Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Race, journalism and the Fox News of child welfare

An insightful Columbia Journalism Review essay on covering race and politics goes double for covering race and child welfare

The current print issue of Columbia Journalism Review is about exactly what any journalist would expect it to be about: Donald Trump and the press.

But one essay in that issue applies as well, if not better, to covering child welfare. It’s called “Covering a country where race is everywhere.”

“Race and racism are everywhere, and in everything,” writes Collier Meyerson, who covers race and politics for The Nation. “We are the product of a violent history that privileges one race over all others. And in order to tell that truth, we must look for it everywhere.”

Notice that she did not say “everywhere except the American child welfare system, which, of course, is run by such wonderful people that it is magically immune.”

Sadly, a lot of Americans who consider themselves liberals and would agree with Meyerson when it comes to politics, the police, and just about everything else, carve out a great big, unwarranted exception when it comes to child welfare. 

Child welfare’s caucus of denial

In that field, there is an entire coterie of self-proclaimed liberals, a kind of caucus of denial, who insist that the disproportionate rate at which children of color, especially Black and Native- American children, are investigated for child abuse and torn from everyone they know and love has absolutely nothing to do with racism. (Just for the record, here’s a summary of some of the studies showing that it does.)

Indeed, child welfare is a field so blind to the problem of racial bias that a prominent leader in the field can declare that the states doing the best job of curbing child abuse are the ones that have “smaller, whiter populations” and face no censure for it from the Left.

Giving constant aid and comfort to those in denial about the role of racial bias in child welfare is the Fox News of child welfare, the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.

It’s not just that the Chronicle publishes – and promotes – the dissemination of pernicious racial stereotypes, as is documented in detail here. It’s not just that they’ve published column after column promoting the denial idea.  The problem goes deeper. 

Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel works hand-in-glove with the leader of the denial movement, Elizabeth Bartholet. He co-authored op-ed columns with her, provided her with research assistance for a paper and then promoted her “findings” in the Chronicle (he did disclose his role).  Heimpel’s work with Bartholet is discussed in detail here.

Heimpel joined Bartholet and others in the “denial caucus” in a so-called symposium on “The Liberal Dilemma in Child Welfare Reform” – to which only “liberals” who shared the Heimpel/Bartholet perspective were invited. (The “dilemma,” according to these “liberals” is that other liberals, with their pesky notions of due process, civil rights and civil liberties, are insufficiently willing to tear apart families.) Then Heimpel wrote up a summary in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”

At a time when The New York Times is breaking new ground with stories about foster care as “the new Jane Crow” and a piece about what some lawyers for the city’s child welfare agency really think, the Chronicle ignores all that (except for publishing an attack on the Times story) and showcases the deniers – exactly as one would expect from the Fox News of child welfare.

If he really considers himself a journalist, Heimpel should be paying close attention to CJR essays such as the one from Meyerson, who writes:

Not only do our racial identities as reporters matter, but so does our understanding of how race functions in the United States. It is everywhere, and in everything. It is in what we eat, it is with whom we eat, and it is in what we talk about while we’re eating. It’s where we live and whom we live with. It is in the absence of living around those who are of a different race, and it is living in close proximity to those who are of a different race. It’s in the conversations we have, or don’t have, with our neighbors, our parents, our friends. Race is as much a part of our lives as breathing, and its consideration must be integral to our reporting.

As long as the Chronicle of Social Change doesn’t get that, it will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Monday, October 16, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today on the Pennsylvania county where almost every impoverished child may be "seen" by CPS

It is child welfare’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk. It happens over and over again, it’s traumatic, it’s usually baseless and unnecessary, and it’s racially biased. It is a child abuse investigation.

Increasingly, across America, this kind of state-inflicted trauma is becoming a routine part of growing up. Nationwide, a study suggests it happens to a majority of black children. And in one Pennsylvania county, there may be no child, or at least no impoverished child, who is spared.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Fox News of child welfare is always ready to cozy up to the group home industry

Suppose, hypothetically, we are able to start all over again and create a child welfare system from scratch.

At a meeting to figure out how to do this someone says: “I have a great idea!  Let’s take young people who have suffered severe trauma, either because they’ve really been abused or because they were needlessly taken away from everyone they know and love, and put them all together in one place! Let’s do this right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure! It would work especially well for youth who are victims of sex trafficking! What could possibly go wrong?”

Odds are anyone proposing such a harebrained scheme would be laughed out of the meeting.

