Monday, February 29, 2016

Debunking the latest dangerous fad in child welfare: "predictive analytics"

There are big dangers in using "big data" to try to predict who is going to abuse or neglect a child.  Meta Brown, a columnist for Forbes, who also is a statistician and expert on “data mining,” warns of those dangers in this column.

And I have my own column on the dangers of data-nuking poor families at the Chronicle of Social Change

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Foster care in Michigan: The reporter who listened

The Lansing State Journal published a package of excellent stories this week on how families in Michigan are destroyed when they don’t have adequate defense counsel to fight for them in court.  Sadly that is the norm, not just in Michigan, where we discussed it in our reports on child welfare in that state, but in most of the country.

The State Journal stories include an outstanding overview of the damage done, contrasting what happens in typical cases with the results in the rare cases when families can get help from groups like the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, some useful graphics and two sidebars, including one about a case that perfectly illustrates the biggest single problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect.

But I was most struck by a paragraph at the very end of the main story.  It’s in the how-and-why-we-did-this-project section, a standard feature of investigative projects

In this case, that section began this way:

This story started with a brief report in July 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Ingham County foster child Ricky Holland, that detailed the ways Michigan continues to fail foster kids. After that story published, Lansing State Journal investigative reporter Justin A. Hinkley received numerous phone calls from parents claiming the Michigan Children’s Protective Services had taken their kids away without cause. The State Journal decided to dig.

The original story wasn’t about wrongful removal at all.  Yet the newspaper received lots of calls from people saying that’s what happened to their families.

That’s not unusual.  Any reporter who does a big story about child welfare gets those calls. Even if the story was the most common kind, the kind that’s easiest to get, the “Why-did-the-child- welfare-system-allow-this-child-to-die” story, the calls and emails and letters will come in.

But most reporters ignore those calls.  Most reporters blow off the very idea that there’s a big problem with children needlessly being taken from their homes.  And the exceptions usually involve the very rare cases in which the problem affects a middle-class family – the kind of family reporters can identify with.

There are a lot of reasons.

● The race, class and personal experiences of most journalists are a lot closer to those of foster and adoptive parents than they are to birth parents who lose their children to foster care.  Chances are every reporter has a relative or a colleague or a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who is  an adoptive parent or foster parent; odds are almost none have a personal connection to a birth parent whose child was taken away.

● With no personal experience to counter it, reporters accept the same stereotypes as most people: Parents who lose their children to foster care must be sadists brutes and/or hopeless addicts who “put drugs ahead of their children.”

● It’s easy to make such assumptions both because they have no personal experiences to counter it, and because child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA.  It’s easy to hide needless removal of children behind “confidentiality” rules that supposedly protect children but actually protect only agencies. 

In contrast, the only time the system can’t hide – or at least can’t hide as easily – is when a child dies.  So it’s easy for journalists to get the misimpression that the system errs in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.  It’s just as easy for reporters to convince themselves that if the system occasionally errs in the other direction, no real harm is done.

Then there are the problems in reporting the story, even when reporters are inclined to do so:

● Desperate people don’t always tell the most coherent stories.  The words tumble out over the phone or they come in page after page of email, often without so much as a paragraph break.  It takes a lot of work to figure out the story, and then there’s no guarantee that there is a story. 

Some of the people who make these claims actually are guilty as sin.  Some are crazy. Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  But many of them are right.  They are fighting for children who have been victimized by a very real injustice – being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.

The people making the calls and sending the emails are desperate for a reporter to listen.  Justin Hinkley listened.  Another Michigan reporter who listened was Curt Guyette.  He wrote about the confusion of poverty with neglect for the Detroit alternative weekly Metro Times in 2009.  Being a good listener pays off.  More recently, Guyette was the reporter who first exposed the poisoning of Flint.

There are a lot of reasons why so many reporters don’t listen; I mentioned some of them earlier.  But there are other barriers as well.

● A reporter who commits to trying to do the story then has to face the “veto of silence.”  The child welfare agency is likely to say “Oh, there is so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you, really we do, but we just can’t – confidentiality, you know.”

This is nonsense.  In a few states, laws specify that, in many cases, agencies can talk.  The agencies just pretend they can’t.  And child welfare agencies are no different than any other bureaucracy.  I know from my own 19 years as a reporter, and from the experiences of so many others, that  if the agency really has information that will make it look better, someone is likely to leak it.

