Friday, December 23, 2016

We won’t find a “new vision” for foster care by looking in the rear view mirror

Nearly seven years ago, when the northeast was hit with a snowstorm quickly dubbed “snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon,” The Daily Show used the occasion to make fun of people who assume that their own personal experience has more validity than actual science.

Starting at about 4:50 in this story, one correspondent says global warming, as climate change used to be called, must be a myth because right where he was standing at that very moment it was very, very cold and it was snowing outside. Another correspondent says no, global warming must be real because it’s very, very hot where she is – in Australia.

I think of this clip whenever I read another column in which Marie Cohen says she just knows we should institutionalize more children, because of what she personally saw during five whole years as a caseworker –filtered, of course, through all her own biases – has more validity than actual research.

An Orphanage is an Orphanage is an Orphanage

In her most recent column, she uses all sorts of euphemisms, but a salaried foster parent is no different than a “house parent” in a group home. And a cluster of group homes is an institution.
Cohen calls this “a new vision,” but it’s about as new as a Dickens novel. They’re just orphanages with new names.
To promote this 19th century “new vision,” Cohen derides efforts to place children with caregivers in their own communities. Her “evidence”:
I have seen such caregivers dip into the [foster care] stipend to pay their own expenses, run out of gas by the end of the month, fail to get children to appointments, and lead chaotic lifestyles similar to those of the families their wards were removed from.

In contrast to Cohen’s personal experience, consider what actual research tells us: Kinship care is better for children’s well-being, and safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.” There’s this study.  And this one.  And the studies cited hereAnd here.

In addition, kinship care parents are far less likely to resort to doping up children on potent psychiatric medication when they become hard to handle. In Florida, when foster children are placed with strangers, whether in homes or institutions, nearly 19 percent of them are medicated. But when foster children are placed in kinship care, only about five percent are prescribed psychiatric meds.

Given that relatives are more likely to be poor than stranger-care parents it’s possible that, as Cohen suggests, they are more likely to run out of gas. But they are less likely to run out of love.
Of course, Cohen doesn’t rely only on her personal experience. As she has so often before, she promotes institutions by showing us what they say about themselves on their own websites. The perils of this approach should have been clear when Cohen gushed about Maryville, near Chicago, years after it had been exposed as a hellhole. Now, she’s done it again. This time she cites SOS Children’s Villages. She says that a “physical community” like SOS is “a way to have more eyes on each family to  make sure there’s no abuse and neglect.”

But that’s not what the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in 2002 when the newspaper exposed what it called the “ugly realities” of the SOS facility there:

Records provided by the Broward County office of the Department of Children & Families show numerous incidents of child-on-child sexual activity; allegations of improper supervision of children; and frequent police involvement at SOS.

Of course defenders of SOS would say: “Well, that was then, now we’re new and improved!” The problem is that institutionalization in general has been proven – by that pesky research again – to be a failure. And as long as such places exist the cycle of descend into chaos – reform – repeat will never end.

Cohen goes on to tell us, again with only anecdotes for “evidence,” that “many” foster parents “do it for the pay.” Even if that were true, there is a problem with her solution: Pay foster parents much more money, she says, and fewer will do it for the money.
Uh, right.
Supply and Demand

But the biggest failure in Cohen’s logic is the assumption that America has too few foster parents. Rather, America has too many foster children.
Yes, foster care numbers are increasing. But two-thirds of the increase since 2013 occurred in five states. At least four of them – Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota – had foster-care panics, spikes in removals of children due not to an actual increase in maltreatment but due to intensive news coverage of deaths of children “known to the system.”

In 2015 and 2016, there as a similar spike in removals in Arkansas. But consultants hired by the state found that the cause of the increase was not a spike in child abuse, it was the culture of the child welfare agency and the courts.
The money Cohen wants to lavish on strangers to care for other people’s children could be far better spent on day care so birth parents aren’t charged with “lack of supervision,” and rent subsidies, so children aren’t taken because of poor housing conditions. It could even go to helping pay for gasoline so kinship caregivers can get children to those appointments Cohen is so worried about – because God forbid the caseworker ever has to drive the children herself.

