Sunday, November 27, 2011

Foster care in Cleveland: Did Plain Dealer sleaze claim another victim?

UPDATE, NOV. 30: Citing court records WKYC-TV is now reporting that, in foster care “the child is having dreams of dying, is wetting the bed, and is anxious that the world is going to end in 2012.”  The station also reports that part of the reason Cuyahoga County DCFS took the child away is that the mother missed some appointments.  As noted below, the foster mother also is having trouble keeping up with appointments, but DCFS is responding somewhat differently.

            You’ve probably already heard about this one: the eight-year-old boy who weighed 218 pounds and has been consigned to foster care as a result.

            Apparently oblivious to the emotional trauma of tearing this child from his mother, (including the fact that, at age 8, this child may now believe he did something wrong and now is being punished) the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services showed up at his school one day last month and refused to let him go home.  They shoved him directly into a foster home.   His mother can’t even visit him for more than two hours a week.

            The Cleveland Plain Dealer actually did a very good job with the story.  Among other things the story noted that:

            ● The child was on the honor roll at his school and participated in school activities.

            ● The child only came to the attention of child welfare authorities, early in 2010, because his single mother, a substitute teacher who also is taking vocational school classes, brought him to the hospital because of breathing problems.  He was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which often is caused by obesity.

            The story doesn’t say exactly how this led to DCFS intervention, but, as we all know in the wake of Penn State, doctors and nurses are “mandated reporters” required to call in any suspicion of “child abuse.”

DCFS did not remove the child then and there; instead, the agency started monitoring the family.  There is no mention of the agency helping the family.

            ● The boy did, in fact, lose weight.  But recently he began gaining it back – apparently siblings were sneaking him food.

            ● The mother voluntarily enrolled the child in a special hospital program to help obese children.

            What mom could not do, of course, was hire a personal trainer, or enroll the child in special camps or even keep an eye on him at all times, as wealthy families can do.  So it’s no wonder that Dr. Arthur Caplan, America’s most quoted medical ethicist, told the Plain Dealer he was concerned that, as the newspaper put it, “families with the fewest resources, which often are minorities, will end up being the ones with their children removed.”

            No kidding.

            Prof. Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Center is dealing with a similar case in Detroit.  "This is really dangerous stuff we're talking about," he told a Time magazine blog in July.  "A lot of people don't realize how traumatic it is for children to be ripped away from their parents."

In the case he’s working on, Sankaran said:

What we've seen … is that the actual removal causes irreparable damage to the child — emotional problems, behavioral problems — and it's the type of thing that can't be remedied.  People think [removing the child] is a quick fix, but you need to make sure you have tried every other possibility to protect the child.

Clearly in the Cleveland case they didn’t.  Because here’s the kicker – according to Mom’s public defender it turns out that the foster mother, who lives in a nearby suburb, can’t keep up with all the child’s appointments – even though that’s what was expected of the boy’s single mother, even as she juggled her efforts to improve her education and make a living.

But The Plain Dealer reports that DCFS was far more solicitous of the foster mother.  The newspaper reports that, according to the mother’s public defender, “There was even a discussion about getting the foster mother additional help or moving the child again, this time to a foster home with a personal trainer.”

            That prompted the public defender to ask the obvious question: “I wonder why they didn’t offer the mother that kind of extra help.”

            So if the Plain Dealer covered the story so well, why do I think the newspaper shares responsibility for this travesty?  Because the Plain Dealer did so much to create the climate made it almost inevitable.

            Early in 2010, after the Plain Dealer rediscovered two facts:

1.       Cuyahoga County has a child protective services agency and
2.      sometimes children known to that agency die,

it was the sleazy reporting by Harlan Spector and the even worse editorials by Sharon Broussard, falsely blaming the deaths on efforts to keep families together, that set off a huge foster-care panic in Cuyahoga County.

            The panic began in March of 2010.  By September of that year, the number of children taken from their homes had soared 65 percent over the same period in 2009 – and the panic has continued at the same rate this year.

            So why did the Plain Dealer do better on this story?  Probably because it was written by a different reporter, Rachel Dissell.

            I don’t know how it happened that Dissell was assigned to the story.  Perhaps in the midst of all the misery this family has been forced to endure, they got one stroke of luck.  Maybe Harlan Spector was taking the days around Thanksgiving off.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Child abuse at Penn State: Look who’s NOT on the more mandatory reporting bandwagon

Check the temperature in Hell.  Watch out for flying pigs.  Richard Gelles has just come out against more mandatory reporting of child abuse.

