Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shock and outrage as child welfare agency treats people like US the way they usually treat people like THEM

UPDATE, AUGUST 28: Now there's even MORE shock and outrage: WCVB-TV has done a third story about this case. They even asked the governor about it.  The station also reports that, according to the state Department of Children and Families "the social worker who initiated the investigation is no longer employed with the agency."

Amazing how much media and political response you get when something like this happens to middle-class white people.

           Massachusetts State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell is furious at the state child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families. She is shocked - shocked! - about how DCF treated a family.

          According to the investigative unit of Boston  television station WCVB it all began with a report to the state child abuse hotline of small bruises on one of the children. Then, according to the story, “…young children were strip-searched and emotionally scarred by state investigators who showed up at their home late at night.” 
According to the investigative reporting unit of Boston
Mass. State Rep. Shaunna O'Connell

            The next morning, the father said, “my four-year-old asked my wife, ‘Is DCF going to take us forever?’”

            Said Rep. O’Connell: “You can’t just barge into someone’s house like that when clearly there’s not evidence for it, scare their kids, scare their family …” she said. “As a mom, I can’t imagine that happening to my kids.”

            Of course you say you can’t, Rep. O’Connell.  And of course you can’t either, outraged journalists. Because this was one of those incredibly rare cases in which the victimized parents were white, middle-class foster parents.  The original report alleging abuse was made by a caseworker who noticed the small bruises on a foster child.  The foster child was immediately moved to another home. The family’s birth children were stripsearched and traumatized.

            As for Rep. O’Connell’s claim that you can’t do things like this to families with no evidence, what she must have meant was, you can’t do this to white, middle class families without evidence. CPS agencies can and do behave this way in poor neighborhoods routinely.

            In fact it’s so routine that a searing account of how such agencies really work, just published in The New Yorker began this way:
 What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. [Emphasis added].

In Massachusetts, this kind of needless strip-searching has been routine for decades. Long ago, when I interviewed Massachusetts caseworkers for my book, Wounded Innocents, one of their complaints was pressure from higher-ups to keep expanding the number of cases for which stripsearches are required.  And it continues today. As Massachusetts attorney Andrew Hoffman told me.

I have had numerous cases involving allegations of physical abuse in which DCF demands that parents allow the removal of the child's clothing to view relevant body parts, under threat of legal action.  I have also had cases in which this occurred at day care or school, without the parent present, and DCF instructs the school personnel or daycare provider that it is necessary.

It could have been so much worse

The foster family is right to be outraged at what happened to their children. Rep. O'Connell is right to be outraged as well. But keep in mind that a late-night knock at the door and a stripsearch is about the least amount of harm a child protective services agency can do.  Had the allegation been sexual abuse, the children would have faced an exam far more intrusive than a stripsearch.  And, of course, the children were never, for even a moment, taken from the home.

The fact that even this much harm happened to this particular family is roughly the equivalent of a police car pulling up alongside a middle class white man walking down a suburban street, the officers getting out and then, for no particular reason, throwing the man up against the nearest white picket fence and frisking him.  I’ve never heard of that happening to a middle-class white guy - but if it does, it will cause the kind of outrage among the middle class and the politically-powerful that routine stop-and-frisk in poor communities does not.

And stop-and-frisk is an apt analogy for another reason: According to a recent study, a majority of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. (The study did not break down the data by income level, so we can only imagine how common this kind of experience is for poor people of color.)  Oh, and in most of those cases there is no allegation of any bruise at all. It’s usually an allegation of neglect.

The reason Rep. O’Connell says she can’t imagine it happening to her kids is because, in fact, she finally can imagine it – because, on this very rare occasion, it actually happened to kids of the same status and the same color as her kids. When it happens day after day after day to poor families of color, lawmakers either never hear about it or choose to ignore it.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions such as the New Yorker story, the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and a few others, journalists ignore it, too.

In an interview with WCVB, the father whose children were stripsearched, John DeMalia, summed up his reaction this way: “Fear they were about to take my kids,” he told WCVB. The story continues:
  "You're opening your home to help these other children and now they're threatening to take away your own." That's why the family has decided to close their licensed foster home, a blow -- albeit a small one -- to a child welfare system that doesn’t have enough foster homes for the number of children in the system.

Or, as DeMalia put it:
 We can't help these children anymore because of what [DCF] put our kids through, my children have to come first and I can't expose them to this again.
 But there is one thing DeMalia didn’t say; or if he did, it never got into the story.  It’s something aggrieved foster parents almost never say.

While what the DeMalia family went through is rare, other problems, such as arbitrary treatment, lack of information, and general disrespect of foster parents are more common – even though child welfare systems urgently need good foster parents.  Occasionally, someone such as former foster parent Mary Callahan will draw the obvious conclusion.  But she’s the exception. Whenever I read stories about the legitimate grievances of foster parents, I keep waiting for just one of them to say something like this:

“I never used to believe the things birth parents told me about how they were treated. But they really need me, and if this is how they treat me, how are they treating birth parents?”

Friday, August 11, 2017

NYC child welfare chief’s claims about entries into foster care are contradicted by his agency’s own data

David Hansell
See the update at the end of this post for a brief response from an ACS deputy commissioner - and a somewhat longer reply from NCCPR.