If every state took away children at the rate of say Alabama or Illinois – two states where independent court monitors have found that an emphasis on family preservation improved child safety, between 72,000 and 135,000 fewer children would be taken away each year nationwide, and all vulnerable children would be safer.

Foster parent “shortage” solved.

Child welfare in New York City: Another mayor wanna-be tries to exploit child abuse tragedy

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer
NCCPR's updated report on New York City child welfare
is available here.

And see this excellent column from Errol Louis in the New York Daily News for more about Scott Stringer's so-called report, and other politicians who "preen at kids' expense"

It’s good to see New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Administration for Children’s Services fighting back against the alleged “report” from another mayor wanna-be. This time it’s City Comptroller Scott Stringer seeking to exploit child abuse tragedy to advance his political ambitions.

I say alleged report because I can’t seem to find it anywhere.  There is a press release on Stringer’s website – but I can’t find an actual report.  I assume it exists, since a NY1 story shows video of a document trumpeting “preliminary findings.” [UPDATE, DEC. 27: In an excellent column in the New York Daily News Errol Louis writes that "In reality, what Stringer issued was nothing but a two-page letter to ACS, along with the all-important press release..."]

Stringer’s apparent shyness about posting his findings is surprising. One would think he would be proud to show us all how he managed to conduct a thorough review of 3,692 child abuse investigations in less than three months.

As for the numbers Stringer spewed out, it’s worth looking at the fine print.

The actual “report” – as seen in a screenshot of the NY1 story  - says that of the 3,962 ACS investigations conducted from July 1 to September 25, 38 were high priority because they involved a report of a death of a child. That does not mean ACS knew about all 38 children. Some of them may have been high priority cases precisely because the death was the first ACS knew about the family.  Stringer goes on to claim that ten of the 38 deaths were in cases where ACS in fact had received at least four reports on the child. 

But here’s what ACS says:

● Among the cases studied by Stringer’s office, there were 26 fatalities during the three-month period and 33 fatalities in all, not 38.
● Four of the deaths occurred before 2014.
● 15 of them were in families not known to ACS.

Gothamist reports that, according to the city, of the fatalities in cases that were known to ACS:
● Six allegedly died due to  unsafe sleeping conditions.
● Three died due to illness
● One died in a fire
● One died due to an accident. 

In three other cases, the cause of death is not yet known.

The best indication that ACS’s numbers are right comes from how Stringer responded: He tried to change the subject, saying in effect: Pay no attention to the fatality figures I used to grab cheap headlines, what about the findings on whether workers completed all their required tasks?

We all know the answer: Had the report focused on that in the first place, there would have been no cheap headlines.

Here are a few basic facts to put this, and any other report on child abuse fatalities, into context.

● There are about 1.8 million New Yorkers under age 18.

● There were 55,329 reports alleging child abuse in New York City in Fiscal Year 2016.

● Even by the Comptroller’s own estimate, there were 3,692 “high priority” investigations in a period of just three months.

● In a typical year, somewhere between 40 and 50 children previously known to ACS die. 

● “Known to the system” can be anything from one report on a family to many more. And the time frame can be anything from known to the system a day before the death to known to the system ten years earlier.

● In many cases, the death is not due to child abuse. For example: A spike in deaths of children known to the system in 2015 was due to an increase in deaths due to natural causes.

● Determining if a death is due to abuse, neglect, or accident can be surprisingly subjective. Suppose a toddler wakes up early one Sunday morning, manages to unlock the door, wanders outside and is hit by a car.  Accident or neglect? Given the biases that permeate child welfare, if the child lived in Riverdale, it probably would be labeled an accident.  If it’s the South Bronx, it be more likely to be labeled neglect.

What we can – and can’t – learn from death numbers

What does it all mean? Though each is the worst form of tragedy, and the only acceptable goal for such deaths is zero, a child abuse death is, fortunately, very rare – so rare that it is almost impossible to determine if a child welfare agency is doing better, or worse, by trying to count them.

It also means that the children who are going to die if ACS doesn’t find them first are a very small number of needles in a very large haystack.  And the case which, after a tragedy, seemed to have more red flags than a Soviet May Day parade may have looked before the tragedy just like hundreds of other cases where nothing went wrong.

