Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Foster care in Arizona: The failed journalism of Laurie Roberts (Part two)

UPDATE, OCTOBER 19: Laurie Roberts proved me wrong today - not about Arizona child welfare, but about Laurie Roberts. See this post to see what I mean.

Yesterday’s post to this blog discussed the harm to Arizona’s vulnerable children caused by the state’s perennial foster care panic, and how that panic is kept alive in part by Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts.

Since the panic began in 2003, Roberts has written at least 40 columns (or, more accurately, the same basic column 40 times) in an attempt to pressure caseworkers to tear apart more families.

Those columns contributed to the fact that, since she began this crusade, the number of children torn from their parents in Arizona has soared by 70 percent, even as nationwide, the number has declined by 15 percent.

Yet just this past Saturday, Roberts herself said her efforts to make children safer have utterly failed.   So it should be obvious that taking away more children and shoveling them into foster care is not the answer. 

One of the real reasons the tragedies continue actually was cited in Roberts’ column on Aug. 24, when she wrote:

…[C]caseworkers say privately that they can’t possibly do the job with workloads that exceed the recommended level by 60 percent or more.

But Roberts is either oblivious to the contradiction in her own column – scapegoating family preservation and then admitting workers don’t have time to make good decisions - or simply doesn’t care.

In part the overload almost certainly is because of budget cuts by the legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer, just as Roberts says. 

(Oh, wait: Perhaps because she had a chance to see a preview of these Blog posts when I sent excerpts to NCCPR’s list of Arizona journalists on Friday, she backed away from the one part of her writing that makes any sense on Saturday.  Now she says:

But budget cuts are neither an excuse nor the whole story. I've been watching and writing about kids like Jacob Gibson for 20 years, during times when caseloads were half of what they are now.)

In fact, the rest of the story is the part Roberts keeps leaving out: Children in real danger are missed because caseworkers are overloaded with all those hotline calls that never got screened out (the way they would have been screened out in other states, something discussed in detail in the previous post).  And in part it’s because of all the time workers have wasted taking children needlessly from everyone they know and love because they are terrified of things like being the subject of Roberts’ 41st iteration of The Column – and the likely response from their boss.

Indeed, it appears that their current boss, Clarence Carter, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, is big on scapegoating frontline workers – and Roberts loves it.  She writes:

Carter has vowed … to hold workers accountable if they blew it, to fix systems if they aren't working and to change the culture, in the hope that the ashes of no more children will be swept under that well-worn rug over at the CPS.  He promised much the same thing after 23-month-old Janie Buelna died in March while the CPS should have been watching.

 The caseworker and her supervisor were fired, and the supervisor's boss was reassigned.   And so, I take Carter at his word, that he will sort out what happened here and, if warranted, hold people accountable.

So Roberts approves of Carter sending a message to the frontlines that boils down to: Take away all the kids you want and, though the kids will suffer terribly, your job will be safe.  Leave one child home and have something go wrong and you’re fired.  That is, of course, the perfect formula for continuing the foster-care panic.

Roberts also is pleased with another Carter initiative:

Effective immediately, he said, all active cases in which there have been three or more reports of abuse will be reviewed monthly by senior management -- something that already is supposed to be happening at the lower supervisory levels.
In other words, if you want to be sure your attempt to use the Arizona child abuse hotline to harass your ex-spouse or neighbor, or anyone else is effective, don’t forget to make that third call.


The heart of the problem with all this, of course, is that foster care panics can cost children’s lives.   In one city and state after another, such panics have done nothing to reduce child abuse deaths – often those deaths have increased.   Arizona is a classic example.

According to the annual reports from Arizona Child Fatality Review Program,  in 2002, the last year before the Arizona Foster Care Panic, there were 36 child abuse deaths in Arizona.  By 2009, after seven years of Laurie Roberts writing that same column over and over again, and seven years of foster care panic, the number had reached at least 57.  (The official figure for 2009 is 64, but seven of those deaths are attributed to a change in the state’s definition of a maltreatment fatality.)

The reports did not break down child maltreatment deaths of children “known to the system” until 2004.  But that year there were 18 such deaths.  By 2009, the figure had doubled to 36. 

Both these increases far outpace the growth in both the total child population and the impoverished child population in the state.

As readers of this Blog know, I’m not keen on using fatalities, or horror stories in general, as a yardstick.  But I didn’t choose that measure for Arizona, Laurie Roberts did – in column after column after column.

And every time Laurie Roberts hits the send button on that same basic column, it feeds the panic just a little more and makes Arizona’s children just a little less safe.


But that isn’t the only danger in Roberts’ approach.  The other danger is that people will conclude that because Roberts’ bad idea – 40 columns explicitly or implicitly demanding that Arizona CPS tear apart more families - doesn’t work, nothing will work.

Roberts herself suggested as much in her column Saturday when she wrote:

Yeah, I know. I'm angry, too. And astonished, and amazed and about ready to throw in the towel and admit that there is no hope for these children. The last line of defense is just too often absent.

The part about no hope is as wrong as almost everything else Laurie Roberts has written about child welfare.  There is hope.  There are states and localities all over America that have made children significantly safer.  Examples are in our publication about best practices across the country.

But Roberts’ regurgitation of her same failed party line over and over only convinces everyone, apparently including herself, that nothing works, so why bother even trying?  That is child abandonment on a mass scale.

