Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Los Angeles County quietly drops its first child welfare predictive analytics experiment

● Apparently, a 95 percent false positive rate was considered a tad high

● Head of county’s Office of Child Protection urges slow, cautious approach to any use of predictive analytics


In Los Angeles County, they called it Project AURA (Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment).

It was among the most highly-touted experiments in the burgeoning fad for using predictive analytics in child welfare – that dystopian sci-fi nightmare-come-true in which computer algorithms predict who will abuse a child (but, we are assured, child protective services agencies would never ever actually use that information to tear apart families).

Project AURA was the subject of gushy news stories, and even gushier stories promoting the gushy news stories.  It was an experiment particularly beloved by those who are most extreme in their desire to see more children taken from their parents.

And now, thankfully, it is reportedly dead.

Buried on page 10 of a report to the Los Angeles County Board of supervisors by Michael Nash, executive director of the county’s Office of Child Protection, is word that the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “is no longer pursuing Project AURA.”

AURA stood for Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment. It was developed by software firm SAS.  Exactly what’s in it is a secret. No one outside SAS knows exactly how the algorithm works.

AURA was never used on any actual cases. Rather it was tested on past reports alleging child abuse or neglect. Then SAS looked to see what actually happened to those families.

As Nash’s report revealing the death of Project AURA explains:

While the tool correctly detected a high number of children (171 cases) at the highest risk forabuse, it also incorrectly identified an extremely high number (3,829 cases) of falsepositives (i.e., children who received high risk scores who were not at risk for a negative outcome). [Emphasis added.]

In other words, AURA identified a staggering number of innocent families. Had AURA actually been in use, an astounding number of children would have been placed at risk of needlessly being torn from their homes and consigned to the chaos of foster care.

 What finally killed AURA?


The results of the AURA experiment – including the false positive rate -  have been known for nearly two years. But that didn’t stop the county from pushing ahead – and it didn’t stop the gushy news coverage. It’s not clear what finally prompted DCFS to pull the plug. 

Perhaps it’s because, as Nash points out, all those false positives would further overload the system. More likely, it was an initiative by the State of California to try to come up with a “better” predictive analytics model.

Unlike AURA, developers of the new model are promising a completely open process, including consultation with various “stakeholders” and transparency about exactly what risk factors are used and how they are weighed - allowing anyone to “interrogate the algorithm.”

Also encouraging, Nash’s report, commissioned by the Supervisors themselves, is filled with warnings about the need to proceed “cautiously and responsibly.” He says a set of strict standards “to address the important operational legal and ethical considerations…” should be adopted “before considering the use of predictive-analytics models.”  Those standards should include “understanding how racism and other biases may be embedded in systemic data and addressing these within the model.”

Nash even noted that the independent journalism nonprofit ProPublica found exactly that bias in predictive analytics tools already in use in criminal justice.

All this means that, if nothing else, the nightmare of “Minority Report”- style policing in Los Angeles child welfare is at least another year or two away.

The bad news is that Nash’s report accepts the na├»ve view that once a good algorithm is created it can be properly controlled and limited. 

He writes:

Determining [predictive analytics’] “right” use – to identify families most in need of supports, rather than to trigger any negative consequences for them – will be fundamental.

But Nash, himself a former juvenile court judge, must know that’s now how child welfare works in the real world.

Whatever controls are in place at the outset will disappear the moment a child “known to the system” dies and the caseworker handling the case says “DCFS had all this information about the family, and they knew it was ‘high risk’ but they didn’t tell me.” 

Philip Browning
Then, all bets - and all restrictions - are off, and it will be take-the-child-and-run in every family where the computer spits out a high "risk score."

One more bit of bad news: One of the strongest boosters of predictive analytics in Los Angeles, former DCFS director Philip Browning, has been hired as a consultant to “help” New York City’s child welfare agency.


SDM is let off the hook


The other bad news concerns the other model of risk and safety assessment that the Supervisors asked Nash to study – the one currently used in Los Angeles - Structured Decision-Making.

Like predictive analytics, SDM also has been found to raise issues of racial and class bias. Nash acknowledges those issues in passing:

Users of the tool, in particular, fault it for not incorporating into its assessments theentire story of what is happening within a family, but instead focusing on a few broadstrokes without giving weight to important nuances. Users additionally state that the toolis too narrowly focused on the caregiver and does not take into account the strengths ofthe family as a whole.