You will never succeed in finding the needles by trying to vacuum up the entire haystack – in other words, by tearing apart far more families and consigning far more children needlessly to foster care. New York City tried that after Elisa Izquierdo died and after Nixzmary Brown died. It didn’t work. And it’s probably happening now, too.

There are better ways to measure ACS performance: What percentage of abused or neglected children known to the system face any form of abuse or neglect again? What proportion of children sent home from foster care have to be placed in foster care again?

By these measures, ACS’ performance in FY 2016 actually was the best it’s been in at least six years.

And it’s not good enough.

No free pass for ACS

None of this means it’s time to give ACS a free pass and turn to other things.

As I suggested in response to a report from another mayor wanna-be, there are far better ways to evaluate ACS. 

As for those performance measures in Stringer’s report, maybe it’s time to look at a more fundamental question: Do those requirements actually improve practice, or are they just CYA protocols.

For example, according to the New York Post, one of the “shocking” findings in Stringer’s alleged report is that “31.9 percent of the cases were closed without first being reviewed by a supervisor five times.”

Five times?  Really?  Perhaps we should start by considering whether reviewing the same case five times is the highest best use of a supervisor’s time – as opposed to a CYA rule added after some past high-profile tragedy in which a supervisor only reviewed the file three or four times.

The price of panic

And finally, if in fact the proper checks aren’t being made, if the investigations are too superficial, if workers are engaging in what’s been called “drive by casework” that’s almost certainly because those workers are overloaded.

Political grandstanding pushes workers to rush to tear apart even more families. That kind of foster-care panic further overloads workers. So the investigations get sloppier – and more children are endangered. Scott Stringer’s grandstanding is making all vulnerable children less safe.

Surely Stringer could have found a better way to campaign for mayor.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

UPDATED: The politics of foster care panic in New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exploiting a child abuse death to score points 
in his longstanding feud with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

One politician after another exploits child welfare tragedies, fueling a surge in needless removal of children

UPDATE, DECEMBER 22: NCCPR has updated its comprehensive report on New York City child welfare.  And see also below for our take on the latest report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The previous post to this blog discussed the foster care panic that appears to be underway in New York City – the third time in 20 years that a high-profile tragedy has led to a surge in the needless removal of children from their homes.

We’ve already had the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief – the reform-minded Commissioner of the city Administration for Children’s Services, Gladys Carrion, has announced her retirement. That might well be what really happened, but when mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary was asked if the mayor  would have fired Carrion had she not quit, he refused to comment.

The state Office of Children and Family Services (OFCS) has demanded that de Blasio hire a state-approved “monitor” to oversee ACS.  (De Blasio didn’t help matters when he misled the press and public, claiming the monitor was his idea.)

And who is fanning the flames? One politician after another.  It’s reached almost comic proportions, with one grandstanding pol actually complaining that the monitor might get to take cheap shots before he does!

The problem is not that these pols are falling all over themselves to criticize ACS. The problem is that they’re not being critical enough. By focusing only on errors that lead to deaths of children in their own homes, they leave the false impression that this is the only kind of mistake the agency makes.

In fact, while ACS has improved in recent years – in fact the agency’s safety outcomes are the best they’ve been in at least six years – all child welfare agencies can be arbitrary capricious and cruel, taking many children from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help, even as they leave other children in danger.

The demagoguery by grandstanding pols sends a terrible message to the frontlines: There is no penalty for taking away hundreds, perhaps thousands of children needlessly – no matter how much harm that does to the children. A caseworker’s career, reputation, even their personal freedom is on the line only if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.  Contrary to what caseworkers often claim, when it comes to taking away children, they’re not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” – they’re only damned if they don’t.

Who would put politics ahead of children’s safety? It’s a long list:

Governor Andrew Cuomo

The undermining of child welfare reform in New York City starts at the very top – and I don’t mean the mayor. I mean the governor, Andrew Cuomo.  In New York, counties and New York City run their own child welfare systems, but the state is free to meddle as much as it wants.  Cuomo has taken full advantage of that freedom to pursue a vicious, longstanding feud against de Blasio – at children’s expense.