That kind of despair-mongering is especially dangerous in Arizona, which if some of the state’s journalists are any indication, operates with a bizarre sort of inferiority complex unlike anything I’ve seen in any other state.

Over and over, when I met with Arizona journalists, a startling number of them, especially among the editorial writers, would insist that no other state could possibly have problems as severe as Arizona problems, no citizenry was as hapless, incompetent and/or malevolent as Arizona citizenry.  Therefore, it was argued, there are no lessons from any other state that could possibly apply to Arizona.  The fact that Alabama – about the last state anyone would expect – is among those to transform its child welfare system into, relatively speaking, a national model, is irrelevant, I was told.  Though none of these various Arizona doom-sayers knew a thing about Alabama, all were certain that state’s  problems were nothing compared to Arizona’s. 

Nowhere else in America have I encountered a state where so many journalists are imbued with such a strong can’t-do spirit.  And the despair-mongering of Laurie Roberts only encourages that nonsense.


The usual response of journalists called out on their sloppy work covering child welfare is to set up a straw man.  They write something like this:  “Oh, so you don’t want me to report it when children die horrible deaths! You want journalists to ignore the horrors parents inflicted on their children! You want us to cover up for CPS!  Well, I’m not about to stop showing how much I care about (fill in names of dead children) no matter who demands that I look the other way!”

The “journalists” who write that kind of defensive drivel know it’s b.s.  What someone like myself wants, having spent 35 years following this issue, first as a reporter and now as an advocate, is not less coverage of child welfare – including the worst of the horrors - but more coverage, and most important, better coverage.

For starters, Laurie, ask yourself one question:  If caseworkers are as overloaded as you say they are, (or said they were on Aug. 24 before having some second thoughts on Aug. 27) how can all of the errors possibly go only in one direction?

Then, get out from behind that desk, Laurie.  Go out and meet the leaders of Black and Hispanic advocacy groups in Phoenix and see how CPS looks to them.  Check with the people who run anti-poverty programs, and housing aid programs and programs to help people with what passes for public assistance in Arizona and see the CPS they see.  Find out the danger of having an agency with so much power that law enforcement can use it to try to intimidate just about anyone (you can find that story right in your own newsroom.) Check out what’s going on in other states – states that are doing a better job than Arizona – in some cases without even spending much more.

Then come back and write columns that are informed by some original reporting for once.  Write some columns that tell Arizonans how to really fix their system, instead of just scaring workers into taking away more kids, persuading the public there’s no point even trying to fix the system, and prolonging Arizona’s perennial panic.  If you want to see how it’s done, check out the work of Issac Bailey, metro columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Who knows?  You might finally write something that helps to make kids safer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Foster care in Arizona: The failed journalism of Laurie Roberts (Part one)

A columnist for the state’s largest newspaper apparently believes tearing apart 70 percent more families just isn’t enough.

UPDATE, OCTOBER 19: Laurie Roberts proved me wrong today - not about Arizona child welfare, but about Laurie Roberts. See this post to see what I mean.

In a post on August 18, I wrote about the perennial state of foster care panic in the State of Arizona.  I wrote about how, four days after taking office in 2003, in the wake of the disclosure of a high-profile tragedy, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano told caseworkers to just take away the kids “and we’ll sort it out later.” 

More than seven years later, they still haven’t sorted it out - the panic never stopped.  From 2002 through 2010, a time when nationwide, the number of children torn from their parents over the course of a year declined 15 percent, in Arizona removals soared 70 percent, with no end in sight.  (For a detailed discussion of child welfare in Arizona, see the full report we issued in 2007.) 

As I noted on Aug. 18, that’s partly because whenever there were signs the panic might abate, someone at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix and /or the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson would respond to a horror story by pouring on the hype and hysteria and start it up again.

The someone at the Republic almost always is columnist Laurie Roberts.  At some point in the weeks after a horror story, Roberts rewrites the same column.   There are minor variations, but the formula is simple:

● Regurgitate in pornographic detail the most gruesome facts unearthed by other journalists.           
●Make one phone call. (Maybe.)     
●Condemn the state for being so stingy about spending on child protective services (she’s right about that one).
­● Condemn CPS for supposedly putting “parents rights” ahead of child safety.
● Hit the send button.

That's been the basic formula for at least 38 columns from when the panic began in 2003 through June of this year.

The one beneficiary of this has been Laurie Roberts.  It fills column space and it’s won her at least two journalism awards.

The columns serve only to help scare frontline caseworkers into tearing apart more families year after year while doing absolutely nothing to make children safer – and possibly putting them at greater risk.

Given her track record, it was no surprise when, less than a week after that August 18 NCCPR blog post, Laurie Roberts regurgitated The Column  for the 39th time, in response to a horror story and then offered up iteration number 40 two days ago.  In the Aug. 24 column, Roberts writes:

[We] are left to wonder why no one came to Jacob Gibson’s rescue.   And why so few reports of abuse in this state are substantiated by the CPS -- 8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, compared with 22 percent nationwide.

Arizona law likely has something to do with that. Despite attempts in recent years to better protect children, the rights of a parent to a second (and third and fourth and fifth) chance still trump the right of a little boy to be safe, and that is an outrage.

