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.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New columns on state-sanctioned ransom, child welfare's addiction to bad science, and a tragedy in Pennsylvania

In Youth Today, I’ve written about the payments some parents are forced to make to get their children back from foster care. The euphemism used by child welfare systems for such payments is “child support.” But when someone takes away a child and makes parents pay money to get the child back, the proper term is “ransom.”  


In the Chronicle of Social Change, I have columns about how Arizona’s plan to secretly tape record parents and then run the tapes through a “Computer Voice Stress Analyzer” is another example of child welfare’s 163 year addiction to bad science ...


... and on the latest twist from the latest example of that addiction, "predictive analytics": a plan that specifically targets poor people - and penalizes those among them who reach out for help.

In the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., I look at how child welfare's double standards are at the heart of the tragic death of a child, allegedly at the hands of the foster parents who adopted her.

Monday, April 3, 2017

NYC’s new child welfare chief is looking for help in all the wrong places

● The consultants he’s bringing in have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling.

● Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has crusaded against racial bias in law enforcement, now seems to find it acceptable it in child welfare.


The depressing script is being followed to the letter in New York City.

Newspapers discover that children “known to the system” sometimes die. Though there is no evidence that these tragedies are any more common than before, now the press is paying attention.  That turns the deaths into a “series” or a “spate” or a “rash.” Then the child welfare agency, in this case the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), officially is christened “embattled” and/or “beleaguered.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
As is discussed in detail in a series of previous posts to this blog, a slew of mayor wanna-bes rushes in exploit the tragedy by announcing investigations and issuing reports. Gov. Andrew Cuomo does the same to gain leverage in his feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio fails to stand up for an agency that has, in fact, made remarkable progress, taking away far fewer children with no compromise of child safety.

That should come as no surprise. Back when he chaired the City Council’s Human Services Committee de Blasio proved adept at grabbing headlines for himself by exploiting an earlier tragedy, the death of Nixzmary Brown.

And of course there is the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief, in this case Gladys Carrion. (Officially she retired. If so, it was because the mayor wouldn’t stand behind her.)  Her replacement, David Hansell, has no experience specific to child welfare. So he’s seeking advice. 

There are several outstanding reformers in the field to whom he could have turned. But chances are he doesn’t know about them. Instead Hensell is looking for help in all the wrong places.

The people/organizations he’s bringing have done nothing to distinguish themselves in the field. And they have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling, or to use the child welfare field’s preferred euphemism, “predictive analytics.”

Consultant #1


David Hansell
Of all the choices Hansell has made the most difficult to explain is his choice of Philip Browning, who

recently resigned as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

In the 40 years I’ve followed child welfare, when I’ve read stories in which people are asked to name systems that function relatively well, I’ve never heard anyone mention Los Angeles.

There’s a reason for that. The Los Angeles child welfare system is almost always embattled and/or beleaguered. It has the same sorts of high-profile horror stories as New York City, and they provoke the same sort of response: Foster-care panic.  But unlike New York City, L.A. tends not to recover from those panics. It just lurches from crisis to crisis.

Browning is beloved by those who embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. That’s because while Los Angeles has all the same problems keeping children safe as New York City, Los Angeles tears apart families at among the highest rates of America’s big cities. In fact the rate-of-removal in Los Angeles is well over double the rate of New York City – in fact, it’s more than 150 percent higher.

Or to put it another way, if New York City tore apart families at the rate Los Angeles tears apart families, instead of taking away 3,702 children in fiscal year 2016, the city would have had to take away more than 9,200 – a number that would be higher than all but four of the past 24 years.

Philip Browning
Browning did not make Los Angeles’ dreadful record of removals any worse. But he didn’t make it any better. The already high rate-of-removal in Los Angeles increased further at the beginning of his tenure, which started at the end of 2011, then returned to about where they were when he got there.  And the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day increased by more than 15 percent during his tenure.

And, by the way, Chicago does better than both New York and Los Angeles – and in Chicago independent court monitors have found that the emphasis on family preservation has improved child safety.

Los Angeles outperforms New York City in just one area: the percentage of children placed in kinship foster care – that is, with relatives instead of strangers. That improvement took place during Browning’s tenure.  Other than that, however, the only thing Philip Browning can teach New York City is what not to do.

There was one other distinguishing feature of Browning’s tenure in Los Angeles. He was a huge cheerleader for “predictive analytics” in which computer algorithms use various “risk factors” to tell caseworkers who is supposedly most likely to abuse a child.

As is outlined in detail in our publication Big Data is Watching You, predictive analytics has  proven itself permeated with the same kinds of racial and class biases that already plague child welfare. Yet in Los Angeles, Browning brought in a private for-profit software firm to experiment with predictive analytics using secret, proprietary software.

