Monday, February 28, 2011

Supreme Court to hear the case for full Fourth Amendment rights for kids

           Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court hears its first major child protective services case in more than 21 years.  We review the issues in our monthly Blog for Youth Today.  And there is a more detailed discussion of the case on this special website.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The day the shelter closed in North Platte, Nebraska

            I’ve written before about the seductive appeal of “shelters,” those first-stop parking places for children torn from their parents.  Shelters do the children great harm while turning them into human teddy bears for the benefit of the staff and volunteers.

            One of the many reasons they are so hard to close is the way shelter operators stoke the fears of timorous child welfare agency leaders by claiming that there simply is no alternative, and if they close there will be no place for the children.  So the bureaucrats decide they can’t possibly close the shelters until every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed on a grand plan to replace them.  That’s what is playing out right now in Rhode Island.

            But when you do that, the shelters never close.  Because as long as there’s an easy dumping ground, child welfare agencies will use it.

            That was aptly illustrated by what happened this year in North Platte, Nebraska.  Last month, the North Platte (Neb.) Bulletin, had a story about how the local parking place shelter was going to close.  The story was full of handwringing about how terrible this would be since, of course, every child really had to be in that shelter and there simply would be no place to put them without the shelter.   In fact, children overflow into shelters in Nebraska because years after year, Nebraska takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation  - even higher than Rhode Island.

            Last week, the Bulletin ran a follow-up story.  It turns out, the shelter not only closed, but closed a little ahead of schedule (not because of enlightened public policy, the shelter operator just ran out of money).  Law enforcement is the first responder on calls alleging child abuse in Nebraska, and here’s what really happened, according to the local police chief:

We’re doing everything in our power to keep kids in their homes. If that isn’t possible for safety reasons, then we try to find a relative for the child to stay with.

            But wait.  Isn’t that what every agency involved in child protective services says they always do anyway?  But, of course, when there’s an easy out – dump the kid in a shelter – they don’t really look all that hard for better alternatives. 

In contrast, as I told the North Platte BulletinWhen you take away the easy option of dumping the children in the shelter, everyone gets more creative about finding better options.

            We all know the famous movie line, “If you build it, they will come.” In child welfare, there’s a corollary: If you keep it open, they’ll never go.

Monday, February 21, 2011

“Graphic” evidence of foster care failure (and, occasionally, success)

It’s no secret to anyone who reads this Blog that NCCPR believes far too many children are in foster care.   We believe that, for the overwhelming majority of children whose families are investigated by child protective services agencies, including many children now taken from their homes, the best placement is no placement.  These children should be left in their own homes and their families should be given the help they need to keep their children safe.

But some children really do need to be placed in substitute care.  In those cases, not all “placement settings” are created equal.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, the least detrimental alternative, the one most likely to “cushion the blow” of foster care placement is placement with a relative, typically a grandparent.  This is commonly known as kinship foster care.  Study after study has  found that kinship care placements typically are more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

At the other extreme, the worst form of care is “congregate care” – a group home or an institution – where the child is denied any family at all.

Every year, the federal government asks the states for a “snapshot” of how many children they have in these and other “placement settings” on September 30, the last day of the federal fiscal year.  But the federal government publishes only the national totals.  At one time the Child Welfare League of America compiled the state-by-state data and presented them in a database.  It’s one of the few useful things CWLA ever did.  Now they’ve stopped doing it.

So using the federal Freedom of Information Act, NCCPR has obtained the state-by-state totals for the most recent year available, 2009. We present them here.

As is so often the case in child welfare, the data reveal enormous variation among the states.  Wyoming, which has the worst record for congregate care, uses non-family care at more than seven times the rate of Oregon, which reports using it the least.  Hawaii, with the nation’s best record for using kinship care uses it at more than seven times the rate of Virginia, which has the worst record.

Courtesy of Data Revelations, which donated their services (I'm on good terms with the CEO), we are pleased to present the data as an interactive database, allowing readers to see the data in graphic form, and customize data elements.  Have a look.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

UPDATED, FEB. 19: Foster care panic in Los Angeles: It’s been curbed, but it’s not over


Ever since his shoddy reporting set off a foster-care panic in Los Angeles County, Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, has taken an approach to the panic that boils down to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” 

With one exception, he appears not to have even asked the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services for data on entries into foster care – and DCFS hasn’t particularly wanted to tell.

