Friday, February 9, 2018

Don’t believe the hype. The Family First Act is a step backwards for child welfare finance reform

Perhaps you’ve heard. Tacked onto the bill that averted another government shutdown is a child welfare finance “reform” measure called the Family First Prevention Services Act.

The bill was thought to be dead. It was killed last year by what one reformer who transformed his own institution years ago called the group home industry – the collection of private agencies typically paid for every day they hold foster children in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions -- and their public sector allies.

But it came back to life as part of the process of keeping the government open.  Now it’s law.

One might expect advocates of family preservation to celebrate, and some almost certainly will. The bill allows some federal money once restricted to funding foster care to be used for better alternatives.  And, in theory, it curbs federal funding for group homes and institutions.

Some very good child welfare reformers favor the bill. The best case for it was made by one of those reformers, Jeremy Kohomban. He transformed what was once one of the nation’s most regressive residential treatment centers, Children’s Village, in New York, into a leader in emphasizing trying to help children in their own homes or foster homes. Here’s his case for the bill.

Setting up prevention to fail

But I disagree.  In 2016, I wrote that the range of prevention services that could be funded under Family Frist was tiny, and there were absurd restrictions on which programs within that range could get federal aid. And instead of limiting group homes and institutions, I argued that the bill was so weak that it actually strengthened them, creating a whole category of institution that would be, in effect, sanctified in federal law.

So it’s no wonder that in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that only $130 million in additional federal funds would go to prevention each year – a drop in the bucket compared to the billions spent on foster care. CBO also estimated that the proportion of foster children in group homes and institutions would barely change – declining from 14 percent to 11 percent – over ten years.

So what the bill really does is set prevention up to fail.  When these minor changes don’t do much to curb needless foster care, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach will say See? Changing financial incentives didn’t work, all those children must really need to be in foster care.  In fact, all those kids will still be in foster care because there was almost no real change in financial incentives.

A “presents for pimps” loophole

Nevertheless, the group home industry insisted that even the slightest restriction on their ability to warehouse children in the very worst form of “care” was more than they could handle.

Desperate to get something passed, supporters caved on issue after issue:

● They weakened a provision requiring institutions that supposedly engage in residential treatment to have actual clinical staff on site.

● They added a  “presents for pimps” loophole – creating a whole new category of institution exempt from restrictions on federal funding.

That was in 2016.

The new law

In one respect, the version that just became law may be a little better: although the types of prevention that can be funded are as limited as ever, the standards for specific programs don’t seem to be as onerous.

But in at least one key respect, possibly two, the version that just became law is even worse.

● There’s a provision (Section 2661) allowing funds from a much smaller existing “family support services” program to be diverted to “supporting and retaining foster families for children.” (I’m not sure if this is new, or if I’d simply overlooked it in previous versions.)

● States can delay the minor restrictions on funds for group homes and institutions for two years (though if they did that, they’d also have to forego the limited new prevention funding).  In fact, this is closer to a four-year delay.  The bill’s provisions concerning group homes don’t take effect until October 1, 2019 – states opting to delay would not be affected until October 1, 2021.

This gives the group home industry lots and lots of time to weaken the law still further.

The group home industry’s most reliable servant

Of course, in its story about the new law, the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare continues to carry water for the group home industry.  Thus the Chronicle story claims that

Ten years ago, such restrictions on congregate care would have occurred as foster care numbers were ticking down across the country. Today, states will have to find more foster home capacity while some accommodate rapidly rising numbers of kids.

The second sentence is untrue. There is another alternative: Stop taking so many kids needlessly. But, as I’ve noted before, the Fox News of Child Welfare always frames any effort to curb the use of congregate care in terms of group homes vs. foster homes; family preservation is left off the table.

And that story comes on top of another story devoted entirely to California groups whining about the law.

Goldilocks is wrong

And finally, as I wrote last year: Please, spare us all the Goldilocks defense; the one that goes, if some people think the law is too tough and other people think it’s not tough enough, it must be juuuuuuuuust right.

No. The fact that some in the group home industry have the gall to claim this law is too tough just shows how spoiled they’ve gotten after all those years getting to eat all the porridge.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Child welfare in Oregon: The audit and the elephant

A new audit of Oregon’s child welfare system is an exercise in willful ignorance. That makes it more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Earlier this week, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud devoted a program to a new (and, as almost every headline noted, “scathing”) audit of the state child welfare system, conducted by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. The producers invited me onto the program to respond to comments from the state’s two top child welfare officials and the lead auditor.

I was in a studio near Washington, D.C., so I couldn’t see the other guests. That’s why I’ll probably never know how they managed to fit all those guests and an elephant into one studio in Portland.

The elephant in the studio is, of course, Oregon’s obscenely high rates of tearing children from their families and trapping them in foster care. That elephant has been hanging around for decades – Oregon has been tearing apart families at rates far above the national average since at least the mid-1980s. Through all that time, the elephant has been ignored by the state Department of Human Services.  And the behavior of the auditors is, if anything, even worse.

The audit devotes exactly one sentence to the fact that Oregon is such an outlier when it comes to tearing apart families.  The lead auditor gave it a single sentence on Think Out Loud – and the sentence was shocking. She said she didn’t know if Oregon holding children in foster care at a rate she described as double the national average made the Oregon system “worse or better” than others.

