Wednesday, July 19, 2017

It took two federal agencies to stop Massachusetts from illegally destroying a family. Now Oregon is trying to do the same thing

The two agencies found that Massachusetts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. So what about Oregon?

A columnist for the Oregonian has a very good column this week about how the Oregon child welfare agency has torn two children from a loving couple because the agency deems the i.q. scores of the mother and father insufficient.

There is no finding that either child was ever abused or neglected (the second child actually was confiscated at birth). In fact, the only trauma they’ve suffered is being torn from their parents – among the worst traumas any child can endure. And of course, they face the high risk of abuse in foster care itself – a risk that probably is especially high in Oregon.

The behavior of the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) – harming the children in this way - is morally reprehensible. A good case can be made that it’s also illegal – a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  We know this because the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services said so in a scathing letter to Massachusetts child welfare officials about a remarkably similar case in that state.  I wrote about that case for a report-in-progress. Because of the Oregon case, I’m posting that section of the report below.

Like Oregon, Massachusetts is enamored of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. Both states tear apart families at rates well above the national average.

So the next time child welfare leaders in either state whine about overwhelming caseloads and how that supposedly stops them from doing their jobs well, some reporter might want to ask them why they waste precious resources destroying families such as these.

This is what happened in Massachusetts:

            Here’s what a nationally-recognized expert on parenting with a mental disability said about Sara Gordon,* a parent with a mental disability:

            Clearly, [Ms. Gordon] is a loving, caring, and conscientious mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to have her daughter in her life.  She is capable of learning new skills and has done so through her visits with [her daughter, Dana], despite them being infrequent.  . . . It is important to remember that all parents receive help at some time, and [Ms. Gordon] should be no exception.  There is no discernible reason revealed by this assessment that [Ms. Gordon together with her own parents] do not have the ability to care for her child safely.

            The expert was not alone.  As a federal investigation revealed:

multiple community-based service providers, two experts who have completed parenting assessments, Dana’s court-appointed attorney, and even a majority of DCF’s most recent Foster Care Review panel all have agreed that a family-supported parenting plan would be appropriate.  In this matter, a family-supported parenting plan means that Dana would be placed with Ms. Gordon and her parents in their home and Ms. Gordon’s mother (Dana’s grandmother) would maintain guardianship of Dana.

But none of this mattered to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  They saw none of the love between Sara and Dana and none of the support available to Sara from her own parents, with whom she was living.  As New York Magazine reported in a story on the case, they saw only her developmental disability – an i.q. of 70.

            Apparently based on little more than a caseworker’s self-proclaimed “intuition” and “vibe” and prejudices about the developmentally disabled, DCF tore the infant from her mother and placed her with strangers. 

            Seven months later, they decided to try to separate the family forever, changing the “goal” in the case to adoption and moving to terminate Sara’s parental rights.

            Even when the grandparents offered to assume legal guardianship, DCF would not relent.  The excuse, according to the New York Magazine story: Long before, Sara herself had been taken from them because of her father’s alcoholism.  He’s been sober for 18 years.

            We know about all this only because, thanks to the family’s extraordinary determination, some dedicated advocates, and some good luck, the case caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

            After a 19-month investigation, the two agencies issued a scathing 26-page letter

The letter did not look into whether DCF had violated child welfare laws – though given that a widely-ignored federal law requires child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together, the agency almost certainly did.

Rather, they found that DCF had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to the letter:

[F]or more than two years, DCF has denied Ms. Gordon and Dana the opportunity to be a family and now threatens to deny them that opportunity permanently.             Instead, DCF has continually asserted that Ms. Gordon poses a safety risk to Dana if she were to parent on her own, without consideration of any supports.  However, DCF has ignored the fact that Ms. Gordon is not proposing to parent on her own without any supports, has ignored its own ability and obligation to provide such supports, and has repeatedly ignored the objective evaluations of various clinical and service professionals … who have reviewed this case and found that Ms. Gordon’s plan to parent Dana with her family’s support is appropriate. 