How bad is their feud?  The New York Daily News says it has been

… uniquely personal, bitter and public … Close observers of both men wonder if Cuomo will not rest until he has buried de Blasio politically.

Cuomo is the son of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, one of America’s most inspiring, most compassionate – and most complicated – political leaders.  The reporters who covered him regularly (for about I year I was one of them) knew he had a dark side.

Andrew has all of his father’s dark side, some of his eloquence – and little, if any, of his compassion.  As far back as 1987, when he was a close advisor to his father, he was portrayed in an annual musical comedy revue performed by state government reporters as Darth Vader. Click here for the video.

Think he wouldn’t play politics with children’s lives? He already has. One of Cuomo’s first big fights with the far more progressive de Blasio involved the governor’s efforts to thwart the mayor’s plans for universal pre-kindergarten.

“Public Advocate” Letitia James

Letitia James
New York City is unusual, perhaps unique in the United States, in having a citywide elective office of Public Advocate. As the name implies, the principal power of this office is the bully pulpit.  Its principal function seems to be to launch mayoral campaigns.  The first Public Advocate, Mark Green, ran for mayor and lost. The third, Bill de Blasio, ran and won.

Green took a smart, nuanced approach to child welfare, issuing scathing reports often focused on failures in all directions, including wrongful removal and how the deck was stacked against families.  It’s exactly the kind of critique needed now.  But I can’t link to the reports because  Green’s successor, Betsy Gotbaum, removed them from the Public Advocate’s website.

All of Green’s successors – including de Blasio – used their bully pulpit to undermine child welfare reform and take advantage of high-profile tragedies for political gain. (That’s why it was  a heartening surprise when de Blasio named a real reformer, Carrion, to run ACS.)

No Public Advocate has been worse on this issue than the current occupant of the office, Letitia James. She, too, is said to be interested in running for mayor.  And she’s been the perfect partner for Cuomo.  Working with Marcia Lowry who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” and who has become a key figure opposing reform nationwide, James sued the city and, technically, the state.

I say technically because the suit against the state required almost nothing from the state – except that it “monitor” ACS.  So of course the state rushed to “settle.”

As I noted in a previous post, perhaps most appalling, the settlement actually would have barred anyone else from bringing a class-action suit against the state during the term of the settlement. (Presumably Lowry and James would have sought a similar ban against suing ACS had they reached a settlement with ACS.)  In other words, Lowry and James simultaneously maintained that their suit was essential and every other possible class-action suit was worthless.  The arrogance behind this position is breathtaking.

The “settlement” maneuver was so transparent that when a federal judge threw out the settlement, she suggested the state, the public advocate, and Lowry may have engaged in – her words:  “collusive activity.”

As far as the part against the city goes, the suit was a thinly-disguised effort to force ACS to curb efforts to keep families together (efforts that, as noted in my previous post, improved child safety) and rush to terminate parental rights in more cases.

The suit was so bad that not only did all of the groups providing legal representation for parents unite to oppose it, so did all of the groups providing legal representation for children – including a group that actually had partnered with Lowry on a previous suit.

So on one level, James and Lowry deserve credit: It takes a truly awful, destructive lawsuit to  unite ACS, the lawyers for parents and the lawyers for children.

Further raising questions about the suit is what happened after the horrifying death of Zymere Perkins.  First Cuomo, apparently seeing another chance to try to “bur[y] de Blasio politically” ordered the state Office of Children and Family Services to “investigate.”  Then, last week, OFCS ordered the city to name a monitor – someone who would have to be approved by OFCS.  In other words, the state did on its own what the settlement would have “required,” reinforcing the perception of “collusive activity.”

And James sank to a new low, taking the occasion of a child abuse tragedy and its aftermath to issue a sanctimonious statement that boiled down to: Nyah, nyah, nyah – I told you so!

But the person most upset by the naming of a monitor may be the next of the great grandstanders ...

 Mark Peters, commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI)

Mark Peters

Peters was an early master of Donald Trump-style fearmongering-by-horror story, exploiting such
cases to make broad, sweeping, unfounded generalizations. Now he seems to be afraid someone else may beat him to it.