In fact, it’s not quite that bad. Oregon actually holds children in foster care at a rate about 60 percent above thenational average, not double. But the fact that the auditor thinks the rate is double and still doesn’t know whether that makes Oregon better or worse is that much more appalling.

As I said during my segment on the program. which starts at 32 minutes in and can be heard here …

… it’s understandable that someone entirely new to child welfare issues would not know, at the very start of the audit,  if an insane rate of removal is “better or worse.” But how can you go through months and months examining an agency and still not know by the end of the process?  Did the audit team even ask why Oregon is such an outlier?  Apparently not.

Not that you asked, but …

Though the auditors didn’t ask, here’s why a high rate of removal makes a child welfare system worse:
● Most cases are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Other cases fall between the extremes. Massive studies of typical cases show that children left in their own homes fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  And a study of foster children in Oregon and Washington State showed that the foster care system churns out walking wounded four times out of five.
● All that harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But study after study, including two from Oregon, found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 
Oregon, in particular, has seen scandal after scandal over abuse in foster care.  Indeed, on the very day those child welfare officials, the auditor and the elephant piled into that studio, it was revealed that DHS proposed deliberately allowing children to remain in homes where caseworkers admit they think the children are not safe – in order to settle a lawsuit seeking to bar the state from warehousing children in hotels. (It’s another example of how efforts to fix Oregon foster care have become  a pathetic game of whack-a-mole.)
● All the time money and effort wasted on false allegations, cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect and needless foster care, as in this Oregon case and this one, is, in effect, stolen from finding children in real danger who really do need to be taken from their homes.

So the implicit assumption behind the auditor’s ignorance – what she really was saying is: Maybe that high rate of removal makes children safer – is false. In all those months, the audit team never checked to find out.

That makes the entire audit an exercise in willful ignorance. And it invalidates many of its conclusions.

Much of the audit is built around the premise that there is a shortage of foster homes in Oregon.  But if you don’t know why Oregon is taking away so many children, you don’t know if Oregon has too few foster parents, or too many foster children.

So we get page after page about recruiting more foster parents.  Worse, the audit calls for  institutionalizing more children in so-called “residential treatment” – accepting as fact the claims of the residential treatment industry that this is the only option for children with serious behavioral problems.

Apparently in all those months of auditing the auditors never reviewed the mass of research showing that residential treatment is a failure and there is nothing residential treatment does that can’t be done better with Wraparound programs. Such programs bring all the help a child needs into her or his own home or a foster home.  To see how, perhaps the audit team will have a look at this video:

Similarly, the audit refers to DHS resorting to the very worst form of “care” opening up more parking place “shelters” as “potentially positive steps…” They express no concern at all that shelters are terrible for children. The qualifier “potentially” refers only to the fact that the shelter might not be enough to deal with the so-called “shortage” of foster parents.

A gratuitous swipe at kinship care 

The audit even takes a gratuitous swipe at the least harmful form of foster care – kinship foster care, placing children with relatives instead of strangers. Study after study after study has found that kinship foster care is more stable, more humane and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.” Yet the audit declares that many foster children “have acute mental and physical health needs that career foster homes may be better equipped and specifically trained to handle.”

Why? Do the auditors think relatives are inherently too stupid to be properly “equipped” and “trained”?

And speaking of biases, just as only one sentence is devoted to Oregon’s high rate of tearing apart families, less than a sentence is devoted to the racial makeup of Oregon foster care. The audit notes that one-third of Oregon foster children are nonwhite. But that is mentioned only in the context of – as you’ve probably guessed by now -- the need to recruit more foster parents of color. The possibility that Oregon’s high rate of removal might be related to racial bias is not even considered.

Even when the auditors are right, they fail to ask the obvious questions. 

●The audit paints a picture of an agency so incompetent it can’t even produce an up-to-date organizational chart.  It also confirms something some of us have long known: Oregon is where good ideas in child welfare go to die.

But the audit doesn’t go back far enough – to the 1990s, when Oregon had a chance to reform its entire system along the lines pioneered by Alabama – and blew it. It’s not as if this information is hard to find – it’s all laid out in the epilogue to this Oregon Public Broadcasting / Salem Statesman Journal story.

●The audit discusses how badly DHS sometimes treats foster parents, and even how badly people in the agency sometimes treat each other. But it never asks the obvious question: DHS really needs foster parents, and it really needs its own employees. If this is how staff and foster parents are treated, how are they treating birth parents?

But since the list of “stakeholders” the auditors spoke to includes virtually everyone with any connection to the system except birth parents who lost their children to that system, it’s not likely the auditors would think to ask that question.  

Given all that, it’s not surprising that the recommendations amount to nothing but more of the same: Recruit lots more foster parents and hire lots more caseworkers.

But we already know exactly what that will produce: The same lousy system only bigger.

That won’t start to change until, at long last, someone in Oregon says “Hey: There’s an elephant in the room!”

Monday, February 5, 2018

Child welfare reform in Arizona: Teeing up the backlash when the frontlash has barely begun

In January, 2003, just four days after taking office, in the wake of the disclosure of a high-profile child abuse tragedy, the governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano, gave a speech in which she told child protective services caseworkers to just take away the kids “and we’ll sort it out later.”

Fifteen years later, Arizona is only beginning to sort it out. And if a story in the Arizona Republic Sunday is any indication, the groundwork for a backlash already is being laid.

