Tuesday, July 26, 2016

New columns about racial bias in "predictive analytics" and the so-called Family First Act

ProPublica has done some outstanding reporting on racial bias in the use of algorithms - "predictive analytics" - in criminal justice.  Things may be even worse in child welfare

Read our column here

Although I oppose the so-called "Family First Act" which would make small changes in how the federal government pays for child welfare services, some of the arguments against the bill are so disingenuous that they tempt me to change my mind.

This column explains why

Friday, July 8, 2016

New columns on the latest CASA scandal and on child welfare finance legislation

There's another scandal at a program affiliated with the most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  No one should be surprised.  Bias is built into the CASA model.

Read about it here.

And here's my analysis of proposed child welfare finance reform legislation:

Monday, June 27, 2016

New columns on child welfare finance

In the Chronicle of Social Change, NCCPR looks at what really works in child abuse prevention:
To Prevent Child Abuse: Replace the “Public Health Approach” with a Social Justice Approach

And in Youth Today, a look at how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program meant to help poor people become self-sufficient became a child welfare slush fund.

Also, while in London earlier this month, I had the opportunity to meet the author of the excellent new study discussed here:
New Longitudinal Study Finds Epidemic of Fear, Not an Epidemic of Child Abuse


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The best way to help the child who got into the gorilla enclosure is to leave his parents alone

● The last thing this child needs is a child abuse investigation
● Did Cincinnati police cave in to the virtual lynch mob?

We all know the story, right?  Four-year-old gets into gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Gorilla’s behavior endangers child.  Zookeepers kill gorilla.

Oh, and I almost forgot: A virtual lynch mob of more than 430,000 people decide that they would never, ever make the kind of mistake the child’s mother made when she lost track of the boy.  They’ve signed a petition demanding that the mother be investigated for child neglect. 

The Cincinnati police initially said there would be no investigation of either the parents or the zoo. Now they say they’ll investigate the parents.

Before I get to why that’s so unjust, let me start with why it’s such a bad idea

The reason to call off the police investigation and leave the parents alone is not for the sake of those parents. It’s because the child has suffered enough.

The last thing this child needs is to be questioned by police and/or child protective services workers. The last thing he needs is any more stress on his family. And the last thing he needs is to be put at even a slight risk of being consigned to foster care – where the chances of actual abuse are so high.

This is especially important for a child of this age – because at this age children tend to interpret anything that happens to them as their fault. So no matter how hard caseworkers and police may try to avoid it, he will interpret the questioning and, God forbid, the foster care as somehow his fault.

I can hear the virtual lynch mob now: But what if this is some “sign” of chronic neglect? What if there is more going on?  That’s what the petition says (and no, I’m not going to link to it):

We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.

But this incident is a sign of something deeper to exactly the same extent that any mistake any parent has made while supervising a child is a sign of something deeper. So don’t send the police in to do the real damage of an investigation because of a mob’s fervid imagination.

The petition isn’t really about protecting the child at all.  That’s clear from the title of the petition, “Justice for Harambe” – that’s the gorilla. If the top priority really were the child, you’d think that would get a mention in the title.

What these 430,000+ people should be thinking is “there but for the grace of God…” because here are some things people who have not raised children may not know:

● Four-year-olds tend to be small.
● Four-year-olds tend to be curious.
● Four-year-olds often can move at something approaching the speed of light.

The New York Times puts the whole thing in perspective quite well here.  The column cites an essay from Cincinnati Enquirer opinion editor Cindi Andrews who initially condemned the mother – until she rememberd the time she made a very similar mistake.  If not for good luck and a driver with good brakes the person on the receiving end of all that condemnation - while possibly mourning the loss of a child - could have been she.

But she probably wouldn’t have faced such condemnation. Because she’s white.

As in everything else in American life, race does matter here, as New York Daily News columnist Shaun King shows us in this column comparing the response to the Cincinnati parents to the response in other, similar cases.

And there’s scholarship to back up King’s impression.  No, as far as I know, no one has done a study of how parents are treated when their children fall into zoo enclosures. But there is a study of who gets prosecuted in a similar kind of tragedy that can be viewed either as an accident or negligence: Children who die when left in overheated cars.

