Monday, December 21, 2009

Family preservation and foster care: What does, and does NOT curb child abuse deaths


    In Texas there is no one more fanatical about demanding that more children be taken from their parents than Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. CPPP is a group of my fellow liberals, often described as "advocating on behalf of low-income Texans" (which would be true if the one thing low income Texans crave above all else is to have their children taken away).

    Like most child savers, the term McCown's 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, McCown has the best of intentions. But his advocacy has had a lot to do with two foster care panics in Texas, and the diversion of huge amounts of money (in a very stingy state) that could have been used for prevention and family preservation into more child abuse investigations and more foster care instead.

Of course, McCown was the head cheerleader when Texas CPS took away hundreds of children from the FLDS ranch last year. (For details on McCown's role in Texas child welfare, see these previous Blog posts and take a look at NCCPR's 2005 report on Texas child welfare, (do a word search for McCown). An e-mail exchange I had with him, included as an appendix, is particularly revealing.)

One reason McCown and CPPP have so much influence, even in a conservative state, is that, when it comes to child welfare, McCown is the Godsource for Texas media – that one person or organization quoted in every story and for whom all normal journalistic rules of skepticism and verification are null and void.

So it was quite a shock to see the new report CPPP just issued on child abuse fatalities – the good kind of shock. Because this excellent report, with profound implications for every state, is still more evidence that much of the McCown/CPPP message about child protective services for the past decade has been wrong.

The report deals with what does – and what does not – contribute to what appears to be a relatively high rate of child abuse deaths in Texas. The findings, particularly in the "does not" category, are stunning.

By comparing a series of factors to child abuse death rates among the states, the report concludes:

The rate at which people report child abuse, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.

The rate at which a state takes children from their parents, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more deaths.

The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation, which is said to be above average in Texas, (and the hot issue in Florida right now) does not contribute to fewer deaths.

In short, none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.

I'll get to what does make a difference in a moment. First, though – why don't the traditional CPS functions make a difference? The CPPP report doesn't say. But it's not that hard to figure out.


The number of children who die of child abuse in Texas is horrifying: 228 in 2007. In fact, even if the number were 1 it would be horrifying, since the only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities is zero. But there are nearly 6.8 million children in Texas. And of that total, more than 1.5 million are living below the poverty line. That is one gigantic haystack. Why in the world would anyone think that, say, doubling or tripling the number of families investigated or children removed would really help us find more of those 228 needles in time?

So everything we've ever heard from anyone, including CPPP, claiming or implying that hiring more investigators to take more children from more families will save children's lives – is flat wrong. So is every statement from a politician or a CPS agency chief urging us all to report our slightest, most absurd suspicions to a child protective hotline because "you just might save a life." And, of course, so is every Texas news story which starts with a heinous child abuse death and segues immediately to the OSMQ (Obligatory Scott McCown Quote) about the need to take away more children.

Yeah, I know. Some will say: But what about the needles CPS did find, in the sense that the children were "known to the system"? Although the CPPP analysis doesn't mention it, and there are no reliable systematic data, news accounts from around the country suggest that the percentage of child abuse deaths "known to the system" is pretty similar among states as well. So there is no evidence that any of the CPS-related factors contribute to an increase or decrease in those deaths either.

There is one exception: In the very few places large enough to detect a pattern, to the extent that there is any pattern at all, deaths tend to go up in the wake of a foster-care panic, a huge sudden surge in removals of children. And that, too, makes sense. When workers are inundated with a surge in false reports, trivial cases, and needless removals, they have less time to find any child in real danger – so more such cases are missed. When the haystack suddenly grows, it's even harder to find the needles.


So if what CPS does or doesn't do has nothing to do with rates of child abuse fatalities, what does cause the higher rate in Texas?

This is where the CPPP report also is useful in another respect: It provides more evidence that it is impossible to do an accurate comparison of child abuse fatality rates among the states, in other words more evidence that the notorious report from the group calling itself Every Child Matters, which purports to make such a comparison, isn't worth the glossy paper it's printed on.

The CPPP report shows that the allegedly higher rate of such deaths in Texas is due in part to the simple fact that Texas has a broader definition of a child abuse fatality than most states and a more thorough process of child abuse death review than most states.

CPPP goes on to conclude this means other states are undercounting child abuse deaths. It also can mean Texas is overcounting them. For example, as is clear from the experience of Florida, determining when a drowning is an accident and when it is neglect can be highly subjective. But this is CPPP we're talking about; I'm not expecting miracles.

The report also says there are some factors which suggest that at least part of the higher rate in Texas is real. Texas has certain factors which have been shown to contribute to higher rates of child abuse fatalities:

High rates of poverty

High rates of teen pregnancy

Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

Which means, of course, had Texas taken some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it spent to hire more investigators and otherwise make the system bigger and spent it instead on proven prevention programs and help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, fewer Texas children might be dead today.

Of course, Scott McCown himself didn't actually write CPPP's report. But I sure hope he reads it.