Monday, November 28, 2016

When the good guys ride into the sunset, leaving their algorithms behind

The push to embrace “predictive analytics,” an unreliable, raciallybiased method in which algorithms “inform” the decisions of caseworkers – decisions such as when to tear apart a family – is led largely by the same people who deny the very existence of a racial bias problem in child welfare, want to see far more families torn apart, or both.
They seem to be willfully blind to the enormous inherent risks of unnecessary foster care placement, including the risk of abuse or evendeath in foster care.
But there are a few reform-minded leaders in child welfare who want it as well, for themselves. These reformers argue in effect: “You can trust us. We’ll only use our vast powers for good.”
I do trust them. But I don’t trust their successors.
That brings me to another lesson from the 2016 election, a lesson that extends beyond predictive analytics to a wide range of child welfare issues.
The lesson comes from how President Obama handled key national security issues. He believed the George W. Bush administration’s ends-justify-the-means approach to the “war on terror” had gone too far. But instead of pushing to change laws to make it harder for any president to abuse these powers, he opted for an approach that amounted to: Trust me.

Limits of the “Have-It-Both-Ways” Approach

The New York Times aptly described it as “President Obama’s have-it-both-ways approach to curbing what he saw as overreaching in the war on terrorism.” According to the Times:

Over and over, Mr. Obama has imposed limits on his use of such powers but has not closed the door on them — a flexible approach premised on the idea that he and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently. [Donald] Trump can now sweep away those limits and open the throttle on policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use, like targeted killings in drone strikes and the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for terrorism suspects.

 And even in areas where Mr. Obama tried to terminate policies from the George W. Bush era — like torture and the detention of Americans and other people arrested on domestic soil as “enemy combatants” — his administration fought in court to prevent any ruling that the defunct practices had been illegal.

I don’t know the average tenure of people who run public child welfare agencies, but I doubt it’s eight years, or even four. The reformers clamoring to get their hands on predictive analytics algorithms may intend to use them with great restraint. But there is nothing to stop their successors from using analytics any way they want.

Lessons Beyond Predictive Analytics

The lesson should extend beyond predictive analytics. Child welfare systems are unique in state and local government in the extent to which they wield vast power with little accountability.
§  Child protective services workers can search homes – and strip search children – based on no more than an anonymous tip.
§  They can walk out with the children entirely on their own authority, or ask law enforcement to do it for them, without any hearing beforehand.
§  When there finally is a hearing, the indigent parent – and most are indigent – may not get a lawyer at all. If she does, it’s likely to be an overloaded public defender she just met in the hallway five minutes before the hearing.
§  The standard of proof to hold the child indefinitely is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in a criminal case. The standard usually is merely “preponderance of the evidence” – slightly more likely than not – the same standard used to decide which insurance company pays for a fender bender.

The few reform-minded leaders of child welfare systems know all this.  And they know how this vast power, when abused, harms the children needlessly taken, and how it overloads workers so they’re less likely to find children in real danger. But their answer often is the same as President Obama’s approach to that other area with vast power and little accountability, national security: self-restraint.
Twenty years ago I met one such reformer. She’d spent years curbing needless removal in her state. But shortly after she left, when a new governor took office, there was a high-profile fatality. The governor panicked, and effectively ordered his new child welfare agency chief to do the same. “I was amazed at how quickly it could all be washed away,” she said.
So reformers who are serious about a lasting legacy need to get serious about curbing their own power. They should be urging lawmakers to, among other things, raise the standard of proof in child welfare cases and curb the ability of workers to misuse their “emergency” authority to remove children. (NCCPR’s full DueProcess Agenda is available here.)

Most important, they should be creating institutional providers of high quality defense for families, along the lines of what’s been done in New York CityThis is not a strategy to get “bad parents” off; it helps craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter service plans typically imposed on families even by relatively good child welfare agencies.

The best way to create a legacy of reform is to give families themselves the power to fight for it.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Putting lipstick on the predictive analytics pig

NCCPR’s full report on the harm of predictive analytics in child welfare is available here.