The deputy commissioner's own tweet makes clear there is no longer any dispute over WHETHER the number of children torn from their parents in New York City is increasing, only over the size of that increase.

I would like to think that the Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, David Hansell, was simply misled by his own staff. But for whatever reason, he made a claim on WNYC Public Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show today that is contradicted by data made public by ACS itself.

Hansell sought to refute data presented in both The New York Times and The New Yorker showing that the number of children torn from their parents in New York City soared after the death of Zymere Perkins – a classic foster-care panic.

Hansell claimed that, in spite of an increase in reports alleging child abuse (as almost always happens after a high profile tragedy), there had been no increase in the number of children placed in foster care.

But statistics provided by ACS itself show that, contrary to Hansell’s claim, entries into foster care have soared in the wake of the death of Zymere Perkins, just as The New Yorker and The New York Times reported.  Have a look at page 9 of ACS’ “Monthly Flash Indicators” report for June, 2017.

That report shows that the number of children taken from their parents in May 2017 was double the number in May 2016.  On the same page of the same report for July, 2017, the data show that in June 2017, the number of children removed was 50 percent higher than June 2016.

So not only are entries increasing, they are increasing at a significantly higher rate than reports alleging child abuse or neglect. [ACS denies the increase is this high, see update below.]

Hansell also made some comments concerning confidentiality that are not entirely correct. He implied that ACS can never comment about a particular case. But New York State law allows Hansell to comment under many circumstances, including when a parent has come forward to tell her or his side of the story. Here’s the law.

We have more about how Hansell is UN-reforming ACS here

UPDATE, 9:30PM: 

Andrew White, ACS Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Planning, has sent out some tweets arguing that the figures under the heading “Children Removed” at the bottom of Page 9 of ACS’ reports, only represent some categories of removals. He implied that other categories are down.  But he offers no specific figures.

The closest he comes to an estimate of his own is a tweet in which he writes:

Accurate number is that placements in care are up about as much as investigations this year, but census down 22% since 2014.

There are a whole slew of problems with this response:

● Even assuming White is correct, he’s still contradicting his boss. Hansell said there has been no increase in removals.  If, in fact, removals are rising at the same rate as investigations then that’s probably an increase of about 20 percent. Indeed, that’s exactly the figure used by the Center for New York City affairs in its own recent report on ACS.

● White’s implication, of course, is that an increase in removals at the same rate as an increase in investigations is perfectly normal. It’s not.  Rather, during a foster-care panic the proportion of reports alleging maltreatment that are, to use the polite term, nonsense, is likely to increase. (I call it the Sandusky Rule and discuss it, and the evidence for it, in detail in this previous post.)

● The line about the “census” being down appears to be an attempt to change the subject. The term census usually is applied to the number of children in foster care on any given day – a “snapshot” of a particular point in time. That can be influenced by all sorts of factors other than a jurisdiction’s propensity for removing children in the first place.

The issue here is entries into care – the number of children taken away over the course of a month or a year. Indeed, if the snapshot number is going down even as entries are going up it may be a further indication of foster-care panic. ACS may be rushing to take away children, quickly realizing they made a mistake and then sending them home again – much the worse for the experience.

● And whether measuring entries or the “census” 2014 is an odd, arbitrary year to choose as a baseline. The issue is not what’s happened since 2014 but what’s happened since September 2016 – when Zymere Perkins died, setting off the foster-care panic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Child welfare in America: In a lawless system, the laws are determined by race, class – and fate

Decades ago, when I was writing my book about the child welfare system, Wounded Innocents, a lawyer discussing the nearly unlimited power and discretion of child protective services agencies said: “This is a lawless system.”

I was reminded of that remark as I listened to segments of two programs that aired this week on WNYC, the public radio station in New York City.  Those segments were devoted to some outstanding recent reporting on how the child welfare system really works.

The two programs had much in common of course. Both dealt with the enormous harm traumatic child welfare investigations and needless removal to foster care do to children – overwhelmingly poor children and disproportionately children of color.

But most striking was how both programs featured examples of how nearly identical cases are treated depending on the race and class of the families involved.

An iron within reach of a child

On Tuesday, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show spoke to Larissa MacFarquhar, the author of  an outstanding story in the New Yorker. Also on the program: Prof. Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at New York University School of Law (and president of NCCPR).

Much of the New Yorker story was built around the case of an impoverished African-American woman who left a curling iron in reach of one of her children. The child touched it and was burned. But the mother was afraid to take her to an emergency room because she feared being reported to child protective services and having her children taken away. She wound up reported anyway – and what happened was exactly as she had feared.

That prompted a phone call from someone identified as Katherine from Manhattan.  Here’s what she said:

I’m an upper middle class white woman. I had two children, I now have four. On the first day of preschool I had forgotten to iron a name tag into a raincoat.  I ironed in the name tag; I set the iron up. My son was in the other room. He was two-and-a-half. I walked into the kitchen, ten feet away, and I turned around. He [was holding] the iron. ... He had a severe burn on his thigh.
It never occurred to me that I couldn’t call the doctor, that I couldn’t take him to the hospital. … It really upsets me that the color of my skin and my socioeconomic status makes me not hesitate to get the best care for my child.
Nobody thought I’d be abusing him.

