Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The eyes of Texas are averted

Two days ago, I noted that there are some in Texas who claim that the children from Eldorado won’t suffer as badly as so many other Texas foster children because they’re in the national media spotlight. Therefore, it is argued, they’ll get extra attention.

I argued then that even were that true, it would mean only that other Texas foster children will be even worse off, since the eyes of Texas CPS would be taken off their cases. Evidence for that came Monday, when Texas announced that enough caseworkers will be assigned to these 463 children to give each a caseload of “only” 15 cases – or maybe it’s 15 children; news accounts vary, and it makes a big difference. The typical Texas caseworker has more than 45 cases and, of course, many of these cases will involve more than one child.

But if CPS means 15 cases, imposing this kind of a cap on the Eldorado cases may mean that three times as many other Texas foster children suddenly are going to be without a caseworker. And if CPS means 15 Eldorado children per worker, then the number of other children who will lose their caseworkers will be even greater. Who’s going to handle their cases? Odds are, they’ll further inflate the caseloads of the remaining workers. And of course, a brand new worker will have to relearn all about each of these children.

A CPS spokesman says not all of the workers assigned to the Eldorado children will be workers who normally handle such cases, so not every worker will be diverted from an existing caseload. But that simply means these workers either were sitting around doing nothing, or something else children need isn’t going to get done.

The impact already is being felt. The Parent Guidance Center reports that families already are having visits with foster children canceled by caseworkers, citing the workload from the Eldorado case as an excuse.

As for the Eldorado children benefiting from extra attention from CPS, the track record so far is not promising.

● Two days ago, we noted that CPS broke its promise not to institutionalize the youngest children.

● Now, The Salt Lake Tribune reports, one of the children’s law guardians says they’ve broken another promise, the one about not splitting up siblings.

● CPS has admitted that nine of the children have been hospitalized and, as of Tuesday, three still were in the hospital.

● And CPS is having trouble with even the most rudimentary tasks. Again, according to the Tribune (which generally has been well ahead of Texas media on this story) some mothers still haven’t been able even to contact the caseworkers assigned to them. CPS provided lawyers for some of the mothers with a list of caseworker names. But they neglected to include phone numbers.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

1.8 Eldorados every day

During a Dateline NBC story Sunday night about the raid on the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, the Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, made two comments that are absolutely accurate, and very, very scary.

First, when asked about things like taking away children with little evidence and taking children not only from suspected abusers but also non-offending parents, he noted that “we do it all the time.”

Can’t argue with that. In fact, nationwide children are taken from their parents more than 300,000 times every year – that’s the equivalent of 1.8 Eldorado raids every day. In some cases, taking away those children was essential. In many others, it will inflict enormous suffering needlessly. Indeed, thanks to the landmark MIT study of foster care outcomes, it’s theoretically possible to calculate how many more children will wind up in juvenile jails, be unable to hold a job and, yes, become pregnant, as a result of needless foster care.

As for Abbott’s “but everybody else does it” rationale, well, we all know what we told our own children when they’d say something like that.

But even scarier was Abbott’s astoundingly casual answer when asked: What if it turns out that the allegations are untrue? Replied Abbott: “If it turns out it’s untrue, they’ll be put back in their home. It happens every day.”

Oh, well then. If we just put the children back, no harm done. It’s just like delivering a package to the wrong address, right? I don’t know what’s worse, if he’s trying to put one over on us or if he really believes this.

Yes, some of the children might be “put back.” Someday. But they’re going to be a lot worse for the experience. Some of the children already have become ill. Given the usual odds, if the children stay in foster care long enough, at least 100 of them are likely to be abused in foster care itself. Most of them are likely to suffer enormous, debilitating emotional trauma that may haunt them for the rest of their lives.

And almost all of this trauma could have been avoided had Abbott and his pals at Texas CPS simply decided not to do what they do “all the time.” If only they’d decided that the challenge of Eldorado was to find a more humane way to deal with children. If only they simply treated the mothers and children as refugees and kept them together – keeping them away, until things are sorted out, from the only people ever likely to be accused of impregnating one of the teenagers: The men living at the ranch.

Instead, they decided to do to these children precisely what they do to so many others – every day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Updated April 28: The road to agency-made sociopathy

Finally, there’s a story from a national newspaper, The New York Times, that said as much about the dangers of where the children from the YFZ Ranch are going as about the dangers of where they’re coming from.

That’s a start. But the story also revealed something more disturbing: the extent to which the adults who are pushing these children around and shunting them from place to place – or acquiescing in it - are practically drowning themselves in self-delusion to avoid facing up to the harm they’re doing to hundreds of children.

About a third of the way in, the Times gives some sense of what the children are really in for:

[T]he Texas child welfare system, those experts and insiders say - underfinanced and understaffed in the best of times, dysfunctional in the worst - can do only so much to make the road easier.

A damning 2004 state report found that the system was overwhelmed with caseloads and staff turnover, that children with violent criminal records were being mixed in the general foster-care population, and that medically fragile children were often under served.

A study in 2006 by the Texas Department of Health Services said that more than half of all foster children ages 13 to 17 were being given psychotropic drugs to control behavior. And a dire shortage of foster home beds means that at least 500 foster children were forced to sleep one night or more in a state office building in 2007, according to a report last fall by a nonprofit legal group, Texas Appleseed, which advocates what it calls social and economic justice.

Some child welfare experts say the risks are great that Texas could fail the children of the sect, compounding and exacerbating whatever damage, if any, that they suffered in their lives before the raid. …

"We could have a situation where the cure is worse than the original problem," said Richard LaVallo, a lawyer in Austin who has represented children for 25 years. "I think that really categorizes what could happen if we don't do this right."