John Kelly, senior editor of the Chronicle of Social Change (the Fox News of child welfare - and #1 cheerleader for the use of predictive analytics in child welfare)*  argues that not only I, but also The New York TimesForbes columnist John Carpenter, Republican strategist Mike Murphy and others are wrong to suggest that the presidential election revealed the emperor known as “predictive analytics” to be, at best, scantily clad if not stark naked.

First, Kelly argues that the presidential election predictions weren’t all that wrong, we just misunderstood them. Nate Silver of the website FiveThirtyEight tried to warn us that the 30 percent chance Donald Trump would win should be taken seriously. After all, Kelly writes, “Any baseball fan should have had some respect for that 30 percent number; it’s about the same probability that your team’s best batter is going to get a hit.” He adds:
In child welfare, would you take a kid away from his mother based solely on the fact that a predictive measure said there is a 30 percent chance the child would be severely maltreated? The answer should be, flatly, “No.”

There are several problems with this:
§  Silver didn’t just predict a 30 percent likelihood of a Trump win. He also predicted a 70 percent chance that Hillary Clinton would win. That “false positive” was by far the more likely outcome, according to Silver’s analytics. So the real question is: Would you take a kid away from his mother based solely on the fact that a predictive measure, however unreliable, said there is a 70 percent chance the child would be severely maltreated? Does anyone doubt the answer is yes?

And Silver’s prediction was the most conservative. The Times put Clinton’s chances of winning at 85 percent. The Princeton Election Consortium had it at 99 percent. What are the chances a child would be removed if analytics wrongly predicted those kinds of odds?

§  Even using Kelly’s example, in which the analytics say there’s only a 30 percent chance the child is in danger, the chances are excellent that a child would be removed from the home, particularly if there was a high-profile tragedy in the news at the time. That’s because no one has anything to lose from needless removals – except the children and their families.

   CPS Workers are Only Damned if They Don’t

Though child protective services workers often say they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, that’s not true. I’ve never seen a CPS worker fired, suspended, demoted, even slapped on the wrist – much less criminally prosecuted – for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers who left one child in his own home and something went terribly wrong. When it comes to taking away children CPS workers are only damned if they don’t.
I can hear the politician grilling the child welfare agency chief after a tragedy: “Any baseball fan should have had some respect for that 30 percent number; it’s about the same probability that your team’s best batter is going to get a hit. Yet your caseworker left the child in the home and look what happened!”
Kelly also argues that the massive failure of predictive analytics in the election has little to tell people in child welfare because the algorithms for election prediction are simpler. But that’s even more reason for concern. Precisely because child welfare algorithms have to consider so many more factors, the chances of human error, and human bias, are greater.
The experts consulted by the Times said the lessons extend to “every field.” I have not found any data experts saying “every field – except child welfare, where all the people are so much better and smarter than everyone else.”

Child Welfare Can’t Control Its Nukes

Kelly concludes that:
Perhaps … the conversation the field needs to have as predictive analytics becomes a part of the field [is]: How do systems responsibly control the interpretation of valuable, but limited, predictive analysis?

But in the real world of child welfare, there is no way to limit the use of analytics once you start. Imagine this scenario: An enlightened child welfare agency leader decides to use analytics only as a guide to finding the families most in need of preventive services. Then a child “known to the system” dies. A caseworker (or maybe her lawyer) says: “The agency has data out there that could have told me this child was in danger and of course I would have acted on it – but my bosses wouldn’t let me see it.”
It is the rare child welfare agency leader who could resist the pressure to say: “OK, from now on, whenever the “risk score” is above 70 percent (or 50, or quite possibly 30) you take away that child!”
The clear evidence that predictive analytics is racially biased, the fact that it produces astoundingly high false positive rates, as seen in New Zealand, and Los Angeles, the fact that all those “false positives” will destroy children’s lives and overload child welfare systems – making it even harder to find children in real danger – none of that will matter.

Predictive analytics is the nuclear weapon of child welfare. And child welfare can’t control its nukes.
*-This paragraph was updated in March, 2018 to more fully describe the Chronicle of Social Change.

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2016

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view
keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations today. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "aged out" of foster care in 2015 with no home at all soared nearly 35 percent over the number in 1998.  And it's been like that, or worse, every year for well over a decade. That means the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has left us with more than 100,000 additional "legal orphans."