Napolitano’s remarks helped kick-start what would become the nation’s longest foster-care panic. The number of children taken from their parents skyrocketed, increasing year after year after year all the way through 2015. Even with a slight decline in 2016, Arizona took away children at a rate more than 50 percent above the national average.

For some of that time, the panic was encouraged by the state’s largest newspaper, the Republic. But last year that changed.

The Republic received a three-year grant to fund in-depth reporting on child welfare. Editors brought back to the Republic an outstanding investigative reporter, Bob Ortega.  He was tasked with, in effect, leading the Republic to take a bold, new look at child welfare, a look that would question everyone’s assumptions, including the newspaper’s own. That led to superb stories such as this oneAnd this one.

Though the project continues, there’s been a setback. Unfortunately for Arizona, Ortega left the Republic to join the investigative unit at CNN. 

The latest story

This latest story, about promises by the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) to do more to keep families together, still has a lot to commend it. The story focuses on a mother struggling with drug abuse.  But instead of the usual horror story, this case is far closer to the norm – a mother who dearly loves her child and is winning her battle with addition.  In addition, a lot of space is devoted to trying to explain the emotional harm done to children by needless foster care. 

But, at the same time, one can almost feel some of the old Republic assumptions sneaking back into the coverage.

The story resurrects some myths that have plagued child welfare systems and child welfare news coverage for decades.

● The myth that child removal equals child safety. As noted above, the story acknowledges theemotional harm of needless removal – and doesn’t just brush it off in a paragraph.  But it still implies that if you take away the child at least the child will be physically safe.

Like so many stories before, this one implies, wrongly, that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be balanced. Leaving the child at home is constantly described in terms of risk – even if the story suggests the risk might be worth it.

But study after study shows high rates of abuse in foster care itself. Indeed, one of Ortega’s stories examined this very point.  He wrote:

In 2014, of 46 states that reported data to the federal Children's Bureau, all claimed that fewer than 2 percent of children in foster care had been harmed in the prior year. Arizona said that barely a tenth of 1 percent of children in care were verifiably harmed. But in surveys going back for decades, from 25 percent to as high as 40 percent of former foster children report having been abused or neglected in care.

For the overwhelming majority of children family preservation is the safer option.  It is foster care that is riskier – in every respect.

Consequences of needless foster care

And discussions of emotional harm that largely lack specifics about outcomes don’t tell the full story of that harm.

Since the mother at the center of the Republic story is recovering from drug addiction, it would seem particularly important to explain why helping her recover without placing her newborn in foster care is better for the child.

But there is no reference to research such as a the  landmak study of two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems,  One group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out. Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

And, of course, there are those two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases, which show that children left in their own homes fared better in later life even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.

So from the point of view of child safety in all its forms, Arizona’s stated new approach – which emphasizes working harder to find ways to keep children safe without resorting to foster care --  makes sense.

● The myth of the ever-swinging pendulum.  What is it with journalists and pendulums, anyway?

Even when I was a reporter, I never understood the fondness of my fellow journalists for thinking of just about everything in terms of a swinging pendulum.  The Republic story is no exception. It keeps coming back to whether the pendulum is swinging and how to set that pendulum in just the right spot. Editors love those pendulums, too.  The metaphor makes it into a subhead and a pullquote.

The problem with the metaphor is illustrated by how it’s used in the story itself. The story notes a recent drop in the number of children in foster care in Arizona and promptly invokes the pendulum. But even with that decline, Arizona still holds children in foster care at a rate more than 30 percent above the national average. In child welfare, the pendulum generally swings only from taking away too many children to taking away far too many children. (I think I’ll make that one of my pullquotes.)

● Setting the reforms up for scapegoating. The story tells us that

since the new practice started late last summer, there have been child deaths and near-fatalities in which [the State Department of Child Safety] was involved. It's unclear, at this point, whether any of those cases involved a decision to leave a child at home, or under the supervision of a “safety monitor.” Investigations are ongoing.

In fact, even if it hasn’t happened yet there will be cases in which the new approach leads to leaving a child at home and something horrible happens to that child.

But the same thing happened under the old “take the child and run” approach, when caseworkers were so overwhelmed with children who didn’t belong in foster care that they had no time to investigate any case properly, and overlooked more children in real danger. And, of course, it happened every time a child was needlessly removed only to be abused in foster care.

But that won’t stop those wedded to the take-the-child-and-run approach from exploiting the tragedy, whenever it occurs and whatever the circumstances, to try to sabotage this first small effort to curb Arizona’s 14-year foster care panic. As I’ve noted before, opponents of safe, proven alternatives to foster care will never give up their horror stories – because it’s all they’ve got.

There is no approach to child welfare that eliminates every tragedy.  If you judge a system by its horror stories, all systems fail.  The question is which approach typically makes children safer – and on that the evidence is overwhelming: You can’t have child safety without family preservation.

For more about Arizona and its long, long foster-care panic, see our 2007 report on Arizona child welfare.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Predictive analytics in child welfare: Sanitized for libertarian consumption

A writer who was barred from blogging for an education journal after writing a column widely viewed as racist now assures us that there is no racism in child welfare – and predictive analytics will correct the racism that isn’t there.

Don’t you feel better already?