That may have been borne out, almost literally, by a story in the Salt Lake Tribune today. According to earlier news accounts, doctors and nurses who examined the children right after they were removed said the children were healthier than most. But since then, the Tribune reports today, nine of the children reportedly were hospitalized and some still may be in hospitals. According to the Deseret News, a foster care facility reported that one child is in intensive care. The Texas child welfare agency denies this.

While it’s good to see the Times call attention to just how awful Texas foster care really is, the self-delusion is apparent in that last paragraph.

On the one hand, it’s good to see a lawyer who “represents children” in these kinds of cases express any concern at all. For starters, it’s important to understand the role of such lawyers, typically called “law guardians” or guardians ad litem. Typically, they do not, in fact, represent children, not in terms of fighting for what the child wants. Rather they urge the judge to do whatever they think is best for the child. That almost always turns out to be whatever the child welfare agency says. Law guardians lack the time, the resources, and often the inclination to actually find things out for themselves. In at least one state, they actually had to be ordered to even see the children they supposedly represent. So they simply rubber-stamp the agency.

It says a lot about just how much harm is being done to children in this case that even the law guardians at least are starting to wring their hands.

But then the self-delusion kicks in, as seen in this sentence: “I think that really categorizes what could happen if we don’t do this right.”

The delusion is that is a way to “do this right.” There isn’t.

This story, and many others focus on the special problems that will make foster care even worse for the children of the YFZ ranch – the cultural issues and the exceptionally dismal state of Texas foster care.

But the hard fact of foster care life, the one everyone in Texas is so anxious to avoid, is that even if foster care were perfect and these were typical cases, foster care with strangers always means throwing children “in the middle of the pond in an alien world.” One of the central barbarities of child welfare is the fact that adults in the system regularly pay lip service to this very fact, and then proceed to do it to children 300,000 times every year anyway.

The inherent harm of foster care can be seen in the results from a study I’ve cited before, the one which found that foster children had twice the level of post-traumatic stress disorder of gulf war veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be doing well. This study actually posed the question: How much better would these rotten outcomes be if we made foster care virtually perfect, if we stopped compounding the inherent trauma of removal? The answer: 22.2 percentage points. In other words, if foster care were made as good as it could possibly be, it would churn out walking wounded only three times out of five instead of four.

So we need to start with an understanding of how dismal the prospects would be for children even in a hypothetical perfect foster care system before we can fully understand how bad things are likely to be for these children. All the harms mentioned in the Times story – the incredible culture shock, the dismal state of Texas foster care – come on top of this wretched baseline.

And there are other harms the story didn’t have room to explain fully.

● One of the major harms of foster care, one cited by virtually everyone in the field (even as they perpetuate it) is multiple placement; putting a child in one place only to pry him up and transplant him someplace else, again and again and again. Nearly 20 years ago, when I wrote a book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents, one of the leading researchers of the day told me that once an agency moves a child three times, odds are “you have an agency-made sociopath. This child will never trust an adult again.”

The Texas children already have been moved at least twice with at least one more move planned – and that’s before all the “normal” problems that lead to moving children from home to home kick in.

● The problems also are compounded when children are institutionalized. The Times deals with part of this:

Mr. LaVallo, among other experts, is critical of the state's decision to use large group shelters across Texas for the children, who range in age from infancy to 17. Traditional foster homes with real parental figures instead of shift workers and regimented institutional rules would be a better choice, those critics say.

State officials and some other child welfare experts say Texas was right to throw out the old best-practice playbook in this instance. Group shelters, they say, will allow the children to support and reinforce one another through the inevitable trauma of separation and transition. A traditional middle-class foster home, they say, would be even more of a shock to an F.L.D.S. child, especially because many such homes in Texas are run by religiously minded Baptists and Presbyterians.

Even if one buys the rationalizations for institutionalizing some children, (note, though that, as so often happens, what is most convenient for the agency also, supposedly, is “best” for the children) even Texas CPS officials claimed to understand that institutionalization would be terrible for the youngest children, and those children, at least, would get a home. But the Times reports that 22 children were sent to one of the worst types of placement of all, one of those parking place shelters, where shift workers tend to the children until they are shipped someplace else. And none of those children is older than six. (For more on shelters, see the Blarchive for August, 2006 and scroll to When Real Children Become Human Teddy Bears, Aug. 14, 2006).

Nor does it say much for Texas child welfare that one reason the children need to be institutionalized apparently is that CPS has no confidence in its own foster parents not to start indoctrinating the children. Makes you wonder what happens to all the other Texas foster children who don’t happen to have birth parents who are “religiously minded Baptists and Presbyterians.”

The issue of all those other Texas foster children illustrates a problem with one of the other key pillars in the temple of self-delusion constructed by Texas CPS and its supporters. Call it the “eyes of Texas” theory.

This was expressed in an op ed column by someone at one of the organizations most fanatical about a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. The sheer pomposity of his opening sentence should make anyone who cares about children shudder.

The author writes: “I spend my days fighting to save the lives of victims of child abuse, so I have a unique perspective on the turmoil of the past few weeks…”

Then comes his own bit of self-delusion:

I am very hopeful that the children of Eldorado will be well served this time because it is my experience that "what's watched, works." In other words, the cracks, or gaping chasms if you prefer, in our child protective systems will be closed because the whole world is watching.

There are a few problems with this. The first is all that inherent harm of foster care noted above. The second is the multiple placement. The third is that, under the noses of the whole world, CPS already has broken its promise not to institutionalize the youngest children in shelters.

But the biggest problem is this: Even if this guy is right and these children will suffer a little less because the eyes of Texas CPS are upon them, CPS in Texas doesn’t have many eyes. Any extra eyes on these children will be taken off other children who are not in the media spotlight. So the chances that those children will be abused in foster care and otherwise traumatized will only increase.