A child wanders out of the house

The day before, on the Leonard Lopate Show, guest host Jonathan Capehart spoke to Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, co-authors of the other recent milestone in journalism about child welfare - the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”  One of the cases featured in that story dealt with a mother whose children were taken away because a young child had wandered out of her apartment unsupervised. Not only was the child placed in foster care for several days, the mother was jailed.

After the story ran, Silver-Greenberg said, she got an email from an editor at the Times who said something similar had happened to him. One night “one of his daughters woke up and couldn’t find him, or couldn’t see him immediately, and she wandered out in her underwear to a neighbor’s house.” Yes, it was “panic-inducing” at the time, but now it’s just a funny story. The editor told Siver-Greenberg that “This has become family lore.”

But, said Silver-Greenberg, “The population of women we were talking to, they don’t have that luxury. They’re scrutinized to a much greater degree - and penalized.”

The rule of fate

Then Capehart asked a question the reporters couldn’t answer: What does the law say about the age at which you can leave a child unsupervised? They couldn’t answer because no one can. In almost every state the law is silent. Yes, lack of supervision is defined in state laws as “neglect.” But what is “lack of supervision”?

It’s whatever the caseworker who comes to the door says it is. Which means it’s determined largely by race, class and fate.

The arbitrariness, capriciousness and cruelty of all this was explored in this 2003 New York Times story by Nina Bernstein. It illustrated wide discrepancies in how such cases are handled, both by child welfare and the criminal justice system.  As Prof. Guggenheim said: ''It puts all parents at peril in making parental choices, without warning them that certain choices are forbidden.”

I also was quoted in that story. I told the Times that

Although news stories repeatedly say there is 'no firm rule' concerning when a child can be left alone, actually there is one. It's the rule of fate. If something goes wrong, then you are a bad parent and you will be charged. If nothing goes wrong, you won't.

But that isn’t quite right. As the more recent reporting makes clear, what I should have said was: if nothing goes wrong you won’t – if you’re white and middle-class.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Brilliant reporting on child welfare in The New Yorker – made possible by open courts

It’s another example of why “sunshine is good for children.”

The late Judge Judith Kaye opened New York's
family courts to the press and the public

On the heels of the outstanding story in The New York Times about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” comes another brilliant deep dive into child welfare in New York City – this time from The New Yorker. (Once again, as you read it, please keep in mind that in most places, the child welfare system is worse, often far worse, than in New York City.)

Almost as striking as the story itself is why reporter Larissa MacFahrquhar wrote it. Here’s how she explained it in the New Yorker’s daily email newsletter:

How do you decide whether to take children from their parents? For the most part, we read about child-protective services only when they fail spectacularly—when a child is killed at home. The press then excoriates the usual suspects—the caseworker (How could she miss signs that now seem so obvious?), child protection (How could they train their workers so poorly?), and the city (Does it care so little about children that it won’t pay for enough caseworkers to protect them?). 
Because of this, most of the pressure on child protection is in one direction—in favor of removal. But it’s no small thing to take a child from his family. It seems strange to me that removal has come to seem the safe and cautious thing to do, and, since the press has played a large part in promoting this idea, I thought it might be useful to have a journalistic account of both sides of the story.
I sat in on the Bronx Family Court for several months and watched judges grapple with this awful decision. One mother had been coming to family court for eight years, since her young daughter had burned herself on a curling iron. For much of that time, her children had been in foster care. The foster-care agency believed that the foster parents should adopt the children. Child protection was nervous about their safety if they returned home but also knew that children often fared badly in foster care. The mother’s lawyer said that the mother loved the children and that her mistakes didn’t justify keeping them apart.
Everyone was arguing for the best interests of the children. The mother sat, mostly silent, as the lawyers made their cases

Several things stand out about this story, but it may be most notable for how well it answers one question.  Research has told us over and over again that in typical cases children placed in foster care fare worse even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.

As the reader is placed in the position of the mother in this case, forced to watch helplessly as the children deteriorate in foster care, we understand why this happens.

Something else that stands out about this story: In most states, it would have been impossible to do it. That’s because it relies so heavily on the reporter’s ability to see the process for herself, by spending months in what, in New York, is known as Family Court.

In most states these hearings are closed. That’s not to protect children, it’s to protect almost everyone except the children – CPS agencies that do terrible things to families and lawyers and judges who either can’t or won’t do their jobs.

In 2001, another superb journalist, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Barbara White Stack examined this issue in what is still the definitive series on the topic, Open Justice. She found that none of the excuses for closing hearings held up to scrutiny and all over the country onetime opponents became supporters. (We summarize some of the key findings of that series, and update some of the data in NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda.)

So along with MacFahrquhar, the courageous mother at the center of the story and some great lawyers from the Bronx Defenders, someone else deserves credit for this particular piece of outstanding journalism: the late Judge Judith Kaye.