An odious piece of child welfare legislation known as the Adoption and Safe Families Act enshrined a “take-the-child-and-run” mindset in federal law leading to an increase in the number of children torn from their homes. It also increased the number of children who “age out” of foster care with no home at all. The former was intentional, the latter was merely predictable. 

A few years after ASFA became law one of those who claims responsibility for writing it, Richard Gelles,  couldn’t resist a little gloating. Gelles is the former dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. In an interview in 2000, he said:
 Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now. [Emphasis added.]

Of all those who advocate for a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, Gelles is probably the second most extreme – I’d give the edge for #1 to Elizabeth Bartholet, but it’s close. (For a brief critique of Gelles, see this commentary from his faculty colleague, (and NCCPR board member) Prof. Dorothy Roberts.)

So it is appropriate that when right-wing writer Naomi Schaefer Riley needed a way to sanitize the use of predictive analytics in child welfare for a crowd that might be suspicious – libertarians – she turned to Gelles. Gelles was her primary source in an article touting predictive analytics she wrote for the libertarian magazine Reason.

Predictive analytics uses computer algorithms to tell government authorities things like which alleged criminals should get bail, who to investigate as an alleged child abuser and, if some of its strongest backers get their way, which children should be taken from their parents and consigned to foster care.

The failure of predictive analytics in child welfare is discussed brilliantly in this article from Wired, (an excerpt from the new book Automating Inequality), so I won’t discuss that failure in detail again here.  Rather, I want to focus on how Riley tries to win over libertarians.

● She sandpapers down the rough edges of her own take-the-child-and-run rhetoric, which can be found in its raw form in columns for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. For Reason, she finds others to say the words with a bit more finesse – though in at least one case, discussed blow, the result is laughable.

● She makes a little room for those of us who dissent, quoting us in what opinion writers commonly refer to as “to be sure” paragraphs (as in “To be sure, the side I don’t agree with says … but of course they’re wrong because …”)

● She – and Gelles – even try to sell us on the notion that they care about errors in all directions  and they really, truly want child welfare systems to use predictive analytics because supposedly it will curb all kinds of error.  So Riley writes:

Every day some kids are forcibly taken from their parents for the wrong reasons while others are left to suffer despite copious warning signs.

Strangely, however, I have been unable to find a Riley column in the Post about the former, but there is plenty about the latter. Indeed, she is a master of the standard technique of the take-the-child-and-run crowd – take horror stories and extrapolate.

Thus she writes that David Hansell, the current commissioner of New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, “has to clean up the mess left by his predecessor …” based on the fact that on that predecessor’s watch children “known to the system” died.  That also happened on the watch of every other ACS commissioner - and every leader of every large child welfare system. In fact, under the leadership of that predecessor Riley does not bother to name – it was Gladys Carrion - child safety in New York City improved. It’s gotten worse, (or should I say messier?) under Hansell.

Riley on race

Most disturbing, given her desire to reassure us that there is no racial bias problem with the use of
predictive analytics, is Riley’s general take on racial issues.

Riley was barred from blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education after writing a column in 2012 calling for eliminating the entire field of Black Studies – because she deemed three doctoral dissertations “left-wing victimization claptrap.” As others pointed out, that conclusion, is based only on the titles and summaries run in a Chronicle news story.    

With that as the basis, Riley wrote:

… the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president! 
… If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.

Of course Riley wrote that in 2012. She couldn’t have known who would be the next president, and about the racial hatred he would unleash and continues to encourage.  But in 2017, she was still singing from the racism-is-so-over hymnbook.  In a column called “How liberals are killing the NAACP” she writes:
 African-Americans have full legal rights. Hate crimes are anomalies. Black people are running corporations, universities and until recently the White House.

So it should come as no surprise that Riley is a member of what I call child welfare’s “caucus of denial” – the group that believes child welfare is magically exempt from the racial bias that permeates every other aspect of American life. But unlike the liberals in this caucus, who tend to limit the denial to child welfare, Riley goes further, writing:

Just as we cite statistics about incarceration and police intervention without actually asking who is committing crimes, so we blame ACS for getting involved in the lives of too many black and Hispanic children without asking why that might be.

Actually, that question has been asked and answered in study after study.  Some conservatives acknowledge as much. It seems Riley just doesn’t like the answers.

Riley’s “denial” comes in a column trashing the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” – a story that also explains “why that might be,” citing exactly the sorts of cases of needless removal which, in her Reason article, Riley claims to be concerned about.  In the Post Riley sneers at the Times story in her lead:

Everyone’s a little bit racist, even the employees of the Administration for Children’s Services. At least that’s what The New York Times would like us to believe.

In her Reason article, Riley offers up the same message about the Times story, without slathering it in snide. Instead, she quotes Bill Baccaglini, president of  The New York Foundling one of the private child welfare agencies paid by the city to provide foster care.

Some of my best friends are …

First, Riley and Baccaglini fall back on the 21st Century equivalent of the 1960s “some of my best friends are …” line: The system can’t be racist (at least not in New York City), they say, because most of the caseworkers are nonwhite. This ignores the way institutional racism works and it ignores intra-ethnic prejudice, the sad fact that within almost every racial and ethnic group there are biases.

Anthropologist Tina Lee, who wrote an outstanding book about the New York City child welfare system, addressed this during a recent podcast. Said Lee:

In New York City caseworkers often are also women of color; they may come from a slightly different class background. So one of the lessons of this is that these racial biases are not overtly about white people being overtly prejudiced and seeking to control these families. It’s more that we just have these assumptions that are often unconscious. [These are] unconscious biases in our general culture that you don’t escape even if you are a woman of color working as a caseworker.