But still, there’s that nagging doubt in the back of the reporter’s mind – what if I publish this and I wind up looking like a fool?

● And after all that, there’s one last problem – the problem faced by all reporters: Editors.

Not only are editors likely to be reluctant to give reporters the time to do a project like this, they’re likely to cling to the same preconceived notions as most reporters.

There are ways to overcome all of these problems.  Many reporters have.  Links to some of their work are on this page at

But sadly, when it comes to that paragraph in the Lansing State Journal story, the one thing that’s unusual is that last sentence.  The one that says “The State Journal decided to dig”

Thank you, Justin Hinkley, for digging.  And, oh alright, thank you State Journal editors, too.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Foster care in America: Don't gimme shelter!

NCCPR is now a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Social Change.  Our most recent column deals with the harm of those awful parking place "shelters" so beloved by child savers.

You can read it here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Two new NCCPR op-ed columns: Child welfare finance and fixing foster care in Texas

The Chronicle of Social Change has begun a series of columns and stories about child welfare finance.  First up, pro and con columns concerning child welfare waivers.

Here's NCCPR's column in favor of waivers

And at TribTalk, the op-ed division of the Texas Tribune, Johana Scot and I have a column on how to fix the hellscape that is foster care in that state.

Read the TribTalk column here

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Child abuse in America: Why we need to remember “McMartin”

I was asked recently about the issue of highly-credible allegations of child sexual abuse not being taken seriously when they should.  The explanation once could be boiled down to simple shorthand – it’s a response to “McMartin.”

Another commentator recently wrote a column extolling the virtues of one of those awful parking-place shelters that do so much harm to children.  I wonder if he would have been quite so credulous about the claims made by his primary source had he realized that she was a key player in the injustices that once could be summed up just by saying “McMartin”?

When it was all still fresh in people’s minds, we understood that “McMartin” was a reference to a wave of mass hysteria over alleged “mass molestation,” usually in day care centers, that seems almost incomprehensible today.  Or, as The New York Times put it in a story looking back on that era:

[S]ome of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?

But they believed – oh, how they believed.  The case involving the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California was among the first and got the most attention.  But, as the Times explained, it didn’t stop there: 
 McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details. 
Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped. 
They believed in large part because a whole lot of medical professionals and therapists told them to believe.  “Believe the children,” they said.  “Children don’t lie,” they said.  And if you don’t believe the children then you’re little better than an abuser yourself.

But the children were coached.  Sometimes bribed, sometimes cajoled, sometimes bullied until they told the “professionals” what they wanted to hear.

In what is probably the best account of all this, Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s book, Satan’s Silence, the authors describe how Dr. Astrid Heger, then of the Children’s Institute International, which fomented the McMartin hysteria, questioned one girl who repeatedly denied being abused.  Heger tells the little girl:

I don’t want to hear any more “no’s.  No, no!  Detective Dog and we are going to figure this out.  Every little boy and girl in the whole school got touched like that … I think there’s something to tell me about touching.”

That’s far from the worst example.  Watch the documentary accompanying the Times story for others:

But I mention the example involving Heger here because Heger now runs the clinic that’s the first stop for medical and mental health examinations for thousands of children taken from their parents by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  The clinic is right down the hall from theparking place shelter she wants to keep.

Both now and during the McMartin case, Heger had only the best of intentions.  But she's mistaken now as well.  She claims that if her shelter is closed “rates will go back up of [sic] reabuse.”  But according to the excellent database maintained by the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, the rate of reabuse didn’t go down in the years since the shelter opened – it stayed the same.

The other reason to remember McMartin is the devastation left in its wake – not just the lives destroyed by legal bills, at best, and jail terms at worst.  But all the children who lost their families, and all the children who actually were persuaded they were abused when in fact they were not.  Click on the comments tab for the Times story and you’ll find a comment from someone who says he was one of them.

And even that is not the end of the damage.

The hysteria was just starting to abate when my book, Wounded Innocents, was published in 1990.  At that time I wrote:

When hoaxes are exposed, they cast suspicion on all children who say they have been abused and make it easier for the public to retreat back into denial of a very real problem.
Recently there have been charges that the problem of false allegations in [divorce and] custody cases is beginning to produce a backlash.  Instead of automatically believing the charge, some judges are said to be automatically disbelieving.  If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers who started the hysteria.  They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them. 
If that’s happening now in some cases, there may be a variety of reasons.  But one reason can be summed up in one word: McMartin.