In the past, no one has been more fanatical about wanting states to do more barging into families and taking away children than Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gelles takes responsibility for helping to write the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act which encouraged the needless removal of tens of thousands of children from their homes. 

 As he explained to the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch "Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now."

His influence probably helps explain why Philadelphia tears apart proportionately more families than any other big city and why Rhode Island, where he taught before coming to Penn, takes away children at among the highest rates of any state.

He’s spoken out in favor of orphanages and gone on record suggesting that only 20 to 30 percent of children taken from their parents ever should return home.

Some of us have long known that more mandatory reporting only backfires, further overloading workers for child protective services agencies so they have less time to find children in real danger, even as it subjects more children who never were harmed to the needless trauma of a child abuse investigation.  But for Gelles finally to realize this is like Newt Gingrich joining an Occupy Wall Street protest.

In this he joins other one-time proponents of massive mandatory reporting like Eli Newberger and David Finkelhor, whose views are discussed in a previous post to this blog.

Perhaps it was that story from Florida, about the assistant principal, a mandated reporter, who called in a report about “a possible sex crime” – two 12-year-olds kissing – that was the last straw for Gelles.  Of maybe it’s the case from Wisconsin last year where a district attorney tried to prosecute a six-year-old for “playing doctor.”

Whatever the reason, if even Richard Gelles thinks it’s a bad idea, then it should be obvious to anyone that it’s time to stop the make-anyone-and-everyone-report-anything-and-everything bandwagon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Child abuse at Penn State: The ugly road from Happy Valley, part two:

Too little skepticism, and too much, both can hurt children.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 22: This example of child abuse hysteria occurred last year.  But there will be a lot more of it if we don't start curbing post-Penn State paranoia.

            In the previous post to this blog, I wrote about how the Penn State horrors threaten to spark a revival of the witchhunt mentality that dominated child welfare during the 1980s.  Today’s “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, are reviving a series of myths about child abuse that hurt huge numbers of children more than two decades ago.

            Because so much time has passed, many people have forgotten the lessons of that era, or never knew them.  There was a time when I could use simple shorthand to remind reporters – I could just say “McMartin.”  But there are reporters on the job today who hadn’t been born when the lurid allegations about mass molestation at the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles first made headlines.  So it’s well worth reviewing the lessons from that era.


            One of those lessons has to do with phony numbers that nobody bothers to check – absurd claims about the prevalence of child sexual abuse that appear to have been pulled from thin air.

            By 1990, there were studies attempting to estimate the percentage of people sexually abused during childhood that had come up with results ranging from one percent to 62 percent.  The studies used widely varying definitions of abuse, some of them breathtakingly broad, and usually included abuse by anyone, not just cases subject to the jurisdiction of child protective services.
But because large numbers attract more attention than small numbers, all through the 80s it was claimed, repeatedly that "one out of three girls and one out of ten boys will be sexually abused" during childhood.

Most of those claims, at least for the girls, could be traced back to a single, highly-publicized study which used extremely broad, vague definitions.  But at least there was one study.

In the wake of Penn State, one news account after another claims that one out of four (or sometimes one out of three) girls and one out of six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse during their childhoods.

Typically the figure appears with no attribution at all, except some vague reference to “experts say” or  “most experts believe.”  I have yet to find a news account that cites an actual study of any kind, let alone a valid one.  Instead there are quotes about how these crimes are so awful that we desperately want to “turn away” and refuse to face up to how widespread they are.  In other words: if you try to check facts, you’re “in denial.”

Then, a segment of NPR’s Tell Me More last week, Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children’s Hospital took things a step further, declaring:

I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused you have to assume that it happened immediately … One in three people have been abused …”
Could we stop and think about that for a second?  Most of us have at least one sibling.  So if Walker’s number is correct, at least two-thirds of American adults either were sexually abused as children, or are siblings of a child sexual abuse victim.

If there are that many victims the number of perpetrators must be astronomical as well.  Then you must add all the parents and others who are guilty of “neglect” because they should have known it was happening and “failed to protect” their children.

So if nothing else, if these claims were true the entire American child welfare system would have to be dismantled immediately – because if there are that many child molesters out there, the odds that children taken from their parents and placed in foster care will be molested are so staggering that foster care is way too dangerous an option.  (As it happens, there is solid research indicating that there is child abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes, with an even worse record for group homes and institutions.  Jerry Sandusky, who stands accused in the Penn State cases, was a foster parent and his charity began as a group home.)