Nevertheless, you may be sure Texas CPS will continue to issue boilerplate statements about how the children are “adjusting well.” There might even be news stories in which volunteers at the shelters talk about how the little children rush up to hug them and won’t let go. That will be seen as “success” because neither the volunteers, nor the reporters, know that when a very young child rushes up to hug a total stranger and won’t let go, it’s actually a sign of very serious trauma caused by being taken from parents and then moved from placement to placement.

When all other forms of self-delusion fail, people will start talking about children’s “resilience” – as in, no matter what we do to them, somehow they’ll survive it. But even were that true, if a parent were to break a child’s arm and then say “It’s o.k. because we can put it in a cast and it will heal” that parent still would be a child abuser, and a particularly sadistic one at that.

How much more sadistic is it needlessly to harm more than 400 children, who could have remained safe by being kept off the ranch, but with their mothers, and then justify it to ourselves based on some theory of “resilience”?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Failure to protect" - from the Diocese of Fairbanks

There was a story on NPR yesterday about rampant sexual abuse in isolated compounds, perpetrated by religious leaders. Although there were relatively few offenders, the number of victims is staggering. The “compounds” are Native Alaskan villages. The abusers were priests and lay volunteers supervised by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks in the 1960s.

“It’s practically genocidal in some villages,” a lawyer who won a series of civil suits on behalf of the victims told the reporter for public radio station KUAC. “There are some villages where I can walk down the street and not see an adult who wasn’t molested as a child.”

But what about the parents? In the jargon of child protective services agencies they “failed to protect” their children. Yet no one was cruel enough – or stupid enough – to suggest that, on top of everything else they suffered, the children should lose their parents, too.

The parents “failed to protect” because either they never knew about the abuse, (something CPS agencies sometimes say is no excuse) or never knew they could do anything about it. There were no police in these “isolated compounds” no lawyers, no counselors, not even many telephones. And for many of those who lived there, English was their second language. Said the lawyer: “They didn’t understand the difference between church and state. They didn’t realize there was a government they could go to that might investigate, might prosecute.”

Similarly, as I’ve noted before, when refugees fled in boats from Southeast Asia 30 years ago, some of the boats were attacked by pirates who raped women and children. But when the survivors reached America no one was so cruel or so stupid as to suggest that the children be taken from the mothers who “failed to protect” them.

Yet now, as Texas CPS keeps coming up with new reasons to keep the children of the YFZ ranch away from their mothers, it appears the latest excuse is “failure to protect.” Yes, there are differences. Some of the parents in Alaska didn’t know what was going on; to the extent that there really was abuse at the ranch, the mothers may well have known. But they probably did not know that underage forced marriages are abusive. Indeed one mother testified she didn’t know what is abusive and what is not. These mothers also probably have little if any concept of the difference between church and state.

One can dispute how much danger these children really were in at the ranch, and whether the danger applied to all the children or some. But it should be beyond dispute that now that the children are out of the ranch, they are away from the danger. So there is no danger to the children in resettling mothers and children together, and having CPS offer intensive help to the families – including teaching the mothers what is abusive and what is not. (On second thought, that particular task probably should be subcontracted.) In contrast, there is enormous danger to the children – both emotionally and in terms of risk of abuse – in placing the children in foster care.

But if this case ever was about protecting children, it isn’t anymore. It’s about punishing “bad mothers.” Texas CPS will never say that, of course. They probably can’t even admit it to themselves. Instead, we’ll get the usual mumbo jumbo about “we have to make sure the mothers comply with their ‘service plans’” and “we just want to be sure the children will be safe with their mothers.” But there is no way to be absolutely sure that any child is safe with any mother, or father, or anyone else. You have to balance the risks. And for these children, the risk of harm is far greater in foster care than with their mothers.

Sadly, the behavior of Texas CPS is not unusual. It took a class-action lawsuit to curb similar practices in New York City. (See “When Children Witness Domestic Violence” on our website, for excerpts from the court decision). And, as it happens, Alaska takes children at one of the highest rates in the country. So one does have to wonder: If those Native Alaskans had realized that “there was a government they could go to that might investigate, might prosecute” and if they had called that government, would that government have done the right thing? Or would that government simply have increased the suffering of the Alaskan children by taking them away on grounds of “failure to protect”?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

UPDATED APRIL 20: It keeps getting worse

Texas CPS now plans to tear from their mothers even the youngest children - infants and toddlers - removed from the YFZ compound, after DNA tests are completed.

Even the star witness for Texas CPS didn’t want this.

That would be Dr. Bruce Perry, who is held in high esteem by the Texas press corps. As reported by ABC News on the network’s website:

Perry also said that the youngest children are probably least at risk if returned to parents in the short term because they are not as likely to be influenced by FLDS unhealthy beliefs at such a young age. He added that he thought it would be OK for young mothers to continue to stay with their babies until a more long-term decision is made.

No news account has explained why Texas CPS is doing this to the children. When they separated the older children they claimed it was because that would make it easier to make those older children talk, so they could find out what "really" happened. So now what? Are they expecting the infants to talk if they’re separated from their mothers, too?

CPS also made one exception. The agency says the young children can stay with their mothers – if the mothers are under age 18. What harm, exactly, would an 18-year-old mother do to a young child, if she got to stay with that child, that a 17-year-old would not?

The younger the child the greater the likely emotional trauma of separation from their mothers. And the younger the child the more slowly they perceive the passage of time. In other words, for a very young child, the anguish of being apart from their mothers is magnified by the fact that time seems to pass so much more slowly.

And then there's the risk of abuse whenever a large group of vulnerable children is left in the care of strangers.

You may be sure, however, that CPS will issue bland, boilerplate statements about how the children are "doing well" - even as they either bar the media from seeing for themselves entirely or prevent them from talking to anyone unless a CPS minder is hovering over the reporter's shoulder.

