Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Four years trapped in foster care – because Iowa DHS didn’t like Mom’s housing (and other horrors of Iowa child welfare)

Nothing better sums up the state of Iowa child welfare than one sentence buried amid the 2,500 words of a Des Moines Register story Sunday:  A child is trapped in foster care for four years because her mother “only had an efficiency apartment.”

In a classic example of the vicious, lets-bash-those-“bad-parents”-no-matter-how-much-we-hurt-kids-in-the-process mentality that permeates the Iowa system, the state Department of Human Services punished a child for four years because Mom couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment.

And it’s hard to imagine anything that better explains the fact that Iowa actually spends a lot on child welfare, but gets horrific results than the fact that helping Mom pay for that one bedroom apartment would have cost vastly less than four years of foster care.

Sadly, this is not unusual.  Nationwide, 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had adequate housing. In Iowa, which takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, the proportion almost certainly is even higher.

Reading between the lines

There are other messages between the lines in the Register story, almost all of them dismal.

● Iowa is almost certainly in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden surge in children torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.  That often happens when child abuse deaths are in the news, as they are now in Iowa. The fact that, in this case, the children who died were children who had been adopted by their foster parents doesn’t matter. 

According to the tortured logic of Iowa DHS, when two children placed in foster care die in their adoptive homes (and a third suffers horrific abuse before escaping) the solution is to place more children in foster care.

● The Register story implies that the panic is inevitable – after all, more people are reporting alleged abuse and “more children are being found to be abused” so it stands to reason there are more children who need to be taken, right?


For starters, this leaves out the fact that, even before any current panic, Iowa has been tearing apart families at a vastly higher rate than most of the nation (more on that below). But also, when high-profile cases are in the news, and anyone and everyone is being urged to report anything and everything, what you get is a massive increase in false reports, usually by well-meaning people who suddenly decide that, say, a neighbor’s behavior just might be suspicious.

Child welfare agencies with strong leadership don’t give in to this.

That’s the lesson from Pennsylvania, where individual counties run child welfare.

When that state experienced a similar surge in reports after the sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky (who, by the way, was a foster parent), the system in Philadelphia (the Iowa of big cities – it’s long taken children at a rate far above the rate in most major metropolitan areas) did indeed see an increase in removals.  But Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County did not – because the reformer who has run that system for decades understood that most of the new reports were false – and he refused to tolerate a foster-care panic.

Iowa is an extreme outlier

● Foster-care panics cause enormous harm to children in any state.  They are worse, of course,  in a state that starts out tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  The Register mentioned in passing that Iowa removes children from their homes “at a higher rate than most other states…” but that’s an understatement.  Iowa is an extreme outlier.

● The Register story claims that some groups want to keep more children “found in risky situations” with their parents or relatives. That’s true.  But we don’t just want to do that and go away.  We support safe, proven alternatives that remove the risk instead of the child.

Foster care, on the other hand, with its high rate of abuse and enormous inherent emotional trauma is most definitely a “risky situation.”  In fact, for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time family preservation is the safer choice. (And, for the record, an efficiency apartment is not a “risky situation” to begin with.)

● The story also implies that the fact that there is far more abuse in foster care than suggested by Iowa’s official statistics is merely the claim of one former foster child.  On the contrary, it’s what we know from one major study after another.

Iowa makes way too much use of “shelters”

● Still another shocking fact about Iowa child welfare emerges from the story – with no apparent recognition of just how shocking it is: the extent to which Iowa relies on what is, by far, the worst option for children, institutionalizing them in “shelters.” 

The San Francisco Chronicle is only the latest in a long line of newspapers to expose the horrors of such places.  But more important, even when there is no actual physical abuse, the very existence of this sort of placement is barbaric – shelters are that harmful to children. That’s why states such as Alabama and New Jersey have sharply – and successfully - restricted their use.  (One small bit of good news: The Alabama child welfare leader who implemented the curbs on shelters and other successful reforms, is Paul Vincent, who’s been hired to assess the situation in Iowa.)