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Big data loses. Bigly.

      For those interested in knowing more about the problems with predictive analytics in child welfare, NCCPR’s full analysis is available in our report Big Data Is Watching You.

I will leave it to others to try to guess what the election of Donald Trump means for child welfare policy, aside from pointing out that in addition to all the other reasons to worry, as far as I know the only one of his close advisers who’s ever thought about the topic – Newt Gingrich – has suggested throwing poor people’s children into orphanages.

But we shouldn’t let the postmortems go by without child welfare learning from one of the biggest losers on election night: predictive analytics.
This was the year when an amazing number of organizations, from FiveThirtyEight to The New York Times, to the Princeton Election Consortium were all crunching numbers, assessing data points and putting it all together into algorithms that were going to tell us who was going to win the presidential election. The overwhelming consensus: Hillary Clinton.

The same predictive analytics number crunchers also had algorithms to tell us which party would wind up in control of the Senate. The not-quite-as-overwhelming consensus: the Democrats.
Speaking just for myself, I wish all those predictions had been correct. Instead, we are left with two YUGE “false positives.”
“American voters just tossed an ice cold bucket of reality on those who argue that Big Data is here and now, and ready to run everything,” writes Forbes columnist John Carpenter.

“Tonight, data died,” Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist opposed to Donald Trump told MSNBC.

It was a rough night for number crunchers. And for the faith that people in every field … have increasingly placed in the power of data. [Emphasis added]

If all those number crunchers can’t figure out one presidential election, why should anyone trust predictive analytics to tell us which parents are going to harm their children? Yet that, of course, is what some in child welfare seriously want us to do.
The hubris behind that effort is astounding, and dangerous. The various data gurus who got the election forecasts wrong suffer nothing worse than public humiliation. Wrongly predict that a parent is going to abuse a child and there’s an excellent chance the child will suffer the enormous trauma of unnecessary foster care – and workers will be overloaded with all those needless removals, leaving them less time to find children in real danger.

The predictive analytics problem goes beyond elections

Of course, one could argue even a slew of bad election predictions (it wasn’t just one election, Big Data was wrong about several states) is not, alone, enough to say we should not press forward with letting algorithms tell us when to tear apart a family. The botched election predictions could be thought of as just a horror story – and we all know people in child welfare never, ever base policy decisions on horror stories, right?
But the Times says the lessons go much deeper:

… undercutting the belief that analyzing reams of data can accurately predict events. Voters demonstrated how much predictive analytics, and election forecasting in particular, remains a young science …

  data science is a technology advance with trade-offs. It can see things as never before, but also can be a blunt instrument, missing context and nuance … But only occasionally — as with Tuesday’s election results — do consumers get a glimpse of how these formulas work and the extent to which they can go wrong …

The danger, data experts say, lies in trusting the data analysis too much without grasping its limitations and the potentially flawed assumptions of the people who build predictive models.

Flawed assumptions, built into the models, were the root of the rampant racial bias and epidemic of false positives that an in-depth study done by ProPublica found when analytics is used in criminal justice. Prof. Emily Keddell found much the same when she examined bias and false positives specific to predictive analytics in child welfare.

The Times story also includes a lesson for those who insist they can control how analytics are used – those who say they’ll only use it to target prevention – not to decide when to tear apart families:

Two years ago, the Samaritans, a suicide-prevention group in Britain, developed a free app to notify people whenever someone they followed on Twitter posted potentially suicidal phrases like “hate myself” or “tired of being alone.” The group quickly removed the app after complaints from people who warned that it could be misused to harass users at their most vulnerable moments.

The failure of predictive analytics in this election should be one more warning not to data-nuke poor families. It should, but, as usual when the arrogance of software companies meets the arrogance of the child welfare field, it probably won’t.

New NCCPR resources on "predictive analytics"

The latest dangerous fad in child welfare is the push to use "predictive analytics" to decide when to tear children from their families.  NCCPR has a new report on the topic, Big Data is Watching You.