They didn’t use it on any actual cases. Rather, past cases were fed into the computer and then it predicted risk. The algorithm predicted many of the cases that, in fact, lead to deaths, near fatalities or “critical incidents.” There was just one problem: It predicted vastly more cases where there none of those things actually happened. In fact the rate of “false positives” was over 95 percent. If you predict that a vast number of cases will result in catastrophe, it’s no wonder you’ll often be right, even as you are wrong far more often.

This means that, were this kind of system actually implemented, vast numbers of innocent families would come under additional scrutiny and their children would suffer the enormous trauma of needless foster care placement – because no caseworker is going to risk being on the front page as the worker who defied the algorithm and left a child in an unsafe home. So all those children would face the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

And in the real world, all the time and resources squandered pursuing these cases would be stolen from finding children in real danger – potentially undermining any alleged gains the  algorithm produced in finding such children.

Consultant #2


Consultant #2 is a private child welfare agency based in Florida known as Eckerd Kids. In Florida, everything after the initial removal of a child is handled by private “lead agencies.”  Eckerd, which had the contract for the St. Petersburg area was brought in to take over nearby metropolitan Tampa after, yes, a “series” or “spate” or “rash” of deaths of children “known to the system.” 

They implemented a predictive analytics algorithm called Rapid Safety Feedback. Eckerd then implied that this caused the deaths to stop – they brag about this on their website.  As the same time, they piously proclaim that they don’t really know if the two are related – and they really aren’t claiming any such thing.

In fact, the picture in Tampa is far murkier than Eckerd and proponents of predictive analytics claim.  Full details are in Big Data is Watching You.  (Scroll down or search for “What Really Happened in Tampa.”)

And while backers of a take-the-child-and-run approach across the country have been fawning over Eckerd’s methods, the agency seems to be having trouble keeping its own house in order. A foster child in the care of one of Eckerd’s subcontractors died late last year and the foster mother has been charged with first degree murder and aggravated child abuse. The foster mother worked as a marketing manager for another Eckerd subcontractor.

There is no indication that Eckerd uses Rapid Safety Feedback to screen foster parents. But if they did, this one probably would have gotten a low risk score. Why? Because as the Tampa Bay Times put it in an editorial that revealed a lot about bias in child welfare, analytics – and journalism – the accused

seemed in many ways an ideal foster mother. College-educated with a $70,000 income, she lived in a nice Riverview neighborhood …

Of course, every agency has such failures. But it appears that Eckerd is being sought out by child welfare systems across the county largely on the basis of hype about how it supposedly stops such tragedies with predictive analytics.

Consultant #3


Consultant #3 is Casey Family Programs. This is one of several separate but similar foundations all endowed through the fortune of UPS founder Jim Casey (the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which, long ago, funded NCCPR, is another). Casey Family Programs is run by William Bell who joined Casey after an undistinguished tenure running ACS.  But I think the reason Casey is being brought in is because of the recent work of its Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement, David Sanders.

Sanders also ran the Los Angeles child welfare agency – and he did a good job there. But more recently he’s been far less successful. Sanders chaired a wretched mess known as the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. 

The commission was chaotic, it was angry, it was dysfunctional, it was secretive and it made its decisions based on newspaper horror stories.  In other words, a commission tasked with studying the child protective services system devolved into a microcosm of that system.  Details are in a series of previous posts to this blog, in NCCPR’s report critiquing the commission’s work, and in a scathing dissenting report from one of the commissioners.

And what was the key recommendation from this commission? Take the racially biased, class biased approach of predictive analytics and make it even worse.  And what was the basis for this recommendation?  Eckerd’s supposed success in Tampa.

From all this, an ugly picture emerges. New York City appears poised to reverse decades of progress, albeit inconsistent progress, in safely reducing the number of children consigned to the chaos of foster care.

And in another classic example of liberals who forget everything they claim to believe in when someone whispers the words child abuse in their ears, we have Mayor de Blasio. He has campaigned against racial bias in policing, but apparently he’s ready to accept it in child welfare.

 Good reason to be scared


During a previous foster-care panic in New York a 14-year-old wrote an essay called “I am scared of ACS.” 

Today, New York City’s vulnerable children have good reason to be scared of ACS once again.


Friday, March 31, 2017

New columns on #CASAsoWhite and protecting homeschooled children

In a follow-up to a column about a law review article challenging the most sacred cow in child welfare - Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) I write about a former judge who was deeply offended by that column, and the article itself - mostly because they dared use the term "white supremacy."

But how in the world are we supposed to have an honest discussion of race in this country without using the words “white supremacy”? How can anyone, especially a former judge, dismiss a law review article out-of-hand just for using the term? How is it that, in child welfare, “white supremacy” is the hate that dare not speak its name?