Much the same is true of “residential treatment” – another option that has been found harmful in study after study – and again, there are far better alternatives. Details here. (See especially the All Purpose Foster Care-Industrial Complex Excuse Checklist on Page 3, which has responses to all the nonsense one typically hears from shelter directors.)

● Almost everyone in child welfare pays lip service to “prevention.” You never hear anyone say “boy, if there’s one thing I hate it’s prevention!” But usually, it’s the wrong kind of “prevention.” There’s a very good chance that the mother who lived in that efficiency apartment was forced into “counseling” and “parent education.” That probably made it that much harder for her to search for what she really needed – better housing and the job necessary to afford better housing.

There is a difference between prevention that involves making the helpers feel good and actually providing what families need. There’s more discussion of this here.

● Even worse, the new director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Jerry Foxhoven, says he won’t even bother trying to get the federal government to change financial incentives that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives.  In fact, Foxhoven can barely manage even the usual lip service. From the story:

Foxhoven says he does believe in the concept that "it's a lot easier for everybody to buy smoke alarms than fire trucks." But, he added, "you still need fire trucks."

Unfortunately, in child welfare, the “fire trucks” too often are like the kind in the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.

Turning adoptive parents into second-class parents

● Democrats in the legislature aren’t helping. They, too, are ignoring the elephant in the room – Iowa’s obscene rate-of-removal, focusing instead on scapegoating foster parents who happen to be homeschoolers and demanding “medical check-ups” for every child in foster care and every child receiving an adoption subsidy.

Of course there already are requirements that foster children get medical check-ups.

When it comes to adoptive families, what the Democrats really want is another chance for  government to spy on families.

The time to make sure an adoptive placement is safe is before it happens.  Something that could be done fairly easily were Iowa not rushing to tear apart families, creasing pressure for quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements.

The whole point of adoption is that the adoptive parent is the child’s parent, period. When you make adoptive parents second-class parents, subject to any form of restriction or oversight that does not apply to every other parent you undermine the emotional security of the children – and providing that kind of security is the whole point of adoption. Otherwise, it’s just another word for foster care.

And why, by the way, should this extra government scrutiny be limited to adoptive parents who get subsidies, as Democrats propose?  Are they presumed to be worse parents than wealthy adoptive parents who don’t need such assistance? Or is it just that receiving a government benefit somehow is supposed to give the government extra leverage to invade family privacy. 

If that’s the case, then please feel free to do this – just as soon as you also pass a law requiring government audits of how we older Americans are spending our Social Security checks.

The bigger danger is in foster care

● And finally, the Register takes pains to point out that most children “known to the system” who are harmed are not foster children who were adopted by their foster parents.  That leaves the false implication that abuse in foster care is extremely rare and it’s birth parents who are the real danger.

But the reason a majority of children “known to the system” who are hurt are hurt in their own homes has nothing to do with comparative danger and everything to do with the immutable laws of mathematics: The majority of Iowa children who are abused are abused in their own homes because, despite the best efforts of the Iowa Department of Human Services, the majority of Iowa children still live in their own homes. Proportionately, there is every indication that foster care is more dangerous – for all sorts of reasons, including foster children abusing each other.

And even were it not so dangerous in terms of abuse and neglect, the trauma of placement itself is so great that two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  But it means you’d better be damn sure that the child really is in so much danger at home that foster care is a less harmful alternative. 

For starters, Iowa DHS could stop taking away children when they deem a parent’s apartment too small.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

New column: When children must be saved – from their saviors

Imagine for a moment that you’re a foster child. You’ve already suffered trauma, either because you really were abused in your own home, or because you were needlessly taken from everyone you know and love. Now, for some reason, you’ve been rushed to the emergency room. Your caseworker took you there. She’s sitting next to you during the long wait.  And she resents every minute of it. 