(The exception: In one instance, Therolf responded to a comment I posted on the Times website by posting some entry data, even inviting readers to “judge for themselves.” But he’s never allowed readers of his actual stories to “judge for themselves” since, as far as I can tell, he’s never included the relevant data on entries in those stories.)

Since Therolf doesn’t seem to ask, and definitely won’t tell, NCCPR has obtained the information by filing requests under the California Public Records Act.

The first such request produced data showing that, during the first five months of the panic, August through December 2009, the number of children torn from their homes was 16 percent higher than during the same period in 2008.  In January, we filed another request, for data on entries into care in 2010.  Those data show that for the first full year of the panic – August 2009 through July 2010, removals were up seven percent over the previous 12 months. 

That’s better than other cities which have faced similar media-driven panics, but the main reason for that probably is a waiver from child welfare finance restrictions – the very waiver Therolf smeared in stories at the end of 2010.

We’ve updated our report on the Los Angeles foster care panic with all the new data – including month-by-month entry data for every month from January, 2006 through the most recent available, November 2010.  So at least readers of this Blog really can judge for themselves.


Meanwhile, there’s more on the Times’ failures in covering education, the ones that so closely parallel their failures on the child welfare beat.  There’s a comprehensive account at WitnessLA.

As I discussed on this blog last week, the Times had published rankings of teachers in Los Angeles based on a formula linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.  The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder did its own rankings which, it says, show the Times rankings are unreliable.  The Times then distorted NEPC’s position, claiming that the NEPC study actually “confirms the broad conclusions” of the Times’ stories.

Now the Times has issued two responses, one as part of a discussion of the issue from the paper’s ever-faithful “reader representative”; that one is available here.

In that one, Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter (yes, that David Lauter) says the Times spin was justified because both the Colorado study and the Times stories show that teachers have some kind of effect on student achievement.  Therefore, says Lauter, the Colorado study “confirms the broad conclusions” of the Times stories.

That’s like saying if I hand you a mushroom and say: “Eat this, you’ll really enjoy the taste” while a mushroom expert says: “If you eat that, it will kill you” the mushroom expert confirms my broad conclusion because we both agree the mushroom will have some kind of effect on you.

In a second response, discussed below, the Times gets mean and petulant.

In both responses, the Times attempts to change the subject, focusing on whose evaluation method is better.  But the real issue is how the Los Angeles Times tried to distort the debate.

Had the Times simply reported the NEPC findings without adding its own absurd spin,  allowed the relevant Times editors and the scholar they chose for their own evaluation to respond, and given readers the necessary information to, once again, judge for themselves,  there would be no controversy now.  Instead, the Times wrote a misleading story about the NEPC findings.  Then, when NEPC and others complained, the Times retreated into petulance and name calling.

So, in its unsigned statement, the Times says that anyone who disagrees with how they evaluated teacher performance doesn’t want any evaluation at all.  The Times statement declares that

[NEPC]’s claim boils down to this: Until a perfect value-added system is developed that everyone agrees upon, nothing should be published. We reject that idea.

And later:

For years, school districts around the country, as well as academic experts, have conducted value-added analyses of teacher performance which they have kept secret. With “Grading the Teachers,” we put this information before the public, with ample explanation of the method’s limitations. That, we submit, is exactly what a newspaper should do. [NEPC] would like to put this information back behind locked doors. We disagree.

In fact, as one of the NEPC researchers states in an e-mail reprinted by WitnessLA:

Our report was a critique of [the Times expert]’s white paper, not on the decision by the Times to write the story and publish the ratings. We say this explicitly on p.2 and our narrative is consistent with this.
To some of us this kind of immature bunker mentality at the Times is depressingly familiar.  When NCCPR and many others criticized Times child welfare coverage Lauter replied by declaring that  “presumably” we don’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.”

Presumably, then, if anyone criticizes how the Los Angeles Times covers any topic, the newspaper will dive into a bunker and declare that we don’t want the topic covered at all.

UPDATE: NEPC has posted its own detailed response to the latest claims from the Times.  It's available here.

UPDATE FEB. 19: Caroline Grannan, a former copy editor for the San Jose Mercury News, posted a great comment under the Times' unsigned statement defending its coverage.  The comment perfectly sums up the problems with the hubris that has infected parts of American journalism.  Ms. Grannan writes:

Even if all parties involved agreed that the original gauge was valid, the Times was still dead wrong to engage in the project. Determining or approving the design of a gauge to measure teachers, or any other profession outside their own, is beyond the scope of journalists. It's outside their skillset, beyond their role -- just all-around wrong.