But wait, it gets worse: According to one news account, when these children, including the infants and toddlers, are placed in foster care, they won’t even be with families. They’re going to be institutionalized – in other words, shipped off to group homes and orphanages. Institutionalization is, by far, the worst form of care for children and, again, the younger the child, the greater the damage.

But I can imagine the excuse for this one as well: The children were in a large compound before, so CPS will claim it’s better for the children to be institutionalized now. (That’s not the real reason. The real reason almost certainly is that, with needless removals of children having soared in Texas over the past several years, CPS has no place else to put the children).

In any event, the excuse doesn’t hold up. The compound the children used to be in was, in fact, a collection of homes, where the children were with people they considered family. They are being moved to places in which total strangers, sometimes working in shifts, dispense indiscriminate pseudo-love to anyone who walks in the door. And that’s the best-case scenario. For worst case, see the report issued by the former Texas State Comptroller about some of the institutions Texas routinely relies on for warehousing children.

I hope CPS is simply clueless about child development and the enormous trauma they are inflicting needlessly on these children by keeping them away from their mothers. Because any other explanation would be even worse.


--Susan Hays, the law guardian who seems to have emerged as some kind of spokeswoman for the various law guardians assigned to the children in this case, has been making some disturbing comments, even when those comments seemingly favor reunification. Among other things, she's quoted in the Deseret News as expressing some admiration for what she saw at the YFZ Ranch. Said Hays: "These people can build houses. It's an amazing facility, amazing construction. These aren't poor kids living in trailers."

And therefore what? If children are poor and live in trailers, and don't live in homes that can dazzle a law guardian their parents must love them less so it's OK to take them away? Is a father who is too poor to live in more than a trailer less fit than a father who, if the allegations are true, may have forced a 14-year-old to have sex with him?

--Has anybody, besides assorted lawyers, been to the "compound" where the children are being warehoused now? What are the conditions like? How are the children coping with being institutionalized - in many cases, separated from everyone they know and love? And now that the children have spent all this time in an isolated compound, in absolute secrecy, at risk of abuse, barred from contact with the outside world - by an organization which essentially makes up its own rules as it goes along - it's worth remembering: That's what CPS said they were protecting the children from in the first place.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Prolonging the children's agony

On CNN this evening, a law guardian for one of the children said it would be tragic if toddlers who had been living at the YFZ Ranch were deprived of their mothers because there might be sexual abuse two houses away. But, as I am sure this law guardian understands, these children already have been deprived of their mothers, and for a toddler, a few days is an eternity.

It also was reported that one mother after another said they would do anything the state wants in order to be reunited with their children. But even if the mothers are not telling the truth, as a practical matter, the state has everything it needs to hold the children indefinitely. So there is no reason to keep the mothers and children apart another minute – and no reason to prolong the children’s agony while waiting for their mothers to jump through all the usual hoops.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The third side of the story.

It’s common for people to complain that news stories are “one sided” and journalists didn’t get “the other side of the story.” But often the bigger problem is when journalists stop at two sides.

That seems to be what is happening now in Texas. We hear the mothers deny that anything at all was wrong and the state justify tearing the children from the mothers as the only way to get their stories out of them. (When this Blog predicted this would happen, and predicted the rationale, I noted that it also would be easier to get the children’s stories if they waterboarded them. Memo to the Texas child welfare agency: I was being sarcastic; please don’t get any ideas.)

But here’s a third side of the story: The children may well have needed to be removed from the ranch. But under the laws that govern American child welfare systems there is no way they’re going back until and unless their “stories” are fully known; and probably not then, either. So there was no excuse for further traumatizing them by tearing them from their mothers. There is no reason the children and their mothers could not be resettled, in effect, as refugees.

The ABC News website tells the third side of the story today. Though the headline asked who did more harm, the sect or the state, that’s not really the issue. One can believe the sect did more harm and still think it’s a bad idea for the state to harm the children further by separating them from their mothers.

The actions of Texas CPS remind me more than anything of a notorious comment made by a general during the Vietnam War. Surveying the destruction of a village he explained that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

So here’s the third side of the story in Texas: Don’t destroy these children in order to save them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

CPS gets even

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a call or an e-mail from people who say their children were wrongfully taken and they want to tell their story. In many cases it would help the cause of reforming child welfare systems if they did just that. But I always give the same advice:

Don’t. At least not until they’ve checked with their lawyer (if they have one).

That’s because child welfare agencies can be very, very vengeful. They are agencies with enormous power and little accountability. Inevitably, that breeds a certain arrogance, even in people with the best of intentions. The system also is geared toward extracting confession and repentance from parents. So the very act of challenging a caseworker or supervisor is seen as evidence that a parent is guilty, and further justification for keeping the child away from the parent.

Because these are actually parent punishment systems, not child protection systems, the harm this does to the children is rationalized away.

So, it is likely that, when some of the mothers whose children were taken from them in Texas dared to speak out – CPS got even. That’s not how they rationalized it to themselves, of course, but that’s likely what really is behind the decision to tear the children taken from the YFZ ranch from their one remaining lifeline, their mothers. (Similarly, look what happened after cell phone photos of conditions in one of the shelters turned up in the Deseret News: CPS allegedly confiscated the mothers’ cell phones.)

In some cases, it’s going to be virtually impossible for the mothers even to visit their children. ABC News reports that they’ve been shipped 400 miles away to “Cal Farley's Ranch for Boys and Girls,” in other words – an orphanage and/or residential treatment center; the worst kind of placement for children taken from their homes.

According to ABC News:

“Dan Adams, director of the Cal Farley ranch, told ABC that the placement of 27 teens from an austere religious sect was ‘a little extraordinary.’ He said the children usually sent to his ranch are in need of supervision. Mixing the two, he conceded, is ‘going to be difficult.’

No kidding.