I’m sure the former caseworker who actually wrote about this tried to hide her feelings from the children. I hope she succeeded. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Los Angeles County quietly drops its first child welfare predictive analytics experiment

● Apparently, a 95 percent false positive rate was considered a tad high

● Head of county’s Office of Child Protection urges slow, cautious approach to any use of predictive analytics

In Los Angeles County, they called it Project AURA (Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment).

It was among the most highly-touted experiments in the burgeoning fad for using predictive analytics in child welfare – that dystopian sci-fi nightmare-come-true in which computer algorithms predict who will abuse a child (but, we are assured, child protective services agencies would never ever actually use that information to tear apart families).

Project AURA was the subject of gushy news stories, and even gushier stories promoting the gushy news stories.  It was an experiment particularly beloved by those who are most extreme in their desire to see more children taken from their parents.

And now, thankfully, it is reportedly dead.

Buried on page 10 of a report to the Los Angeles County Board of supervisors by Michael Nash, executive director of the county’s Office of Child Protection, is word that the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “is no longer pursuing Project AURA.”

AURA stood for Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment. It was developed by software firm SAS.  Exactly what’s in it is a secret. No one outside SAS knows exactly how the algorithm works.

AURA was never used on any actual cases. Rather it was tested on past reports alleging child abuse or neglect. Then SAS looked to see what actually happened to those families.

As Nash’s report revealing the death of Project AURA explains:

While the tool correctly detected a high number of children (171 cases) at the highest risk forabuse, it also incorrectly identified an extremely high number (3,829 cases) of falsepositives (i.e., children who received high risk scores who were not at risk for a negative outcome). [Emphasis added.]

In other words, AURA identified a staggering number of innocent families. Had AURA actually been in use, an astounding number of children would have been placed at risk of needlessly being torn from their homes and consigned to the chaos of foster care.

 What finally killed AURA?

The results of the AURA experiment – including the false positive rate -  have been known for nearly two years. But that didn’t stop the county from pushing ahead – and it didn’t stop the gushy news coverage. It’s not clear what finally prompted DCFS to pull the plug. 

Perhaps it’s because, as Nash points out, all those false positives would further overload the system. More likely, it was an initiative by the State of California to try to come up with a “better” predictive analytics model.

Unlike AURA, developers of the new model are promising a completely open process, including consultation with various “stakeholders” and transparency about exactly what risk factors are used and how they are weighed - allowing anyone to “interrogate the algorithm.”

Also encouraging, Nash’s report, commissioned by the Supervisors themselves, is filled with warnings about the need to proceed “cautiously and responsibly.” He says a set of strict standards “to address the important operational legal and ethical considerations…” should be adopted “before considering the use of predictive-analytics models.”  Those standards should include “understanding how racism and other biases may be embedded in systemic data and addressing these within the model.”

Nash even noted that the independent journalism nonprofit ProPublica found exactly that bias in predictive analytics tools already in use in criminal justice.

All this means that, if nothing else, the nightmare of “Minority Report”- style policing in Los Angeles child welfare is at least another year or two away.

The bad news is that Nash’s report accepts the na├»ve view that once a good algorithm is created it can be properly controlled and limited. 

He writes:

Determining [predictive analytics’] “right” use – to identify families most in need of supports, rather than to trigger any negative consequences for them – will be fundamental.

But Nash, himself a former juvenile court judge, must know that’s now how child welfare works in the real world.

Whatever controls are in place at the outset will disappear the moment a child “known to the system” dies and the caseworker handling the case says “DCFS had all this information about the family, and they knew it was ‘high risk’ but they didn’t tell me.” 

Philip Browning
Then, all bets - and all restrictions - are off, and it will be take-the-child-and-run in every family where the computer spits out a high "risk score."

One more bit of bad news: One of the strongest boosters of predictive analytics in Los Angeles, former DCFS director Philip Browning, has been hired as a consultant to “help” New York City’s child welfare agency.