Of course Roberts doesn’t actually cite a section of Arizona law that might cause this alleged problem and compare it to the norm in other states.  That would involve actual reporting – and it might spoil the master narrative she’s been trying to peddle year after year, even as more and more families are separated while more and more children keep dying. 

And, it would appear, Roberts has forgotten about the times when The Column celebrated the fact that the law had, in fact, been changed in 2003 to declare “that a child's right to be safe trumps a parent's right to a second chance.” (That is the Sept. 16, 2006 version of that Roberts’ favorite, as opposed to the Aug. 24, 2011 version quoted two paragraphs above.  I wonder if she has it programmed into a keyboard shortcut?)

In fact, Arizona law likely has nothing to do with lowering the state’s rate of substantiating maltreatment.  And the allegedly low substantiation rate has done nothing to curb the state’s ever-escalating rate of child removal.  The real answers can be found right in the same document from which Roberts got that misleading eight percent figure.

What Roberts either doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore is that screening child abuse reports is a two-stage process.  First, a hotline operator decides whether to accept a report for investigation, then the investigator decides whether or not it’s substantiated.

Nationwide, on average, 38.1 percent of reports were screened out in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available.  But in Arizona, only 2.8 percent of reports were screened out.  The other 97.2 percent cascade down on overwhelmed caseworkers, and every one of those allegations has to be investigated.  So Arizona caseworkers have to spin their wheels investigating proportionately more false reports and trivial cases than their counterparts in almost every other state.

If Arizona screened out initial referrals as the same rate as the national average, its substantiation rate would rise to 13.6 percent.

But aha! Roberts almost certainly would say, that’s still lower than the national average.  CPS must be coddling all those bad parents they love so much even as they care not a whit when innocent children die!

Nope.  Because in Arizona, probably to a greater degree than any other state, a decision that a child is a victim of “substantiated” child abuse is not necessary before the child is removed from the home.


Still another set of tables in the same federal document lists the number of child abuse “victims” and “non-victims” removed from the home.   This voluntary survey is not as reliable as the figure for entries into care states are required to provide for this other report, but it is the only survey that draws a distinction between victims and non-victims.

As you would expect, the number of victims taken from their parents almost always far exceeds the number of non-victims.  In fact, in only two states providing relatively reliable data* were more non-victims taken.  One was California where the number of non-victims removed was slightly higher than the number of victims.  The other was Arizona, where the number of non-victims taken was nearly triple the number of victims.

In other words, whatever technical criteria Arizona uses to label a case substantiated are irrelevant to its haste in tearing apart families.

As for Roberts’ same-old same-old about the supposed triumph of parents’ rights in Arizona, another set of data show that her claim is absurd.  I’ve already noted the soaring rate of child removal in Arizona.  But there’s more.

Arizona has long taken away children at a rate well above the rate in systems widely-known as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe; states such as Illinois and Alabama - the latter a state with particular lessons for Arizona.  But Arizona’s perennial panic now has reached the point where it takes away children at a rate above the national average – even when the state’s high rate of child poverty is factored in, which is the fairest way to compare.  (When you compare to total child population, Arizona looks even worse.)

Again, even when rates of child poverty are factored in, Arizona now takes away proportionately more children that big-spending states such as New Jersey, Ohio, and Maryland and even those liberal bulwarks California and New York.

That’s hardly what one would expect from a state where “parents rights” are triumphant.

But here’s something you would expect from a state in the midst of a foster-care panic: An increase in deaths of children previously known to the child welfare agency.   That’s exactly what has happened in Arizona.

That story tomorrow, along with the perils of “despair mongering,” the “can’t-do” spirit of the state’s opinion leaders, and how Laurie Roberts will respond to these posts, if at all.

*Kansas submitted data to the voluntary survey claiming that it removed 158 victims and 982 non-victims for a total of 1,140.  But in the separate report it’s required to submit to the federal government, Kansas said it removed a total of 3,163 children, suggesting that the voluntary survey data it submitted are way off.  (In no state do the data from these two surveys match, but most states, including Arizona, come much closer.) In addition, even in the mandatory reports, Kansas fudges its figures on entries into care, as is explained in detail in our report on Kansas child welfare.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Foster care in South Carolina: Three good Samaritans vs. one bad agency

Last week, Janice Dowd, a 51-year-old grandmother in York, South Carolina, was found living with her seven-year-old grandson in a tent in the woods.  Here’s how it happened, according to the Rock Hill, S.C. Herald:

Dowd, who is unemployed, became homeless after her rent and utility bills forced her out of a rental home she could not afford.

After she could no longer stay with a family member and later the same friend who notified police about the tent in the woods, Dowd did not have the money to turn on the lights at a public housing apartment in [the town of] Clover.

Without the money for utilities, Dowd was not allowed to move in.  Fortunately, three total strangers knew exactly what to do.

Ken Thomas did the right thing.  "Nobody should have to live like that, and, by God, if I have anything to say about it, it will never happen again," Thomas, a 72-year-old retired military veteran who saw Dowd near her tent Tuesday told The Herald. He immediately opened up his home for her to sleep Tuesday night.  "A granny and a child out in a tent. That's not the America I know," Thomas said.

Shannon Whitesides did the right thing.  She’s a York County Council on Aging social worker who helps older residents in York's White Oak senior apartments.  Thomas enlisted her help.  Whitesides helped Dowd move in to the new apartment after the utility problems were resolved.