Friday, February 12, 2016

From a Florida child saver: A startling admission and a new low in smears

No, Maj. Shingledecker, every parent who loses a child to foster care is NOT a likely murderer

I don't think even HE would say what Maj. Connie Shingledecker said.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Anyone who still doubts that the Florida Foster-Care panic – the huge surge in removals of children in that state in the wake of shoddy reporting by the Miami Herald - is causing more children in real danger to be overlooked should read this column by Tom Lyons in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The headline is: “Child abuse crises created by those we think are fixing it.”

He cites remarks by none other than Major Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.  Manatee is one of a handful of counties in which the Sheriff, rather than the state Department of Children and Families, handle child abuse investigations.

Shingledecker is in charge of that division.  For many years she also chaired the state’s Child Abuse Death Review Committee, where she constantly pressured the state to broaden the definition of neglect to the point where almost any parent in the state would be covered.

Shingledecker is probably the second strongest proponent of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare in Florida’s recent history (just behind disgraced former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney).  Like Kearney, Shingledecker means well.  But like Kearney, she fits the mold of those who, in the 19th Century, proudly called themselves “child savers” as they tore apart the families of impoverished immigrants.

And because Shingledecker has been at it for such a long time – nearly two decades now – she may have done even more damage.  Indeed, year after year, Manatee County has had one of the highest rates of child removal in Florida.

So it was startling when, after a high-profile tragedy for which her own department shared responsibility made headlines, she effectively blamed the very foster-care panic she did so much to encourage.  Then she tried to divert attention from her own office’s failings by offering up a smear of birth parents so rotten I don’t think even Donald Trump would sink so low.

It happened at a forum on child abuse in which there was much discussion of the death of Janiya Thomas, an 11-year-old Manatee County girl who was missing more than a year before her body was discovered.

A state report on the case documented blunder after blunder by Shingledecker’s officers – with many of the crucial mistakes made in the spring and summer of 2014 – right after the Herald stories were published, setting off the current foster-care panic.  The body was not discovered until 2015.

As a result, removals of children in Manatee County skyrocketed during the same months Shingledecker’s deputies were making crucial mistakes.  In the four months after the Herald stories were published, the number of children torn from their families in Manatee County was more than double the number the year before.  Even as so many children were taken needlessly, Janiya Thomas was overlooked.

Asked to explain her agency’s failures, Shingledecker came startlingly close to admitting it was because of the panic.  According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune:

Shingledecker declined to discuss specifics about the case, which remains under investigation. Yet she outlined what child protection detectives in Manatee dealt with overall in 2015, a year in which the death of Janiya Thomas became “an anomaly.”
“It was an unbelievable year for us,” Shingledecker said.
The Sheriff's Office … received a record high 4,300 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect from a state hotline last year.
Of those, 22 percent were verified, with the leading reasons being substance abuse by the parents and family violence.
Investigators removed from their homes and arranged shelter for 652 children, 56 percent of whom were age 5 or younger.
 It was up to Tom Lyons to point out something else about that 652 figure -  it was up from 387 the year before.  Lyons wrtites that  
Big increases in children taken into state protection almost always reflect changes in policies and pressures on caseworkers to err in that direction, not changes in the threat level.
 So, to review: Shingledecker’s officers faced a deluge of child abuse reports, 78 percent of which, by the officers’ own estimate, had no merit.  So they spent more than three-quarters of their time spinning their wheels.  They also wasted a huge amount of time needlessly removing vastly more children.  And while workers were overwhelmed doing that, they missed crucial warning signs in the case of Janiya Thomas.

The same thing was playing out all across Florida, which may explain why child deaths among children previously “known to the system” increased in Florida in 2015.

But Shingledecker learned nothing from the foster-care panic.  By the same period this year removals were up another 35 percent.  And this past October, when the death of Janiya herself finally was discovered, removals skyrocketed again.  Manatee County tore apart 74 families in that month alone, nearly quadruple the number in the same month two years earlier.

But of course while Shingledecker strongly implies that the overload caused the blunders that contributed to Janiya’s death, she doesn’t acknowledge the role of foster-care panic in causing the overload.  And that’s where the smear comes in.  Lyons writes:

If you wonder if [all those additional removals of children] means someone was being overzealous, you should. But here is what Shingledecker said about that:
“We saved 652 lives last year.”
That's so far from true that I'm amazed she said it. Even taken as forgivable exaggeration to make a point, it is alarmingly misguided.
 Lyons is more forgiving than I.