SDM is let off the hook

The other bad news concerns the other model of risk and safety assessment that the Supervisors asked Nash to study – the one currently used in Los Angeles - Structured Decision-Making.

Like predictive analytics, SDM also has been found to raise issues of racial and class bias. Nash acknowledges those issues in passing:

Users of the tool, in particular, fault it for not incorporating into its assessments theentire story of what is happening within a family, but instead focusing on a few broadstrokes without giving weight to important nuances. Users additionally state that the toolis too narrowly focused on the caregiver and does not take into account the strengths ofthe family as a whole.

But immediately he adds this parenthetical aside:

(The latest version of SDM has been revised to try to be more strength-based in its approach.)

But in my own experience, some version of  “Yes, but the new version is different” is what developers of SDM have said for more than a decade, each time similar concerns are raised.  That can only leave one wondering about all the “risk assessments” and “safety assessments” performed with old, unimproved versions of SDM.

The defeat of AURA shows that, contrary to what some predictive analytics proponents say in their worst moments of hubris, it is not inevitable that every legislative body and child welfare agency will embrace this latest fad in child welfare.

At a minimum, opponents in Los Angeles have more time to organize. And using predictive analytics in child welfare no longer has an AURA of inevitability.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Column: You can’t fix child welfare spending with distorted data and doublethink

Listen closely. That giant sucking sound you hear is the foster care-industrial complex grasping for every dollar it can swipe from every possible “funding stream.”

George Orwell gave us the concept of  doublethink.
Foster care advocates perfected it.
 In 1984, George Orwell defined “doublethink” as holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them both.

In child welfare, for example, we have been told for decades that child welfare systems don’t take away children because their families are poor. ... But now we also are told in a column by too advocates of taking away more children, that every single federal program designed to ease poverty – including housing assistance, food stamps, even the Supplemental Security Income program for the aged, blind and disabled – is a foster care prevention program, and every dime from every one of them should be counted as child welfare spending.

In other words, great gobs of money are going to prevent something – removal of children from their parents because they are poor – that child welfare agencies say they don’t do anyway.

Orwell would have recognized the technique. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Philadelphia RTC is the latest in a long line of rotten barrels

It wasn’t the repeated rapes that finally forced the state of Pennsylvania to shut down the  Wordsworth “residential treatment center” in Philadelphia.  It wasn’t the assaults by staff against children and children against each other.  It wasn’t the fact that over ten years, police were summoned to the place more than 800 times.

It wasn’t even the enormous cost to taxpayers - $119,000 per year per child for all this tender loving care – that prompted the state finally to act.

No, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News report, a 17-year-old, David Hess, had to die first, during a struggle with staff. Authorities ruled the death a homicide.

Through all of this, year after year after year, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services kept warehousing children at Wordsworth – children as young as age 10.  Some were delinquent, others were said to have been abused or neglected.

It’s not as if nobody knew what was going on.  As the newspapers report:

“Interviews, court records, state inspection reports, and police records reveal a trail of injuries to children, from broken bones to assaults to the suffocation death of Hess. Along the way, lawyers, licensing inspectors, and others found conditions there appalling and sounded the alarm with little success.”

Why wouldn’t the City or the State do more? They didn’t dare.  In Philadelphia substitute “care,” in all its forms, is a sellers’ market. As Joan Erney, director of Community Behavioral Health, the agency that oversees publicly funded mental-health services for Philadelphia told the newspaper:

“Our approach to agencies generally is that we need them, and if there are opportunities to improve, we work with them. … We did rely on Wordsworth extensively. Places outside of Philadelphia don’t want to take our kids. They tell us our kids are too complicated. They tell us our kids are too hard. We have kids with some really difficult problems.”

In other words, they were begging for beds, and beggars can’t be choosers.

But that tells only part of the story. The real reason Philadelphia turned a blind eye to the horrors at Wordsworth is because of Philadelphia’s long, ugly history of embracing worst practice in child welfare.

