Judge Judith Kaye.

She’s the one who ordered these courts opened in New York, when she was chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.  As she said at the time: “Sunshine is good for children.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

NCCPR in Staten Island Advance on why judges should "second-guess" caseworkers

Ever wonder why those people who sit at the front of courtrooms wearing black robes are called “judges”?  Of course you don’t.  But one elected official in Staten Island, New York, doesn’t seem to understand what they’re there for.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Former CASA on the Parents He Dealt With: “Felons,” “Junkies,” “Dumb as Dirt”

He says he spent 20 years in the same program that was excoriated by a judge for  “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and  “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.


Most of the time on this blog I comment on the work of others, whether it's research or journalism. Today, however, the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog breaks some news. No news organization in Washington State or elsewhere has previously reported on the disturbing comments of a former CASA volunteer in that state discussed below. And only KING-TV has reported on the other issues concerning the Snohomish County CASA program.

As Merlin Sprague tells the story, it all began in the mid-1980s when he tried to volunteer for a Big Brothers program in Snohomish County, Washington. He was rejected.  Or, as he puts it “the pecksniffs and [sic] Big Siblings can be excessively picky” and “the shrink who evaluated my suitability found I didn’t have sufficient respect for authority.” 

But, he said, the “shrink” suggested an alternative. “She suggested I volunteer for the county’s [Volunteer] Guardian ad Litem program (a.k.a. CASA, or Court-Appointed Special Advocate).”

He says that after the program accepted him he remained a Volunteer Guardian ad litem (VGAL) – in other words, a CASA - for 20 years.

CASAs are minimally-trained amateurs, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, who are sent out to investigate overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families. Then they recommend to the judge whether the children should be separated from those families, sometimes forever. Judges typically take the advice. 

The most comprehensive study ever done of the program, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that it does nothing to make children safer. The study also found that CASA prolongs foster care and reduces the chances children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers.

One CASA program saw no problem when a performer at a fundraiser dressed in blackface, another fell apart as soon as it had to confront issues of race. A law review article called CASA “an exercise of white supremacy.”  And now, meet Merlin Sprague:

In a blog post in January, the man who says he spent 20 years telling judges what they should do about families told the world what he thinks of those families. He wrote:

All of us in programs like the Guardians ad Litem see that:
The vast preponderance of children who are abused and neglected come from impoverished parents.
The parents are unschooled and ignorant and are satisfied with the situation. This, of course, explains the poverty.
Many parents are of low IQ.  Like one of my colleagues said, “They’re as dumb as dirt”.
Over 50% of the parents are felons and junkies who are incapable of looking after their own selves, let alone their children. Of the remaining 50%, most are simply felons and junkies who haven’t yet been caught.  This includes booze and tobacco.

Merlin’s Modest Proposal


But Sprague does have a solution:

Give each poor person, man or woman, whither [sic] or not they’ve been dragged into the child welfare system, $20,000, cash money, to be surgically sterilized.

It’s a bargain, Sprague tells us, compared to the cost of raising the children who, under this plan,  won’t be born. And he adds,  

this $20,000 will not prevent the conception and birth of just one child, it will prevent the conception and birth of many as these kinds of people breed like flies.

But, says Sprague, that’s not all:

As this cohort of parents are mostly drunks and junkies, $20,000 will buy all the booze and dope they could ever want.  Consequently, there will be many overindulgences which will result in death, further reducing the numbers of people on welfare.

One can only hope that none of the families with whom Sprague dealt was Muslim – because in another post he writes that Islam is:

… a throw-back to the Stone Age when men put bones through their noses and painted themselves blue.  Islam has the morals, ethics and principles of an insect.  We must use every method at our disposal to stamp it out before it stamps us out.

Judge Anita Farris
Of course, this is just one volunteer in one CASA program. But this is the same program in which Snohomish County Judge Anita Farris found that another volunteer “infiltrated” a listserv maintained by parental defense attorneys.  It’s also the program the same judge blasted for “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and for “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.