She’s the one who ordered these courts opened in New York, when she was chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.  As she said at the time: “Sunshine is good for children.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

NCCPR in Staten Island Advance on why judges should "second-guess" caseworkers

Ever wonder why those people who sit at the front of courtrooms wearing black robes are called “judges”?  Of course you don’t.  But one elected official in Staten Island, New York, doesn’t seem to understand what they’re there for.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Former CASA on the Parents He Dealt With: “Felons,” “Junkies,” “Dumb as Dirt”

He says he spent 20 years in the same program that was excoriated by a judge for  “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and  “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.

Most of the time on this blog I comment on the work of others, whether it's research or journalism. Today, however, the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog breaks some news. No news organization in Washington State or elsewhere has previously reported on the disturbing comments of a former CASA volunteer in that state discussed below. And only KING-TV has reported on the other issues concerning the Snohomish County CASA program.

As Merlin Sprague tells the story, it all began in the mid-1980s when he tried to volunteer for a Big Brothers program in Snohomish County, Washington. He was rejected.  Or, as he puts it “the pecksniffs and [sic] Big Siblings can be excessively picky” and “the shrink who evaluated my suitability found I didn’t have sufficient respect for authority.” 

But, he said, the “shrink” suggested an alternative. “She suggested I volunteer for the county’s [Volunteer] Guardian ad Litem program (a.k.a. CASA, or Court-Appointed Special Advocate).”

He says that after the program accepted him he remained a Volunteer Guardian ad litem (VGAL) – in other words, a CASA - for 20 years.

CASAs are minimally-trained amateurs, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, who are sent out to investigate overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families. Then they recommend to the judge whether the children should be separated from those families, sometimes forever. Judges typically take the advice. 

The most comprehensive study ever done of the program, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that it does nothing to make children safer. The study also found that CASA prolongs foster care and reduces the chances children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers.

One CASA program saw no problem when a performer at a fundraiser dressed in blackface, another fell apart as soon as it had to confront issues of race. A law review article called CASA “an exercise of white supremacy.”  And now, meet Merlin Sprague:

In a blog post in January, the man who says he spent 20 years telling judges what they should do about families told the world what he thinks of those families. He wrote:

All of us in programs like the Guardians ad Litem see that:
The vast preponderance of children who are abused and neglected come from impoverished parents.
The parents are unschooled and ignorant and are satisfied with the situation. This, of course, explains the poverty.
Many parents are of low IQ.  Like one of my colleagues said, “They’re as dumb as dirt”.
Over 50% of the parents are felons and junkies who are incapable of looking after their own selves, let alone their children. Of the remaining 50%, most are simply felons and junkies who haven’t yet been caught.  This includes booze and tobacco.

Merlin’s Modest Proposal

But Sprague does have a solution:

Give each poor person, man or woman, whither [sic] or not they’ve been dragged into the child welfare system, $20,000, cash money, to be surgically sterilized.

It’s a bargain, Sprague tells us, compared to the cost of raising the children who, under this plan,  won’t be born. And he adds,  

this $20,000 will not prevent the conception and birth of just one child, it will prevent the conception and birth of many as these kinds of people breed like flies.

But, says Sprague, that’s not all:

As this cohort of parents are mostly drunks and junkies, $20,000 will buy all the booze and dope they could ever want.  Consequently, there will be many overindulgences which will result in death, further reducing the numbers of people on welfare.

One can only hope that none of the families with whom Sprague dealt was Muslim – because in another post he writes that Islam is:

… a throw-back to the Stone Age when men put bones through their noses and painted themselves blue.  Islam has the morals, ethics and principles of an insect.  We must use every method at our disposal to stamp it out before it stamps us out.

Judge Anita Farris
Of course, this is just one volunteer in one CASA program. But this is the same program in which Snohomish County Judge Anita Farris found that another volunteer “infiltrated” a listserv maintained by parental defense attorneys.  It’s also the program the same judge blasted for “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and for “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.

When I asked the Snohomish County VGAL program if anyone there had any comment on Sprague’s views, and on why he was accepted as a volunteer and allowed to remain a volunteer for many years, this was the entire response, in an email from Public Information & Disclosure Officer Brian Lewis: “The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Snohomish County Superior Court or any of its services programs.” 

Conflicts of Interest

For her part Judge Farris is unlikely to be issuing any more rulings concerning the program.  That’s because of how the program is organized – or at least how it now says it’s organized.

CASA programs take a variety of organizational forms. But since its establishment in 1979, the one in Snohomish County has been run directly by the county court system itself.  Late last year, in legal papers, the program stopped calling itself the VGAL program. Instead it started referring to itself as “the Court.” 

But how can a judge of any given court rule on alleged misconduct when the accused is – the court itself?  Judge Farris concluded she can’t. So she recused herself. A judge from another county will have to decide a whole slew of issues growing out of the case that exposed the alleged misconduct.

This issue has arisen at least once before. Florida took its CASA program (also called a GAL program in that state) away from the courts after a legislative report concluded that the arrangement created “actual and perceived conflicts of interest.”

That does leave one intriguing question: If, all along, the Snohomish County VGAL program was actually the court itself, did that program have an unfair advantage in every case in which it intervened?  Do hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases need to be reopened?

