Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Yes, there IS a problem with the “culture change” in Connecticut: It hasn’t gone far enough

Connecticut, 1995: Emily Hernandez, a child-known-to-the-system, dies. Gov. John Rowland demands that caseworkers tear apart more families. There is a foster care panic, a huge increase in children torn from their families. Children continue to die.

Connecticut, 2003: Another child-known-to-the-system, Al-Lex Daniels, dies. Rowland sets off another foster-care panic. Children continue to die.
Connecticut, 2016: Another child-known-to-the-system, known in news accounts as Dylan, nearly dies, this time in the kinship foster home of a relative. But Connecticut does things differently now. The failings that led to the tragedy are identified, workers are disciplined, but there is no foster-care panic.
Connecticut has a different governor now (Rowland wound up in jail for corruption related to construction of a juvenile prison). As NCCPR discusses in detail inthis report, the current governor, Dannel Malloy, and the Commissioner of his Department of Children and Families (DCF), Joette Katz, have brought a culture change to child welfare: They’re refusing to play politics with children’s lives.

As Katz told the Hartford Courant:

Historically, when DCF had a bad outcome, everything would change. The next week, 500 children would be removed. We don’t do that. We know that wasn’t good for the kids.

Less Foster Care, No Compromise of Safety

What is good for the kids is taking away fewer children. In 2009 the state took children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average. By 2014, the rate of removal was down to the national average – though, sadly, still above the rate in states that are, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe.

In 2010, Connecticut used the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at a rate more than 30 percent above the national average. Since then, institutionalization has declined by two-thirds.
In 2010, Connecticut used the least harmful form of foster care – kinship care – at a rate about 25 percent below the national average. Now it’s about 25 percent above the national average.
After all that, child safety improved according to the most reliable standard indicator, the rate at which children known-to-the-system are re-abused.

Of course for someone like Marie Cohen, who’s never met an orphanage she didn’t like and who even sang the praises of an institution after it was exposed as a hellhole, all this success is terribly upsetting.  So she has seized on a report by the state’s official “child advocate” to try to blame Connecticut’s reforms for the most recent tragedy.
After acknowledging that Katz is right when she says a single tragedy “should not be used to reverse needed policy changes,” Cohen proceeds to urge exactly that.
She cites weasel-worded claims from the child advocate’s report concerning how some documents “appear to reference…” this, some workers “seemed to be” that, and some events “raise the specter” of children being at risk.
But even the child advocate said the issue was failure to follow policy and ignorance of policy, not the policy itself.
A Heaping Helping of Innuendo

Cohen then piles her own innuendo on top of the child advocate’s innuendo, claiming workers might be placing children in unsafe kinship homes in order to please Katz and senior management.
But a key problem in Dylan’s case was the failure to obtain a waiver approving the home where the abuse allegedly took place. Precisely because of identified risk factors in that home, it falls into a category for which a waiver must be approved personally by Katz, a level of accountability almost unheard-of in child welfare.  Another key problem: One caseworker essentially bragged in an email about her laziness.
Ignorance, laziness, refusal to follow procedures, and failure to get the Commissioner’s personal permission when required seem like odd ways to suck up to the boss.
The larger problem is the fact that “child advocate” offices almost always operate in the same way – investigate the worst horror stories and draw sweeping conclusions.  The problems with this methodology should be obvious (and, in fact, a former child advocate in New Jersey found a better way).

The Connecticut child advocate actually missed the single biggest failure in Dylan’s caseExcellent  reporting by The Day in New London makes clear that Dylan never needed to be taken from his own home, if only his mother had received the right kinds of help. The real problem with the culture change in Connecticut is that it hasn’t gone far enough. [UPDATE, MARCH, 2018: And tragically, in still another indication that the change hasn't gone far enough, DCF is relentlessly pushing to terminate the parental rights of Dylan's mother not only to Dylan, but to all her children.]

If only there were a better way to evaluate child welfare systems. If only Connecticut had some fully independent authority; say, someone appointed by a court, who could review the entire system, examine representative cases and see if things really are getting better or worse, then we’d – oh, wait, Connecticut has such an authority.