To me, smearing every birth parent who loses a child to foster care as a likely murderer ranks right up there with Donald Trump suggesting every undocumented immigrant is a rapist (although even Trump said that “some, I assume, are good people”).

This is exactly the kind of stereotyping that foments foster-care panic in the first place.  These are the smears that allow hundreds of thousands of children nationwide to be consigned needlessly to the chaos of foster care, often because their parents are simply too poor to provide adequate housing, or too poor to afford child care so they leave a child home alone while they work to make ends meet.

And, of course, these are the kinds of smears that encourage the overload of the system, so more children in real danger are missed.

When taken together with all the other harm Shingledecker’s well-intentioned crusade has done to the children she intended to help, it’s not forgivable – not yet anyway.

It will be forgivable if she admits she was wrong.  It will be forgivable if she acknowledges the damage those kinds of comments do to children.  And it will be forgivable if she changes course and abandons the take-the-child-and-run approach she has practiced for nearly 20 years.

The prerequisite for forgiveness should be saying “I’m sorry.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Child abuse fatalities commission has found the answer: Throw platitudes at the problem!

Try our "Mad Libs version" of the commission's
latest blog post

 Have you heard about the computer program that can churn out political speeches.  Apparently, such speeches are so predictable and so clich├ęd that now a literal machine can write for a political machine.

I thought of that as I read the collection of strung-together platitudes that constitutes the latest  blog post from the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect fatalities. Just how devoid of content is this thing?  Well, you can read the original here.

Or, make it a little less painful by just looking below at what I call the Mad Libs version.  I’ve removed all references specific to child welfare and child abuse fatalities.  But other than that, it’s exactly what Sanders allegedly wrote.  Try filling in the blanks with just about any other pressing problem – race relations, the global economy, education, poverty, environmental protection.  I particularly like the fact that item #1 on the list of “three major problems” can be used for almost anything without changing even one word.

So, for anyone out there who might someday chair a “blue-ribbon commission” file this away.  You never know when you might need it:


_______  Today and Envisioning a Stronger ___________ System for the Future

As the Commission nears the end of its work on the issue of ____________, it is clear that there are no simple answers to this complex challenge.

There have been promising findings from a few communities that have come together in ways that appear to be reducing _______________. These approaches are hopeful, and the Commission will build its recommendations off of what we’ve learned about what works and what does not and what approaches appear to hold promise. Unfortunately, we found only a few well-researched programs that are demonstrated to ______________ and only a handful of communities that had chosen to attempt to _______________. Furthermore, we found that a coordinated national response that reflects and responds to the urgency of the present crisis is lacking.

Based on the promising efforts we observed, we identified three major challenges facing communities that hindered efforts to reform _____________:

First, there is a lack of sustained leadership and accountability at the federal, state, and local levels. Leadership on this issue will require strategic planning, coordination across multiple agencies, sustained focus, and a level of resources to bring about significant change.

There is also a lack of evidence-based research and clear data about _________________. There is no standard mandated reporting system _______________, and definitions, investigative procedures, and reporting requirements vary from state to state.

And finally, a lack of cross-system collaboration places too much of the onus on ______ for __________________.

As we have heard from agencies across the spectrum, in order for any strategy to succeed, it will need to include a multidisciplinary model that features meaningful and mutually accountable partnerships among ________________, and more. We recognize that this kind of deeply rooted collaboration, while necessary to generate real and lasting solutions, takes time.

Yet we know that there is no time to waste if we are to ______________right now, today. As we completed this work, we read hundreds of headlines about ____________________. Not a day has gone by that we haven’t thought about _____________.

That is why, as we near the release of our final report, our Commission is reviewing options for both immediate recommendations that will begin to ____________ right away and comprehensive changes to create a redefined _______________ of the 21st century.

Solving the issue of _____________________is within our reach, if we can apply the lessons of the past, act with urgency to _______________, and create a new vision for a more effective ____________ system of the future.

There is, however, a very serious side to all this.  Whatever problem you used to fill in the blanks, odds are it was an issue with serious consequences for a lot of people.  The issue of child abuse fatalities is among the most serious imaginable. But it is throwing platitudes at the problem that trivializes it, not pointing out that those platitudes and recycled bad ideas are all this commission has got.