The best evidence we have concerning the true prevalence of child sexual abuse comes from two comprehensive reviews of the scholarly literature.

The first is a review of 20 different studies conducted by seven Canadian researchers, published in 1991. They found that the studies with the best methodology consistently indicated that between 10 and 12 percent of girls under age 14 are sexually abused by someone during their childhoods. The 1980s study that produced the "one out of three" claim was singled out for criticism by these researchers.

A decade later, another comprehensive review of the literature put the actual figure at 9 to 11 percent for girls and 5 to 6 percent for boys.  The review found that studies which met  two fundamental tenets of good research, high response rates and large sample size, tended to find lower rates of abuse than the smaller, less representative studies.

Odds are the figure is lower today, since, as the Associated Press reports, there is strong evidence that the rate of child sexual abuse has declined significantly in recent years.

Those figures, like all of the best evidence concerning the true extent of child abuse in America, are cause for concern and action. The real numbers are bad enough. Exaggeration serves only to panic us into seeking "solutions" that hurt the children they are intended to help.

Right now, this kind of exaggeration and fear mongering can do even more harm.


In the 1980s, the rhetoric about “children don’t lie,” discussed in the previous post to this blog, and the absurd numbers made it easy for people to suspend reasonable skepticism when “child savers” started talking about satanic cults operating out of day care centers. 

All those claims in the previous post about secret tunnels and child molesters with wings grew out of the way children were interrogated about allegations of sexual  abuse in their day care centers or at the hands of their own parents.  The result was a series of witchhunts across the country lasting all the way into the 1990s.  The McMartin Preschool was only the most notorious.  There were witchhunts that tore apart communities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, San Diego, Kern County, California, Jodan, Minnesota, and Wenatchee Washington, among others.

Hundreds of innocent people had their lives ruined, many were jailed.  In the end, in almost every case, almost everyone accused was exonerated.

But they were not the ones who suffered most.  As usual, the best efforts of the child savers backfired against the children.  There were the children who suffered when they were separated from their jailed parents.  There were the children who suffered when, at a very young age, they actually were persuaded by caseworkers and therapists that they’d been abused when they hadn’t.  Some believe it to this day.

But children also suffered as a result of the climate and fear and paranoia spread by the child savers.  Teachers and day care workers became afraid to hug their students – sometimes actually telling them to “give yourselves a pat on the back.”  (Among the potential side effects: Children denied normal affection are easier prey for actual child molesters.)  Men were largely driven out of pre-school teaching.  Children were taught not simply to be prudent in dealings with adults but to be constantly fearful and on guard.

That seems to be making a comeback, too.  One post-Penn State news story after another warns parents to never, ever let their children be alone with any other adult.  (That’s going to make it rather difficult for teachers to meet with students having trouble with their homework or for guidance counselors to help them with personal problems, or for mentors to help kids with school projects.)

A Washington Times columnist warns that “sports are the perfect hunting ground for perverts, pedophiles and other assorted monsters.”

Some go further.  One Huffington Post blogger raged against  “how we encourage our kids to abandon their sense of self-trust -- their instinct and intuition -- in order to be polite through showing physical affection to adults.”  He is referring to parents who, at holiday gatherings “pressure” the kids to “give your uncle a hug and kiss."

This blogger seems to suggest a child reluctant to do this, knows by “instinct and intuition” that uncle is a child molester.  The possibility that uncle may just have bad breath or a scratchy beard does not seem to occur to him.

There was plenty of paranoia before Penn State (check out this list of absurdities, which I first discovered thanks to Lenore Skenazy at her Free-Range Kids blog. This one is my favorite).  So it would be understandable if adults now hesitated to so much as smile at a child for fear of being accused of “grooming” that child into a sexual abuse victim.  In fact, if this story from Florida is any indication, the paranoia is back, with a vengeance.

But there’s another way all this hurts children.

After the hysteria of the 80s came the skepticism of the 90s.  There are children who almost certainly suffered because some people may have become too skeptical.  In the wake of the collapse of the mass molestation cases there are bound to have been children who really were abused, but were not believed.  Given how far back the allegations go, some of the Penn State victims may even be among them.  As I wrote in my book, Wounded Innocents, in 1990: If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers.  They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them.