If so, it might be a good idea to start with the cases handled by Merlin Sprague.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Two smart responses to the New York Times story about foster care as the new Jane Crow

One of them replied to “sanctimonious … commenters with their pockets full of stones.”

In a previous post, I discussed some of the dumb responses found among the 514 comments readers posted to The New York Times in response to its story “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’” – including a particularly dumb comment from someone who hides behind the pseudonym “Jane Addams” and probably is a high-ranking child welfare official.

But, perhaps because the Times is relatively careful about moderating comments, the majority were thoughtful and a couple of them were brilliant.  So I’m reprinting those two in full here. 

First, from someone who identifies herself as Frieda:

The REAL Jane Addams would have sided
with "Frieda" and cheered on "LF" 
I was reading this article today while resting in my car on my way upstate for a camping trip with my 11yo son, when someone knocked on the window. I was stunned to look up to a pair of cops who asked me to step out of the vehicle.
 I had made a stop for a quick nap, but first picked up a lego set at Walmart, among other things, and I parked at the far, empty end of the Walmart lot and told my son he could build his lego on the curb outside while I napped. (he needed a flat surface, and the car was too packed with our gear.) 
I woke up rested, read some news, and didn't even realize that cops parked some spots away until they hovered over me. I was told I was endangering my child. "Someone called the police that a child was sitting unaccompanied in a parking lot." they explained. 
I was stunned and protested that he is nearly twelve! My child is expected to do algebra, you think he can't sit in the lot by himself without an adult holding him on a leash? I conceded that a parking lot is not the ideal place to play but I didn't understand most of all why this "good Samaritan" who called 911 didn't come over to talk to my son. He is a tall, 100lb kid.
If people are so concerned, why don't they help instead of running to phone in their faux kindness? Being a single parent is stretching yourself far enough, how is an approach of blaming parents for everything going to ever empower us? I shudder at what would have happened if I was black or male. It probably wouldn't be behind me.

There was also this, from “LF,” in response to those who rushed to wag their fingers at the parents profiled in the story:

I love these sanctimonious, would-be-perfect-parents-if-they-ever-had-kids commenters with their pockets full of stones. They would never, NEVER take a bath after the kids were down for the night. Heavens! They would never walk downstairs to the front door with a child alone upstairs. Abuse!
No, these glorious specimens of perfect, theoretical motherhood wouldn't sleep, eat, bathe or use the bathroom. They would follow the child around, day and night - filthy, haggard, unwashed, eating the occasional granola bar, dressed in an adult diaper, with their eyes pinned open, Clockwork Orange style, just staring, staring, staring at their child. That's how you raise the perfect child, apparently - with constant, frantic monitoring. Oh, how well-adjusted those kids are going to be.
Thank you Frieda and LF.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Foster care as the new “Jane Crow:” New York City is bad. Wherever YOU are is probably worse

By now I hope everyone concerned about child welfare has read the brilliant New York Times story  “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” The story is filled with searing accounts of children harmed by needless removal from their parents, largely because those parents are poor.

As you think about the story please also think about this: The child welfare system in New York City actually is better than most. There has been a careful, steady decline in the number of children taken from their families – with no compromise of safety. In fact, in recent years, child safety has improved. (Full details are in our report on New York City child welfare.)

The decline is interrupted every few years by a foster-care panic; there is one going on in New York City right now. But even with the panic, New York City is likely to continue to take away children at a lower rate than most states and most big cities.

NCCPR compares the propensity of states, and of big cities, to take children from their homes by comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children in the jurisdiction.  So consider this:

● Children in Los Angeles are more than twice as likely to endure the kinds of tragedies inflicted on New York City children  – L.A. tears apart families at more than double the rate of New York City.

● In Philadelphia these tragedies are three times as likely to occur as in New York City.  That’s also true in the state of Oregon.

● Arizona? Four times as likely.

● In South Dakota, where appalling bias in child welfare was exposed by NPR? Also four times as likely.  Same with Nebraska.  North Dakota is even worse.

● Iowa? Five times as likely.  Same with Indiana.

● Among the more amazing, and obnoxious responses to the Times story was a tweet from a bastion of unoriginal thinking known as the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota.  The tweet referred to how the Times story described “The New York City practice of foster care as punishment” as though this were some isolated practice limited to the big city that would never be countenanced in wholesome, progressive Minnesota.  But the rate of child removal in Minnesota is more than six times the rate of New York City. 

● The only time people in Minnesota should brag is when comparing their state to Alaska or Vermont  - where the rate of removal is about eight times the rate of New York City.

So the real question for child welfare officials in these states and many more is: When are you going to do something about your Jane Crow foster care systems?  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today: Domestic violence survivors on the harm of mandatory reporting

A survey of thousands of survivors of domestic violence found that laws requiring certain professionals to report them to law enforcement and child protective services did the survivors more harm than good.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some revealing comments on that New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

The REAL Jane Addams - accept no substitutes.
It seems that some people who work in child welfare can’t even get past their prejudices to the point where they can read what is written right under their noses in a news story. What does this say about how they make decisions on the job?

