Tuesday, July 26, 2016

New columns about racial bias in "predictive analytics" and the so-called Family First Act

ProPublica has done some outstanding reporting on racial bias in the use of algorithms - "predictive analytics" - in criminal justice.  Things may be even worse in child welfare

Read our column here

Although I oppose the so-called "Family First Act" which would make small changes in how the federal government pays for child welfare services, some of the arguments against the bill are so disingenuous that they tempt me to change my mind.

This column explains why

Monday, July 18, 2016

How John Burton and Trent Rhorer almost got me to support the Family First Act

Last month I wrote about why I oppose the so-called Family First Prevention Services Act: It sets up prevention to fail and it actually entrenches institutionalization.

But I have to admit, every time I read columns opposing the bill like the one from John Burton and Trent Rhorer, I’m tempted to change my mind.

Like other defenders of institutionalization, Burton and Rhorer say the bill goes too far. But you know you’ve got a problem making a case when even your own extreme, aberrational horror story doesn’t support it.
They cite the case of Melissa, sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, placed with an aunt but then coerced into child sex trafficking by an older man. After being raped every day for four months, Melissa escapes.
She is placed in an institution that, Burton and Rhorer suggest, is both the only alternative and something that would be impossible if the Family First Act becomes law.
Neither claim is true.
Burton and Rhorer write that “Melissa’s trauma likely would not meet the medical definition required in the legislation” for institutionalization. In other words, they’re claiming Melissa did not emerge from her ordeal with “serious emotional or behavioral disorders or disturbances” – that’s the definition.  If, by some miracle, that’s true, then she certainly doesn’t need to be institutionalized.
More important, in their very next paragraph, Burton and Rhorer contradict the claim that the institution was the only alternative.  They write:
Our statewide reform includes a comprehensive, team-based child assessment and expanded supportive services for caregivers, such as Melissa’s aunt. With these services, Melissa could have likely continued to live with her aunt and prevented a tragic chapter in her young life. [Emphasis added].

The Family First Act would not prohibit California from providing such services. Existing law doesn’t prohibit California from providing them either. California simply has to pay for it.  But given how much cheaper such support is than an institution, even without federal help this kind of assistance almost certainly still would have been less expensive for California.
And nothing in the Family First Act prevents California’s current plan to provide “expanded supportive services for caregivers…” so clearly there will be no need for institutionalization the next time a case such as Melissa’s arises.
Thank you, John Burton and Trent Rhorer, for providing a perfect illustration of how institutionalization is misused and overused, and why the federal government should stop funding it.

Giving up on families

Their example also illustrates how mediocre child welfare agencies – like Rhorer’s, which takes away children at a rate 50 percent above the California average – give up on families much too soon. They write that after Melissa escaped, “with the stigma of sexual exploitation hanging over her, her aunt would not take her back” – so she had to be institutionalized.

I’d like to hear the aunt’s side of that story. I’ll bet it has a lot more to do with the child welfare agency not offering her the support she needed to care for a severely traumatized niece. Watch Karl Dennis, father of wraparound services, illustrate the right way to deal with a reluctant family in a similar situation:
Burton and Rhorer also write that:
California’s approach also permits the temporary use of a group home to ensure Melissa’s safety and start her on the path to recovery, something that is not permitted in the federal legislation.
 There are several problems with this:

§  The Family First Act also permits this – unfortunately – for up to two weeks.
§  After those two weeks, it’s still permitted; state and/or local governments just have to pick up the tab.
§  Most important, parking young people in institutions does nothing for the young people; it just enriches the institutions.

So, with thousands upon thousands of cases to choose from, Burton and Rhorer could not find even one that actually justifies institutionalization but would not be permitted under the Family First Act.
Why, then, am I still on the same side as these guys? Precisely because young people like Melissa, and many more children whose cases are vastly less serious, still could be institutionalized under the Family First Act, and the status of such institutionalization would be sanctified in federal law. And because the “prevention” funding, while properly targeted toward cases of imminent risk, offers mostly the wrong kinds of help and sets absurd criteria for which programs qualify for reimbursement.
And please, spare us all the Goldilocks defense; the one that goes, if some people think the law is too tough and other people think it’s not tough enough, it must be juuuuuuuuust right.