Ultimately, the Los Angeles Times would win a Pulitzer Prize for some of its writing about the McMartin case.  But not for coverage of the case itself.  Rather, the late David Shaw, the paper’s media critic, won it for a series asking why the media accepted all the wild claims from the child savers so easily.  The headline in the first installment summed it up: “Where was skepticism in media?” it said.

Is it too much to ask for a little more skepticism this time, before it’s too late.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Child abuse at Penn State: The ugly road from Happy Valley, part one




                ● The myth that “children don’t lie” is back
            ● The hype is back: One “expert” suggests that two-thirds of Americans either were victims of child sexual abuse – or have a sibling who was.
            ● The 1980s witchhunt mentality may be making a comeback, too – and it’s children who really have been abused who are going to suffer most.

            As I listened to the end of a segment of NPR’s Tell Me More on Tuesday, I felt as though I’d been transported back in time.  Suddenly it was the 1980s again, when a bizarre, hyperbolic, myth-fueled reaction to the serious and real problem of child sexual abuse led to a whole series of tragedies of its own.  In the wake of the Penn State horrors, it looks like those myths are making a comeback.

            Anchor Michel Norris was leading a discussion of  “how to teach children to be alert to potentially abusive behavior and how to get them to speak up …”

            At the very end, Norris raised an issue that, as far as I know, no other journalist has had the courage even to mention since the Penn State story broke:

            There is an awful other side to this and there have been examples of false accusations … a group of girls were angry at a gym teacher because he had punished them for passing notes or talking and so they made up an accusation which turned out to be false. So how do you recommend that parents navigate such a thing?
            This is where the trip through time began, led by Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children's Hospital.  It was 1980s mythology all over again as Walker declared:
I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused you have to assume that it happened immediately … One in three people have been abused …”
The one-in-three number is utter nonsense, and I’ll deal with it in a post on Monday. 
For now, consider the fact that, though she didn’t use the exact words, Walker was leading us back to the era of those 1980s catchphrases “children don’t lie” and “believe the children.”
It’s been such a long time since those phrases were all the rage, and such a long time since the hyped numbers were in vogue, that I had to go back to the book I wrote in 1990, Wounded Innocents (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995) to review what happened and how much harm was done to children.
            The issue of the truth of claims attributed to children wasn’t simple then, and it’s not simple now.

            Of course, it is extremely unlikely that a very young child would make up out of whole cloth a story of being sexually assaulted. 

            In other cases, there is strong evidence that the children are not only telling the truth, but showing extraordinary courage in coming forward – courage for which they deserve wholehearted support.  I would put the Penn State cases in that category.

            But many allegations of sexual abuse involve situations that are far less clear-cut.  So, for example, in Upstate New York, authorities concluded that children who had heard one of the now-ubiquitous “good touch / bad touch” lectures that supposedly prevent sexual abuse wound up falsely accusing their substitute teacher.  But the children weren’t lying.  They had confused normal affection with “bad touching.”

            In addition, young children aren’t the ones who pick up the phone and call child abuse hotlines.  Adults do that.  And by that time the child might have been questioned repeatedly by a concerned parent or a therapist, or someone else who asked so many leading questions that what gets phoned into the hotline may bear little resemblance to what the child actually said.

            Or the children are rewarded with praise for “disclosing” abuse and badgered if they don’t – a common problem in the “mass molestation” nightmare cases of the 1980s – cases that produced some remarkable allegations.

            ● If children don’t lie about abuse, then Bakersfield California was a hotbed of cannibalism.

            ● If children don’t lie about abuse there was a secret underground amusement park near Fort Bragg, California.  You got in from the ocean by submarine.

            ● If children don’t lie about abuse, then they were being flown from day care centers all over the country in planes to be molested, then returned in time to be picked up by their parents.  Some of the molesters didn’t need a plane.  They could fly through the air all by themselves.

            ● If children don’t lie about abuse, some children in El Paso Texas had their eyes removed – and then put back,

            Or the allegation may not come from a child at all.  Consider this actual report to a child abuse hotline in Rochester, New York, about a young girl in the 1980s:

            The victim and the suspect have been seen holding hands and walking while the suspect had his arm around the victim.  The source also stated suspect used to live with the victim’s mother and the victim.  He had moved out in the recent past but visits the home every day.  The source also stated the victim goes away with the suspect for long periods of time.  Source stated victim wears dresses, tights, and shoes.  Source said it is rumored by children that the victim may be sleeping with suspect.  No other information is available…

            That was enough to prompt both Child Protective Services and the police to investigate.  Here’s what they found out:
            ● A doctor found no evidence of sexual abuse.
            ● The man was a friend of the family.
            ● According to both  mother and child, when he slept over he slept on the couch.