Our latest column on the subject notes that, in the presidential election Big Data Lost. Bigly. So maybe it's not a good idea to use the same approach to deciding the fate of children.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

L.A.’s vulnerable kids caught in the middle as the “elephants” of analytics fight

“When elephants fight,” the proverb goes, “the grass gets hurt.”

As Los Angeles deals with the aftermath of another child abuse tragedy, the death of Yonatan Aguilar, the debate over how to fix the system is devolving into a fight between two of the field’s “elephants.”
They’re fighting over which of two flawed, racially biased approaches to trying to predict which children are in danger should predominate in the biggest child welfare “market” in the country.
They’re being egged on by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – or as this particular governing body should properly be known, simply “The B.S.” The B.S. is doing what it always does about child welfare issues: micromanage and grandstand.
The entire shameful spectacle only diverts attention from the problem that’s been at the root of Los Angeles’ child welfare crisis for decades: a take-the-child-and-run mentality that does enormous harm to children needlessly taken. It also so overloads caseworkers that they can’t do a thorough investigation of any case, no matter what decision-making tool they use.
Los Angeles takes away children at double the rate of New York City and triple the rate of Chicago. That didn’t save Yonatan Aguilar, Gabriel Fernandez or the many who came before. Of course, New York and Chicago also have horrifying cases involving deaths of children “known to the system.” But does anyone really believe that Los Angeles children are twice as safe from abuse as children in New York City and three times as safe as children in Chicago?

On the contrary, the take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe.
The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions. That’s almost always the real reason for the tragedies that make headlines. But instead of getting to the heart of the problem, the supervisors are obsessing over whether to replace one flawed system of risk assessment with another.
Two Flawed Models of Risk Assessment

Right now, Los Angeles caseworkers use an approach called “Structured Decision Making.” They fill out questionnaires that rate families, then feed the results into a computer that supposedly tells the caseworkers how high the risk is in the families.
But a study in Michigan found that while SDM has a veneer of objectivity, many of the determinations workers make are highly subjective. The Michigan study also found that risk factors that appear to be race neutral are anything but. Simply being a young parent is deemed a risk. So is being a single parent. Black parents are more likely to be young and more likely to be single.

Other “risk factors” are self-reinforcing. A child is rated at higher risk if there have been previous reports of maltreatment. But, precisely because of poverty, which is easily confused with “neglect, ” and because of racial bias, poor black families are more likely to be subjects of such reports.
So it’s no wonder officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) suggested in 2007 that SDM contributed to a rapid increase in children taken from their parents in Los Angeles County. DCFS has acknowledged that the racial disparity in the Los Angeles system has increased since SDM began.

An evaluation by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that using SDM may have increased racial bias in child removals in that state.

SDM’s competitor is “predictive analytics,” which is essentially SDM on steroids. The analytics software uses demographic factors to compute alleged risk. It’s being touted by, among others, SAS, a giant software firm which points to its own analysis of its own test as evidence that it works.
But the test also found that 95 percent of the time, when the software predicted a catastrophe if the child was not taken away, the software was wrong. And, like SDM, predictive analytics has a major racial bias problem.
Both SDM and predictive analytics amount to the same thing: computerized racial profiling.
Switching from one to the other will only contribute to another spike in needless entries into foster care, doing enormous harm to the children who are needlessly taken. It will also further overwhelm caseworkers, making it even more likely that they’ll miss the next Yonatan Aguilar.
If that happens, the members of “The B.S.” will surely race to express their “shock” and “outrage” before the television cameras. And the cycle will begin all over again.
The elephants are fighting, but this time it’s not grass that’s getting hurt – it’s innocent children.

The death of “Child 1”: Philadelphia’s child welfare agency makes such tragedies inevitable

A child dies in “residential treatment.” But the heart of the problem is “residential treatment” itself.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services says it had no role in the placement of this particular child in this particular residential treatment facility.

Suppose, hypothetically, we were building our public child welfare and mental health systems from scratch. We could design them any way we wanted.

Now, suppose somebody said: Hey, I have a great idea!  Let’s take the young people we believe have the most serious emotional and behavioral problems, at the very age when they are most susceptible to peer pressure and put them all together in the same place! Won’t that work well?