Thanks to a consent decree that dates to 1989, an independent monitor performs comprehensive assessments of the system. For decades those assessments were dismal. But now, things have improved to the point that all sides have agreed to a streamlined decree that even the lawyer suing the state calls “a recognition of sustained progress by DCF in significant areas of its practice, particularly during this administration.” [Emphasis added.]

As long as Malloy and Katz refuse to cave in to the take-the-child-and-run crowd, the progress will continue.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

New Columns on the stop-and-frisk of child welfare, lessons from Wells Fargo, caseworkers who assert a right to lie and reforming the system in Connecticut

My fellow liberals are rightly upset about stop-and-frisk policing. They should be equally upset about
Predictive Analytics: The Stop-and-Frisk of Child Welfare

Speaking of parallels between criminal justice and child welfare: At least in criminal justice, a police officer sued after allegedly perjuring himself probably wouldn’t say, “Gee, I had no idea that was unconstitutional.”  But in child welfare, it actually happened. Read about

There also are Lessons for Child Welfare from the Tales of Wells Fargo. Lesson #1: financial incentives matter.

There's been a child welfare tragedy in Connecticut. So of course, reforms that have made children safer are under attack. Here's NCCPR's take:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lessons for child welfare from the California “right-to-lie” case

In the past few years, we’ve learned a lot of ugly truths about the criminal justice system. (By “we,” I mean, those of us who are white and middle class. Poor people and people of color have known all along.)

But at least in criminal justice, every accused is entitled to a lawyer – though not necessarily an effective one. At least in criminal justice conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. At least in criminal justice, the records and the trial are public. At least in criminal justice, almost everyone now admits that racial bias is a problem, even if they disagree about how much of a problem.
And at least in criminal justice, a police officer sued after allegedly perjuring himself probably wouldn’t say, “Gee, I had no idea that was unconstitutional.”
In contrast, none of these protections is universal – and most never apply at all – in cases where the stakes often are higher: cases in which a child protective services agency decides to consign a child to the chaos of foster care.
The right to counsel, and whether hearings are open or closed, vary from state to state. In every state, child protective services can hide almost every mistake behind “confidentiality” laws. Homes can be searched and children can be strip-searched – and seized – without a warrant.
The standard of proof for a court to rubber-stamp removal of a child is only “preponderance of the evidence,” the same standard used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender.
And there is an entire coterie insisting that people in child welfare are so special, so superior to the rest of us, that racial bias isn’t even an issue. Stripped of all the blather and euphemism, their position boils down to this: Of course there used to be racism in America, and that made African-Americans and Native Americans bad parents, so we have to take away their children. Common sense, and abundant research, say otherwise.

Now, we can add one more difference: A child protective services caseworker, Marcia Vreeken, is claiming what amounts to a constitutional right to lie. Vreeken does not admit to lying – though a jury said she did – she merely says that even if she did, she’s entitled to immunity from civil suit.

How the Children were Harmed

This is the latest turn in a long set of cases involving a mother in Orange County, Calif., Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick and her two children, Kendall and Preslie. The mother and the children, now young adults, all have brought civil lawsuits.

The mother won a record damage award of $4.9 million after a jury found that Vreeken and another caseworker filed false reports and withheld evidence which would have cleared Fogarty-Hardwick. An appellate court judge said it was clear the judge and jury felt “the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident.”
Here’s what happened, according to the Orange County Register:

The threat came first: “If you don’t submit to me, you’ll never see your kids again.”

 Then the Orange County social worker produced a document, telling her she must sign it.

 Suddenly, Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick was faced with [a choice:]  Sign a paper that says you’re a bad parent, or lose your children. Fogarty-Hardwick refused to sign it that day in 2000 and the very worst happened: Her two daughters, then ages 6 and 9, were placed in [a shelter] and then in foster care.