            Why was the little girl so nicely dressed when the man took her out?  Because he was taking her to church.

            And of course, older children may, in fact, have all sorts of reasons to lie, as in the case cited by Michel Norris (and notice how Walker simply ignored the case in her “answer.”)

            Another key element of the “children don’t lie” myth was the claim, made with equal certainly, that in one situation children are always lying: when they recant.  Any notion that a child could recant because the allegation was not, in fact, true – perhaps it had been the result of a coercive interrogation – is dismissed out of hand.  Children only recant, it was said, to cover up for the abuser.

            And sure enough, Walker revived that claim as well.  Walker claimed she never, ever had a child claim abuse when it wasn’t true.  But, she said,

I have seen kids recant, though. And kids back down from what really happened a lot of times because they feel like they're breaking up the family. They feel guilty. They feel that it's overwhelming and the community and people are all coming against them and they recant, but it doesn't mean that it didn't happen. I would always err on the idea that it did happen.
Too bad it’s the children themselves who often pay for that kind of error.
On Monday: Phony claims bolstered by phony numbers, and how it all hurts children

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Update: Child abuse and the Penn State horrors: Casey strikes out

            Taking knee-jerk idiocy to the ultimate level, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has introduced legislation to coerce every state into passing a law to require anyone and everyone to report any and every suspicion of child maltreatment to child protective services or the police.  It’s co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.).

            The federal government can’t force the states to do this directly.  But Casey’s bill would withhold federal aid under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act from states that refuse.

            For all of the reasons described in the post below, the best title for this bill would be the Helping Child Abusers Get Away With It Act of 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Child abuse in America: Learning the wrong lessons from the Penn State scandal

The fact that it’s so predictable makes it no less depressing: In the wake of a scandal over the alleged rape of children by a former Penn State football coach, there are calls to require even more people to report their slightest suspicions of child abuse to child protective services agencies and/or law enforcement.

The near-certain result: More people will get away with child abuse.  More children will suffer at the hands of child abusers because CPS caseworkers will be even more overwhelmed with false allegations and have even less time to find the children in real danger.  And more children will suffer at the hands of CPS agencies – because inflicting a child abuse investigation on a child who was never otherwise harmed is an act of child abuse in and of itself.  That is particularly true in cases of physical and sexual abuse.


For starters, consider the Penn State cases themselves.  If he is guilty of the charges against him, former coach Jerry Sandusky didn’t get away with it until now because of the lack of a mandatory reporting law; he got away with it because people already required to report the abuse failed to do so.

The Penn State case is unusual in another way as well: In this case, Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant in the football program, says he actually caught Sandusky in the act of raping a ten-year-old boy.  Very few cases are so clear and unambiguous.  As Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights persuasively argues at The Daily Beast, what stopped McQueary from immediately calling 911 had nothing to do with child abuse reporting laws.  Rather, Bissenger writes:

What happened, or more accurately did not happen, goes to the core of evil that major college sports programs in this country have become, equivalent to Mafia families in which the code of omertà rules and coaches and staff always close ranks around their own, even if it means letting someone who was first accused of inappropriate sexual conduct in 1998 continue to roam.Except that the even the Mafia has higher moral standards.

To leap from this extreme – and extremely unambiguous case – to requiring everybody who works in a school or college, from the janitor to the secretaries to the school bus drivers – to phone in their slightest suspicion about everything or risk jail time is to court disaster.

Remember, we’re talking about the slightest suspicion of everything that now comes under the heading of “child abuse” and “child neglect” – including all those breathtakingly-broad statutes that define poverty itself as neglect.


The most obvious problem with all this, of course,  is that it will further overload child welfare agencies with CYA referrals from mandated reporters terrified of what will happen to them if they actually exercise some common sense.  Even now, more than 75 percent of all reports alleging "child abuse" are false.  That is, they fail to meet the minimal standard for declaring the report "substantiated."  No hearing is required to "substantiate" a case; it's simply the guess of a caseworker checking a box on a form.  Turning everyone into a mandatory reporter will make the proportion of false allegations even bigger.