No doubt Texas CPS will claim that they had to get the mothers completely out of the way to make it easier to get the children to tell them what happened at the YFZ Ranch. That may be true (though, on the other hand, tearing a child from her or his mother, apparently through trickery, may not be the best way to win a child’s trust.) It also would be easier to get information out of the children if you waterboarded them – but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

As a practical matter there is no way a judge is going to send these children back to the YFZ ranch. And the nature of child welfare law is such that child protection agencies can do pretty much whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want. Given the minimal standards in law, they don’t need more from the children in order to hold onto them. So there is no possible justification for inflicting upon them the emotional torment of separation from their mothers.

And notwithstanding the happy talk from CPS’ house doctor, torment is the right word. Here’s what the doctor told the Salt Lake Tribune:

“But Sandra Guerra-Cantu, a physician with the Texas Department of Health Services, said Monday: ‘In general, children are very resilient in adapting to change. These children are adjusting to their new environment.’ Asked about the children's mental health, Guerra-Cantu said people were made available for the children to talk to, and the same service was offered to the caregivers."

Oh, well then. As long as the children have total strangers to talk to, obviously there’s no problem. One can only fear for the psyches of children left to the tender meries of the likes of Dr. Cantu.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Winning trust, and betraying it

On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Texas child welfare agency said that workers with her agency are trying to win the trust of the 416 children they took from the compound of a fundamentalist Mormon sect.

But there are signs that whatever trust they may have gained already has been betrayed – with a bigger betrayal likely later this week.

If the children really were raped and beaten by men at the compound the betrayal of trust is even bigger than if the allegations are false. Indeed, the worse the abuse, the bigger the betrayal. Because when abused children have a parent who didn’t abuse them, there may be nothing more important for their well-being than the chance to remain with that parent. CPS in Texas already is denying this chance to some of the children, and may soon deny it to many more.

If the allegations are true, the mothers themselves were victimized by repeated rape in the name of “spiritual marriage” and held in isolated communities from which there was little chance of escape. It would be nice if just once, for the sake of the children, a child welfare agency could put aside the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the mother whenever someone else abuses a child. Because if the allegations are true, there is a good chance that keeping these children from their mothers will only lead them to blame themselves for the abuse and everything else that has happened to them. Short term, it will add unimaginable loneliness to their ordeal; long-term, it may shatter their best chance eventually to lead a normal life.

As noted previously on this Blog, expert after expert has said that taking children from non-offending parents in these situations is enormously traumatic. Testifying in a class-action lawsuit, one said that for the child it is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

But Texas CPS appears incapable of doing anything but jerking its knees in all the usual ways. And it looks like when they go to court on Thursday, their position may boil down to “please pass the salt.”

We’ve been told that 139 mothers voluntarily left the compound with their children, but CPS has been vague about what’s happened since. Are these mothers allowed regular, sustained contact with their children?

What we do know is disturbing. For starters, there is the matter of those mothers who were not at the compound during the raid. According to news accounts, including this one from Britain’s Sunday Times, they are being denied all contact with their children. According to the Times:

Outside the walls of Fort Concho, a former US cavalry station deep in the heart of Texas, a flock of slight young women were wailing and tearing at their long, pink and blue gingham dresses.
Inside the fort 400 children, removed last weekend from the nearby compound of a polygamy cult amid allegations of rape and child abuse, heard the commotion and cried out for the parents they had not seen for days.
Even for casehardened social workers flown in from Arizona and Utah to help soothe distraught children, ranging from infants to 17-year-olds, the scale of the distress was heartrending.

In this story CPS claims that they’re just waiting for DNA test results to confirm that the mothers really are the children’s mothers. But in other news accounts, a CPS spokeswoman offers a more chilling explanation for denying contact: “These children are with us because we believe they’ve been abused or neglected.” But, of course, every child taken into foster care is there because a CPS agency believes that. So by that logic, no child ever would be visited while in foster care. Which makes one wonder about the children whose mothers are supposed to be with them during their detention.

The “incident commander” at Fort Concho and the other huge facility where the children are being held paints a picture of life there as something between summer camp and a scout jamboree. But his Orwellian references to the children and their parents as “guests” are not reassuring. And some mothers who used their cell phones to call the Deseret News tell a different story. While some mothers are with their children, if the mothers happen to be in one shelter and the children is in another, there is no contact:

"I've been walking around and comforting crying, sick children," [one mother] said, adding that she also been helping overwhelmed mothers struggle to care for their children in their new environments. …
Dorothy described the anxiety many of the children feel being away from home, especially at night.
She said 25 young girls have mothers who are staying in another shelter, yet Child Protective Services workers have refused to even let them pass notes to each other. That means she has had to comfort many of them.
She said the children have told her, "Please come and sleep on my bed so they won't take me. I say, 'No, I will sleep by the door so I can watch all of you.'"
Dorothy said workers at the shelter will walk through the crowded room among the children at night, which makes it even more difficult for them to sleep. The cots, cribs and playpens are side by side.
"There's no separation," Paula, another mother, said. "When we're trying to bed down the children and a child is crying, we can't settle them down. It's hard to know how to help each child..."
One small girl, whose mother was not at the ranch during the raid and has not been allowed to join her children in the shelter, cries out for her mother daily.
"It's quite traumatic to her. She just cries and cries, missing her mother," Barbara said.
"When a child is crying, it affects the whole room. There's nowhere else to go."
Barbara said one child she's been caring for got sick and had to go to the hospital. Her mother had been away from the ranch when the raid took place and didn't accompany her daughter to the shelter.
After the little girl returned to the shelter after being hospitalized, a caseworker quizzed Barbara, "Where was her (the little girl's) mother? Why was she gone from the ranch (during the raid)? Where did she go?"
Barbara said she told the caseworker that the child's mother was outside the shelter waiting to see her daughter, to which the worker responded, "Well, she's with us now so that's how it is."
Children could be heard crying in the background during each of the phone interviews from the shelters. …
Kathleen believes some of the child welfare workers have used frightening tactics when interviewing the children. She said she heard one tell a child, "If you do not tell us these things, we will take you away from your mother and father and you will never see them again."