The role of the press is to serve as messenger. With the teacher-rating series, the Times set itself up as judge and jury -- and, some would say, executioner. That's out of bounds. The Times needs to press reset; rethink its ethics, professional standards and journalistic role; and recant and apologize. The Times brings shame on the entire already-battered news industry with this mistake.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Supreme Court may decide if “children’s rights” include the Fourth Amendment


For details see our special website devoted to the case,

What kind of a case would bring together the Southern Poverty Law Center on the left and the Family Research Council on the right?  Or the Battered Women’s Resource Center and the American Coalition for Fathers and Children?  How about National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the Eagle Forum?  The Clinical Social Work Association and the Pacific Justice Institute?

Only a case involving rights so fundamental to the protection of children that some of the most prominent advocates on the left and the right are ready to put aside their differences to join forces.

What all these organizations are seeking is simply a guarantee that innocent children will have the same constitutional rights as suspected criminals.

In contrast, those seeking even more power for child protective services agencies say caseworkers should have the untrammeled power to pull a child out of class and question her for two hours about the most intimate aspects of her life based on no more than, and these are their own words, “speculation and hearsay.”

The U.S Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, known as Camreta v. Greene on March 1.  It’s the first major case involving the power of child protective services agencies to reach the high court in more than 21 years.

NCCPR’s volunteer vice president, Carolyn Kubitschek is representing the family at the center of the case.  And we’ve built a special website to provide comprehensive information about the case:

There’s an overview of the case, the story of the child at its center, and links to the 18 separate “friend of the court” briefs filed by 70 organizations and experts in support of the family – including many organizations specializing in representing children in child abuse and neglect cases.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

UPDATED FEB. 14: More ethically-challenged journalism at the Los Angeles Times

Apparently, the Times covers education 
exactly the same way it covers child welfare.

See update at the end of this post
            Child welfare coverage isn’t the only area where the Los Angeles Times has taken heat for its reporting.  An even more controversial project was an effort by the Times to evaluate every Los Angeles public school teacher, with the results published, by name, online.

            And now the Times is coming under fire from a respected education think tank and from two influential blogs, WitnessLA and LAObserved – for the same lapses in journalistic judgment and journalistic ethics that characterize the newspaper’s child welfare coverage.

The evaluations were based on “techniques that estimate through analysis of standardized test scores how much a given teacher helps or hinders the academic growth of students,” according to this very good Washington Post story about the controversy.  Those techniques are highly controversial in themselves.  But at issue now is whether, even using these techniques, the Times got the scores right.  The even larger, and familiar, issue is the Times’ effort to spin and stifle dissent about its reporting.

            At issue is a study released this week by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder concluding that the Times got its teacher evaluations wrong.  According to a summary of the study:

The research on which the Los Angeles Times relied for its teacher effectiveness reporting was demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings. Using the same L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) data and the same methods as the Times, Derek Briggs and Ben Domingue of the University of Colorado at Boulder probed deeper and found the earlier research to have serious weaknesses making the effectiveness ratings invalid and unreliable.

            The Colorado researchers concluded that, even if the whole idea of evaluating teachers this way is valid, the Times gave low marks to some “good” teachers and high marks to some “bad” ones.  Obviously, were this kind of publicity to prompt the “good” teachers who were maligned to leave, or were it to get them fired, while the “bad” teachers who were praised got promoted, that would only leave the school system worse than ever.

            And the stakes may be even higher. The Times stories may have contributed to one teacher’s suicide.

            But the issue is not that researchers say the Times got it wrong. As Celeste Fremon writes in an excellent post on the controversy on her Blog WitnessLA, she doesn’t know which set of evaluations is right.  Neither do I.  For that matter, they both could have some merit or they both could be wrong.  And that’s before even reaching the larger issue of whether this method of evaluating teachers makes sense at all – a debate beyond the scope of this Blog.

            The real issue is how the Times responded to the critical findings:  by completely distorting them.  As Fremon points out, the press release announcing the Colorado findings was headlined:

Research Study Shows L. A. Times Teacher Ratings Are Neither Reliable Nor Valid

            In the press release the director of the National Education Policy Center blasts the Times in no uncertain terms, declaring:

This study makes it clear that the L.A. Times and its research team have done a disservice to the teachers, students, and parents of Los Angeles. The Times owes its community a better accounting for its decision to publish the names and rankings of individual teachers when it knew or should have known that those rankings were based on a questionable analysis. In any case, the Times now owes its community an acknowledgment of the tremendous weakness of the results reported and an apology for the damage its reporting has done.