Even David Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and someone with impeccable “child saver” credentials, told the Associated Press:

Maybe it's better that people use discretion ... If everybody obeyed the letter of the law and reported a suspicion of abuse, the agencies would be completely overwhelmed with reports.

Finkelhor is not alone.  As early as the 1980s, some former proponents of massive mandatory reporting began to have second thoughts.  In a 1983 article, Dr. Eli Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston, again, someone with gold-plated “child saver” credentials, wrote that

had professionals, like me, known then what we know now, we would never have urged on Congress, federal officials and state broadened concepts of child abuse as the basis for reporting legislation.

Newberger’s article was called “The Helping Hand Strikes Again.”

Of course, not everyone thinks this is all that much of a problem.  A former prosecutor named Victor Veith, best known for coming up with a master plan to end all child abuse – in 120 years, thereby assuring that no one who implements it will be around to see if it actually worked - told AP:

I'd be in favor of as broad a mandated reporting law as possible.  But it needs to be accompanied by required training.

The broadest possible law, of course, would make everyone a mandated reporter.  Eighteen states actually do that.  I can’t wait to find out Veith’s master plan for training more than 200 million Americans in how to detect child abuse.

Actually, “training” could make things even worse if it’s done by the same organizations that put out broad, vague lists of symptoms we’re all supposed to watch out for to determine if a child might be abused, lists which tell us to suspect abuse if a child is too shy or too aggressive or acts too much like an adult or too much like a child or has nightmares or doesn’t have warm clothing in winter and on and on and on.  Here's a classic example.

But system overload is only one of the harms that broadening reporting laws will cause.


Almost forgotten is the fact that a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  Having a stranger come to the door – or your school – pull you aside and ask questions about the most intimate aspects of your life can be an enormously traumatic experience for a child; and the younger the child the greater the trauma.  It can leave lifelong emotional scars.

Three of the nation’s leading scholars of child welfare in the 20th Century – scholars who opposed mandatory reporting, by the way - the late Anna Freud, Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit wrote that children

react even to temporary infringement of parental autonomy with anxiety, diminishing trust, loosening of emotional ties, or an increasing tendency to be out of control.  The younger the child and the greater his own helplessness and dependence, the stronger is his need to experience his parents as his lawgivers --  safe, reliable, all-powerful and independent . When family integrity is broken or weakened by state intrusion [the child's] needs are thwarted and his belief that his parents are omniscient and all-powerful is shaken prematurely.

It’s not just young children who are harmed.  For a particularly-insightful take on the dilemma of mandatory reporting check out this essay from a pediatrician that ran in The Washington Post.


Even worse, when the allegation is physical abuse – and, sometimes, even when it’s not - the investigation often is accompanied by a stripsearch by a caseworker or a doctor looking for bruises.  If anyone else did that it would be sexual abuse.  And if the allegation is sexual abuse, the medical exam can be a lot more traumatic.

Indeed, try to imagine the terror for a young child, suddenly taken from family by strangers, often including police.  She goes to a strange hospital, where doctors and nurses she’s never met before perform the most intimate possible examination.

It’s already far too easy to inflict this kind of harm on a child, as can be seen in this case, part of a class-action suit in New York City. (NCCPR’s Vice President represented the family).

Surely we should not make it even more likely that this kind of abuse will be inflicted on children by setting the process in motion based on nothing more than a school janitor’s hunch.

All this is before we even reach the harm of panicky workers using these kinds of  flimsy allegations to throw children needlessly into foster care – where the rate of actual abuse is far higher than in the general population.  (Though the majority of foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, as it happens, Jerry Sandusky was a foster parent, and his charity ran a group home.)


But as with so much else that supposedly involves “child protection” the call for more reporting laws really is about adult self-indulgence.  This can be seen in what Jim Hmurovich told the AP.  Hmurovich now runs Prevent Child Abuse America – that’s the group that publishes the Spider Man comic book that effectively encourages children to turn in their parents if they get a spanking.

Before that he ran the child welfare system in Indiana, where he turned it into a paragon of mediocrity, from which it still hasn’t recovered.  Indiana is best known for horrifying cases of deaths of children “known to the system” and for tearing apart families at a rate more than 50 percent above the national average.

When people in child welfare are asked to cite states that do a particularly good job of keeping children safe, I’ve never heard anyone outside Indiana cite Indiana.  (And it’s hard to believe those in Indiana are doing it with straight faces.)