We have only Kathleen’s word for this, of course. (A tape of her telephone interview is on the Deseret News website.) But the claim eerily echoes tactics used by those who interviewed the children in the notorious McMartin Preschool case. Similarly, we know that the kind of stripsearches that accompany CPS medical examinations in these cases can be enormously traumatic for children. In this case, one of the mothers alleges,

"Some of the children have come out crying and screaming …They were touching their bodies in inappropriate ways."

But the worst betrayal still may lie ahead. I’ve suggested previously that these children, and the mothers who left the compound to join them, are like refugees – suddenly transported to what amounts to another planet. So they should be resettled like refugees, with mothers allowed to live with their children.

But there appears to be little or no talk of that, and much discussion of dispersing the children around the state, and possibly the nation, as foster children. Several Texas orphanages appear eager to take some of them.

That despite the fact that these children’s plight actually may be worse than that of refugees. In Britain’s Sunday Telegrph, Jill Mytton, principal lecturer in counseling psychology at London Metropolitan University, points out that at least refuges actually want to leave the place they’ve left. Lytton is herself a cult survivor. She strongly believes the raid on the Texas compound was necessary

But instead of putting the needs of the children first and doing everything possible to keep mothers and children together, CPS probably will seek to use the children as leverage to win “confessions” from the mothers of their own “wrongdoing,” force them to publicly “repent” and prove they’ve seen the light about the evil ways of the men in their lives, and get them to testify against the fathers. This would both satisfy the overarching need of many in CPS to get parents to “confess” and “redeem” themselves before they are “worthy” of having their children, and give them leverage to prosecute the fathers.

If the fathers did what they are accused of doing, then gaining more evidence to prosecute them is a worthy goal – but not at the expense of the emotional well-being of their children. And it would be a travesty if the people at CPS were allowed to let their “gotcha” mentality triumph over what these children need most.

The betrayals don’t end with emotional harm. Right after the CPS spokeswoman explained how the agency was trying to win the children’s trust, she added: "Even though they have not been safe before, they will be safe with us."

But no child welfare agency in America can deliver on that promise for every foster child, certainly not the one in Texas, which just paid a $4 million fine to the federal government for failing to meet standards for caseworker visits to foster children.

Of course most foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, and many are true heroes. But academic studies repeatedly suggest that from one-quarter to one-third of foster children will be abused in foster care. Those estimates are conservative since they generally don’t include a major source of such abuse: foster children abusing each other. For citations see NCCPR’s Issue Paper #1 and our publication 80 Percent Failure. (The record of group homes and institutions is even worse.)

Now, consider the risks for children who know nothing of the wider world; children who, if the allegations are true, are trained to obey older adults and have sex with them. What happens if these children wind up in foster homes with unscrupulous foster parents and/or streetwise kids who had been removed from their own homes because of sexual abuse?

If Texas separates these children from their mothers and throws them into foster care with strangers, and if these children wind up stuck in foster care long enough, the odds are that for from 104 to 138 of them the promise of physical safety will be broken.

And speaking of broken promises, the San Jose Mercury News had a story Sunday about another isolated compound where children allegedly suffer repeated abuse, while the people running the compound deny anything is wrong. Except that, as in the overwhelming majority of cases in which widespread abuse is alleged at isolated institutions, in this case, it was the state that put the children there in the first place – proving once again the biggest tactical error made by those fundamentalist Mormons in Texas: They didn’t call their compound a “residential treatment center.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The "boat people" of Texas

More than 30 years ago, after the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees fled from that country. Thousands more fled from the Killing Fields of Cambodia, where a madman slaughtered millions, declared the “Year Zero” and sought to eliminate everything associated with modern civilization.

Many of the Vietnamese refugees fled on small, leaky boats. Some were attacked by pirates. Men were killed, women and girls were raped.

The refugees spent months, sometimes years, in overcrowded camps before finally being resettled around the world. While some had led middle-class, cosmopolitan lives in their home countries many more had not. For many, arriving in the United States was like landing on another planet.

American charities would help resettle the refugees, with many families moved to the same communities. And individual American families would “sponsor” a refugee.

And, as far as I know, no one – absolutely no one – was stupid enough to say that those women who were raped were “bad mothers” because they were unable to protect the children from the same fate.

All of this is brought to mind, of course, by the 419 children taken from an isolated compound in rural Texas run by a Mormon splinter group – along with 139 mothers who, when given a choice to stay behind with the men or go with the children, chose their children.

These families have lived in total isolation, under guard, with no knowledge of the outside world. Like the boat people, they’ve landed on another planet. And, if the allegations are true, the women and children have suffered in similar ways.

Unfortunately, these women and children are in the hands not of refugee resettlement agencies but of the Texas child protective services agency. All over the country, such agencies are much more about punishing “bad parents” than protecting children.

It is common, for example, to take children from mothers whose only crime was to have been beaten up by husbands or boyfriends. The women are accused of being bad mothers because they “allowed” the children to “witness domestic violence.”

It took a class-action lawsuit to stop this barbaric practice in New York City. (NCCPR’s Vice-President was co-counsel for plaintiffs). In a scathing, 182-page decision, a federal judge blasted the city child welfare agency for all the harm it was doing to children. He summarized testimony in which one expert after another said that while allowing children to witness domestic violence might be harmful, taking the children from the non-offending parent was far, far worse. One expert said it was “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.” (That section of the decision is excerpted on NCCPR’s website.)