            DCF listed several specific concerns about Sara Gordon’s ability to be a parent: She had difficulty with feedings and diaper changes. On a couple of occasions she walked away from the changing table.  On a couple of occasions, Sara was unable to comfort Dana when she cried.  Sometimes Sara bumped Dana’s head.

            But, the federal agency letter notes, DCF set a far lower standard for the foster parents – the parents DCF wanted to adopt Dana.  According to the letter:

DCF was aware of, and dismissed, numerous injuries to Dana, including a black eye, bumps, bruises, cuts, and burnt hands that occurred during the time in foster care.  When Dana was only a few weeks old, she was left unattended on a table in the foster home.

            The federal investigators understood that the reasons DCF was giving for keeping the family apart were just excuses:

DCF clearly presumed from the initial opening of its case that Ms. Gordon lacked the capacity to parent Dana due to her developmental disability without consideration of appropriate supports and services. … During the Departments’ interviews of DCF staff, one investigator explained that his view of Ms. Gordon’s capacity to parent was based on his “intuition” and stating that “[w]hen you meet with someone, you get a vibe whether they are going to be able to do it or not.” [Emphasis added.]
                       The agencies concluded that this probably was not an isolated case, noting that
the violations in this letter highlight systemic failures by DCF to ensure social workers follow appropriate policies and procedures and have necessary training to perform their duties without discriminating on the basis of disability.
            Two other elements of DCF’s behavior are worth noting:

            ● DCF repeatedly stonewalled, stalling for months in response to requests for information from the federal agencies, and, in some cases failing to comply at all.

            ● When it came to information about the physical harm sustained by Dana in foster care, DCF may have attempted a cover-up. The federal agencies note that they asked for all records concerning Dana’s placement in the foster home, but they received none concerning her injuries.  When federal investigators interviewed DCF staff and asked specifically about a note that made a vague reference to these injuries, the records still were not provided.  Only when the federal investigators made a specific request about documents that appeared to be missing, were the documents noting these injuries finally made available.

Although the letters led to the return of Dana to her family, the high rate of child removal in Massachusetts suggests that DCF learned nothing, and reverted immediately to business as usual.

            But this was not just a case about disability.  The Gordon family is poor.  Had Sara Gordon come from a wealthy community and showed up at the hospital with a team of health aides who would live with her in a suburban McMansion, the hospital almost certainly never would have called DCF – and had they called, DCF almost certainly would not have taken away the child.

            As Sara herself told New York Magazine: “When you’re filthy rich, they don’t take your kids.”

* -The names of the mother and daughter have been changed.

An un-beleaguered commissioner un-reforms an un-embattled child welfare agency

The headline on a recent interview with David Hansell, Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, says “New York Child Welfare Leader Looks to Reform the System.”

David Hansell
Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests that Hansell is moving to un-reform a system that probably was as good as or better than any big-city child welfare system in the country.

For the third time in 21 years, New York City is almost certainly going through a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden increase in children torn from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.  The current panic seems to have worsened since Hansell arrived.

That doesn’t mean New York used to have a good system. “Best child welfare system” is a bit like saying “best view of Trenton, N.J.” But, according to key safety indicators and a recent analysis from Casey Family Programs, a year ago it was a relatively good system – and getting better.  It was not “embattled” as it would come to be described in almost every news story and the commissioner in 2016, Gladys Carrion, was not “beleaguered.”

Until last September, that is, when ACS was mugged by the city’s tabloid press, the governor, and an assortment of mayor wannabes who grabbed their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable children.  Mayor Bill de Blasio, while not exactly joining in the mugging, behaved like the bystander who runs away and doesn’t bother to call 911.

Of course this led to the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief. So Carrion was out and Hansell was in.