And then it gets really weird. Baccaglini cites the following as evidence that there is no racial bias in New York City child welfare:

You couldn’t even consider race a variable. It’s a constant.  All of the kids who come into this system, unfortunately, are nonwhite.

Wait. You mean this is how we’re supposed to know the system is NOT racist?

Baccaglini then offers up the standard party line of the denial caucus:

The racial discriminatory aspects of the system happened well before [child protective services involvement] with our opportunity structure … The fact that the mom in the South Bronx cannot get decent medical care; the fact that the mom in the South Bronx cannot get a good job; the fact that the mom was put into an [individualized educational program] and never got a degree and then had a child.

In other words, Baccaglini is telling us, there used to be racism in America and that made Black people bad parents!  (The real story of how child welfare treats families in the South Bronx can be found here.)

The idea that the solution here might be helping the mom with job training, health care and education apparently is not on the table.

A poor understanding of poverty

And that leads to another problem with Riley’s attempt to lure libertarians into a love of big government: misstating the relationship between poverty and the child welfare system.

Adopting a voice of reason tone for Reason that differs from her Post persona, Riley tells us:

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Poverty is highly correlated with abuse. There are a variety of reasons for that, which can be difficult to untangle. Poverty causes stress in marriages and other relationships, and sometimes that stress is taken out on kids.

But that’s only a small part of the story. Yes, of course poverty exacerbates stress and that can lead to more actual abuse. But Riley ignores the larger issue, the confusion of poverty itself with neglect, thanks to broad, vague laws that often define neglect as lack of adequate food clothing or shelter.

Once again, she is more direct in the Post, where she can appeal directly to her right-wing base. There, she offers a critique of social work education similar to her assessment of Black Studies – but this time she relies on course catalogues instead of dissertation summaries.

She finds it deeply disturbing that one school of social work offers a course exploring “poverty in the context of oppression, diversity and social justice” and another has one that helps students “challenge bias, prejudice and forms of discrimination…” This supposedly proves that social work education often is “boxed in by political correctness in an industry where that can be deadly.”

Given all this, it’s no surprise that in Reason she echoes the argument of the white middle-class foster parent who extolled predictive analytics in child welfare in an article for The New York Times Magazine: There is no racial bias in child welfare – and predictive analytics will fix the bias that already doesn’t exist!

Whitewashing failure in Los Angeles

Like the Times Magazine writer, Riley also has a problem dealing with the failure of the first predictive analytics experiment in Los Angeles, known as AURA. The Times Magazine story solved the problem by ignoring it altogether.  Riley takes a more confusing approach. She touts its alleged success, but then notes that

Nonetheless, [the Los Angeles child welfare agency] ultimately concluded that AURA was "fatally flawed."
Riley’s only explanation:

Perhaps because they realize how sensitive the program is, and how much relying on the wrong model could have undermined public confidence, they are self-reflective and critical in a way you might not expect from government bureaucrats.

Yes. That must be it.  It can’t possibly be because the experiment had a false positive rate of 95 percent – that is, 95 percent of the time, when the model predicted something terrible would happen to a child, it didn’t.  Riley never mentions this in her story.

So add Naomi Schaefer Riley to the long list of take-the-child-and-run advocates who are pushing predictive analytics. There’s also Gelles, and Bartholet, and Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of Child Welfare and a staunch member of the “denial caucus” who has run one puff piece after another touting it.

And almost all of them now are trying to persuade us that, really, truly, predictive analytics will curb the needless intrusion into the lives of Americans and the wrongful removal of children, something none of them has shown any indication of caring much about before.  It reminds me of how congressional Republicans suddenly embraced the Children’s Health Insurance Program, when they thought it would help them score political points during the debate over the recent government shutdown.

There is nothing libertarian about predictive analytics in child welfare. It’s just big government conservatism.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: When horror-story cases lead to horrible laws

The recent revelations about horrific abuse of 13 children and young adults in California have prompted a spate of commentary suggesting that all homeschoolers effectively be treated as suspected child abusers.  It's another example of why horror stories make horrible law. 

From NCCPR's column in Youth Today:

The real reason cracking down on home-schoolers has such appeal, particularly for some of my fellow liberals, is because, well, “we” all know what “they” are like. Although all sorts of people choose home-schooling for all sorts of reasons, “home-schooler” immediately conjures up an image of right-wing fundamentalists.

So try this. Whenever you read a proposal for compulsory inspections of the children of home-schoolers, try substituting the word “terrorism” for child abuse and “Muslim” for “home-schooler.” Then see if the idea is still so appealing. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

INDEFENSIBLE: Here’s the real message from a child welfare system in Upstate New York: 1. We’re supremely arrogant. 2. We hate accountability. 3. We want to stay that way.

Given a chance to replicate a model family defense program with a proven track record for reducing needless foster care, improving child safety and saving taxpayers money – at no cost to the county – metropolitan Rochester said no.


There is much more news and commentary on this issue:

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has an excellent story and an excellent editorial

The Daily Record, which first broke the story, has a follow-up.

The Daily Record also has an excellent op-ed column from Michele Cortese, executive director of the Center for Family Representation.

WXXI Public Radio also has a very good story.