In this case, the allegation might be that the mothers “allowed” the children themselves to be abused. But, if the charges in this case are true, that is no more true of these mothers than of those on those leaky boats fleeing Vietnam. If the charges are true, the women and the children were inmates in what amounted to a prison camp. They were allegedly imprisoned not only by force, but by fear – by tall tales told about what happens to women and children in the “outsiders world.”

If the children now are torn from their mothers, it will only make the children feel that they are somehow to blame for everything that happened. In addition, as an excellent child advocacy group in Texas, the Parent Guidance Center points out, it will prove to them that the men back in the compound at Eldorado were right about what “outsiders” do to children.

So the best thing that could happen now would be for Texas CPS to clear out. Let law enforcement sort out the truth of the allegations and, if those allegations are true, make arrests. And let agencies with experience in refugee resettlement take over dealing with the families, so the families can be treated as what they are – refugees – and so that these children don’t lose the only thing they have left – their mothers.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Polygamy as euphemism

It may the largest mass removal of children from parents in American history: more than 400 children taken from a compound run by a Mormon splinter group in Texas. And if the charges are true, of all the options, this one may have been the least bad. If only America’s child welfare agencies hadn’t blown their credibility with so much hype and hysteria over the years that we can’t know – yet – if the charges are true.

But if the charges are true, this is not about polygamy. That word implies acts of consenting adults. If the charges are true, this case involves neither consent nor adults. Rather, if the charges are true, in this case polygamy is a euphemism for rape - the mass rape of children.

And the best place to turn for a reminder of what really may be involved may not be Texas or Utah – it just might be the Bronx, as can be seen in this story from The New York Times.

It’s also worth remembering that there is one crucial difference between the removals in Texas and most such cases, a difference that may cushion the blow for most of the children: In many cases, it appears that their mothers are with them. In cases where one parent is the abuser and another is, herself, a victim, our position always has been: Remove the abuser not the children. In one sense, that may have happened this time. Priority number one for Texas authorities should be to make sure that the mothers and their children can stay together.

But then there is that big, nagging “if.” All one has to do is recall the wild allegations of mass molestation in day care centers during the early 1980s to know that child protective services can’t always be counted on to get the facts right. Indeed, the penchant for hype in child welfare is the topic of last week’s post to this Blog. The whole thing is rather like the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But even in the fable, ultimately a wolf turns up.

Unfortunately, Texas is particularly unprepared to take so many children at once. For several years, the state has been going through a foster-care panic - a huge surge in removals in the wake of deaths of children "known to the system." NCCPR issued a report on Texas child welfare three years ago, and the panic is still going on. Indeed, for much of last year, some children routinely were warehoused in offices, a problem which only recently has begun to ease.

Whether or not these children needed to be removed, their suffering has been increased because Texas has taken so many other children needlessly, so there is little room for 400 more children in the system. That is a lesson every state should remember.

And, as always, when the topic is child welfare, irony abounds.

● There’s nothing unusual about great big compounds in Texas where children are held in isolation against their will and abused. The former Texas State Comptroller even issued a huge report about them in 2004.

Read that report and it starts to look like that Mormon splinter group may have made one big tactical error: If only they’d called their compound a “therapeutic camp” or a “residential treatment center” odds are no one at Texas Child Protective Services would have done anything about it.

Perhaps now Texas will be as vigilant about the places where it puts children as it is about the places it takes them from.

● Aside from the current case, and another involving the same sect in 1953, the largest "mass evacuation" of children by a child welfare agency actually may have taken place at a facility touted by the media as a model; a place whose praises were sung by 60 Minutes and Time magazine when Newt Gingrich proposed throwing poor people’s children into orphanages: The main campus of Maryville, near Chicago.

When it was revealed seven years later that the campus actually was rife with abuse, the State of Illinois pulled out all of the state wards living there – more than 200 children. Not right away, as they should have – Maryville had far more political clout than a Mormon splinter group - but nevertheless, it happened eventually.

And when it finally happened, Illinois was far better able to handle it than Texas is now. That’s because Illinois had rebuilt its system to emphasize family preservation and was taking children at one of the lowest rates in the country, even as independent monitors found the state had improved child safety. So they had plenty of places for the children.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The child abuse hype machine strikes again

AP tells us:

About 1 in 50 infants in the U.S. have been neglected or abused, according to the first national study of the problem in that age group. Nearly a third of the victims were one week old or younger when the maltreatment was reported, government researchers said Thursday.

Bloomberg says:

About 1 in 43 infants in the U.S. suffers abuse or neglect each year, with the greatest risk among the newly born, according to the first U.S. study of maltreatment focused on babies.

And according to Reuters:

About one of every 43 U.S. infants is physically abused or neglected annually, and those babies are especially at risk in the first week of their lives, U.S. health officials said on Thursday.

The impression given in stories that crossed the wire late Thursday is of a comprehensive, scholarly study discovering massive abuse in hospital wards by sadistic parents beating and choking their helpless newborns. Of course, it’s released just in time for Child Abuse Prevention Month, in which the groups that hype the numbers seek more funding for their version of “prevention” – which generally involves touchy-feely “counseling” and “parent education” programs which make the helpers feel good while ignoring the real family problems that either cause – or are confused with – child maltreatment; namely concrete problems related to poverty.

There are just two problems with the claims in the wire service stories:

●There was no “study.”
●The “findings” are crap.

And while the problem of maltreatment of infants, like all child maltreatment, is serious and real, the hysteria-inducing non-study and the spoon-fed quotes from alleged experts apparently offered up by the federal Centers for Disease Control are only going to make the real problems worse. They’ll breed a spate of hand wringing editorials which, even as they preach “prevention,” feed the take-the-child-and-run mentality that dominates child welfare agencies. And they’ll drive some expectant mothers away from pre-natal care.