In a statement apparently issued when people still thought the monitor was de Blasio’s idea, Peters said: “DOI is the independent monitor for ACS; we are not sure what another independent monitor would add."

Translation: It’s hard enough sharing the cheapshot limelight with Letitia James, now this new monitor will have first dibs!  I suspect that sentiment is shared by …

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer

Scott Stringer
He also announced an “investigation” into the Zymere Perkins case – supposedly a follow up to a
“scathing audit” he’d issued in June.

[UPDATE, DECEMBER 22: And lo and behold: Stringer now claims to have conducted a comprehensive review of 3,692 cases – in less than three months. The resulting report appears to suffer from the same methodological failings as Peters’ work.

It’s hard to tell, though, since the report somehow was conveniently leaked to the New York Post one day before its release. The Post published a story, but no link to the document itself. So there’s no way to fully evaluate exactly what Stringer was looking at or how he looked.

But, the Post reports - at the very bottom of the story that

Both ACS and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office disputed Stringer’s findings, saying 21 of the 38 deaths Stringer cited had no prior history with ACS. They also said seven other deaths stemmed from unsafe sleeping conditions, two were illness-related, one was determined to be accidental, and the official cause of two others remained pending. The existence of five other child death cases cited by Stringer is being disputed by the de Blasio administration. “It’s no surprise that ACS’s data was cherry-picked to support a simplified and largely inaccurate conclusion,” mayoral spokesperson Aja Worthy-Davis said. “This report contains many inaccuracies — such as a base misunderstanding of child-protective review protocols and legal rules regarding risk assessment. 
In short, the Stringer report appears to be one more politically-motivated smear from one more mayor wanna-be.]

 As for Mayor de Blasio, he hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage either.  As I noted in my previous post, he could learn a lot from Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy – who has backed up his child welfare agency chief, Joette Katz, when she’s refused to cave to very similar political pressure.

 We all need to be monitors

In fact, the best independent “monitor” of ACS is all of us.  In New York, Family Court hearings are open to the press and the public. Anyone can sit in, day after day, and see how the system really works in the typical cases, not just the horror stories.  There also is a well-developed infrastructure of advocacy in New York City, including those lawyers I mentioned for children and parents, grassroots advocacy groups such as the Child Welfare Organizing Project and Rise, a New York-based magazine written by parents caught up in the child welfare system. And state law gives ACS unusual leeway to comment on cases. If officials at ACS don’t comment, odds are they’re stonewalling.

All of this is why scholars like Tina Lee can produce great books such as Catching a Case – the story of how the New York City system really works. Few jurisdictions offer as many avenues to real oversight of their child welfare agencies. Journalists just need to take advantage of it.

Again, none of this means ACS should be immune from criticism. On the contrary, as I said in my previous post, we need to hear more bad news, not less.

Mark Green was as critical as anyone of ACS.  But his criticism was not only scathing, it also was thorough, sensible and smart.

But, of course, Mark Green never did get to be mayor.                                                                                                                             

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Once again, New York City children pay the price of foster care panic

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo by Kevin Case

And it comes just as data show City children "known to the system" at their safest in at least six years.

The data are still preliminary but, as first reported by the website Gothamist, it appears that for the third time in two decades New York City is in the midst of a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden increase in children removed from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.

Zymere Perkins, a child “known to the system,” died in September. Politicians immediately started tripping over each other in the rush to advance their careers with the usual demagoguery. That had the usual effect. Data from the city child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, show that in October the number of children taken from their homes apparently was 75percent higher than in October, 2015. (ACS keeps these data online for only a month at a time, the link goes to a cached version of the rerlevant data.)

Making this doubly tragic: In Fiscal Year 2016, before the panic, key measures of child safety show that New York City children were safer than at any time in at least six years.  In contrast, foster-care panics make children less safe.

That doesn’t mean all was well at ACS. I am not suggesting there is validity to the common complaint about the media: “You don’t report the good news” – and Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to stop whining about this.  Of course media don’t report the good news. When I was a reporter, I didn’t go out to the airport to write stories about all the planes that landed safely.