There have been a number of articles in recent months about what researchers have found concerning the extent to which people are immune to being persuaded by facts. (For some reason, the 2016 presidential election seems to have spurred interest in this topic.)

I have not looked closely at these articles so I don’t know if they go into the phenomenon of people being literally unable to read statements in articles that upset them.  If this has not yet been studied, I suggest starting with at least two of the 500+ comments posted on the New York Times website in response to the Times’ story “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” (The Times does a pretty good job of moderating comments, so the discussion was relatively civil.)

One was posted by someone who says she’s worked in child welfare for nearly 30 years. (In fact, if she is who I think she is, based on her profile on another commenting platform, she has a depressingly high-ranking job in a public child welfare agency.) She often posts on various sites in defense of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  She modestly calls herself “Jane Addams.” (I used to be a broadcast journalist, but even were I to hide behind anonymity, I like to think I wouldn’t go around calling myself Edward R. Murrow.)

In any event “Jane” writes:

Odd that the article failed to mentioned [sic] that every removal needed to be sanctioned by the Juvenile Court. Readers believing that child welfare staff can remove children with no accountability or oversight.

The second comment comes from “Andrew.” He doesn’t say if he works in the system, but his comment sounds as though he does. He writes:

No child remains in foster care more than 3 days in NYS without a family court judge making a ruling on the placement. This is a simple fact, one that the NYTimes could easily have explained. I wonder why they did not.

There are a number of problems with these comments, but the most important is this: The Times, in fact, did mention what Jane and Andrew claim the Times did not mention. Here’s what the story said. Perhaps it will help if I put it in large print:

Either police officers or agency workers can take a child from a home if they find imminent risk; agency workers must file a petition in family court by the next court date, at which time they must justify the removal at a hearing.

The story went on to explain that in some cases the judges did indeed rule that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) was wrong and sent the children home. But, as the story also explained, by then the children already had suffered greatly as a result of the needless trauma of foster care.

In New York, and every other state, child protective services workers and/or law enforcement can remove children in an “emergency” entirely on their own authority. In these cases, the courts only get involved after the fact. And who decides if it’s an emergency? The CPS workers and law enforcement. So in point of fact, when it comes to the initial removal there is no accountability or oversight.

As for what happens afterwards, New York City actually is better than most of the country, where the court hearings often are a sham and the judges are more likely to wield rubber-stamps than gavels.  This is why I warned about buying into the “judges have to approve everything” line in an article for a journalism review nearly 20 years ago.  Things have improved significantly in New York City since then, but, as I said, not in most of the rest of the country. There are more details in our Due Process Agenda.

Other commenters who misread the story

I’ll come back to Jane and Andrew, but there were other similar examples in the comments:

● Some commenters complained that the Times reporters failed to discuss the role of the fathers in the cases they wrote about. 

Except they did.  Perhaps the commenters were unable to read those parts because the fathers failed to conform to the commenters’ cherished stereotypes.

● Other commenters complained that, in the words of one, “child welfare isn't able to tell their side of the story.”

But in New York, that’s not true either.  Under New York State law, ACS can comment in many situations, including cases in which a parent already has told her or his side of the story. Here's the law.

Presumably that’s why the story reported, accurately, that “The Administration for Children’s Services declined to comment on specific cases.” [Emphasis added.] 

The story did not explicitly mention the New York law, but the commenters simply jumped to a conclusion that comforted them: that ACS couldn’t comment when, in fact, it wouldn’t comment.

As for states which do have laws requiring the agency to keep silent, that’s because agencies want it that way so they can hide behind those laws when they screw up. Any child welfare agency director who really doesn’t like such a law would have no trouble persuading the state legislature to change it.

Jane, in particular, shouldn’t be making this kind of mistake

But what is most concerning here is that Jane works in a child welfare system, and Andrew might work there as well. That means they may be making life-and-death decisions for families that are often of a different race and a different class from themselves.

If people such as Jane and Andrew can’t even get past their preconceived notions to the point where they can read what is written right under their noses in a news story, what does this say about how they make decisions on the job?

Oh, and by the way: In 1889, The real Jane Addams founded Hull House, which today is widely viewed by historians as America’s first family preservation program. Yes, she had a dark side – like many who considered themselves progressives at the time, she supported eugenics. But she also spoke out against removing children from their parents because they are poor. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

The New York Times on foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and some alarming data on New York’s foster care panic

A post to this blog on Wednesday discussed the foster-care panic in New York City and how David Hansell, the new commissioner of the EACS (Embattled Administration for Children’s Services), is making things worse.

On Friday The New York Times brilliantly brought to life the harm this kind of foster-care panic does to children, under the apt headline: “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’”

If you haven’t read it yet, please don’t keep reading this. Click the link instead and read the Times story.  You’ll thank me for the suggestion.  Then come back here for a discussion of the implications of the story and another report that came out this week. 


Welcome back – and you’re welcome.

The Times story shouldn’t overshadow some other good journalism about New York City child welfare published last week. On Thursday, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, which publishes Child Welfare Watch, issued a brief report that adds important additional context.

The report zeros-in on all the harm that a foster-care panic does over and above additional entries into care.