But that is exactly what we do now.  Call them group homes, or residential treatment centers or orphanages, or shelters, it’s all pretty much the same. And in a field where there is very little consensus, there is widespread agreement on one point: “Congregate care” is almost always the worst option for children and youth.  It’s not just that the places have an alarming tendency to turn into hellholes. It’s also that the very concept of congregate care is a failure.

So, why do we keep doing it? Because over more than a hundred years a great big, powerful group home industry has grown up to run them. And they don’t take kindly to anything that would even slightly curb their power. This was well-documented this year by the San Francisco Chronicle in its brilliant expose of how advocates for one of the worst forms of institution, parking place shelters, defeated reform efforts.

Most recently, the group home industry has found a new “market” to exploit – or perhaps the correct term is re-exploit: young people who have been victims of sex trafficking. The industry got a last-minute amendment added to federal legislation that would have slightly curbed the use of congregate care to exempt this population from the restrictions (the entire bill ultimately failed). But sexually trafficked youth are among those likely to suffer most from institutionalization.


The group home industry’s best friend

During all of this the group home industry has had a reliable ally – a so-called news website that’s always ready to stand up for the industry’s interests.  I’m speaking, of course, of  the Fox News of child welfare – the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.

Along with promoting odious racial stereotypes, the Chronicle runs story after story bemoaning an effort by California to ever-so-slightly curb the misuse and overuse of group homes and institutions.  Yes, the stories include a quote or two from a token supporter of the reforms. But that perspective is drowned out by gushy prose about a particular group home or shelter that is now at risk, and hand-wringing quotes from people who run the places and their allies.

The premise is always the same: Congregate care may not be the best option, the story admits, but there simply are not enough foster homes.  Group homes and foster homes are presented as the only options. The idea that states could solve the foster home “shortage” by taking fewer children needlessly is never even mentioned.

So readers dependent on Chronicle “news” stories would never know that California tears apart families at nearly double the rate of Illinois, where independent court-appointed monitors have found that child safety improved. They would never know that Los Angeles County takes away children at well over twice the rate of New York City and more than triple the rate of metropolitan Chicago.

The latest case in point:  this story, which ran under the headline: “With Group Home Reforms in California, Fears Emerge About How Sexually Trafficked Youth Will Fare.”

The focus of the story is a Santa Clara group home called The Nest. Here’s how the story begins: 

After a 16-month hiatus, The Nest, a Santa Clara group home for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), is scheduled to re-open at the end of the month.
“We can report that The Nest, our specialized residential group home program for CSEC girls is definitely NOT closed for good,” Clinical Director Renee Brown wrote in an email. “California has a serious staffing shortage,” she added, “thus the long duration to obtain persons dedicated to this very traumatized population.”
The Nest, a small six-bed residential facility, found itself short-staffed in May 2016 when two employees were let go in the wake of a series of complaints. Although The Nest is a small facility, it serves a population of kids who often require specialized services. And with two staff down, The Nest could no longer meet the needs of its youth.
“We weren’t able to deliver the kind of treatment necessary, so we took time out. The timeout was longer than we thought,” said Brown in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.

Readers don’t find out what really was behind the “series of complaints” that led to the “hiatus” or “timeout” until the very bottom of the story:
 Before temporarily closing, The Nest had a series of problems with staff that led the state’s licensing agency to file six investigation reports on the facility during 2016. The complaints ranged from staff calling youth derogatory names to staff being aware that clients were using drugs, going AWOL and becoming involved in sex trafficking, and one youth was pregnant. Two staff were said to be at fault and were let go, leading to the year-long search for new employees.

 Other group homes get the same treatment

The Nest isn’t the only place to get this kind of sympathetic coverage from the Chronicle.  Two years ago the Chronicle published a 2,000 word encomium to another California group home for the same population, this one in Redwood City.  It featured gushy paragraphs like this:

The interior walls of the yellow craftsman style home … are all painted bright colors and dusted with empowering quotes; the aesthetics a small indication of the lengths to which Annie Corbett … and her staff have gone to ensure that this home is a safe place …

After all, if the walls look pretty and the quotes are “empowering” what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, actually. Two years later the state had shut the place down, and the owner agreed never to open a group home in Redwood City again.

The Chronicle responded with still another piece sympathizing not with the home’s victims, but with the home. The headline: “Complexities of Sheltering Sexually Exploited Youth Result in Closure of San Mateo Group Home.”  Before the Chronicle decided my dissenting views were unwelcome, I wrote about it here.

The Chronicle treats first-stop parking place “shelters” the same way. Just this year, the San Francisco Chronicle exposed the horrors of many such places in California. And, as with other institutions, there is strong evidence that the shelters do none of the things they claim to do and harm the children they are meant to help.