What is needed is more reporting about the bad news: Tearing apart far more families needlessly does the children in those families enormous harm. We need more reporting on that kind of bad news – as Gothamist has done.  ACS and other agencies like it routinely err in all directions – we need more reporting on the stumbling and bumbling that leads to needless removal, as well as the stumbling and bumbling that leaves children in danger in their own homes.

In the absence of such reporting, the foster care panic will go on for years, just as it did starting in 1996 and again a decade later. Many more children will be harmed, and all New York City children will be less safe.

That’s because of the message to the frontlines: If the only kind of blunder for which a caseworker can get in trouble, or wind up on the front page, is leaving a child in danger in her or his own home; if there is no penalty for making scores or hundreds of blunders that lead to needless foster care, then, of course, caseworkers will remove children needlessly.

What the data tell us

There are two key measures of child safety – they are the standard measures used by the federal government: One is the percentage of children re-abused after they become known to a child welfare agency after a given period of time. The federal government measures reabuse within six months. New York City uses a tougher standard, reabuse within a year. The second standard is foster-care recidivism, the percentage of children returned home from foster care who have to be placed again within a year.

The percentage of children reabused in 2016 was the lowest since 2009. The rate of foster-care recidivism was the lowest since 2006.  Data and sources are in NCCPR’s report on New York City child welfare.

Now, consider what happens during foster care panics.

The 1996 panic, set off by the death of Elisa Izquierdo late in 1995, did nothing to make New York City children safer. Removals skyrocketed, reaching the highest number in decades in 1998. That same year the rate of re-abuse was the highest it’s been in any year since, and foster-care recidivism barely budged.  And, of course, thousands more children were exposed to enormous inherent harm of needless foster care, and the high rate of abuse in foster care.

After Nixzmary Brown died, in January, 2006, removals shot up again from 2006 through 2009. So did rates of reabuse and foster care recidivism. As entries into foster care went down again, first recidivism and then reabuse rates slowly declined.

What about fatalities?

Of course, the measurement of choice for politicians isn’t something relatively reliable such as how many children actually are re-abused. The measurement of choice is: Was there a particularly horrifying case in the news that supposedly “proves” the child welfare agency is incompetent? 

By that measure every child welfare agency in America is incompetent, always was incompetent, and always will be incompetent. Because there is no child welfare agency that can prevent every tragedy – or even every tragedy in which the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.

But here’s what we do know: Foster care panics make children less safe, even when the measure is the number of deaths of children “known to the system.”

That’s actually a lousy measure – for reasons for which we all should be grateful. Though each is among the worst imaginable tragedies, let us be grateful that the number of such tragedies, even in a city the size of New York, is low enough to rise or fall due to random chance.

That’s why it’s irresponsible in the extreme to try to draw sweeping conclusions, as the commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigations tried to do, based on examining only the horror stories.

But as long as everyone insists on using such deaths as a measure, I’ll point out that during the two previous foster-care panics, deaths of children “known to the system” in New York City increased.

Here’s something else we know: The only places in America that have succeeded in improving child safety are those that did what New York City has done in recent years – rebuild to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families. In contrast, there is no place in America where foster-care panic has made children safer.

And there’s one more thing we know: Foster care panics are not inevitable.

The state run child welfare system in Connecticut also has had high profile tragedies in recent years. Those tragedies have been followed by the same sorts of self-serving demagoguery seen now in New York City.  But there’s been no foster care panic – for the simple reason that the leader of the state child welfare agency refuses to allow it, and her boss, the governor, is backing her up.

A dose of Connecticut courage is just what New York City needs right now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

McMartin: Child welfare’s prelude to #pizzagate

How could anyone believe that a popular gathering place for children actually was a front for a child sex abuse ring, with secret tunnels used to hide the nefarious goings on?
How could anyone believe that innocent signs and logos actually were secret codes for child sexual abuse and Satanic rituals?
Enough people believed such claims about Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizza place in Washington D.C., to rain down misery on the owners and employees. First, it was threats and harassment online. Then a man who said he wanted to “self-investigate” claims that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were running a pedophilia ring from the store, walked in and allegedly fired shots.