During the seven months after the death of Zymere Perkins, the number of investigations conducted by ACS increased by 20 percent.  But the number of families hauled into court skyrocketed by 64 percent.

Hauled into court is not always the same thing as placed in foster care. Rather it can be a way of coercing a family in a case where previously they would have been offered voluntary help. Or it can put the family under a microscope while requiring that they jump through a long list of hoops.

In the Times story, Hansell suggests that somehow this is a good thing, saying:

With increasing frequency over the past six months or so, the outcome of our involvement with family court has not been removal of children but court-ordered supervision, under which families are required to participate in services to address the risks that we’ve identified.

But as the Center for New York City Affairs report explains, this clogs up the entire child welfare system and sets off a cascade of other harms. Court hearings are delayed, and it takes longer to actually set up the hoops through which the families must jump. Where families really do need help, the help is delayed, so family problems can worsen.  The court delays, as well as new CYA bureaucratic procedures also are delaying when children are allowed to leave foster care and return home.

And, of course, caseloads for investigators are increasing, giving them less time to find children in real danger.

As Chris Gottlieb, co-director (with NCCPR’s president Martin Guggenheim) of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic put it:

There appears to be a culture of fear driving decision-making … There’s every reason to think that flooding the system with new cases means you’re giving less attention to the ones who should be getting more attention.

The Sandusky Rule

The other problem, of course, is the increase in entries themselves – and this is the one place where the Center’s analysis is incomplete.

The Center’s analysis says entries into foster care have increased by 20 percent – the same rate as investigations. So of course, ACS will rush to say: “Panic, what panic? We’re just taking more children because we’re finding more abuse!” 

But there are several problems with this reasoning.

First, the 20 percent figure covers the seven months from October, 2016, the first month after the death of Zymere Perkins set off the foster-care panic, until May 2017. But the Times found that in the more recent part of this time period, things have gotten worse.

The Times reported that in the first quarter of 2017 requests to tear apart families jumped by 40 percent.  And ACS’ latest data show that in May 2017 the number of children consigned to foster care was more than double the number in May 2016.

Even a 20 percent increase in entries is a significant setback. Not only would that result in more children taken than in the city’s 2016 fiscal year, but more than FY 2015 as well and almost as many as in FY 2014.  It would reverse a steady, careful decline in entries that was accompanied by improvements in key measures of child safety. (Detailed stats are on Page 19 of our full report on New York City child welfare).

But even were it true that entries into care were increasing at “only” the same rate as investigations, that’s still a sign of big trouble. That’s because of what should be called the Sandusky Rule.

During a foster-care panic, there is a rise in the proportion of b------t reports.  That’s because anyone and everyone is constantly encouraged to report anything and everything, so they do just that.  And, of course, “mandated reporters,” such as school personnel, who can be punished for failing to report, are even more scared than usual, so they’re even more prone to report cases they know are ridiculous.

Therefore, during a foster-care panic, the percentage of investigations that lead to removal should decrease.  If that percentage isn’t going down, then it’s likely that an even greater proportion of removals than usual are unnecessary.

I call this the Sandusky Rule because of what happened in Pennsylvania, after the legislature in that state passed a wave of absurd laws encouraging more reporting in the wake of the sexual abuse conviction of former foster parent and group home operator (and former Penn State football coach) Jerry Sandusky.

As in New York, in Pennsylvania individual counties run child welfare systems.  Philadelphia responded as New York City is responding now: a surge in foster care placements and the “What do you expect? there are more reports” excuse.

In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), on the other hand, the longtime director of the human services agency knew that a lot of the new cases would be absurd and demanded that his staff not panic. So there was no increase in foster care in Allegheny County.

So the next time ACS or another child protective services agency offers up the standard excuse about why foster care numbers are increasing during a foster-care panic, I hope someone will finally call b------t on it. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

It took two federal agencies to stop Massachusetts from illegally destroying a family. Now Oregon is trying to do the same thing

The two agencies found that Massachusetts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. So what about Oregon?

A columnist for the Oregonian has a very good column this week about how the Oregon child welfare agency has torn two children from a loving couple because the agency deems the i.q. scores of the mother and father insufficient.

There is no finding that either child was ever abused or neglected (the second child actually was confiscated at birth). In fact, the only trauma they’ve suffered is being torn from their parents – among the worst traumas any child can endure. And of course, they face the high risk of abuse in foster care itself – a risk that probably is especially high in Oregon.

The behavior of the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) – harming the children in this way - is morally reprehensible. A good case can be made that it’s also illegal – a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  We know this because the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services said so in a scathing letter to Massachusetts child welfare officials about a remarkably similar case in that state.  I wrote about that case for a report-in-progress. Because of the Oregon case, I’m posting that section of the report below.

Like Oregon, Massachusetts is enamored of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. Both states tear apart families at rates well above the national average.

So the next time child welfare leaders in either state whine about overwhelming caseloads and how that supposedly stops them from doing their jobs well, some reporter might want to ask them why they waste precious resources destroying families such as these.