What the data tell us

Let’s start with the basics. New York City has a relative wealth of child welfare data, which my group compiled at the end of our report on the city’s child welfare system.  The recent Casey report added additional data.

The number of children in foster care on any given day in New York City dropped from 48,000 in 1993 to a little under 10,000 in 2016.  The number of children entering foster care over the course of a year has risen and fallen over that time, but after spiking during panics in the late 1990s and the late 2000s, it declined every year through fiscal year 2016.  

During that same period, the two key measures of child safety – reabuse of children and foster care recidivism (the proportion of children released from foster care who had to be placed again) both have remained about the same.  In the most recent years, including Carrion’s tenure, both improved. And both measures are better now than they were in 1997 – the year the city set a record for child removals, taking more than three times as many children as in 2016.

But what about fatalities?  As the Casey Family Programs report documents in this chart,

among children “known to the system” homicide deaths declined slightly. Even when you add in fatalities for which no cause of death could be determined, the death rate remained the same.  And, the Casey report notes, New York City has an unusually expansive definition of what it means for a child to be previously known to ACS.

Most important, as the Casey report confirms, though each is the worst imaginable form of tragedy, we should be grateful that the raw number of cases is low enough to make it impossible to “prove” anything based on these horror stories.  Or as the report puts it: “It is not advisable to assess performance of and draw conclusions about a system based on retrospective fatality review.” (That this appears to contradict the key recommendation of the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities – chaired by one of Casey’s own executive vice presidents, David Sanders, is a topic for another post.)

The more reliable measures make clear that, under the leadership of Gladys Carrion the not- particularly-embattled Administration for Children’s Services engaged in a model of “trauma-informed” practice: The agency significantly reduced the number of children traumatized by needless removal of their homes, with no compromise of child safety.

Or, as the Casey report puts it: “ACS’s response to allegations of maltreatment decreases the risk of recurrence over time.” The report characterizes ACS as “a system that continues to strengthen and improve outcomes for New York City’s children and families.”

How to embattle an agency

So how did ACS wind up embattled and Carrion wind up beleaguered? 

● First came the attack of the tabloids. That happened because every few years, usually in the wake of a particularly horrifying case (this time it was Zymere Perkins), New York City news media discover that A) the city has a child protective services agency and B) sometimes children known to that agency die.

But unlike the police, who are praised when they reduce crime even when they don’t entirely eliminate it, ACS is condemned because it merely made children safer but did not prevent every tragedy.  Once the media choose one tragedy to highlight, then every succeeding tragedy becomes front-page news, thereby making them a “series” or “spate” of deaths - until the media get bored and move on.

● Then the politicians pounced. A motley assortment of likely candidates in the next mayoral election
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
issued “damning” and/or “blistering” reports that “blasted” the “embattled” agency and the “beleaguered” commissioner.

They were aided by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who is engaged in a bitter, personal feud with Mayor de Blasio.  And it’s all been compounded by a lawsuit from Marcia Lowry, who divorced the group she originally founded, Children’s Rights, and formed a new one, A Better Childhood. The lawsuit is so ill-conceived that the lawyers who represent children in child welfare proceedings joined the lawyers who represent parents in opposing it.

Hansell isn’t helping

This is the turmoil into which David Hansell walked. His initial moves are likely to make things worse.

● His fondness for the city’s Child-STAT system in which weekly meetings are held to pour over data and review cases shows no indication that he understands the crucial flaws in that system – such as allowing casework like this to go unchallenged.

● One of the consultants he’s brought in, Phillip Browning ran a system, Los Angeles County, that takes away children at a rate well over double that of New York City – with no evidence that L.A. kids are twice as safe as their New York City counterparts. 

● All of his consultants have a fondness for “predictive analytics” or as it should properly be called, computerized racial profiling. In contrast Gladys Carrion was one of the few child welfare leaders to suggest that the predictive analytics emperor might have no clothes.