            And yet, Fremon notes, somehow, the Times managed to run a story about this same research that was aptly summed up by a headline which read:

Separate study confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness

            At LAObserved, editor Kevin Roderick contrasted the Times stories with the accurate accounts in The Washington Post and a local public radio station.  He then compares the lead in the Times story to, as Roderick puts it, “what the researchers actually said.”

            In short, the Times came up with a “master narrative” – these teachers are good, those teachers are bad and our analysis proves it.  Then they ignored or distorted the findings from a scholarly study.  And now they may leave the system they crusaded to fix worse than it was before. Somehow all this has a familiar ring.

            It should be noted that Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, who wrote the child welfare stories had absolutely nothing to do with the teacher evaluation stories.  And Fremon writes that the Times reporters who wrote the education stories, “are very good journalists whose work I respect and admire. Thus I can’t help but wonder if this urge to spin the contents of the Colorado study came from above their pay grade.”

            I’m wondering too.  Particularly since the spinner-in-chief seems to be Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter – the same David Lauter whose lame defense of Times child welfare coverage included the claim that anyone who disagrees with that coverage  “presumably” doesn’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.”  (So if precedent is any guide, presumably, Lauter now will write a column claiming that the Colorado researchers don’t want kids to have good teachers.)

            In fact, both the child welfare stories and the teacher evaluation stories appear to be cases of what David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to write The Wire calls “Pulitzer-sniffing” – when a newspaper reeling from budget cuts, plummeting circulation and poor morale becomes desperate for a high-profile story or series to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

            The Times has forgotten that the most important prize for any news organization is its credibility.  And at the Times, credibility is plummeting even faster than circulation.

UPDATE, FEB. 14: The Times "Reader Representative" has a column in which Lauter offers up a lame defense of the education story much like what he put forward for the child welfare stories.

This time, Lauter argues that because both the Colorado study and the Times stories show that teachers have some kind of effect on student achievement, that means the Colorado study “confirms the broad conclusions” of the Times stories.

That’s like saying if I hand you a mushroom and say: “Eat this, you’ll really enjoy the taste” while a mushroom expert says: “If you eat that, it will kill you” the mushroom expert confirms my broad conclusion because we both agree the mushroom will have some kind of effect on you.

            In a future post: Results from NCCPR’s latest California Public Records Act request. Bottom line: The L.A. Foster Care Panic has been curbed, but it’s not over.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who is in foster care? The lie at the heart of CR’s fundraising campaign

Repeatedly on this  blog I have criticized the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR).  I've done that even though I believe the group’s founder, Marcia Lowry, and the people who work for her have good intentions.  I think they believe what they do helps children, and I'm on record taking issue with those who have questioned the group's motives.

I continue to believe all that - even though, a few months ago, CR began a new fundraising campaign built on a lie.

Not simply a statement that is misleading or disingenuous, but an out-and-out lie.

This is the lie: The group claims that "right now, there are nearly 500,000 abused and neglected children in foster care."

The problem isn't that the figure is a bit out of date and the actual number probably is closer to 424,000.  Whatever the exact number, it is way too high.

The lie is the claim that all of these children were abused or neglected before they came into foster care.

Of course some of the children were, indeed, abused or neglected before they came into foster care.  Some even were abused in a way that fits the stereotypes of sadism and brutality conjured up by the claim.  But certainly not all of them.  Probably not even close.


I'm not talking here about things like the confusion of poverty with neglect - areas where one can dispute whether the child was abused or neglected.

Rather I am talking about the basic, fundamental fact that children can be trapped for months in foster care before any judge ever decides whether the children were, in fact, abused or neglected in the first place.  They may even be torn from everyone they know and love, consigned to foster care for months, and then sent home without any neutral arbiter ever determining if there was any abuse at all.

In a presentation at an Urban Institute forum in 2010, John Mattingly, commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and no friend of family preservation, complained about court delays making cases drag on for months.  Among other things, he said this:

We are returning families [sic] home before we’ve even decided they abused or neglected their children.

And Mattingly was basing his comment on data from one of CR’s own reports. 

Here’s how it happens:

In all 50 states child protective services workers can take away children entirely on their own authority if those workers believe the case is an emergency and they don't have time to go to a judge first.  In some states they can do it themselves, in the others they can call law enforcement to do it for them.  Even when a judge approves the removal at a hearing a few days later, that doesn't mean the judge has determined that there was abuse and neglect.  Rather, the judge is holding the child in foster care until such a determination is made. 