But in the Chronicle, shelter stories have headlines such as “Los Angeles to Shutter Celebrated Center for Abused Children” (which I discussed here) and “California Time Limits 30-Day Shelters for Foster Youth in Midst of ‘Epic Crisis’ in Foster Parent Recruitment.”

Contrast this to the approach of a real news source, Youth Today, which, in its heyday ran front-page stories about institutions that had crises of conscience and reformed themselves to de-emphasize congregate care – places like Youth Villages and EMQ Child and Family Services. Both stories focused on how the reformers had to fight the group home industry in order to make the changes.

The Chronicle’s extremist friends

The Chronicle cozies up to the group home industry, promotes group homes and derides safe, proven alternatives to foster care for the same reason it gives a platform to the most vile racial stereotyping: Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel is allied with the most extreme elements in the take-the-child-and-run faction of child welfare.

He’s co-authored op-eds with Elizabeth Bartholet, whose ideas are so extreme that they include requiring every family with a young child to open itself to mandatory government surveillance. (No, I’m not exaggerating. There’s a summary of her views in the section of this post called “Harvard’s resident extremist”  and the details are in her own book, Nobody’s Children, pp. 170, 171).

Other Bartholet proposals, if implemented, would lead to the removal of at least two million children every year. (Again, see this post for how that figure is calculated.) When Bartholet and her allies gathered for a conference attacking efforts to keep families together (with no dissenters invited), it was Heimpel who wrote up the proceedings, in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”

Heimpel also provided extensive help to Bartholet for a paper she wrote attacking differential response, a safe, proven alternative to child abuse investigations in some cases. Then he promoted Bartholet’s findings in the Chronicle. (He did disclose his role.) Then he co-authored an op-ed column attacking differential response in Massachusetts – exploiting a horror story that never involved differential response at all.

Bartholet also is a leader of the movement that insists that child welfare is magically exempt from the racial bias that permeates all other aspects of American life. Heimpel not only published but personally promoted the vicious column that dredged up a pernicious racial stereotype.

Given that agenda, one can only wonder: Just how bad does a group home or institution have to get before the Chronicle will stop doing puff pieces about it?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How to fail up in child welfare: Bobby Cagle oversaw a foster-care panic when he ran child welfare in Georgia. Now he’s going to run child welfare in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
            Last November, when the federal government finally released state-by-state data on the number of children trapped in foster care the year before (yes, the feds release the data more than a year after they get it) the Associated Press reported on the grim news this way:

            The number of U.S. children in foster care is climbing after a sustained decline, but just five states account for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase.

            Among those states, the one with the worst record – the one in which the number of children in foster care increased at the highest rate – was Georgia.

According to the state’s own data, the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day skyrocketed 64 percent from 8,136 in September 2013 to 13,266 just three years later. As of March, 2017, the most recent month for which data are available, the figure had reached 13,348.

            There was a similar surge in entries into foster care – the number of children taken from their parents over a course of year. That figure increased more than 45 percent from 2013 to 2016.

            What’s been happening in Georgia since the end of 2013, the sharp, sudden surge in the number of children taken away and the number of children trapped in foster care, is a classic foster-care panic. And the man in charge of the Georgia child welfare system for almost this entire time was Bobby Cagle.

Now, Cagle has a new job. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors turned down a candidate who almost certainly would have been superior – JooYeun Chang – and decided to let Cagle bring his take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare to the largest locally-run public child welfare agency in the country, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Los Angeles already tears apart families at a rate far above the average for America's biggest cities and their surrounding counties. Now the Supervisors are bringing in someone likely to make that record even worse.

Before Cagle, Georgia was making progress

            Before Cagle took over, Georgia had reduced its rates of foster care placement and removal to among the lowest in the country. So I’m sure Cagle’s defenders will rush to haul out the most tired cliché in child welfare and inform us that the “pendulum” had swung too far.

            But the evidence says otherwise. From 2006 through 2013, even as the number of Georgia children in foster care steadily declined, the key measure of child safety – the rate at which children who have been abused or neglected are maltreated again – also declined. In other words, child safety improved. In contrast, during the years of foster-care panic this measure has gotten worse.

            So why the foster-care panic?

Of course Georgia officials cited drug abuse, the all-purpose excuse for skyrocketing foster care. But many states have drug problems, they don’t all let their foster-care populations increase by more than 64 percent. And while the problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real, it does not follow that the knee-jerk solution needs to be tearing apart families.

That is a lesson we should have learned from a previous “drug plague” – crack cocaine. University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child. 