Shelly Risk, did the right thing.  She’s the manager of the apartment complex.  The Herald reports that

Risk started calling around to try to find more help, collecting beds and clothes and groceries. More donations came in, from money to food to a Superman book bag for when Dowd's grandson goes to school.  "Her grandson went to school with my own little boy last year in York," Risk said. "We had to help these people. She is not a bad person. She cares about that child."

And once the story made the paper, all sorts of other people came forward to do the right thing, too.

With all those strangers working to make things better, who in the world would actually step in and make things worse?  Like anyone even has to ask.  Yes, things went downhill as soon as the police called in the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

Rather than simply provide the cash to get those utilities turned on, they confiscated the child and threw him into foster care – which, in addition to being far more cruel also is more expensive for taxpayers.

Even though Dowd has no criminal record, even though Whitesides went to court with Dowd that afternoon and promised to help her move in, and even after the problem with getting the utilities turned on had been resolved, DSS and a judge would not let the child return to his grandmother.

First Dowd will have to provide proof of residency.  Then DSS will send out a caseworker to make sure the new apartment passes her white glove test.  Then, according to The Herald, comes “a review of finances and any other means of support to endure the child’s continued safety,” according to a DSS spokeswoman.

After all that, this seven-year-old boy, torn from the grandmother who raised him from infancy might – might – be reunited with that grandmother.

If this all sounds disturbingly familiar, perhaps that’s because it’s so much like the case that made headlines in Texas just last month.  Or maybe it’s because of the similarities to another case from South Carolina.

But I’m sure authorities in South Carolina will find some way to explain how this was not a case of tearing apart a family because of poverty.  And I’m sure they’ll find some wretched excuse for why their bureaucracy couldn’t show the same wisdom, compassion and common sense of three total strangers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Foster care in New York City: Reefer madness at ACS!

In case anyone still is wondering why caseworkers at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services sometimes don’t have time to do thorough investigations of cases where children are in real danger, an explanation turned up on the front page of The New York Times last week.

According to the Times:

Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.

For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large. In interviews, lawyers from the three legal services groups that the city hires to defend parents said they saw hundreds of marijuana cases each year, most involving recreational users.

A spokesman for ACS, Michael Fagan offered up a sleazy response that lumps together use of marijuana with cocaine and heroin. (I’ll bet he was really proud of that.)  Fagan argues, in effect, that marijuana use is a gateway allegation.  According to the Times:

“Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” Mr. Fagan said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”…

But lawyers for parents countered that the agency often brought neglect charges based solely on recreational marijuana use, then searched later for other grounds to bolster cases.

The handling of these cases in New York City also is one more example of the racial bias that permeates child welfare.  From the Times story:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

And it contrasts with other jurisdictions.  Again from the Times story:

California, where the medical marijuana movement has flourished, now requires that child welfare officials demonstrate actual harm to a child from marijuana use in order to bring neglect cases, and defense lawyers there say the authorities are now bringing fewer of them.

 The harm should be obvious: Children traumatized by needless investigations, courts overloaded with ridiculous cases and, in some cases, children even forced into foster care.  There’s also the time, money and effort wasted on these cases that is stolen from finding children in real danger.


The reefer madness at ACS is just the latest example to come to light of the unfortunate legacy of  John Mattingly, the ACS commissioner who presided over huge increases in children taken from their homes and opposed one progressive initiative after another.

Ironies abound.

For one thing, one of the organizations making a point of calling attention to the story and, in particular, to a highly-critical commentary about the ACS policy on a Time Magazine blog, is Casey Family Services -  the direct service arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where Mattingly worked before becoming ACS Commissioner (and where he recommended funding NCCPR) and where Mattingly now has returned.

For another, this story might never have come to light if not for one reform on which Mattingly did not renege – his support for strong institutional providers of legal representation for families caught in the ACS net.  Much of the information in the Times story comes from those providers, The Center for Family Representation, The Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Family Defense Project.

The story illustrates not only the enormous value of such high-quality legal assistance, but also why it’s important for these organizations to speak out publicly about the families they represent.

And finally, this story is the first test for the new ACS Commissioner Robert Richter. A change in the ACS pot policy would send a good signal to the frontlines at ACS, and spare a lot of children a lot of grief.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Child welfare in Arizona: They don’t threaten reporters, do they?

Two top deputies in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office allegedly threatened to retaliate against a reporter by taking away her child.  That should give Arizona journalists second thoughts about their embrace of unchecked power to intervene in families – but it probably won't.

It took Florida seven years to end the foster-care panic that swept through the state starting in 1999.  But with Florida having reversed course and made children safer while significantly reducing entries into care, there now is a new record-holder for perennial foster care panic: Arizona.

That state’s panic started much like Florida’s: First a high-profile death of a child “known to the system” then a new governor embraces a take-the-child-and-run approach. In Florida it was a Republican, Jeb Bush, in Arizona it was a Democrat, Janet Napolitano.  (In child welfare idiocy tends to be bipartisan.) 

Just four days after taking office Napolitano told caseworkers to just take away the kids “and we’ll sort it out later.”

Although there are strong indications Napolitano herself realized within months that this was a huge mistake, she never said so publicly.  Now, more than eight years later, Arizona still hasn’t sorted it out.  Details are in our report on Arizona child welfare.  The Arizona Foster-Care panic has broken Florida’s record.   Nationwide, between 2002 and 2010 entries into foster care over the course of a year declined nearly 15 percent.  In Arizona they soared 70 percent, with no end in sight.