Odds are most people would think it’s the guy who thought up the idea who really needs a mental health intervention.

Yet that’s exactly what we do.  We slap a nice, reassuring label on it – residential treatment – dress it all up with psychobabble and try to make the grounds look as pretty as possible to impress visitors, but at bottom it’s an approach doomed to failure.

This is one of the relatively few areas in child welfare where the research is close to unanimous. Even when the institutions do not devolve into hellholes, residential treatment is a failure that does terrible harm to children – and costs a fortune. (The link to the research also goes to an
all-purpose foster care-industrial complex excuse check-list, which lists all the standard rationalizations for residential treatment, and why they don’t stand up to scrutiny.)

There is nothing – nothing – that residential treatment supposedly does that can’t be done better and safer with intensive in-home services. In this video, a pioneer in providing such services explains how it’s done:

The death in Philadelphia

All these problems are inherent in the RTC model. In other words, these problems exist before we even reach the issue of horrible conditions and abuse at RTCs – issues that are now getting attention in Philadelphia because a 17-year-old, known only as “Child 1” died in one of them, a place known as Wordsworth Academy. 

It took that death, and a litany of other failures, before the state stepped in and shut down the residential treatment program.  The state did it, not the Philadelphia Department of Human Services,  actually placed “Child 1” at Wordsworth,  which actually oversees child welfare in the city and which has contracted with Wordsworth to provide an array of services to the city’s vulnerable children. DHS says it was not involved in placing "Child 1 at Wordsworth. DHS can't pull a facility's license, but it certainly could have pressed the state on the matter before a child died.

Indeed, when you lock away a large group of people who are overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately people of color, people we don’t want to think about or fear, then keep them out of sight and out of mind, what do you expect?  That’s why these kinds of scandals happen over and over again.  

So why does DHS keep relying on these places?

Because DHS is begging for beds and beggars can’t be choosers.

Though DHS has reduced its reliance on all forms of “congregate care” – group homes and institutions – it still uses these facilities at a rate above the national average. It has to.  Because DHS tears apart families at the second highest rate among America’s big cities, even when you factor in rates of child poverty. When you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is number one.


Philadelphia's high rate of removal

The rate of removal in Philadelphia is triple the rate of New York City and quadruple the rate of Chicago.  Does anyone really think Philadelphia children are three times safer than New York children and four times safer than Chicago children.

And no, that’s not some inevitable result of a bunch of terrible new state laws passed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that encouraged child abuse hysteria and foster-care panic. Philadelphia’s dismal record predates those laws. The figures cited above are from 2014.  And those same laws apply in Pittsburgh, where, unlike Philadelphia, the foster care population did not increase after those new laws passed.

This latest tragedy is one more consequence of years of willful blindness at DHS, an agency that has refused to learn from other cities and states that do a far better job keeping children safe while taking proportionately far fewer children.

Yes, those other places also use group homes and institutions – but they use them less.  So tragedies like the latest death in Philadelphia are less likely.

There’s a lot we still don’t know yet about this latest tragedy.  We don’t even know the boy’s name.  Surely he deserves at least to be known in death by his own name.  And we deserve to know if he ever really needed to be in “the system” at all, much less how he wound up institutionalized.

Perhaps it will turn out his removal to substitute “care,” however it happened, was entirely justified. Perhaps it will turn out that the child was placed "voluntarily" by parents or other caretakers who felt they had no other choice - because no one offered them better alternatives.  Or perhaps there was some other set of circumstances.  But that would mean only that some other child, who did not need to be taken, was in the safe placement that should have been reserved for the youth we now know only as “Child 1.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Reefer madness at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families

According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) is upset over language in a referendum on the ballot next week that would legalize recreational use of marijuana.

The language in question would require DCF to have actual evidence that marijuana use by parents places their children at risk before taking those children away, putting the family under supervision or otherwise interfering with their lives.

The language is so mild that the state’s “Child Advocate” says it wouldn’t change current practice.  Even Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet is not upset by this language.  Bartholet is probably the nation’s most fanatical advocate of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare; her own proposals would require the removal of millions of children from their homes nationwide.