● Among America’s ten largest cities and their surrounding counties, Philadelphia tears apart families at the second highest rate when rates of child poverty are factored in. (When you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is #1.) The rate of removal in Philadelphia is 60 percent above the big-city average, more than triple the rate in New York City and more than quadruple the rate in Chicago.

Were Philadelphia taking children at the rate of New York or Chicago it would have plenty of room in good therapeutic foster homes for children who really needed them – and no need to warehouse children in places like Wordsworth.

● Philadelphia needs something else, too: The guts and imagination to embrace safe, proven alternatives to residential treatment.  One of the striking revelations in the Inquirer / Daily News story is the fact that the RTC at Wordsworth wasn’t some hundred-year-old orphanage that rebranded itself to stay in business and then deteriorated. This facility was brand new in 2006 – and apparently it was abusive almost from day one.

In other words, at a time when most of the rest of the country was trying to shut down institutions, city officials in Philadelphia and their state counterparts in Harrisburg thought it would be a great idea to send children to a brand new one.

● And no, the almost universal cry of those who institutionalize children and their apologists – the claim that the children are just too difficult to handle in families – is not true.  There is nothing a “residential treatment center” can do that can’t be done better (and at lower cost) through Wraparound programs.

As they name implies, such programs do whatever it takes – bringing the help a child needs into her or his own home or a foster home.  In this video, Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis describes how it worked on the kind of case that usually lands a child in a place like Wordsworth.

Not only does Philadelphia overuse institutionalization; it institutionalizes children for whom the harm is greatest: younger children.  This is such horrific practice that in his original version of the proposed Family First Act, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed to simply eliminate all federal aid for any placement in any institution for any child under age 13.

That never passed, of course.  So all American taxpayers continue to subsidize places like Wordsworth.

● Worst of all, there’s no guarantee that the children are any better off now that Wordsworth is closed. Because the children were simply shipped to other institutions, often out-of-state – so it will be even harder to keep track of what happens to them.

Even when institutions don’t become hellholes, rife with physical and sexual abuse, a mountain of research shows that they are inherently bad for children, and there are better alternatives.  And there is nothing unusual about the kind of abuse that was rife at Wordsworth.   The Wordsworth story is repeated in America over and over, year after year. When the topic is institutionalization, we’re not talking rotten apples. We’re talking rotten barrels.

Monday, May 1, 2017

New columns on race and class bias in child welfare from the 19th Century to today

NCCPR has two new columns on racial bias in child welfare.  One deals with how the same newspaper can expose racial bias in policing while remaining blind to it in child welfare.
Read the column here.

Another deals with the the desperate lengths to which some will go to deny there's a problem.
Read the column here.

This column deals with another example of how the biases in child welfare are magnified by the latest fad in the field, "predictive analytics."
Read the column here.

None of this is new. In fact, American child welfare has its very roots not in benevolence but in bigotry. That's the topic of this column for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va. It sets the record straight about Charles Loring Brace and his "orphan trains."
Read the column here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A lesson for child welfare from the Hillary Clinton campaign: Don’t rely on predictive analytics

Hillary Clinton
I’ve written before about how one of the biggest losers in the 2016 elections was “predictive analytics.”  All those algorithms kept assuring us that Hillary Clinton was all but certain to win.  The media were suckered.

It turns out the media were not alone.  In her review of a new book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times writes that the campaign itself made the same disastrous error:

As described in “Shattered,” Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook — who centered the Clinton operation on data analytics (information about voters, given to him by number crunchers) as opposed to more old-fashioned methods of polling, knocking on doors and trying to persuade undecideds — made one strategic mistake after another, but was kept on by Clinton, despite her own misgivings.

Yet “predictive analytics” continues to be sold, literally and figuratively, to child welfare systems as a way to target which parents should have their children taken away.  In fact, as is discussed indetail here, predictive analytics magnifies the racial and class biases that are built into the child welfare.

It will work every bit as well in child welfare as it did in the Clinton campaign.