This is what happened in Massachusetts:

            Here’s what a nationally-recognized expert on parenting with a mental disability said about Sara Gordon,* a parent with a mental disability:

            Clearly, [Ms. Gordon] is a loving, caring, and conscientious mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to have her daughter in her life.  She is capable of learning new skills and has done so through her visits with [her daughter, Dana], despite them being infrequent.  . . . It is important to remember that all parents receive help at some time, and [Ms. Gordon] should be no exception.  There is no discernible reason revealed by this assessment that [Ms. Gordon together with her own parents] do not have the ability to care for her child safely.

            The expert was not alone.  As a federal investigation revealed:

multiple community-based service providers, two experts who have completed parenting assessments, Dana’s court-appointed attorney, and even a majority of DCF’s most recent Foster Care Review panel all have agreed that a family-supported parenting plan would be appropriate.  In this matter, a family-supported parenting plan means that Dana would be placed with Ms. Gordon and her parents in their home and Ms. Gordon’s mother (Dana’s grandmother) would maintain guardianship of Dana.

But none of this mattered to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  They saw none of the love between Sara and Dana and none of the support available to Sara from her own parents, with whom she was living.  As New York Magazine reported in a story on the case, they saw only her developmental disability – an i.q. of 70.

            Apparently based on little more than a caseworker’s self-proclaimed “intuition” and “vibe” and prejudices about the developmentally disabled, DCF tore the infant from her mother and placed her with strangers. 

            Seven months later, they decided to try to separate the family forever, changing the “goal” in the case to adoption and moving to terminate Sara’s parental rights.

            Even when the grandparents offered to assume legal guardianship, DCF would not relent.  The excuse, according to the New York Magazine story: Long before, Sara herself had been taken from them because of her father’s alcoholism.  He’s been sober for 18 years.

            We know about all this only because, thanks to the family’s extraordinary determination, some dedicated advocates, and some good luck, the case caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

            After a 19-month investigation, the two agencies issued a scathing 26-page letter

The letter did not look into whether DCF had violated child welfare laws – though given that a widely-ignored federal law requires child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together, the agency almost certainly did.

Rather, they found that DCF had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to the letter:

[F]or more than two years, DCF has denied Ms. Gordon and Dana the opportunity to be a family and now threatens to deny them that opportunity permanently.             Instead, DCF has continually asserted that Ms. Gordon poses a safety risk to Dana if she were to parent on her own, without consideration of any supports.  However, DCF has ignored the fact that Ms. Gordon is not proposing to parent on her own without any supports, has ignored its own ability and obligation to provide such supports, and has repeatedly ignored the objective evaluations of various clinical and service professionals … who have reviewed this case and found that Ms. Gordon’s plan to parent Dana with her family’s support is appropriate. 

            DCF listed several specific concerns about Sara Gordon’s ability to be a parent: She had difficulty with feedings and diaper changes. On a couple of occasions she walked away from the changing table.  On a couple of occasions, Sara was unable to comfort Dana when she cried.  Sometimes Sara bumped Dana’s head.

            But, the federal agency letter notes, DCF set a far lower standard for the foster parents – the parents DCF wanted to adopt Dana.  According to the letter:

DCF was aware of, and dismissed, numerous injuries to Dana, including a black eye, bumps, bruises, cuts, and burnt hands that occurred during the time in foster care.  When Dana was only a few weeks old, she was left unattended on a table in the foster home.

            The federal investigators understood that the reasons DCF was giving for keeping the family apart were just excuses:

DCF clearly presumed from the initial opening of its case that Ms. Gordon lacked the capacity to parent Dana due to her developmental disability without consideration of appropriate supports and services. … During the Departments’ interviews of DCF staff, one investigator explained that his view of Ms. Gordon’s capacity to parent was based on his “intuition” and stating that “[w]hen you meet with someone, you get a vibe whether they are going to be able to do it or not.” [Emphasis added.]
                       The agencies concluded that this probably was not an isolated case, noting that
the violations in this letter highlight systemic failures by DCF to ensure social workers follow appropriate policies and procedures and have necessary training to perform their duties without discriminating on the basis of disability.
            Two other elements of DCF’s behavior are worth noting:

            ● DCF repeatedly stonewalled, stalling for months in response to requests for information from the federal agencies, and, in some cases failing to comply at all.

            ● When it came to information about the physical harm sustained by Dana in foster care, DCF may have attempted a cover-up. The federal agencies note that they asked for all records concerning Dana’s placement in the foster home, but they received none concerning her injuries.  When federal investigators interviewed DCF staff and asked specifically about a note that made a vague reference to these injuries, the records still were not provided.  Only when the federal investigators made a specific request about documents that appeared to be missing, were the documents noting these injuries finally made available.

Although the letters led to the return of Dana to her family, the high rate of child removal in Massachusetts suggests that DCF learned nothing, and reverted immediately to business as usual.

            But this was not just a case about disability.  The Gordon family is poor.  Had Sara Gordon come from a wealthy community and showed up at the hospital with a team of health aides who would live with her in a suburban McMansion, the hospital almost certainly never would have called DCF – and had they called, DCF almost certainly would not have taken away the child.

            As Sara herself told New York Magazine: “When you’re filthy rich, they don’t take your kids.”

* -The names of the mother and daughter have been changed.