No, it's not just drugs

But Georgia officials also cited two other reasons. Georgia is a state-run child welfare system, but individual county offices each had their own child abuse hotlines. In 2013, Georgia created a single, centralized hotline with one statewide number. Reports alleging child abuse increased sharply – presumably because of all the attendant publicity. Such publicity typically is accompanied by pleas to report anything and everything no matter how absurd.

People do just that. So there should have been greater skepticism about reports and more careful screening.  In Pennsylvania, for example, where as in California, individual counties run child welfare, after the legislature passed a series of feel-good laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, reports alleging child abuse soared.  In Philadelphia, which has weak leadership, entries into foster care soared, too. But not in Pittsburgh, where the head of the county human services agency understood that the increase was likely to consist largely of false reports and trivial cases.

There is no evidence that Cagle brought the same critical eye to the surge in reports in Georgia. That’s probably because of the third factor.

As AP put it “Another factor [in Georgia] has been public outrage over some highly publicized cases in which children died from severe abuse even though caseworkers had prior indications they were at risk.”

That is, of course, the classic trigger for foster-care panics. And that is where leadership makes all the difference. Instead of refusing to be stampeded into tearing apart more families needlessly, Cagle threw gasoline on the fire. He drastically curbed a program to divert what appeared to be less serious cases to voluntary help, instead of launching full-scale child abuse investigations.  True, not every study has found that this approach, commonly called “differential response” is safe.  Only 25 out of 26 did -- and many found that safety improved.

Cagle’s move further strained caseworkers, leaving them less time to give any case the careful attention it needs. That may explain why the key measure of child safety, reabuse of children known-to-the-system, actually has worsened during the foster-care panic.

The same lousy system, only bigger

Cagle’s response: a caseworker hiring binge. But if all you do is hire more workers, even as you undermine safeguards against needless removal, all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

The foster-care panic also may have contributed to the death of a two-year-old foster child, Laila Marie Daniel. A foster-care panic creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, making caseworkers less likely to scrutinize those homes carefully. But while Cagle was quick to suggest that deaths of children at the hands of birth parents required systemic changes, such as curbing differential response, he dismissed the Daniel case as an aberration and fired the caseworker and supervisor handling the case.

So why would a track record like this appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors?  Because Cagle is good at doing what a majority of Supervisors appear to cherish most: placating politicians and media.

Anything that smacks of “cracking down on child abuse” is popular with a press and public that reacts, rightly, with shock and horror at what a few sadistic brutes do to their children, but is largely unaware or uninterested in the enormous harm that needless foster care does in cases that are far more typical, such as cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Two massive studies have found that in typical child welfare cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

So the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which fanned the flames of foster-care panic in Georgia much as Garrett Therolf did did when he covered that beat for the Los Angeles Times, gave Cagle a fond farewell when the L.A. appointment was announced. The quote from “Together Georgia,” a trade association for the state’s foster-care providers, is particularly gushy.

While placating the press, the pols, and the providers, Cagle made caseworkers happy by hiring more of them and by doing something genuinely constructive, giving them a raise.  But he also wasted money on a giant pay raise for foster parents – in some cases raising their pay by more than 60 percent.  That same money could have been used for child care and rent subsidies so parents didn’t lose their children in the first place because of poverty.

So it’s clear that Bobby Cagle knows how to make journalists, politicians and foster-care agencies happy. But the impoverished families of Los Angeles now have even more reason to be afraid of DCFS.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Yes, NYC, there IS a foster care panic. The Mayor’s own “Management Report” proves it

Several posts to this Blog have documented the desperate efforts of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services to pretend there has been no foster-care panic – no sharp spike in children torn from their families and consigned to foster care – in the wake of the death of Zymere Perkins in late September, 2016.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's annual
"Mayor's Management Report" confirms the
foster-care panic.
Officials have stumbled all over themselves – and contradicted each other. ACS Commissioner David Hansell said no, there’s been no increase at all, then a deputy would say: Well, yes, there’s been an increase, but at no greater rate than the increase in reports alleging child abuse or neglect.  (Because of the Sandusky Rule, discussed in detail here, that would still indicate a foster-care panic.) Then still another official would contradict them both.

But now we have the definitive word from all of these officials’ boss: Mayor Bill de Blasio. In comes in the form of the section about ACS in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, an exhaustive annual compendium of stats and spin.  The most recent report covers the city’s last full fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2016 through June 30 2017.

According to this report, during that time period:

● Reports alleging child abuse or neglect increased by 7.2 percent.

● But entries into foster care soared by 13 percent – the first year-to-year increase since 2009.