It’s the latest installment in a long, sad history of “statistics abuse” from America’s child welfare establishment, rooted in an ends-justify-the-means mentality that produces “advocacy numbers” that don’t hold up to scrutiny. (Time magazine condemned it as early as 1993, in a brief item called “Damned Lies and Statistics.”)

The non-study

Every year, the federal government puts out a book of statistics about child maltreatment. The book is a compilation of data from the states submitted to a database called NCANDS. (National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System). Unlike a second database used for adoption and foster care data, NCANDS is strictly voluntary –and states are free to define abuse, neglect, entries into care, and everything else, any way they darned well please. So, as I’ll discuss in more detail below, this is really no more than a National Report of Rumor and Innuendo.

Every year, this report includes a table breaking down alleged maltreatment by age. Until now, the youngest age bracket has been birth to age three. (Here, for example, is the chart from the 2005 report.

The big new “study” hyped by the wires in stories turning up in hundreds of news outlets consisted of a couple of extra keystrokes to get a computer to spit out the same data limited to birth to age one for 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.

The data are then presented in six paragraphs in a CDC publication. That’s the entire “study.”

The non-findings

But that didn’t stop the Child Abuse Hype Machine from swinging into action. Apparently CDC was glad to direct reporters to “experts” prepared to draw stunning conclusions from lousy data.

How lousy?

Well, let’s go back to how these figures are compiled:

●The figures are based on the number of “substantiated” allegations of maltreatment reported by each state. But “substantiated” is a misnomer. It does not mean that a court made a finding. It does not even mean that an expert evaluator weighed all sides. Rather, it means only that a (typically) undertrained, inexperienced caseworker took a guess and checked a box on a form.

The only comprehensive study I know of (a real “study” not a few keystrokes) to second guess these decisions found that workers were two to six times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly label one unfounded.

● State laws in about half the states say the worker is supposed to check the “substantiated” box if she believes there is even slightly more evidence than not of maltreatment. In the other half, the standard is even lower. The worker is supposed to substantiate maltreatment as long as she thinks there is “credible evidence” or “some credible evidence” for it – even if there is more evidence of innocence.

Even at that, the so-called study acknowledged that overwhelmingly, these infants are not abused. Indeed, physical abuse was alleged in 13.2 percent of the cases. In 68.5 percent the allegation was “neglect.” The wire stories do mention this but are skimpy about the implications.

Neglect is typically defined as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter. Lots of things can cause lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter, including all sorts of bad behavior by parents. But often, neglect is simply poverty.

Indeed, the only real surprise in the stories was that someone who, for decades, has represented the view of the “child saving” establishment, Prof. David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, apparently has gotten fed up and can’t stomach the hype. According to the AP story:

“The neglect cases include situations in which medical professionals conclude that a child got sick or didn't correctly develop because parents didn't get recommended medical care. … Finkelhor said the cases might in part reflect families who don't have adequate health insurance.”

You think?

But Finkelhor was alone. Mostly the quotes suggested tens of thousands of infants whose lives were in danger because parents were at worst sadistic brutes or at best irresponsible and needed lots of “counseling” and “parent education.”

And what about all that stuff about the danger being worst during the first days of life? Does that mean that’s when stressed-out parents are most likely to lash out at the most innocent?

Actually, no. As the stories acknowledge – eventually – it’s strictly an artifice of how child maltreatment is reported.

Many state laws require medical professionals to report any parent whose newborn allegedly has even a trace of any illegal substance in her or his system. This can mean anything from the parent who used cocaine every day of her pregnancy to the parent who smoked a marijuana cigarette to ease the pain of labor – to simply a false positive on a drug test. Doesn’t matter. Professional medical judgment is not allowed.

And in some states, any such report is automatically classified as a “substantiated” case of neglect.

The result: a supposed epidemic of child maltreatment in the days after birth, that in fact, is simply a combination of doctors denied the right to use their medical judgment and state laws slapping the label “neglect” onto any case with a positive drug test.

And since more and more states are moving in this dreadful direction – requiring an automatic neglect finding based on one positive drug test – we know what will happen next: They’ll run the numbers next year, the numbers will be, artificially, higher, and the Hype Machine will proclaim that the problem of infant abuse “has gotten even worse.”

Yes, the various experts quoted pay lip service to prevention. But not the kind of prevention that would really help – like universal health insurance, drug treatment on demand and, especially, concrete help to ease the worst burdens of poverty. Instead, we get sanctimonious comments about counseling and parent education and teaching parents to cope with stress. (Actually easing the stress by improving housing or helping a family find day care? No thanks. Apparently that’s beneath the dignity of a true “professional.”)

And what impact is all the hype about those drug tests (including a gratuitous quote in the AP story suggesting – wrongly - that the tests revealed “newborn drug addiction”) likely to have on pregnant women who really do have drug problems? It’s bound to drive more of them into hiding and away from prenatal care – which is likely to be far more harmful to the children than the drug use itself.

In fact, there is some real news in the latest federal figures, but not the kind the Child Abuse Hype Machine wants to focus on:

The overall rate of substantiated child abuse is actually unchanged from 2005 – and significantly lower than it’s been in almost every year since 1990.

But you can’t get more money for your phony prevention program with figures like that.

The response to this from the child welfare establishment will be two-fold: First the accusation that anyone who doesn’t take their hype at face value is “minimizing” the problem and, essentially, doesn’t care if infants are beaten and tortured. On the contrary – after more than 30 years of following this issue, one thing I know for sure is that statistics abuse winds up increasing harm to children, not curbing it.

Second is the “even one…” argument. As in, “if even one infant is abused it’s one too many so why ‘quibble’ over numbers?”

Well yes, even one is one too many. But if the real numbers don’t matter, there’s no need to hype them.

Actually, the real numbers matter a lot. Because the first step toward honest solutions is honest numbers.