Read the full column here.

I've written before about the tendency of some on the left to start sounding like Donald Trump as soon as anyone whispers the term "child abuse" in their ears. Here's another case in point: proposals to spy on any family that opts to homeschool their children.

Read the full column here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

New columns on the failure of CASA and the obscene rate of removal in Iowa

Call it #CASAsoWhite: Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the most sacred cow in child welfare, is "an exercise of white supremacy" according to an excellent analysis in the City University University of New York Law Review.  I write about the article here.

In Snohomish County, Washington, a judge found what she called "prevasive and egregious" misconduct in the county's CASA program  Read about it here.

In Iowa, politicians are up in arms after two horrific cases of abuse involving children adopted by their foster parents. But, of course, they're ignoring the heart of the problem - Iowa's obscene rate of child removal. I wrote it about it in this column for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

New columns on confessions of a caseworker and the state where kangaroo court is always in session

Of all the crimes against children committed in the name of “child protection,” none is worse than when white America weaponized child welfare in an effort to destroy the culture of Native Americans.

Today, of course, people no longer say that the goal of child welfare is to “kill the Indian, save the man.” But whatever the intent, a series of federal court rulings from South Dakota make clear that Native children remain in danger from a state child welfare system out of control.


Read our column in Youth Today about South Dakota Child Welfare: Where Kangaroo Court is Always in Session.

One of the things caseworkers often say is just not true. Caseworkers often claim they are “damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.” But when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t. It’s one of the reasons so many children are needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care.

Now, a leader of a union representing caseworkers has admitted as much.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A reporter whitewashes racial bias in child welfare

In former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf’s world, white people “marshal data.” Black people rely only on “folkways.”

Therolf has left the building. But he left behind  a story
permeated with racial bias.
UPDATE, FEB. 22: Compare Therolf's failure to how Laura Nahmias covered the same issue for Politico New York.

Imagine for a moment that a reporter on the criminal justice beat wrote a story claiming that there are “two theories” about the police and the African-American community: Either there is more crime in poor Black neighborhoods - because there is more poverty - or there is police brutality, harassment, needless stop-and-frisk searches, traumatic interrogations of the innocent, false arrests, etc.

One would hope such a journalist would be laughed out of the newsroom.

But, as is so often the case, the standards for child welfare, and for reporting on child welfare, are lower.

That brings me to the last two stories begun by reporter Garrett Therolf before he left the Los Angeles Times last year. He completed them while at his new job and they were published last week.

Several years ago, Therolf faced a lot of criticism on this blog and elsewhere for his child welfare coverage. Therolf is certainly not the only reason Los Angeles tears apart children at a rate well above the average for big cities, double the rate of New York and triple the rate of Chicago, but he’s a part of it.

One of his last Times stories follows a particular case through the Los Angeles County child welfare system.  That story actually is pretty good - except when it tries to deal directly with issues of race. And there are serious problems with a sidebar devoted specifically to that issue.

The error of either/or


Therolf begins the sidebar by noting that while eight percent of Los Angeles County children are Black, they represent 28 percent of the county’s foster children.  Then he writes:

There are basically two theories, and the approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part, on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized at higher rates.

So it’s either/or, all-or-nothing.  This eliminates the obvious possibility that, as with criminal justice, because of poverty, both can be at play.

The problem is even more complicated in child welfare. Most state laws, including California’s effectively define poverty itself as “neglect.”*  So it’s easy to point to statistics and say: See? There’s more “neglect” in Black communities precisely because there is more poverty there – and that poverty is confused with “neglect.”

In addition, child abuse is related, in part, to stress. Poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, and African-Americans are more likely to be poor. So again, the key issue is poverty.

But in the main story Therolf claims that on top of all the stress of being poor, the "prevailing view" is that Black parents are more prone to abuse their children “following generations of deprivation and inequity.”  (In fact, there is no "prevailing view" - but it certainly seems to be Therolf's view.)

In other words, Therolf suggests, past racism makes Black parents abusive, but there is no present racism affecting the decisions of child protective services workers.

Sadly, there are people in child welfare who believe this.  In fact, even as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group not known to be dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, issues an apology to communities of color for racial bias in policing, a faction of liberals in child welfare denies their field even has a problem.

Apparently unlike in the police force, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, child welfare workers are simply so much better than other people that they have acquired a kind of magical immunity from the biases that plague mere mortals.

This is reflected in the willingness of some of my fellow liberals to forego everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties and due process when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.  Consider how, as is discussed here, some liberals, appalled by stop-and-frisk, embrace the use in child welfare of  “predictive analytics,” a similar infringement on civil liberties that boils down to computerized racial profiling.