But Indiana is one of those states where everyone is a mandated reporter, and  Jim Hmurovich thinks that’s just dandy.  According to AP, Hmurovich “supports the state's broad reporting requirement, even though he said its impact is hard to quantify.”

“Hard to quantify” means there is not a shred of evidence that making everyone a mandated reporter makes children safer, in Indiana or anywhere else.  But that doesn’t seem to be Hmurovich’s main concern.

"It gave everyone some comfort that they were doing the right thing legally if they report suspicions of abuse," he told the AP. "If children are so important to us, shouldn't it be all our responsibility to make sure they're safe?"

In other words, Jim Hmurovich has just given new meaning to one of the less noble catchphrases of the 1960s: "If it feels good, do it." 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Foster care in America: Another excuse for high rates-of-removal bites the dust

I hear it all the time when I point out to reporters in certain states that their states are extreme outliers when it comes to tearing apart families – states like Nebraska, Iowa, Rhode Island and South Dakota, among others.

The reporters ask the flack for the child welfare agency and she or he almost always comes up with the same excuse: “We’re different,” the flack claims, “unlike other states, we count children placed in foster care through our juvenile justice system, not just our child welfare system.”

I then ask the reporter: What percentage of placements do they claim are juvenile justice placements?  It turns out that the percentage is so small that, even if you deducted those placements the extreme outliers remain just that - extreme outliers.

But there is another problem with this argument: If so many states are saying they’re unusual – if not unique – because they count these additional placements, it can’t really be all that unusual.

The federal government doesn’t actually count how many states include juvenile justice cases.  But one state legislature’s audit staff has.

Staff for the Performance Audit Committee of the Nebraska Legislature got tired of hearing this excuse.  So they checked with Casey Family Programs which actually asked the states.  The findings are in this report on pages 31 and 32.  It turns out that the majority of the states, 31 in all, include juvenile justice placements in the counts of entries into care and the snapshot number of children in foster care that they send to the federal government.

So the assorted public officials, agency leaders and flacks who have been blithely using the juvenile justice placement excuse all this time either are grossly ill-informed, or they are lying. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

On our blog at Youth Today: Is the Children's Defense Fund leaving homeless children behind?

One of the complaints liberals, like me, have about the far right is that they tend to believe that protectable life begins at conception and ends at birth.

But some recent behavior by the liberals at the Children’s Defense Fund raises questions about whether there may be a similar problem with some on the left.  Does CDF believe children should be defended only from the day they enter foster care until the day they leave?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: When all else fails, try xenophobia

Apparently those NPR stories about the damage done to Native American families by child protective services in South Dakota have made that state’s governor, Dennis Daugaard, very nervous.

He refused to actually be interviewed by reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters.  Instead, he issued a five-page rebuttal to the series – before it ever aired.

What is so fascinating about the rebuttal is that it leaves all of the most important points in the series unrebutted.  There is no response to the fact that South Dakota tears apart families at a rate vastly above the national average.  There is no response to the fact that Native American children are trapped in South Dakota foster care at a rate nearly four times their rate in the general population.  In fact there is no response to anything in the NPR stories about the actual harm done to Native American children.

Instead the governor obsesses over part two of the series which was all about – the governor.  That was the part which discussed how, back when he held the part-time job of lieutenant governor, his full-time job was running the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota – and how, during this time, CHS did remarkably well when it came to obtaining state contracts.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told NPR that it’s “a massive conflict-of-interest.”  The governor’s defense is that everybody in South Dakota knew all about it – it’s a small state – and anyway, he was only doing it for the kids. 

It’s certainly true that Daugaard made no secret of his connection to CHS – as NPR reported, he bragged about it in his campaign for governor. He may well have believed, sincerely, that what CHS was doing was best for the children. (NPR never suggests otherwise.)   Most people who run great big child welfare agencies that hold kids in foster care believe that – and only rarely does the mass of objective evidence to the contrary change their minds.

Whether CHS got the contract to warehouse kids or someone else did doesn’t make a lot of difference to me.  The issue is that South Dakota not only tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, it also dumps the kids into the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at one of the highest rates in the nation. But the governor’s past employment raises another concern: Anyone that emotionally invested in warehousing children is going to find it hard to face up to the reality of how much it harms children.


The role of CHS raises questions about a different kind of potential conflict of interest – the kind that comes with what is known in the corporate world as “vertical integration.”  During Daugaard’s time as Lieutenant Governor, CHS grew so huge that a good case can be made that, as a practical matter, CHS runs child welfare in South Dakota.