And one more excellent story, from Rochester City Newspaper

In the 1980s, when I was a reporter in Rochester, N.Y.,
 the Chamber of Commerce used this slogan.
I've updated it slightly to reflect current reality.


● More than a decade ago, New York City pioneered a model of family defense in child welfare cases. Impoverished families got a defense team including a social worker and a parent advocate as well as an attorney with a reasonable caseload. 

● In the years since, foster care was curtailed, so children were spared enormous needless trauma from wrongful removal and from being moved from foster home to foster home. They also were spared from the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  At the same time, child safety improved. The model was so successful that the city child protective services agency supported it, and the city repeatedly expanded it. 

● A similar program in Washington State has earned similar support from “all sides” and achieved similar results.

● So when New York State offered grants to Upstate counties interested in replicating the New York City model, the Monroe County (metropolitan Rochester) Office of Public Defender applied.  All of the county’s family court judges supported the application.

● The county won the grant. But then, county officials stepped in and refused to accept the money. In other words, they turned down a chance to help the county’s children with a proven approach – at no cost to the county.

● As one family court judge pointed out, the plan would have done no more than give poor people the same access to justice that the rest of us already have in these cases. But for the Monroe County child protective services agency, that was too much to bear.

In most of the country, when children are torn from impoverished families, those families are almost literally defense-less.

In some states, there is no right to a public defender at all.  And in most states, family defense consists of a grossly overworked public defender or private attorney on a shoestring contract who just met his client outside the courtroom five minutes before the first court hearing – a hearing that often takes place after the child already is in foster care.  (That’s because, contrary to what they so often claim, child protective services agencies and/or law enforcement can take away children on their own authority – and they often do.)

Naturally, most child protective services agencies like it that way. The judge is reduced to wielding a rubber-stamp instead of a gavel; the agency itself becomes the real judge, jury and family executioner.  The agency can make little case or no case, offer no real help to families, and stumble and bumble along as it pleases.

But, as with so many times these agencies take a swing at so-called “bad parents” – the blow lands on the children.

The lack of meaningful defense is one of the main reasons so many children are taken needlessly from everyone they know and love, often when family poverty is confused with “neglect,” and consigned to the chaos of foster care.  That helps explain why two massive studies found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  Other studies document the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.

So consider the paradox: Child protective services agencies routinely claim – again, falsely -- that “we don’t take away children – a judge has to approve everything we do.”  But those same agencies are terrified of anything that would actually let those judges hear all sides of the story and make a fully-informed decision.

Indeed, the extent to which a child protective services agency objects to letting judges actually hear all sides of the story – that is, the extent to which it fights meaningful family defense – is a good measure of just how arrogant that agency is and how much it wants to avoid accountability. And that brings us to the child protective services agency in Rochester, New York and surrounding Monroe County.

As it happens, Rochester is where I did some of my first stories about the overreach of child protective services and the harm that does to children when I was a reporter for WXXI-TV, the public television station, and City Newspaper, the alternative weekly.  That was about 30 years ago.

A story last week in a regional newspaper for the legal community, The Daily Record, suggests things have not changed much.

The Record reports that, when offered a chance to replicate a proven model for high-quality family defense – a model shown to improve outcomes for children and save money, a model already in use for well over a decade elsewhere -- with the tab picked up by New York State – the county turned it down.

A little later, I’ll get to the excuses the county offered up for turning down this help (of which my favorite is the claim, which I must admit is true, that attorneys for parents would, in fact, represent parents).  But cutting through the b.s., what the county really is saying is this:

If poor people ever got the same quality of defense the middle class can buy for itself and if those poor people were able to challenge our lousy decisions, poor casework and meaningless cookie-cutter service plans we’d have to up our game. We’d have to stop taking away so many children needlessly, and provide real help to families.

The New York City experiment

This story really begins in New York City in 2000.  An advisory panel formed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement sat in on Family Court hearings.  As they documented in a scathing report, they were appalled. They saw families railroaded, needless placements and judges so terrified of the city’s tabloid press that they admitted, out loud and on the record, that they rubber-stamped removals even when they felt the child protective services agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), hadn’t made a good enough case.

A member of that panel, John Mattingly, got the Casey Foundation to fund an experimental program in which the newly-formed Center for Family Representation (CFR) would provide high- quality defense counsel for a small number of families.

In addition to a lawyer with a reasonable caseload, each family would be assigned a social worker who could work with the family and craft alternatives to those cookie-cutter “service plans” churned out by ACS.  Often there would be a third member of the team, a parent advocate, someone who had been through the system herself or himself, and could guide and encourage the parents.

At first there was only CFR handling a limited number of cases in Manhattan. But after CFR proved itself and Mattingly became commissioner of ACS,* the city itself began funding parental defense.  Today, CFR and three other providers, the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services and Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem provide this kind of defense counsel to about 90 percent of the impoverished families dealing with ACS in four of the city’s five boroughs.

Those who cling to stereotypes about everyone who loses a child to the system, believing them all to be sadistic brutes who torture children would, of course, find this upsetting. Those who know who really is in the system understand why this approach is so good for children.

In 2011, Brooklyn Defender Services produced this video about their work:

Brooklyn Defender Services also represented some of the families profiled in the landmark New York Times story about foster care as the new Jane Crow.