The 2016 election campaign and its aftermath have been awash in fake news stories created by everyone from right-wing extremists to clickbait entrepreneurs. But we seem especially vulnerable when purveyors of fake news add two magic words: child abuse.
Before there was even an internet, in the 1980s, stories like Pizzagate spread across the country – and did even more damage. They weren’t spread by fringe groups. They were spread by people in the mainstream of American child welfare, and by the same mainstream media that now demands we all look more skeptically at fake news.
Mainstream Professionals …
A pedophilia ring hiding in secret tunnels? That was the claim at the heart of the notorious McMartin Preschool case. As The New York Times put it in a story looking back on the hysteria of that era:

Some 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?
Oh, but they believed; how they believed. As the Times explained, it didn’t stop with McMartin:

 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.
 There were hundreds of arrests across the country, more than 70 people were convicted – and later exonerated.
As for secret signs and symbols, consider what happened to a San Diego couple whose grandchildren were taken because a mentally unstable relative, after much “therapy,” had come to believe much of her family was part of a Satanic cult. The relative reported the grandparents to child protective services, which assigned the case to a worker who was a prominent member of the San Diego County Ritual Abuse Task Force.  

As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 1991, when the grandparents wanted to send one of the children a birthday card, their child protective services caseworker said the card could not have animals on it – because, she claimed, devil worshipers use such images to send subliminal signals to the children in their thrall. No clowns either, for the same reason. The caseworker already had confiscated all the letters the grandparents had written to their grandchildren, claiming they contained subliminal Satanic messages.

This was no rogue caseworker. The Ritual Abuse Task Force actually trained caseworkers and mental health professionals.  The task force produced a widely circulated booklet informing fellow professionals, the press and the public that:
Numerous cults exist which have sophisticated suppliers of sacrificial persons, from kidnappers through ‘breeders’ (women who bear children intended for sexual abuse and sacrifice)…
… and Mainstream Media
Instead of Alex Jones spreading bizarre conspiracy theories on the radio in the middle of the night, there was one mainstream news organization after another accepting preposterous claims uncritically. There was even a made-for- television movie on CBS featuring a thinly disguised version of McMartin. But in this version, the hero bursts in on the villainous day care center operators just as a satanic ritual is getting underway.
Reporters at the Union Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and author Debbie Nathan were among a few notable exceptions. By and large, media performance was so bad that when the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize in connection with McMartin the prize went to its media critic for a multi-part series decrying the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in the coverage, at the Times and elsewhere.

“Believe the Children”

The media 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 a child 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, 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.”
Yet to this day, Heger is taken seriously, and is quoted in publications such as this one, where she continues to make questionable claims, in this case about the supposed value of parking place shelters.

If the professionals who did nothing to stop the 1980s satanic panic have issued a big, public formal apology to the victims of the panic they did so much to foment, I have not seen it. And the organization that grew, in part, out of the panic, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), has bestowed awards on some of the worst offenders. 

Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the McMartin case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin. And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member (and “technical consultant” for the made-for-TV movie discussed earlier), received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.

We’re still living with the failure to learn the lessons of McMartin. Prof. Roger Lancaster of George Mason University argues that hype and hysteria from decades ago
have left deep cultural residues, and these include the acceptance of exaggerated claims about the number of child trafficking victims, and the incidence and forms of organized child sexual abuse. Pizzagate relies [in part] on these inflated fears to seem plausible …
And, as always, the harm isn’t limited to the children needlessly taken from their homes. Once people realized they’d been “had,” there were complaints that the ritual abuse hysteria made it harder for victims of actual abuse to be believed. That, too, is dangerous, because sometimes pillars of the community really are child abusers. Case in point: football coach, and foster parent, Jerry Sandusky.

But after Sandusky was caught, child welfare “professionals” were back in full-hype mode, promoting wildly exaggerated numbers, just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. The media fell back into old patterns too, spreading paranoia through entire communities.

The seeds of Pizzagate were planted at the McMartin preschool, then grown and nurtured by a lot of “professionals” who should know better. At a minimum, the rest of us should consign these professionals to well-deserved obscurity, instead of continuing to take their pronouncements about child welfare seriously.