● CHS does the examinations of children to determine if they were abused or neglected.
● CHS trains the state caseworkers who decide whether to remove a child from the home.
● CHS screens the potential foster parents, both strangers and relatives, who might take in those children.
● CHS trains the foster parents.
● CHS runs lots of group homes and institutions.

So if CHS decides a child is abused, it increases the number of potential candidates for CHS group homes and institutions.  If CHS trains the caseworkers, will those caseworkers be trained in a way that makes them more likely to take away the child – and send that child to a CHS institution?  If CHS screens family foster homes that are, in effect, “competitors” to CHS group homes and institutions, will they set standards many of those family foster homes can’t meet?

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be some kind of conscious conspiracy.  But rationalization is powerful.  Any organization whose livelihood is dependent on substitute care is going to persuade itself that lots and lots of children need substitute care.

It’s no different from doctors who are more likely to perform unnecessary surgery when paid on a fee-for-service basis or hospitals which extend patient stays when they are paid by the day.  In both cases, the medical personnel almost certainly have persuaded themselves that the patients are really, really sick.

The governor’s “prebuttal” as it was aptly described by one reporter, addresses none of this.  And, as I noted at the outset, it says nothing about the entire issue of the destruction of Native American families.


The only support the Governor can come up with for the claim of bias is a statement from his own press secretary, Joe Kafka (I’m not making that name up) and an e-mail from reporter Sullivan requesting an interview. 

In fact, rather than showing bias, the e-mail is an example of exactly what good, careful reporters are supposed to do.

When I was a reporter in the late 1980s, the newspaper where I worked brought in a superb investigative reporter as a guest speaker.  In discussing the need for fairness in investigative reporting, this reporter urged us, as we reached the conclusion of any project, to go to anyone who may not come out looking good and “show them the wall.”  By that he meant, lay out every specific point that raises questions about the subject and give that subject a full opportunity to respond.

That is exactly what Sullivan does in her e-mail.  She spells out exactly what she and producer Walters have found so far and asks the Governor to please tell his side of the story.  This is precisely the opposite of the kind of “ambush interview” we’ve all seen on some television newsmagazine programs, the kind that gives investigative reporting a bad name.

Governor Daugaard should have welcomed the e-mail and told his side of the story. Unless of course, he had no real answer.

Apparently he doesn’t.  Because the governor’s other tactic was to change the subject.


If, as Samuel Johnson said, false patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel, the next-to-last is xenophobia.

And so, in the very first paragraph of his prebuttal, the governor notes that Sullivan “a native of San Francisco, works for Washington DC-based NPR.”

Horrors!  Washington and San Francisco!  Obviously, anyone with a background like that simply has it in for South Dakota.  (I imagine the only thing worse would be to work in the Washington area and be from New York City – like me.)

Similarly, after two Members of Congress said they were launching an investigation, an aide to the governor complained that they are from “other states” and didn’t speak to the South Dakota Department of Social Services first.  The real question is why the South Dakota Congressional delegation so far has refused to speak up for their Native American constituents – and all the children harmed by the rampant misuse and overuse of foster care in the state.

But it seems the governor underestimated his constituents, or at least the state’s journalists – because they don’t seem to be buying it.

See, in particular the work of Denise Ross, a reporter for the Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D.  (She’s the one who came up with “prebuttal.”)  In a post on the newspaper’s Blog she speaks highly of the governor, and expresses her conviction that he really does care about the kids.  But she also writes:

The much bigger, longer-standing issue is whether South Dakota complies with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and other laws, for example when social workers enter Indian reservations with which the state has no agreement and remove tribal children from their homes. The Crow Creek tribe threatened to prosecute for kidnapping in one case, NPR reported, and the children were promptly returned to their relatives. …

Here’s my hope, especially given my enduring belief in Daugaard’s character. I hope that he acknowledges that the state contracts for CHS look bad, but I hope he then vows as governor to look into South Dakota’s foster care system, our compliance with ICWA and our rate of taking children from their home – about 3 times that of other states.  I hope he works as hard at that as he worked as a young lawmaker to bring some reform to juvenile corrections. This time, he has a lot more power to affect change.

I don’t know where Ms. Ross was born and raised.  But right now, Gov. Daugaard, she’s sending you a message straight from Mitchell, South Dakota.

CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to fix an error in the name of the newspaper in Mitchell, S.D.  I can only imagine what Joe Kafka will make of that.