It is much like someone accused of a crime who is in jail, not because he is a criminal, but simply because he can't make bail before trial.  Just as everyone in jail is not a criminal, every child in foster care was not abused or neglected before being taken away.  And it's not as if CR, which was after all founded by a lawyer and is led by lawyers, isn't aware of this. 


In fact, there are two lies in CR's fundraising campaign - first, when they say that "right now, there are nearly 500,000 abused and neglected children in foster care” and then, when they refer to all of those children who are abused in foster care itself as suffering "further abuse" [Emphasis added].  That second lie fails to account for the fact that there are some children who never were abused until they were placed in foster care.  Children like, to cite just one example back in the news lately, Logan Marr.

So why did CR launch a campaign built on a lie?  You'd have to ask them - and I wish someone would. 

Certainly it’s puzzling since, if the goal is to find permanent homes for children, then the statement works just as well the honest way, by saying simply that there are nearly 500,000 children in foster care.

Perhaps CR wants to reinforce the false stereotype that all parents who lose their children to foster care are brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted.  Perhaps they want people to believe that bad as foster care can be, it can't possibly be worse than leaving the children with their "abusive" or "neglectful" parents.  Perhaps they want people to believe that even when children are abused in foster care, there is no such thing as a child who never was abused until he was placed in foster care.

Certainly, if people believe the lie, they are less likely to ask CR why their lawsuits and settlements keep ignoring the best option for most children most of the time: not taking them away in the first place.  They won't ask CR why they've actually undermined such efforts in Tennessee, Georgia and Michigan (see the section of our second Michigan report starting on Page 30).

Perhaps it's just easier to use horror stories to get people to give money - even when the whole campaign is built on a lie.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shedding light on foster care abuses

A new law review article provides more evidence that “sunshine is good for children”

In a 2009 post to this Blog, I wrote about how a tiny newspaper in a small town in Tennessee exposed an injustice:

In 2005, the Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat, revealed that, at least twice, a local judge ordered Mexican mothers to learn English – or lose their children forever. (Access to the story may require free registration on the newspaper's website.) In one case the child still lived with the mother, in the other the child was in foster care. In both cases, the mothers spoke an indigenous language rather than Spanish.

NCCPR helped call the cases to the attention of national media. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did stories, the Southern Poverty Law Center heard about the case from news accounts and got involved. The mother at risk of losing her child had her case dismissed. In the other case, where the child already had been placed with affluent foster parents, custody was awarded to the birth father. The judge was disciplined by the Tennessee Court on the Judiciary.

The story of how the Lebanon Democrat got the story is almost as compelling.

Court hearings in Tennessee are at least nominally open to the press and the public.  Judges often throw reporters out, but at least they can sit there until it happens.  As a matter of principle, when the Lebanon Democrat was interested in a case, they’d send a reporter who would stay until the judge noticed and threw him out.

It was while waiting for the case that originally interested him that the reporter, the late Brooks Franklin, saw and heard one of the cases involving the Mexican mothers.

In most states, Franklin never would have gotten in the door.  In most states, court hearings in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect remain closed to press and public.

As with just about all the rotten things done by people in child welfare, closing court hearings is, of course, supposedly for the benefit of the children – in fact, it’s so child welfare agencies can cover up their mistakes and judges can get away with what that judge tried to do in Lebanon, Tennessee.

A fair number of states, however, do have open court hearings (the exact number depends on how one defines “open”).  And of all the courts to open them, not one has closed them again.  That’s because the Chicken Littles were wrong.  None of the harm predicted by opponents of open courts came to pass.  As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in this comprehensive series nearly a decade ago, all over the country one-time opponents have become converts to openness.

We have a summary of the series and other information on the case for open courts in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda.

The former chief judge of New York’s highest court, Judith Kaye, opened these hearings in New York in 1997.  Says Judge Kaye: “Sunshine is good for children.”

And now, Prof. Matthew Fraidin, Associate Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law significantly advances the case for open court hearings in a new article in the current issue of the Maine Law Review.  It’s available by clicking here and then clicking on the download link at the top of the page.  And see also this story from the San Jose Mercury News on legislation that would  open these hearings in California.

It’s been said that “Justice must be seen to be done.”  That makes opening courts the first step toward doing justice for children.