Sunday, March 29, 2009

P.S.: The Homicide numbers don’t help ACS’ case


So why even mention them? Please read on.

In the previous post to this Blog, I pointed out that, in the wake of a surge in removals of children from their homes, deaths of children "known to the system" in New York City also soared. In response, the City's Administration for Children's Services claimed deaths of children known-to-the-system went up because reports alleging maltreatment went up, so more children are known to the system. We responded that the percentage increase in deaths far exceeds the percentage increase in reports.

ACS also said: Don't pay attention to the total number of deaths, look instead only at those ruled homicides. It's only because they suggested this measure, that I'm bringing it up now.

In its print edition, the Daily News published ACS data providing the number of child abuse homicides back to 1998. It turns out that, when one compares the three years starting in 2006, when the surge in child removals began, to the previous three years, child homicides increased by 50 percent – the same percentage increase as deaths of children known-to-the-system. But reports alleging maltreatment increased by only 23 to 26 percent.

Here are the data for 2006 through 2008 in summary:

Reports alleging maltreatment: up 23-26%

Deaths of children known-to-the-system: up 50%

Deaths of children known-to-the-system ruled homicides: up 50%

Children taken from their parents: up 55%

So, what should one conclude from the homicide figures? Probably, nothing. And that's for a reason for which we all should be grateful. Though each is a terrible tragedy, the number of child abuse deaths labeled homicides is so low, particularly for a jurisdiction as large as the City of New York, that it can fluctuate due to random chance.

Similarly, one should probably pay no attention to the fact that the worst year for child abuse homicides since 1998 was 1998 – the same year ACS took away more children than any on record, and a year when reports alleging maltreatment were lower than during the recent surge.

And one should ignore the fact that from 2001 through 2003, as ACS was emphasizing family preservation and the number of children torn from their parents was going down, and reports alleging maltreatment declined by only six percent, child abuse homicides were cut by more than half – from 14 to six.

Yep, one shouldn't pay any attention to those figures – until, that is, the next time some demagogic pol or clueless reporter tries to blame deaths of children known-to-the-system on efforts to keep families together, when all available evidence points to the opposite, that efforts to keep families together make children safer.

I'm only mentioning these numbers because it's ACS that suggested limiting any fatality comparison to homicide numbers, not total deaths.

Similarly, it's only because, at the end of 2005, one reporter for The New York Times claimed there had been a "series" of child abuse deaths and blamed them on efforts to keep families together, that I'll point out that the number of child abuse homicides that year – ten – was half the number in 1998. Reports alleging maltreatment were down only 13 percent. And,entries into care had been cut by nearly 60 percent. (Of course, as I've noted before, the Times reporter had an explanation for this: "it was a series," she said, "but not statistically.")

So here's what we know: The homicide numbers don't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared. The deaths known-to-the-system number doesn't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared. Most important, more reliable measures, measures to which we should pay attention, rates of reabuse and foster care recidivism, don't show children getting any safer as entries into care have soared.

Long ago, when I was just starting out as a reporter, it was actually the head of an adoption agency who said something I've never forgotten: "The burden of proof should always rest with those who believe children don't belong in families."

ACS has not met its burden.

Footnote: The notion that there had been some kind of unusual “series” of child abuse deaths in late 2005 is not the first time America’s most prestigious newspaper suckered itself into perpetuating a myth. One of the most notorious examples was the subject of a fascinating segment of the WNYC Public Radio series On The Media. You can hear it on the program’s website here.