As always with foster-care panics, the one in Arizona backfired.  All those false allegations and trivial cases and all that needless removal of children from their homes further overloaded caseworkers leaving them less time to find children in real danger.  So the cycle of failure continues year after year. Every few years, when a new high-profile case or cases grabs headlines, everyone repeats the same mistakes – like assuming that the solution is to encourage everyone to report their slightest suspicions to CPS, further overloading the system.  As a matter of fact, that’s happening right now.

And sometimes it gets worse.  Although politicians started the Arizona Foster Care Panic, a lot of the responsibility for keeping it going rests with the state’s press corps.  The one reporter at a daily newspaper in the state who really came to understand child welfare, Karina Bland of the Arizona Republic, was transferred off the beat several years ago.  So whenever there were signs the panic might abate, someone at the Republic in Phoenix and/or the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson would respond to a horror story by pouring on the hype and hysteria and start it up again. 

It’s not that these reporters didn’t hear from parents who said they were falsely accused or threatened with removal of their children for no good reason, perhaps as retaliation for being insufficiently cooperative with authorities.  It’s just that, like many reporters across the country, the journalists at the big Arizona dailies rolled their eyes and figured it was probably just some lousy parent making up excuses.

But one would think they’d reconsider after it happened to one of their own.

Actually, it happened a couple of years ago, but only became public in May, and I just stumbled on it this week.  It’s all explained in this story from the “Valley Fever” Blog on the website of the Phoenix alternative weekly New Times.

The story revolves around one of the many scandals involving the right-wing sheriff of Maricopa County, (metropolitan Phoenix) Joe Arpaio.  (The “Valley Fever” home page on the New Times website includes a countdown clock – or, more accurately a count-up clock, ticking off the days that the sheriff has been under investigation by the federal government. Click on it and you’ll get to a page with 15 years of New Times investigative stories about Arpaio and his office.)

But here’s the bottom line. According to the Valley Fever post on May 13, a reporter for the Republic, Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, says two deputy chiefs of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Dave Hendershott and Paul Chagolla, threatened to arrest her  – and take away her child – because the reporter was doing her job. The story quotes from a report on an investigation of Arpaio’s office done by the sheriff in another county.  Here’s the relevant section of the story:

A year [after the incident], after Arpaio had put Hendershott on administrative leave, Wingett complained to [sheriff’s office spokeswoman] Lisa Allen that he and Chagolla repeatedly had threatened to arrest her over the incident.

"Next week, Yvonne, you're going to be arrested ... and your child is going to end up with Child Protective Services," they said, Wingett Sanchez told Allen, adding that she could barely speak about it without getting "emotional."

The threats to Wingett Sanchez came in person and, at least once, by telephone, Allen reported.  "She was always threatened that her child would end up in the hands of CPS, which was very upsetting to her," the report states.

So maybe some of those parents some of those Arizona reporters have been rolling their eyes about aren’t so crazy after all.  And maybe the kind of unchecked power law enforcement and child protective services have in the child welfare arena isn’t such a great idea after all.

It’s not only reporters at the dailies who could learn from this story.  If this little item in the Valley Fever Blog itself is any indication, it seems that when the reporter who understood these issues best, Sarah Fenske, left New Times to become managing editor of Riverfront Times in St. Louis, the paper’s institutional memory concerning these issues left with her.

In fact, it’s not just journalists who could learn from this story.  I’ve often written about the hypocrisy of  some of my fellow liberals - those on the left who forget everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. (The response among many on the left to the FLDS case in Texas being a prime example.)  But there’s plenty of hypocrisy among those on the right who say they’re against state interference in families and abuse of power by “big government” - but love people like Joe Arpaio. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Financing foster care: The pathetic alternative to real reform

In previous posts to this Blog, I discussed how, when the child welfare establishment wants to kill a good idea, they never say no, they just try to “yes, but…” it to death.

I discussed this in connection with legislation to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue “waivers” to rules that restrict the overwhelming majority of federal child welfare funding to foster care.  Such a waiver was a key factor in the big improvements in child welfare in Florida.

But even saying “yes, but…” isn’t enough.  If you’re going to kill a good idea, you have to pretend you’re not killing it.  So you propose an “alternative.”  That way, you can claim you’re not against reform, you’re just in favor of something even better – no matter how preposterous the alternative really is.

So, for example, opponents of truly providing health insurance to every American came up with a so-called alternative: Medical savings accounts and making it harder to sue doctors who do things like amputating the wrong limb.

It looks like the child welfare establishment now has its own pathetic “alternative” to real reform.  It’s something called the Promoting Accountability and Excellence in Child Welfare Act.  It should be called the Big Bureaucratic Hassle for Tiny Little Grants Act.  It would impose on states a whole lot more paperwork in exchange for the chance to compete for some very small grants to make foster care “better.”

The program would provide an average of $16 million per year for the next ten years, according to the Child Welfare League of America, which, of course, is all for it.  That’s less than four percent of what states now get through the existing federal prevention and family preservation programs, known as Title IV-B, and less than one half of one percent of the amount spent on foster care through Title IV-E. 