The Casey report warns that

reactive and punitive action following high-profile tragedies contributes to fear-based decisions and an increased number of children removed and placed in foster care.  In addition, it overloads the system, and the staff, leading to poor staff morale and high turnover rates.

Although Casey didn’t say it, that also means workers have less time to investigate any case properly, increasing the risk to children.

Unfortunately, Casey’s report suggests, albeit in the same genteel language, that ACS is doing just what it warns against – stifling the system in a mass of what might best be called CYA  rules, regulations, reviews and reviews-of-the-reviews, none of which does anything to make children safer.  In some cases, Casey found, these new reviews are delaying provision of services to families.

But worst of all, Hansell has done nothing to stop the foster-care panic. It’s not his fault that in October, 2016, the first full month after Zymere Perkins died, ACS tore children from their families at a rate 75 percent above the same month a year earlier.  But he does bear primary responsibility for the fact that, in May of this year, the most recent month for which data are available, entries into care more than doubled over the same month the last year.

So congratulations Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, assorted mayor-wannabees and Commissioner Hansell.  Soon ACS may well be off the hook. But now it’s the children who are beleaguered and the families who are embattled.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Captain America vs. the algorithm!

SPOILER ALERT: Some key plot elements in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are discussed below.

I’m a little behind on movies.  It was only last week that I saw the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Solider.

Imagine how surprised I was to find that the ultimate weapon of mass destruction in the arsenal of the supervillains turned out to be – predictive analytics!

Seriously. The villains, who prize order over everything, decide the best way to create a New World Order is to get rid of anyone who might interfere with their plans -  before it even occurs to them to try.  So they plan to use an algorithm to predict who will become a terrorist or, perhaps, just a dissenter, it’s never quite clear – and terminate them.  They even try to seduce Captain America’s allies by painting a picture of themselves as the good guys; after all, they just want a world where terrorists could be stopped before they even contemplated becoming terrorists.

Of course this is only the stuff of comic book sci-fi. In real life no one would ever seriously propose a drastic, coercive, punitive intervention into someone’s life based on an algorithm’s prediction that they might do something bad in the future – unless, of course they work in child welfare.  Think I’m kidding: Check it out.

Of course, by the end of the movie Captain America has saved the day – for now. But there’s always a sequel. Perhaps in the next sequel those who hatched this scheme will have gone into hiding where they are more appreciated – in child protective services agencies.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today: Lawsuit reveals child welfare's assault on battered women, their children

From the column:

Then, according to the [lawsuit] complaint, in what may be the single most candid statement ever uttered by a child welfare worker, a caseworker for the private agency explained how the system really works: The case, she explained, is a “maze.” Like mice in a cruel lab experiment, both parents are at the “beginning of the maze.” The children are at “the end of the maze.” She then said that “whichever parent finished his or her services first” wins — that is, he or she would get the children.

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Child welfare and the latest “drug plague,” part three: Mother Jones comes closer to getting it right

The previous two posts to this Blog dealt – at great length – with the failings of a Washington Post story on the intersection of the “opioid epidemic” and child welfare. That story was a throwback to the “crack baby” journalism of 30 years ago.

Just a few days after the Post story, Mother Jones published its own take on opioids and child welfare – and came closer to the mark.  Yes, like the Post, it emphasizes horror stories – something I’ll get to below. But reporter Julie Lurie’s story diverges sharply from the Post, and much typical child welfare reporting, in the lessons learned from the horrors. And the entire story is infused with a sense of humanity and empathy that is missing from much of American journalism about either drug abuse or child welfare.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Child welfare and the latest “drug plague,” part two: How a single, unreliable source led The Washington Post astray

 Read part one here.

Yesterday’s post to this blog dealt with how the Washington Post misunderstood drug abuse in a story about opioids and foster care – and why that misunderstanding hurts children.

But there was an even greater failing in the story. The Post reporters didn’t just get addiction wrong.  Apparently new to child welfare, they got that field wrong as well. That’s because they relied on only one, unreliable source. 