The Register reports that according Kendall’s lawsuit:

Vreeken and another social worker went with a uniformed police officer to take Kendall’s younger sister, who was “screaming and crying for her mother as she hid under the principal’s desk,”  … Kendall was also forcibly removed, leaving her “devastated.”…

 A therapist wrote to the agency that “Kendall … was tearful throughout the session, begging to go home. … She doesn’t know how much longer she can cope and visibly shook while relating this.” … [But] the social workers instead reported the children “were doing well.”

And now, in response to Preslie’s lawsuit, Vreeken is arguing that she is entitled to immunity because she didn’t know that lying to a court was a violation of the family’s constitutional rights.  Sure, there’s a California statute that says you’re not supposed to do this, Vreeken’s lawyer conceded, and well, yes, she might have known it was immoral and unethical but, hey, that doesn’t mean it’s also unconstitutional.

The oral arguments don’t indicate Orange County’s official position on this, but here’s a clue: Instead of firing Vreeken, the Orange County Department of Social Services promoted her. As of 2011, Vreeken was training other caseworkers.

Message to the Front Lines

Consider the message this sends to the frontlines. Caseworkers often are scapegoated if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong. But demand that a mother “submit” to your will, take the children and run and then lie about it, and not only will you not be punished, you’ll get a promotion.
Consider as well the one key difference between this case and so many others: Ms. Fogarty-Hardwick and family had the financial resources to wage a long fight, and ultimately be compensated for what CPS did to them. This was one of those rare cases where CPS reached into a white middle-class family.
What do you really think goes on when the family is poor and non-white?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Predictive analytics: The stop-and-frisk of child welfare

Like many of my fellow liberals, I get a lot of my news from the most reliable sources: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and, of course, The Daily Show.

Last week, The Daily Show did a superb analysis of “stop-and-frisk” – the policing tactic pioneered in New York City under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and struck down by a judge who branded it indirect racial profiling.”

In the clip below, Trevor Noah goes through the problems with stop-and-frisk one after the other:
§  The rate of false positives – innocent people stopped and frisked – is staggering.
§  Though the name suggests a gentle, benign process, the reality is a deeply frightening, humiliating experience to those who must undergo it.
§  It is racially biased.
§  Defenders say it’s not biased, it’s based on applying a series of risk factors said to be associated with criminal behavior.
§  It backfires by sowing so much fear and distrust in poor communities of color that it undermines law enforcement and compromises safety.

But backers of stop-and-frisk – overwhelmingly white and middle class –  say they know better than people who actually live in communities of color. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it this way:

You run into liberals who would rather see people killed than have the kind of aggressive policing … And a lot of the people whose lives were saved because of policing in neighborhoods that needed it the most, were minority Americans.

But what else would you expect from right-wing Republicans like Gingrich, or Giuliani or Donald Trump himself? Liberals would never tolerate such a harmful, racially biased intrusion on civil liberties.
Or would they?
As you watch the clip, try this: Whenever Trevor Noah says “crime” or “criminal” substitute “child abuse” or “child abuser.”  And whenever he says stop-and-frisk, substitute child welfare’s version of stop-and-frisk, that much-hyped approach in which in which a computer uses demographic and other information to tell caseworkers which parents supposedly are a danger to their children: predictive analytics.

As with stop-and-frisk, predictive analytics puts a pseudo-scientific veneer on indirect racial profiling.  ProPublica proved itAnd as with stop-and-frisk, predictive analytics leads to an enormous number of false positives, guaranteeing that many more innocent families will be swept into the system, and their children needlessly consigned to foster care, with all of the harm  that often follows.

Indeed, if anything the collateral damage of predictive analytics can be worse than stop-and-frisk. With stop-and-frisk, a child may see his father thrown up against a wall and roughed up, but at least when it’s over the child still will have his father.
Yes, there are some in the research community and elsewhere who are making a good-faith effort to wring the racial bias out of predictive analytics algorithms, or otherwise curb their misuse. But that will last only until the first news story about the death of a child “known to the system” that supposedly could have been prevented if only the child welfare agency had used all the data it had – essentially the Gingrich argument.

Unfortunately, once again too many on the left are willing to abandon everything they claim to believe in as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. That never turns out well for children.