When I asked the Snohomish County VGAL program if anyone there had any comment on Sprague’s views, and on why he was accepted as a volunteer and allowed to remain a volunteer for many years, this was the entire response, in an email from Public Information & Disclosure Officer Brian Lewis: “The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Snohomish County Superior Court or any of its services programs.” 

Conflicts of Interest


For her part Judge Farris is unlikely to be issuing any more rulings concerning the program.  That’s because of how the program is organized – or at least how it now says it’s organized.

CASA programs take a variety of organizational forms. But since its establishment in 1979, the one in Snohomish County has been run directly by the county court system itself.  Late last year, in legal papers, the program stopped calling itself the VGAL program. Instead it started referring to itself as “the Court.” 

But how can a judge of any given court rule on alleged misconduct when the accused is – the court itself?  Judge Farris concluded she can’t. So she recused herself. A judge from another county will have to decide a whole slew of issues growing out of the case that exposed the alleged misconduct.

This issue has arisen at least once before. Florida took its CASA program (also called a GAL program in that state) away from the courts after a legislative report concluded that the arrangement created “actual and perceived conflicts of interest.”

That does leave one intriguing question: If, all along, the Snohomish County VGAL program was actually the court itself, did that program have an unfair advantage in every case in which it intervened?  Do hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases need to be reopened?

If so, it might be a good idea to start with the cases handled by Merlin Sprague.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Two smart responses to the New York Times story about foster care as the new Jane Crow

One of them replied to “sanctimonious … commenters with their pockets full of stones.”

In a previous post, I discussed some of the dumb responses found among the 514 comments readers posted to The New York Times in response to its story “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’” – including a particularly dumb comment from someone who hides behind the pseudonym “Jane Addams” and probably is a high-ranking child welfare official.

But, perhaps because the Times is relatively careful about moderating comments, the majority were thoughtful and a couple of them were brilliant.  So I’m reprinting those two in full here. 

First, from someone who identifies herself as Frieda:

The REAL Jane Addams would have sided
with "Frieda" and cheered on "LF" 
I was reading this article today while resting in my car on my way upstate for a camping trip with my 11yo son, when someone knocked on the window. I was stunned to look up to a pair of cops who asked me to step out of the vehicle.
 I had made a stop for a quick nap, but first picked up a lego set at Walmart, among other things, and I parked at the far, empty end of the Walmart lot and told my son he could build his lego on the curb outside while I napped. (he needed a flat surface, and the car was too packed with our gear.) 
I woke up rested, read some news, and didn't even realize that cops parked some spots away until they hovered over me. I was told I was endangering my child. "Someone called the police that a child was sitting unaccompanied in a parking lot." they explained. 
I was stunned and protested that he is nearly twelve! My child is expected to do algebra, you think he can't sit in the lot by himself without an adult holding him on a leash? I conceded that a parking lot is not the ideal place to play but I didn't understand most of all why this "good Samaritan" who called 911 didn't come over to talk to my son. He is a tall, 100lb kid.
If people are so concerned, why don't they help instead of running to phone in their faux kindness? Being a single parent is stretching yourself far enough, how is an approach of blaming parents for everything going to ever empower us? I shudder at what would have happened if I was black or male. It probably wouldn't be behind me.

There was also this, from “LF,” in response to those who rushed to wag their fingers at the parents profiled in the story:

I love these sanctimonious, would-be-perfect-parents-if-they-ever-had-kids commenters with their pockets full of stones. They would never, NEVER take a bath after the kids were down for the night. Heavens! They would never walk downstairs to the front door with a child alone upstairs. Abuse!
No, these glorious specimens of perfect, theoretical motherhood wouldn't sleep, eat, bathe or use the bathroom. They would follow the child around, day and night - filthy, haggard, unwashed, eating the occasional granola bar, dressed in an adult diaper, with their eyes pinned open, Clockwork Orange style, just staring, staring, staring at their child. That's how you raise the perfect child, apparently - with constant, frantic monitoring. Oh, how well-adjusted those kids are going to be.
Thank you Frieda and LF.