That this is meant to be an alternative to real reform can be seen in a memo released with the bill.  According to the memo:

The child welfare advocacy community has been primarily focused on overall child welfare financing reform (i.e. frontloading money) instead of working to identify and expand existing evidence-based practices currently operating at the state level. Comprehensive finance reform will cost billions of dollars and is not going to happen under the current economic climate.

For starters, this statement falsely characterizes and belittles real reform, suggesting it’s just a matter of “frontloading money” whereas this bill, in contrast,  must be better because it contains the golden buzzword “evidence-based.”  Then it says real reform “will cost billions of dollars…”  That’s not true either.

In fact, real reform is less about when the money is provided than what it can be used for.  Real reform allows billions of dollars that now can be spent only on foster care to be spent on better alternatives – alternatives which already have a far better “evidence base” behind them than foster care itself.  That doesn’t cost a dime more than the status-quo. 

All of this might not be so bad if the grants at least were aimed at prevention and family preservation.  A press release from the sponsor, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) claims just that.   But a list of “performance measures” included with the bill itself suggests that the grants will be geared not toward avoiding foster care, but only toward making foster care itself “better.”  In other words, instead of real reform to reduce needless foster care, this is fake reform that will actually provide even more funding (albeit very little more) for foster care.

Other promotional material for the bill takes an Orwellian turn when it cites Illinois’ pioneering use of “subsidized guardianship” as an example of the kind of innovation that would be fostered through these token grants.

In fact, the Illinois subsidized guardianship program was made possible by a waiver – exactly the kind of real reform that the child welfare establishment wants to “yes, but…” to death, with bills like this one.

Perhaps the biggest giveaway concerning who really is behind this bill and what they really want is a provision calling for a study of something called “delinking” – the Holy Grail of child welfare finance for CWLA and their ilk.

I won’t go into all the complexities of delinking here, it’s all described in detail in our briefing paper on child welfare finance.  Suffice it to say that the “link” in question is the only brake on states’ otherwise unlimited entitlement to reimbursement for throwing children into foster care.  It is a stupid brake, a clumsy brake and a brake only Rube Goldberg could love – but it’s the only brake we’ve got. The only thing crazier than keeping it in place is getting rid of it without getting complete finance reform in return, and by that I mean not just waivers, but the total replacement of the foster-care entitlement with flexible flat grants.

I haven’t seen Sen. Wyden’s name connected with much in child welfare in the past.  My guess is he has no idea of the context for this bill and what some of its backers really have in mind.  He may not even realize that the criteria in his own bill steer the proposed grants toward “improving” foster care, not reducing it.

Sen. Wyden could make a far better contribution if he simply proposed to increase funding for the existing Title IV-B program by $16 million per year. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: Two solid editorials from the L.A. Times

There is a ritual of sorts at American newsrooms.  After a reporter does a big project or one or more front page stories filled with alleged revelations about government shortcomings, the editorial page is supposed to give the reporter a pat on the back.  The editorial congratulates the reporter for her or his enterprise and demands that government immediately do whatever the reporter wants it to do.

But all through the years that Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf has been trying to foment hype and hysteria about child welfare in Los Angeles, the Times editorial board has refused to play along.

For a long time the editorial page was simply silent on the issue.  Then it offered up its own careful, measured assessments which simply ignored Therolf’s pet theories.

But this week, the editorial board went further.  Instead of giving Therolf a pat on the back, the editorial board administered a kick a little lower.  As Celeste Fremon explains in this excellent analysis on her Blog WitnessLA, the criticism of Therolf’s reporting was subtle – but unmistakable.

Most of the editorial Sunday blasted the Board of Supervisors for defying the Bureau of State Audits and refusing to provide the Bureau with reports on child abuse fatalities.  That is all-too-typical of the bunker mentality that has characterized the Board and DCFS, and the Times does an excellent job of demolishing the Board’s flimsy excuses.  But a newspaper coming out for more openness in government is strictly dog-bites-man stuff.  The man-bites-dog part of the editorial is this extraordinary paragraph:

All that said, the supervisors' actions may be comprehensible, even if indefensible. Child deaths from abuse and neglect are fraught with emotion and can result in sensational headlines, in newspapers like this one, to which supervisors feel compelled to respond. One more study of fatalities, such as the state audit demanded after the killing of Seth Ireland, steeps policymakers in a swamp of exceptional failures and worst cases. It makes it easy to forget that data show overwhelmingly that outcomes are better for children who stay in their homes — even with families struggling with poverty, even in neighborhoods with inadequate schools — than for those removed by well-meaning or backside-covering county agencies. It makes it easy to forget that the county's most effective and most economical response to children in trouble is to help their families with resources and programs to cope with their challenges.

But the Times wasn’t done.  The next day the Times published another editorial blasting governments that react to high-profile tragedies by becoming, among other things, “too prone to snatch children from their homes and too unwilling or too clueless to help troubled families.”

The editorial continues:

High-profile cases of abuse at the hands of violent or addicted parents resulted in panic and waves of removals, supposedly in the interests of child safety. Abuse in foster homes led officials to send children the other way, back to their families. Instead of a ladder leading upward, child welfare programs seemed to operate like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending on the latest outrage.

Later the editorial condemns “policy changes spurred by child deaths rather than hard data.”  It continues:

But progress is real. Studies that follow children who were kept with their families or placed with relatives show that they do better in school, have fewer run-ins with the law and have better prospects for the future than their counterparts removed to foster care.