The Bronx Defenders was the subject of this story in The Nation

This model of family defense won an award from the New York State Bar Association, and it’s been recognized as a national model by the federal Administration for Children, Youth and Families.

Among the most important reasons for this success: Often these teams can get in early, instead of after the child already is in foster care, and much damage has been done.

As should be clear by now, this is not a matter of “getting bad parents off.”  The early intervention allows the defense team to prove families innocent when they have, in fact, done nothing wrong.  (Yes, I said prove families innocent. In the real world of child welfare, the burden of proof is reversed.)  The team can craft safe alternatives when there is a problem but foster care isn’t necessary, and come up with better ways to safety reunify families when it is.

It’s needed because, as the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services put it:

Unfortunately, experience has shown that agencies too often wield their emergency removal power in situations where such drastic state action is unnecessary, and without first attempting to address the issues that brought the family to the agency’s attention.

High-quality family defense is one of the reasons that, even with setbacks over the past year, New York City has a relatively low rate of child removal – and, during the years since this model expanded citywide and entries into foster care declined, key measures of child safety improved.

And one thing more. Foster care is more expensive than safe, proven alternatives. CFR alone estimates it’s saved taxpayers $37 million in reduced foster-care costs since 2007.

Washington State also says yes

New York City is not alone.

Washington State started a program of high quality family defense in 2000.
Between 2000 and 2003, of 144 cases in the program in which families were reunified, not one was brought back to court.

“These children aren’t coming back,” said then-Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbie Bridge, a supporter of the program, “and we do get them back when we make bad reunification decisions.”

Even the state Attorney General at the time, who had to face the better-prepared lawyers, supported the project and wanted it expanded.

A 2011 evaluation found that in counties that have this kind of representation children are reunified more quickly. And when reunification really isn’t possible, guardianship and adoption occur more quickly as well.

But Monroe County says no

So when New York State’s Office of Indigent Legal Services offered a competitive grant to Upstate counties to test the model, Monroe County’s Office of Public Defender, which has a long and distinguished history in the field of family defense, applied.

Monroe County certainly needs it. Though the county has made real progress in reducing needless foster care, in 2016, the last year for which comparative data are available, Monroe County still took away children at a rate more than 20 percent higher than New York City, when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in both places. For reasons discussed below, the Monroe County record probably was worse in 2017. And, as the Times story documented so well, there remains plenty of needless removal in New York City.

Monroe County won the grant.  Everything was all set to go.

Until county officials stepped in and turned down the money.  It’s not clear exactly who made the decision, but it appears to have been the County Executive, Cheryl Dinolfo. Presumably she was acting on advice from the county child protective services agency.

But she was acting against the advice of all of the county’s family court judges.  Judge Joan Kohout called the initiative “a great idea” adding: “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept this grant, frankly.”

But I can.  One possibility: There was a high-profile death of a child “known to the system” last year, and the child protective services agency has been under intense pressure as a result. Dinolfo may be afraid of doing anything that political opponents could portray as “soft on child abusers.” (In fact, such deaths typically set-off foster-care panics, sharp sudden spikes in needless removal of children. So improved family defense actually is needed more now than at any time in recent years.)

An aversion to accountability

But I think the reasons go deeper – to the typical child welfare agency aversion to any kind of accountability.

What we do know is that the official reasons offered up by the county are pathetic excuses, an attempt to conjure up false images of vicious technicality-wielding lawyers scaring innocent children and hiding the crimes of child abusers.

The Daily Record  quotes a statement from county spokesman Jesse Sleezer, in which he claims that the program

would have injected lawyers into cases of abuse and neglect much earlier, potentially intimidating child victims and limiting access by CPS workers who would otherwise assess and monitor the child’s safety.

Well, for starters, as noted above, they’ve been doing this in New York City since 2002, that hasn’t happened, and the city child welfare agency is so comfortable with the program that it keeps expanding it.

Monroe County Executive
Cheryl Dinolfo
And throughout the modern history of child welfare, from the notorious McMartin Preschool case and others like it, all the way to the last major case to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court (in which my organization’s volunteer vice president served as pro bono counsel for the family) those most prone to intimidate children have been caseworkers, law enforcement and “therapists” – when the children didn’t give the answers they wanted to hear.

But even were this the first program of its kind, and even had been no track record of success elsewhere, Sleezer’s claim would be false on its face.

As Judge Kohout points out, these lawyers would have no magical powers.  It would just put the poor on something closer to an equal footing with people of more means.  Said Judge Kohout: “This program would provide the same right and the same access to legal advice to poor parents.”

And that raises a more fundamental issue: If the child protective services agency is “gaining access” in ways that would be stopped by a lawyer for a middle-class family, then chances are what the agency is doing to poor families is, at a minimum unethical and possibly illegal.  So does Monroe County Child Protective Services want to stop poor people from having higher-quality family defense so it can break the law?

Judge Kohout also understands the real reason why it’s a good idea to use this model early in a case: “There would be great benefit in avoiding dragging people into court and stigmatizing them by giving them that help up front.”

Mr. Sleezer’s other objection

Sleezer offered up one other objection:

The attorneys involved in this pilot program would serve only one client — the parent accused of abuse — and would not have any professional responsibility to serve the best interests of the abused child.

Aside from the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are not accused of abuse – the charge is neglect – Sleezer is, in one sense, right.  Attorneys appointed to represent parents do, in fact, represent parents. You know; sort of like the way, in criminal cases, defense attorneys don’t also work for the prosecution and prosecutors don’t also represent the accused.