ALL of these things are just like the others
No reporter doing a story on, say, the effects of raising the minimum wage or the impact of environmental regulations on business would talk only to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. No reporter doing a story about the high cost of prescription drugs – or their safety – would talk only to PhRMA – the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of America. No reporter doing a story on the safety of hydraulic fracking would talk only to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

But in seeking to explain the child welfare system, the Post reporters spoke only to a representative of a group that calls itself the Child Welfare League of America.

Putting “child welfare” in your name does not automatically mean you are interested in the welfare of children any more than the fact that the trade association for Payday lenders calls itself the Community Financial Services Association of America automatically means they are interested in the welfare of communities.

A more honest name for CWLA would be the Agency Welfare League of America. CWLA is, in fact, a trade association for public and private child welfare agencies.  That means they bring to the table vested interests, just like the Chamber of Commerce and PhRMA and API.

When the interests of children and the interests of its member agencies are in conflict, CWLA has a disturbing track record. That’s something the Post reporters would have known had they done the kind of digging done by the Hartford Courant in 2004. Or if they’d seen what the Dayton Daily News found even earlier in the course of exposing serious problems at a CWLA member agency.

CWLA has a profound vested interest in “solutions” that involve making its dues-paying member agencies bigger.  In the case of private agencies, their very existence may be at stake.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Child welfare and the latest “drug plague,” part one: How the Washington Post story on opioids and foster care got almost everything wrong.

First of three parts

Read part two here: You’ll never understand child welfare if your only source isa trade association for child welfare agencies.

Read part three here: An analysis of a far better story on the same topic, from MotherJones.

A list of all the experts on opioid abuse and the effects of opioid abuse on children quoted in the Washington Post Story.


● The Post story is a throwback to the “crack baby” journalism of the 1980s.

● The story ignores the most important lesson from that era: Research showing that even children born with cocaine in their systems do better in their own homes than in foster care.

● Though there are scores of experts who can put the claims of foster parents and child welfare officials into context, experts who say that a knee-jerk rush to more foster care is the wrong answer, the Post either consulted none of them, or simply chose to quote none of them.

● The main story also includes not a single quote from a parent who lost a child to the system – instead they are portrayed in the main story – by the sources the Post reporters preferred – as sadistic brutes or hopeless addicts.

● The story ignores the few places that have bucked the trend and dealt with opioid abuse and child welfare through more and better drug treatment instead of a knee-jerk response of more foster care.

By reinforcing stereotypes, tacitly endorsing failed approaches and ignoring successful alternatives, the story is likely to hurt the very children the reporters almost certainly wanted to help.

Remember “crack babies”?  Sure you do.  Back in the 1980s, they were the infants supposedly doomed to a life of “certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”  The predictions were accompanied by graphic depictions of infants going through withdrawal, and condemnation of their mothers for “choosing” addiction over their children.

None of the dire predictions came true. By 2004, Columbia Journalism Review was, in effect, urging reporters to please knock it off. A few years later, The New York Times ran a story headlined “Crack Babies: The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” Years after that, the Times returned to that theme in a short documentary. And when W. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism” he devoted an entire chapter to “The Fantasy Panic: The News Media and the ‘Crack Baby’ Myth.”

None of that stopped journalists from making the same sorts of mistakes when a new “drug plague” – methamphetamine – became the center of attention.

But the media watchdogs keep trying.

Now that opioid abuse is the new official Worst-Drug-Plague-Ever, public radio’s On The Media is trying to put to rest myths about drug abuse with a “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” on the topic – part of an entire program devoted to myths about the war on drugs.

But most important, particularly in the context of child welfare, as early as 1998 pioneering research at the University of Florida confirmed that there is something much worse for infants than cocaine: foster care.

The researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left in their own homes with mothers deemed 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.  Consistently, the children left with their 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.

But on June 1, The Washington Post came out swinging.