So yes, there is a foster-care panic, and no it’s not because of increased reports alleging abuse or neglect.

And there were other disturbing data:

● The number of families receiving services to keep children out of foster care dropped.

● The proportion of allegations that workers deemed “indicated” – which means only that the worker checked a box on a form indicating s/he thinks there is “some credible evidence” there was abuse or neglect, even if there is more evidence of innocence, – is up sharply.  (The New York standard for declaring a case “indicated” is even lower than most states.)

This often happens during a foster-care panic, even though indication or substantiation rates actually should go down because during a panic anyone and everyone is encouraged to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd.

And perhaps most alarming: The time period covered includes nearly three months before Zymere Perkins died, in other words, three months before the panic began, so it does not reflect the full extent of the panic.

That a lot of these removals are unnecessary is made abundantly clear by the  fact that, during the years that entries into foster care declined, data show no compromise of child safety; in fact, key safety indicators improved,

The extent of unnecessary removal also is aptly illustrated by the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

And the panic appears to be continuing.  The latest monthly report from ACS, which includes July, 2017 the first month of the new fiscal year shows that removals to foster care are up significantly over the same month in 2016.  So everything that Times story found probably is getting worse.

Monday, September 25, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today: Abuse in foster care: Research vs. the child welfare system's alternative facts

Suppose, hypothetically, you could gather in one room 333 former foster children. Now, suppose you asked how many of them had been abused while in foster care. Does anyone seriously believe that only one of those 333 former foster children would raise her or his hand?
Both common sense and an overwhelming mass of evidence says: Of course not.
But, apparently, Wendy Rickman wants us to believe it. That’s frightening, because Rickman is a high-ranking official in a state child welfare agency. She runs the division of adult, children and family services for the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS).

Friday, September 1, 2017

What some lawyers for New York City’s child welfare agency REALLY think of the people they see in Family Court

The lawyers who represent the New York City child welfare agency in Family Court have been known to complain about how much work they have to do.  But some of them seem to have a lot of time on their hands.

The New York Times reports that three lawyers for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services and a fourth from the Legal Aid Society, which represents children in child welfare cases, took pictures of people in Family Court, probably parents and other adult family members, then posted the pictures on Facebook and exchanged crude, demeaning banter about the attire of those they photographed.

According to the Times:
 State law … prohibits taking photographs inside a courthouse, including hallways, without permission of the chief administrator of courts. The photos, including one of an obese woman with an emoji superimposed over her face, appeared to have been taken surreptitiously.

ACS Commissioner David Hansell issued the customary denunciation of this behavior, telling the Times that it is “completely inconsistent with our agency culture and expectations…”

But is it?

On the one hand, there are a lot of lawyers working for ACS. There is no evidence that all, or even most of them think this way.

But what does it say about the culture at ACS that even some lawyers felt free to engage in this behavior – and post the results on Facebook? Apparently they did not fear discipline, or even censure from their peers.


● Anthropologist Tina Lee, who spent 14 months “embedded” with all key players in the New York City system wrote in her book, Catching a Case:

I often … witnessed disrespectful or callous comments made about parents and families by attorneys between cases or in hallways and elevators. … I heard attorneys and court officers openly make fun of parents and their problems between cases…

● Lee did her field work at ACS and Family Court in 2008. But Joyce McMillan, Director of Programming for New York’s Child Welfare Organizing Project says:

It has changed only  a little.  Parents still voice concerns about how they treated regularly. … I have great concern that the legal representatives in this article were so comfortable with their behavior they posted it on social media. This level of disrespect is indicative of a culture that is detrimental to preserving families.

● This story comes just weeks after the Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” – documenting case after case of needless removal of children, rooted in biases against poor people, especially people of color.

● And, of course, Study after study documents both the racial bias and the class bias built into the American child welfare system.

Why should the lawyers be different?

Why should we expect ACS lawyers to be different from the “Blogger of the Year” for the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, an online child welfare trade journal, who, in criticizing the Times story, dredged up an odious racial stereotype

As she reminds us in every column she writes, the “Blogger of the Year” was a social worker for the Washington, D.C. child welfare agency for five years.  The editors of the Chronicle, the Fox News of child welfare, have not apologized or in any way distanced themselves from her hateful column.

And, once again, I hope the rest of America will keep in mind that most systems are worse than the one in New York City.

So the next time New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio or a member of the New York State Legislature whines about judges refusing to simply rubber-stamp ACS recommendations to tear apart families, keep in mind the baggage that some ACS caseworkers and some ACS lawyers are dragging into the courtroom with them.