No. The fact that some in the foster care industrial complex have the gall to claim this law is too tough just shows how spoiled they’ve gotten after all those years getting to eat all the porridge.

Friday, July 8, 2016

New columns on the latest CASA scandal and on child welfare finance legislation

There's another scandal at a program affiliated with the most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  No one should be surprised.  Bias is built into the CASA model.

Read about it here.

And here's my analysis of proposed child welfare finance reform legislation:

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

#CASAsoWhite: Latest CASA scandal should be no surprise: Bias is built into the model

Anita Farris, a superior court judge in Snohomish County, Wash., says, “I’ve only used the ‘P word’ once in 23 years on this bench, and it applies in this situation.”

That’s P as in perjury.

KING-TV in Seattle
 reports the alleged perjurer is Cynthia Bemis, a “volunteer guardian-ad-litem” in child maltreatment cases. Most states use a different term: Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

The program Bemis volunteers for lists itself as “accredited by the National CASA Association and … an associated member of Washington State CASA.”

At issue is how Bemis “infiltrated” – that’s the judge’s word – a listserv run by public defenders representing parents in child welfare cases. The judge called her explanation “filled with lies.” And, the judge says, Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that.
In fact, according to the judge, Bemis was essentially a one-woman NSA, spying on the defense attorneys to use the information against families. The judge says Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that, too.
Bemis denies any wrongdoing. She says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Says Bemis: “My commitment to the welfare of children has never changed and never will.”

Other Examples of Bias

The case is just the most recent example of the bias that permeates CASA, the most sacred cow in child welfare:
§  In Arkansas City, Kan., a CASA chapter’s fundraiser featured a drag queen contest. The winner was the mayor. He dressed up as a woman to whom he gave a surname described as “graphic slang for a female private part.” So is the name the mayor chose for his back-up dancers. Oh, and one more thing: the mayor did his act made up in blackface.
§  In Indianapolis, the website for the CASA program declares every family from whom a child is taken is guilty. According to the website: “volunteers help ensure that the children we fight to protect are not returned to the very situations where the mistreatment occurred” [emphasis added].

Of course, most CASAs don’t behave this way. And some CASAs do excellent work.  But these sorts of problems are almost inevitable. So is behavior like this and this and this, and defenses of CASA like this.
Because bias is built into the way CASA works:
CASA depends on volunteers spending a few hours each month on a single case. Who has time for that? Not a poor person holding down two jobs. So it’s no wonder CASA programs sometimes are pet projects of the local Junior League and the demographics of CASAs tend to be vastly different from the demographics of the families they judge.

CASA volunteers, mostly middle class and overwhelmingly white, march into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately people of color. Then they pass judgment on the families and recommend whether they should get their children back. Judges routinely rubber-stamp their recommendations.

Disturbing Findings from a Study

The demographic information, and the information about judges’ behavior, can be found in the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA – a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself.
But that wasn’t all the study found. As Youth Today reported at the time, the study “delivers some surprisingly damning numbers”:

§  The study found that CASA’s only real accomplishments were to prolong the time children languished in foster care and reduce the chance that the child will be placed with relatives.
§  The study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA’s all-purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.)
§  The study found that when a CASA is assigned to a child who is black, the CASA spends, on average, significantly less time on the case. (The study also found that CASAs don’t spend as much time on cases as the organization’s public relations may lead people to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and 2.67 hours per month on cases involving black children.)

No matter how desperately they try to spin the findings (and Youth Today concluded that those efforts “can border on duplicity”), the problem is built into the CASA model itself.
So we need a better model.
CASAs still can perform a useful service as mentors to foster children and in advocating for services. But children need a real voice in court, a lawyer with a mandate to fight for what that child wants, for any child old enough to make known a competent preference.

That’s not because the child will always be right. It’s because judges are more likely to make the best decisions when all sides have advocates making the best possible case – rather than ratifying a Junior Leaguer’s impressions.