Harvard’s resident extremist


Then Therolf tells us about a 2011 conference at Harvard on the topic.  What he does not tell us is that the conference was organized by the leader of the “denial” movement – Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School.  Bartholet’s views on child welfare are so extreme that if one takes the recommendations in her own book bashing family preservation seriously and literally (and surely we’ve learned by now that this is wise when dealing with extremists) states would have to take away at least two million children every year.**

She also proposes that every family in America with a young child be required to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”  Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of, her word, “surveillance.”

Bartholet says this “would simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.

Nor does Therolf tell us that the conference was an exercise in deck-staking.  Bartholet decided who was invited to speak, and almost every speaker she chose shared her views.  Having listened to this parade of people who’d already decided that racial bias is not a problem, Therolf then tells us that the “prevailing view” among researchers is that racial bias is not a problem.

He also tells us that “Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates.” Of course they did. It’s what they believed when they walked in the door.

Double standards for describing experts


But where the story becomes most condescending is in its treatment of experts on each side.  First, he gives one paragraph to one of the few dissenters Bartholet invited to speak at the conference.  He writes that those who believe racism is a problem

…gained encouragement from University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart black families.” 

He never mentions that Prof. Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) also is the author of several books on issues of race in America and beyond, including Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2001).

Bartholet gets very different treatment.  There is no mention of her extremism. Instead, in a paragraph that sounds like it should have begun with “Some of her best friends are…” Therolf writes about how she was once, long ago, a real life civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense fund!  (So of course, anything she says about child welfare and race could not possibly be tainted by bias.)  This is like suggesting Ronald Reagan could not possibly have been out to break unions or enact a radical right-wing agenda as president because decades earlier he’d been a liberal and a union leader.

Bartholet didn’t rely on mere anecdote, Therolf tells us. Bartholet “marshaled data to argue that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Compare this with Therolf’s treatment of the next expert to appear in his story, Cheryl Grills. Dr. Grills is a clinical psychologist and director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University.  She also served as Co-Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. 

But Therolf identifies her only as “a professor at Loyola Marymount” who, Therolf claims, wants to “institutionalize child protection based on African and African-American folkways, not the latest studies and academic research.” [Emphasis added.]

Got that everyone? White people “marshal data.”  Black people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.”

It is offensive, and speaks to the extent of bias not just in child welfare but in newsrooms, that the following even needs to be pointed out:

The data are overwhelming that there is, in fact,

racial bias in child welfare.


Much of that data can be found in Prof. Roberts’ book.  NCCPR has prepared a short summary of some of the studies finding profound racial bias, over and above the class bias and other problems that permeate child welfare.

Therolf goes on to suggest that caseworkers can’t possibly be biased because many of them are, themselves, Black. He dismisses the notion that institutional bias can push any caseworker to treat less favored groups differently. He ignores the scholarship of, for example, Prof. Tanya Cooper of the University of Alabama Law School, who writes:

Unconscious racism is embedded in our civic institutions; and the foster care system is vulnerable as one such institution controlled and influenced by those in power. Those in power in turn may unwittingly discriminate against people of color, which history demonstrates.

But also, the issue of bias isn’t so, uh, black and white.  If there is a racial, religious or ethnic group that doesn’t have to grapple with biases among themselves I have yet to find it. Often, though not always, the fault-line for intra-ethnic conflict is class.

In child welfare, racial bias and class bias combine to create a toxic mix for poor families of color.

Consider the very case on which Therolf focused.  The children were taken because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) alleged that, in Therolf’s words:

One: [The mother, Monique] Baker’s house is “filthy,” placing “the children at risk of physical harm, damage and danger.” Two: Baker is not taking her children for psychiatric treatment.
 Three:  Baker has “mental and emotional problems, including major anxiety disorder, major depression and PTSD, which renders the mother unable to provide regular care.”

But even if we assume all of these allegations are true, had a case such as this arisen in, say, Beverly Hills, DCFS never even would have noticed. It would have been solved privately by application of the following “preventive services”:

One: a maid.
Two: a nanny.
Three: a psychiatrist.

And that brings us back to Bartholet’s claim that “when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Back before scholars such as Prof. Roberts marshaled all that data to show how pervasive racial bias is in child welfare, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach insisted that agencies never take away children because of poverty.  Now, rather than admit to racial bias, they effectively admit to class bias.  I suppose that’s progress.

But neither bias should be tolerable in child welfare, and neither bias should be whitewashed by journalists.

* In California, neglect includes: “The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child” and “The willful or negligent failure of the parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.” 

**In her book, Nobody’s Children, Bartholet argues that children should be removed from the home in cases of “serious” abuse and neglect. In the same book (p. 61) she writes that “Estimates indicate that more than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and neglect.” Even if she could be persuaded to leave one-third of “seriously” abused children in their own homes, that would mean taking away two million children every year.