The researcher was not able to break down prosecutions by race – but she did break them down by economic status. She writes:

One particularly important—and disturbing—finding was the disparate treatment of parents from different socioeconomic groups: parents in blue collar professions and parents who were unemployed were four times more likely to be prosecuted than parents from wealthier socioeconomic groups.

Unfortunately, even a writer who wants to call off the virtual lynch mob threw fuel on the fire.

Alex Abad-Santos wrote this, and more, on Vox:

It just seems a little puzzling to not be able to keep an eye on your child especially in a place where killing beasts — gorillas, lions, wild African dogs, and wolves — roam. And the missing child must have been missing for some time to get through the barriers on his own.

As the New York Times story makes clear, Abad-Santos is gravely underestimating four-year-olds
And check out this account from an eyewitness quoted on Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog:

 This was an open exhibit! Which means the only thing separating you from the gorillas, is a 15 ish foot drop and a moat and some bushes!! This mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation!

Abad-Santos argues that the mother in this case must have been extraordinarily negligent because this has never happened before at the Cincinnati Zoo.  But that doesn’t consider all the near-misses we may never know about – all those children caught in the nick of time, or a few seconds before the nick of time, in zoos and so many other places. Go back and reread Cindi Andrews column, Alex.

Abad-Santos also argues that

It's not like [the mother] lost track of her son and he bumped his head on a kitchen table or burned himself on a hot pan.

On the contrary, that’s exactly what it’s like. But the place where it happened ratcheted up the consequences and turned the mother into a target for the mob – something that, do his credit, Abad Santos decries.

So now, let’s face up to one of the hardest truths of all: Sometimes bad things happen and no one may be to blame.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Indian Child Welfare Act: The real tragedy is that it’s not enforced

Before ICWA: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1900
This is an expanded version of a column that appeared originally in the Chronicle of Social Change

Casey Jo Caswell of Lansing, Mich. made a terrible mistake. Homeless and jobless, she turned to Michigan’s child welfare agency for help raising her son, Ricky. But the agency offered no help with housing, no help with a job, and no help with education.  They told her to surrender the child to “temporary” foster care, and then rushed to terminate her parental rights.

Ricky was placed with middle-class foster parents in a nice, big home, first as a foster child, then
it became his adoptive home.

Once, during a counseling session, the Detroit News reported, the boy was playing with two plastic horses, when he said: “This little horse is going to die if he can’t be with his mother.” That proved prophetic.  Ricky Holland’s white adoptive parents murdered him. They stuffed his body in a trash bag and left it by the side of a road.

Yet in all the years since, no one has suggested that, because of this horror story, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), the law that spurred the rush to place Ricky in the home where he was adopted to death, should be repealed or curbed. That’s understandable. There’s an excellent case for curbing ASFA, but it shouldn’t be built on horror stories that unfairly stigmatize entire groups.

Yet Marie Cohen offers a similar horror story involving a Native American home (recycled from the far right Goldwater Institute ) as the only evidence in support of her claim in a column for the Chronicle of Social Change, that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) should be curbed – or maybe never should have been passed at all; she’s not clear about that. The Goldwater Institute has filed a class-action suit against ICWA.

Cohen dismisses in a single sentence the horrors inflicted on Native American children that led to passage of ICWA. In fact, from the 19th Century through the 1960s, American child welfare agencies tried to effectively eradicate Indian culture and, indeed, Indian tribes, through the expedient of taking away children. First, they were warehoused in hideous orphanages. Later, there was a campaign of mass adoptions. Melissa Harris Perry called the orphanages an “explicit cultural extermination mission.” The Lakota People’s Law Project is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

By the mid-20th Century people stopped actually saying “kill the Indian, save the child” but it took ICWA to change practice – though it hasn’t changed nearly enough.

Opponents of ICWA respond exactly as the Supreme Court majority dealt with the Voting Rights Act: Well, yes, racism used to be a problem, but not anymore!

There are two problems with this:

First, if you curb a bad practice by passing a law and then you eviscerate the law, it’s not hard to figure out what will happen next – witness the wave of voter suppression laws that followed the Supreme Court voting rights decision.

Second, contrary to what John Roberts and Marie Cohen seem to think, racism isn’t dead.

In 2003, Dewey Sloan, chief juvenile prosecutor in an Iowa county where Native American children were in foster care at a rate seven times higher than the rate for white children told the Des Moines Register, "I don't think there's anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse."