But DCF is throwing a fit. 

Why the language is needed 

This New York Times story explains why the referendum language is needed. It describes how cases involving marijuana possession are misused to needlessly harass families and sometimes take away their children.  There’s also this story from the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper. And this one from Fusion.  And this case from Ohio.

These stories provide chilling evidence in support of what NCCPR President Prof. Martin Guggenheim, told the Globe.  He said the referendum language

“would be a big step forward in equalizing the rights of rich and poor parents by eliminating what should be an irrelevant factor in prosecuting child welfare cases.”
 Guggenheim, a national expert on child welfare law, said child protection is supposed to be about protecting kids who have already been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm.
 Yet, he said, “Child protection statutes have been used for decades to control poor people and take away their kids, using marijuana use as pretense — where, on the other side of town, pot would be winked at.”

The harm to children

As is so often the case with agencies like DCF, their position on this part of the referendum flunks the balance-of-harms test.

Surely, by now, everyone in Massachusetts knows how dangerous the state’s foster care system is to children.  Even a lawsuit brought by the group that calls itself Children’s Rights, a group that is no friend of keeping families together, makes that clear. (Yes, the lawsuit was dismissed, but based on a narrow reading of the law, not on the facts of the suit and the condition of Massachusetts foster care.) 

Two huge MIT studies found that in typical cases children in foster care fare worse even than comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.  Several more studies find abuse in one quarter to one-third of foster homes.

And consider the finding from a study of a drug problem a lot more serious than pot smoking:

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

Before exposing children to all that harm inherent in foster care placement and/or the stress of a child abuse investigation, the referendum language says only that DCF should have “clear, convincing and articulable evidence that the person’s actions related to marijuana have created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child.”

That’s a balancing test that should be welcomed by any agency that really cares about the best interests of children.

Such a test is especially needed in Massachusetts.  For well over a decade, Massachusetts has taken away children at a rate well above the national average -- and that was even before a foster-care panic sent removals skyrocketing in 2015 and 2016. 

DCF’s arguments 

According to the Globe story, DCF maintains that any language anywhere that

could limit a social worker’s ability to consider any substances, including marijuana, as a factor for child custody [is] troubling, especially given the unprecedented spike in DCF cases fueled by the opioid epidemic,

And what, exactly, does smoking pot have to do with the opioid epidemic? Obviously, nothing. But DCF knows that any opportunity to squeeze in a reference to opioid abuse is a great way to stampede people into giving the agency all the power it wants while avoiding even minimal checks and balances.

It appears the Globe had to do a lot of searching to find anyone outside DCF who shares the agency’s view.  They found

Sanford N. Katz, a professor of law emeritus at Boston College Law School,[who] said he doesn’t think the child welfare paragraph in the ballot measure has “any place in the law.”
 “Let some action occur and let it go before a judge to decide whether the impact has been negative” he said. “It’s so case-by-case! For example, if you’re legally growing marijuana and the child has access to it, that may be sufficient for social service intervention.”

Right. The same way DCF regularly hauls away children in upscale Massachusetts towns like Newton and Brookline if the parents forget to lock the liquor cabinet.

As for the seductive argument that we should just look “case by case” and let the judge decide, that conjures  up images of carefully prepared expert social workers using their enormous skills and unlimited time to balance the harm of smoking (or growing) marijuana against the harm of removal.

That’s a fantasy. In fact, case-by-case is a euphemism for arbitrary, capricious, and cruel. It is a system in which overloaded undertrained workers are free to act on whim, prejudice and the profound racial and class bias that permeates the system.

The whole point of having laws at all is to protect against the arbitrary abuse of power. 

As for judges, they are far more prone to wield rubber-stamps than gavels.  And no wonder. Like caseworkers, judges know that if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong, their careers may well be over. Remove hundreds of children needlessly and, while the child may suffer terrible harm, the judge will be safe.  That’s why judges in New York City actually admitted, on the record, that they are so afraid of adverse news coverage that they regularly remove children from their homes even when they think the child welfare agency has not made a good enough case.

The real problem with the language in this referendum is that, for once, Bartholet may be right: It may not really change anything.