The editorial concludes by calling for the appointment of a permanent director for the county Department of Children and Family Services “who will stand up to the Supervisors and not allow them to make panic, rather than progress, the key factor in departmental decisionmaking.”

On one point I think the second editorial is mistaken.  For reasons discussed in one of the first posts to this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse – that is, with very rare exceptions, deaths of children in foster care don’t prompt child welfare agencies to take away fewer children.  Indeed, as we discuss in our report on Los Angeles child welfare, when Viola Vanclief died in foster care in 2010, Therolf wrote his stories in ways that appear intended to make sure that death didn’t prompt calls to reduce foster care.  And in fact, during the months after Viola’s death entries into care were higher than during the same months the year before.

Nevertheless, both editorials are almost entirely on the mark.  They should be required reading in every county office – and at every desk in the Times newsroom.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: The Carley Connection

A district attorney who prosecuted an innocent family based on junk science has a new target: Maryanne Godboldo.

UPDATE, 9:10PM: SADLY, THIS TIME THE "OUIJA BOARD CASE" D.A. WON.  WXYZ-TV reports that a jury found for DHS in the neglect case against Maryanne Godboldo.  The television station reports that:

Wednesday's ruling means that Godboldo's daughter will remain in the [legal] custody of the state for the time being. However, the court has not yet decided on whether or not to make the girl a temporary ward of the court.  A final decision is expected September 29. Until then the girl will remain in the [physical] custody of her aunt and uncle. 

While the Detroit News, WXYZ-TV and the Voice of Detroit website all have covered the case of Maryanne Godboldo the old fashioned way – by reporting both sides – the Detroit Free Press has failed to report many of the failures by the Michigan Department of Human Services.  (Details are in this previous post to this Blog). 

Free Press reporter Gina Damron has been almost reverential in her coverage of DHS’ position, and particularly the claims of Deborah Carley, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Children and Youth Services division, who is personally handling DHS’ case against Godboldo.  (Wayne County is the only county where the Attorney General’s office represents DHS in these cases.)

Just two months ago, the Free Press was a lot less reverential toward Carley in an excellent six-part series about a case she handled involving false allegations against a white, middle-class family.

That requires a lot of background:


Child welfare has gone through any number of bizarre fads, and hundreds, perhaps thousands  of children have paid the price.  There was satanic panic, when America’s latter-day “child savers,” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, thought there was a devil-worshipping cult lurking in any number of day care centers.  There was “recovered memory.”  But none has been weirder than “facilitated communication” (FC), which plagued child welfare for a few years in the early 1990s.  As the PBS Series Frontline described it: 

The method uses a helper to control the involuntary movements of an autistic person's hand, allowing that person to type his or her thoughts on a keyboard.

Suddenly, it was believed, people suffering from autism, who had been trapped in silence could “speak” through their facilitators.  Some of them started to “say” some very disturbing things, claiming they had been sexually abused by their parents or others.

But, of course, it was the facilitator doing the “talking.”  Facilitated communication is about as reliable as a Ouija board.  What makes the facilitated communication fad so mind-boggling is that so many people didn’t notice this simple fact, even though it was so easy to prove. 

Frontline described a case in Maine in which a 17-year-old named Betsy accused her entire family of abusing her – at least that’s what the facilitator was typing. 

As Frontline reported, Dr. Howard Shane of Boston Children’s hospital showed Betsy and the facilitator

a series of pictures and asked them to type what they saw. When both Betsy and her facilitator saw a picture of a key, the letters K-E-Y were typed. But Shane wanted to discover what happened if each saw a different picture. When Betsy saw a cup, she didn't type "cup," she typed "hat," what the facilitator saw. …  

[Said Shane]:What I found was that whenever the pictures were different, I always received the typed message that was seen by the facilitator, so that was pretty strong evidence that not only was Betsy not communicating, but the messages were being absolutely, totally directed and authored by the facilitator.”

The only logical conclusion of the test was that the terrible accusations had been authored not by Betsy, but by her facilitator. The [family is] now reunited. The facilitator, devastated by the test results, stopped using facilitated communication and persuaded Betsy's school to stop using it, as well.

What is striking about this case is the apparent intellectual honesty of all parties.  It was the child’s guardian ad litem who asked for the objective test – and notice how the facilitator responded.

It was a very different story in Michigan.

By the mid-1990s, facilitated communication had pretty well died out.  I almost tossed my file of news stories about it to save space.  Certainly no one would be dumb enough, or fanatical enough, to use it in a child abuse prosecution in the 21st Century – would they?

Actually, yes.


Back when David Gorcyca was the district attorney, no place in Michigan was more fanatical about “cracking down on child abuse” than Oakland County – an affluent suburban county near Detroit.  Gorcyca and his chief deputy, Deborah Carley, were constantly grabbing headlines by claiming that the Michigan Department of Human Services (then called the Family Independence Agency) wasn’t aggressive enough about tearing apart families.  Gorcyca even set up his own duplicate child welfare agency within his office to go after families when FIA would not.

Gorcyca and Carley were particularly aggressive about cases involving alleged sexual abuse.  They brought so many bad cases that they were getting convictions in only a little more than 50 percent, compared to the average of more than 80 percent, according to the Free PressExperts questioned by the Free Press said that indicated the office was bringing weak cases that never should have gone to court.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that facilitated communication’s “last stand” would be Oakland County Michigan, thanks to Gorcyca and Carley.  It was the case of the Wendrow family.