Indeed, by Sleezer’s logic, child protective services agencies shouldn’t be represented in court either, since those attorneys represent the agency’s interests. 

And it is arrogant in the extreme to assume that the interests of parents and children are at odds from the get-go. In fact, that’s part of what judges are there to determine.  What parents’ lawyers really are doing is defending families. In the process, they defend children from all the harm of needless foster care.

Determining whether the course of action recommended by those family defenders, or that recommended by lawyers  representing any other party, should be followed is what we have judges for.

The only a chance a judge really has to sort through competing claims and figure out what’s really best is if all sides get a chance to make the best possible case for their position.  Perhaps that’s why, as noted above, all of Monroe County’s family court judges supported the grant application. 

I believe the technical term for this approach, in which all sides make their best case and a judge issues a ruling, is “justice.”

Apparently, that’s exactly what Mr. Sleezer and his bosses are afraid of.

*Yes, that is the same John Mattingly I often criticized on this blog when he ran ACS. But whatever his failings, he deserves enormous credit for helping to create and expand high-quality family defense.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Child welfare, civil liberties and the failure of the Left: The double standards apply to blacklists, too

Second of two parts

In a previous post to this blog, I wrote about a New York Times story that described how police swarmed a middle school and conducted highly-intrusive searches of hundreds of students looking for drugs. They found none. They also had no warrant or other authority to conduct the search.

I noted that this prompted outrage on the Left, a successful lawsuit, and even criminal charges. Yet similar behavior is routine, and often countenanced by self-proclaimed liberals, as long as it’s done by child protective services workers in the name of fighting child abuse.

The Times provided still another chance to examine double standards last month. This time it came in the form of a deeply-moving op-ed column by Tamar Manasseh, founder and president of Mothers Against Senseless Killings.

She writes about her son.  Though he has never been in trouble with the law, Manasseh writes …

He and I constantly fear that one day the Chicago Police Department is going to put him in its gang database, which contains names of 130,000 people suspected of being gang members. If they put your name in it, they aren’t required to notify you. And then if you get stopped by a police officer, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up in jail because it’s so easy for the police to come up with a reason to arrest you. Being in the database can even make it hard to get jobs or professional licenses because employers might find out when they run background checks.
Chicago’s gang database … sweeps in young people who are “likely offenders.” In reality, anyone can get on the list, and for reasons like dressing a certain way, having tattoos or just sitting on their porch at the wrong moment. It’s depressing but unsurprising that more than 90 percent of people in the database are black or Latino, a majority of whom have never been arrested for a violent offense or for a drug or weapons charge.

Once again, there was a lot of sympathy in the comments section, and, I’m sure plenty of concern among my fellow liberals.

The other database of rumor and innuendo

But once again, many liberals are silent – or worse – when it comes to another kind of massive database of rumor and innuendo that also harms children and families: “central registries” of alleged child abusers.

As with that database maintained by the Chicago police, it’s a whole lot easier to be put into one of these registries than to fight your way out.  No actual conviction is required. In most states there is no hearing of any kind beforehand.  The family gets no opportunity to defend itself at all.  Typically a caseworker need simply decide in her or his own mind that it is slightly more likely than not that the accused is a child abuser, and the accused is in the database for years, maybe decades, maybe forever. (In some states they are listed even when the caseworker thinks there is more evidence of innocence.)

And let’s be clear about what is meant by “child abuser.” Given the astounding breadth of laws defining abuse and, especially, neglect, it’s easy to wind up in one of these databases just for being poor.

In some states, there is a long, cumbersome bureaucratic appeals process, usually involving appealing to the same agency that put you in the registry in the first place. In other states, there’s no way out at all.

So it’s no wonder that evidence from class-action lawsuits indicates these registries are rife with error. In New York and Illinois such lawsuits revealed that when people finally make it through the slow, cumbersome appeals process they win 75 percent of the time. (NCCPR’s vice president brought the New York suit.)  In North Carolina and Missouri state supreme courts ruled that the very idea of blacklisting someone first and forcing them to appeal afterwards was unconstitutional. Those courts ruled there must be a hearing before a listing in a central register.

And, as with the Chicago police registry, the victims of this massive infringement on civil liberties often are children.

How child abuse registries victimize children

For starters being listed on a central registry often means you can’t get a job in any field dealing with children. So when an impoverished parent is wrongly listed on the registry it further limits his or her job prospects, increasing the chances that the family will have to endure all the harm of poverty.

But the harm can be even more direct.  The alleged perpetrator isn’t always an adult. The lead
plaintiff in the Illinois lawsuit was listed when she was about 12-years-old – for sexual abuse – because she helped pull up the pants of much younger children who were “playing doctor” in the family’s home day care.

Yet who was front and center a few years ago in demanding that all these sloppy, slipshod databases be combined into a massive national database of rumor and innuendo? None other than that great champion of liberalism, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.  Judging by his quote in this AP story, (which also has an excellent overview of all the problems with central registries), Schumer did not even seem to realize that child abuse registries are nothing like registries for sex offenders which require a criminal conviction before anyone is listed.

Once again, however, hypocrisy is not a one-way street.  I haven’t seen family values conservatives rushing to demand curbs on the Chicago police gang database either.