Or consider what happens to Native American children in South Dakota. That state tears apart families at a rate 80 percent above the national average.  And while Native Americans are 15 percent of the population, they are more than half of all foster children. The horrors inflicted on Native American children by the state were documented in a heart-rending series by NPR – in 2011.

NPR’s findings were confirmed by a federal judge last November. And, in another lawsuit, the federal government is charging the South Dakota Department of Social Services with discriminating against Native American job applicants.

So yes, there’s a problem with ICWA alright – the problem is it’s not being enforced.

And the right-wing propaganda about ICWA has been remarkably effective – even to the point of getting some on the left to help do their dirty work.

In Santa Clarita, California, Rusty and Summer Page took in Lexi, a child who is part Native American, knowing at the outset that the plan was to return her to her own father or, if that wasn’t possible, to extended family. But when the child’s tribe moved to do just that, the Pages went to court. When they finally ran out of legal options, they created a media circus. Though it was the Pages who stalled and stalled the return of the child, that didn’t stop them from claiming in a petition  -- on Change.org – that theirs was “the only family that she has ever known.” The claim was echoed in one news account after another.

The claim is false. Lexi was in continual contact with her extended family – and they already had taken in Lexi’s sister.

Almost every news account claims the child was sent to relatives, in the words of one story, “all because of her Native American heritage” and ICWA.  But federal law also calls for giving preference to relatives, and keeping siblings together – precisely because both practices are best for children.

Indeed, in a series of tweets, Nicole Cliffe, editor of The Toast explained the entire case better than most of the mainstream media.

 Cohen bemoans the fact that under ICWA, child welfare agencies are supposed to make “active efforts” to keep families together, theoretically a higher standard than the “reasonable efforts” required for non-Native children.

But the reasonable efforts requirement was never enforced and was rendered effectively meaningless by ASFA.  In Michigan, where Ricky Holland died in his adoptive home, 40 percent of judges surveyed admitted that they lie and certify that “reasonable efforts” were made to keep families together even when they don’t really believe it. 

And the fact that four separate studies since 1996 found that 30 percent of foster children could be home right now if the families simply had decent housing further illustrates that in practice “reasonable efforts” often means zero effort. So in real life, “active efforts” means ever-so- slightly more than zero. 

When it comes to the treatment of Native American children, that’s the real horror.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Child abuse in Texas: Things you should not do in an emergency

Photo by James Cridland
The Dallas Morning News reported last week that: 
Tens of thousands of infants and children believed to be in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, even death, are not being seen promptly by state child abuse investigators — and thousands of them haven’t been checked on at all. …
Across Texas, on an average day, nearly 700 unseen children are classified as extreme cases — “Priority 1” in the agency’s terms …
But the most staggering numbers come from Harris County, where about 1,300 children who are supposed have already had a face-to-face contact with a caseworker haven’t been seen. The unvisited children account for about 22 percent of all cases referred to that office in March and April, The News’ analysis found. 
The reason all these children aren’t being seen?  Caseworkers are overloaded.

A Morning News editorial correctly calls this “an emergency.”

Here are some things you should not do in an emergency:

● Texas should not be investigating and taking away children from a Harris County family like this one.

● Texas should not be investigating and taking away children from a Harris County family like this one, either.

● Texas should not be taking away children at a rate we now know is far above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

And Texas journalists might want to spend some time watching out to be sure that the new spending required to meet the terms of a federal court decision isn’t stolen from the few things being done in that state that actually work – like this, in Bexar County.

Then, maybe, caseworkers actually would have time to get to all those “Priority 1” children they’re not seeing now.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Child Abuse: The not-really-all-that-shocking truth


Imagine you read an article that began like this:

“A reckoning is coming in gerontology. New studies show that when a group of 95-year-olds is followed for five years, a greater proportion die than when they are followed for only one.”

You’d probably think it was a story from The Onion. You’d probably think the same if you read a story saying that people followed for five years, versus those followed for only one, are more likely to catch cold, fall in love, get in an auto accident, take a dream vacation, or discover the presence of gambling at a certain cafĂ© in Casablanca.

And yet we are supposed to be shocked – shocked! – when a study that follows children for five years finds more of what authorities define as abuse and neglect than studies focusing on a single year.