The sad irony is that it was the parents, Thal and Julian Wendrow, who actually pressured their school district into trying FC with their autistic 14-year-old daughter.   Like many parents, they were desperate to try anything to try to communicate with their child.  But when the child supposedly accused Julian of abusing her, Gorcyca and Carley apparently never checked out FC.  Indeed, after the case fell apart both said they simply didn’t know if FC is reliable or not.  But that didn’t stop them from charging ahead.

As the Free Press reported:

As public scrutiny grew, Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca assigned seven senior assistant prosecutors to try to find an expert who would support FC. They called nationwide, and Gorcyca even made calls. But they found no such expert.

One can only wonder why they didn’t do that in the first place.  But there’s more:

A judge ordered prosecutors in February 2008 to stop questioning the girl about the allegations using FC. But court records show they visited the girl four more times, trying to see whether she could communicate with FC.

A physical exam found no concrete evidence of sexual assault, but prosecutors said it showed signs of abuse. They then pressured the nurse who performed the exam to say it showed the girl had been abused. She testified that she refused to do so.

And there’s still more.  A police detective badgered and browbeat the child’s 13-year-old brother – exactly the kind of interrogation that was supposed to end after the abuses of the McMartin Preschool and other similar cases were revealed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson wrote two excellent columns about this – taking up the Wendrows’ cause, just as he did for that other white, middle-class family in the “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case.

Ultimately Carley and Gorcyca had to drop the charges.  But that didn’t happen until months after the court used the same kind of test on the Wendrow child as was used in that case in Maine in the early 1990s – with the same result.  And even then, the Free Press reports:

The prosecutors made one last effort to charge the parents with something.

Carley ordered another assistant prosecutor to begin checking school attendance records for possible truancy action against the parents. That plan was eventually dropped when it was apparent the children were attending school regularly.

Also by then the father had spent nearly three months in jail, the children had been thrown into foster care and the family had been devastated. 


The Free Press interviewed Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney ‘s office who is a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. Gershman called the behavior of the Oakland County District Attorney’s office in the Wendrow case:

just terrible, terrible judgment. A prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in our system, and charging decisions have to be made very carefully," said Gershman, who teaches, writes and speaks nationwide on the role of prosecutors in the legal system.

But the terrible judgment didn’t stop after the charges were dropped.  The Free Press devoted an entire sidebar to contradictions between what Gorcyca, Carley and others claimed just before and after charges were dropped, and the actual court record.  Contradictions such as these:

What the prosecution said: In the motion to dismiss the criminal charges, Gorcyca didn't note the girl couldn't communicate and didn't mention FC. The girl "has consistently disclosed to eight individuals that she has been sexually assaulted," Gorcyca wrote.

What the court files show: When Gorcyca was deposed in 2010, attorneys asked him, "So did you believe" that "FC, to the limited extent that you knew about it, was reliable?" Gorcyca responded, "I have no idea."

What the prosecution said: After the charges were dropped, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Deborah Carley told a newspaper on March 19, 2008, that the girl "spoke for herself" using facilitated communication (FC).  "I don't have any doubt, and I don't think the parents did, either," she said. "We used facilitated communication with her and found it to be a perfectly acceptable way for us to communicate with her, just like her parents did."

What the court files show: When Carley was deposed in 2010, she said she "didn't know enough about" FC to form an opinion on whether it worked. [Emphasis in original.]

The depositions are in connection with a lawsuit the Wendrows filed against Gorcyca, Carley and many others.  In March a judge dismissed the case against Carley and most charges against Gorcyca on grounds that, as prosecutors, they are immune from such suits.  The judge let stand a charge that Gorcyca defamed the family after the charges were dropped.  Both sides are asking the judge to reconsider and have pledged to appeal any adverse ruling.

Gorcyca decided not to seek re-election in 2008 and his successor cleaned house.  But Carley promptly landed another prestigious job, Chief of the Children and Youth Services Division in the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  (On Sept. 20, she’ll be leading a training session for prosecutors on “Handling the Child Welfare Case,” sponsored by the State Courts Administrative Office and the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.)

Now she’s back in court, this time in Wayne County, trying to convict Maryanne Godboldo of neglect.

It was Carley who claimed that the rubber-stamp order to remove Godboldo’s daughter was valid because the probation officer who signed it was a “referee” – even though the Voice of Detroit reports the county’s juvenile intake supervisor said that this officer and the others wielding rubber stamps were not, in fact referees – and state law doesn’t allow referees to issue such orders anyway.


And then there is the larger question: Why is DHS pursuing this case at all?

Remember, Godboldo’s daughter was taken because DHS insisted she absolutely had to be on Risperdal – a potentially dangerous psychiatric drug. After the child was taken, the institution holding her decided she didn’t need Risperdal after all.  DHS still institutionalized the girl for seven weeks, returning her to the custody of an aunt after the institution and the child’s own pediatrician agreed on a treatment plan.

So what can continuing the juvenile court case possibly accomplish except to add still more stress to the life of a child to whom DHS already has done so much harm?

There’s only one reason I can see: To send a message to anyone else who dares to fight DHS.  In which case, DHS certainly has the right lawyer for the job – as can be seen from this account of the juvenile court trial in Voice of Detroit.