But immediately he adds this parenthetical aside:

(The latest version of SDM has been revised to try to be more strength-based in its approach.)

But in my own experience, some version of  “Yes, but the new version is different” is what developers of SDM have said for more than a decade, each time similar concerns are raised.  That can only leave one wondering about all the “risk assessments” and “safety assessments” performed with old, unimproved versions of SDM.

The defeat of AURA shows that, contrary to what some predictive analytics proponents say in their worst moments of hubris, it is not inevitable that every legislative body and child welfare agency will embrace this latest fad in child welfare.

At a minimum, opponents in Los Angeles have more time to organize. And using predictive analytics in child welfare no longer has an AURA of inevitability.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Column: You can’t fix child welfare spending with distorted data and doublethink

Listen closely. That giant sucking sound you hear is the foster care-industrial complex grasping for every dollar it can swipe from every possible “funding stream.”

George Orwell gave us the concept of  doublethink.
Foster care advocates perfected it.
 In 1984, George Orwell defined “doublethink” as holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them both.

In child welfare, for example, we have been told for decades that child welfare systems don’t take away children because their families are poor. ... But now we also are told in a column by too advocates of taking away more children, that every single federal program designed to ease poverty – including housing assistance, food stamps, even the Supplemental Security Income program for the aged, blind and disabled – is a foster care prevention program, and every dime from every one of them should be counted as child welfare spending.

In other words, great gobs of money are going to prevent something – removal of children from their parents because they are poor – that child welfare agencies say they don’t do anyway.

Orwell would have recognized the technique. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Philadelphia RTC is the latest in a long line of rotten barrels

It wasn’t the repeated rapes that finally forced the state of Pennsylvania to shut down the  Wordsworth “residential treatment center” in Philadelphia.  It wasn’t the assaults by staff against children and children against each other.  It wasn’t the fact that over ten years, police were summoned to the place more than 800 times.

It wasn’t even the enormous cost to taxpayers - $119,000 per year per child for all this tender loving care – that prompted the state finally to act.

No, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News report, a 17-year-old, David Hess, had to die first, during a struggle with staff. Authorities ruled the death a homicide.

Through all of this, year after year after year, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services kept warehousing children at Wordsworth – children as young as age 10.  Some were delinquent, others were said to have been abused or neglected.

It’s not as if nobody knew what was going on.  As the newspapers report:

“Interviews, court records, state inspection reports, and police records reveal a trail of injuries to children, from broken bones to assaults to the suffocation death of Hess. Along the way, lawyers, licensing inspectors, and others found conditions there appalling and sounded the alarm with little success.”

Why wouldn’t the City or the State do more? They didn’t dare.  In Philadelphia substitute “care,” in all its forms, is a sellers’ market. As Joan Erney, director of Community Behavioral Health, the agency that oversees publicly funded mental-health services for Philadelphia told the newspaper:

“Our approach to agencies generally is that we need them, and if there are opportunities to improve, we work with them. … We did rely on Wordsworth extensively. Places outside of Philadelphia don’t want to take our kids. They tell us our kids are too complicated. They tell us our kids are too hard. We have kids with some really difficult problems.”

In other words, they were begging for beds, and beggars can’t be choosers.

But that tells only part of the story. The real reason Philadelphia turned a blind eye to the horrors at Wordsworth is because of Philadelphia’s long, ugly history of embracing worst practice in child welfare.

● Among America’s ten largest cities and their surrounding counties, Philadelphia tears apart families at the second highest rate when rates of child poverty are factored in. (When you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is #1.) The rate of removal in Philadelphia is 60 percent above the big-city average, more than triple the rate in New York City and more than quadruple the rate in Chicago.

Were Philadelphia taking children at the rate of New York or Chicago it would have plenty of room in good therapeutic foster homes for children who really needed them – and no need to warehouse children in places like Wordsworth.

● Philadelphia needs something else, too: The guts and imagination to embrace safe, proven alternatives to residential treatment.  One of the striking revelations in the Inquirer / Daily News story is the fact that the RTC at Wordsworth wasn’t some hundred-year-old orphanage that rebranded itself to stay in business and then deteriorated. This facility was brand new in 2006 – and apparently it was abusive almost from day one.

In other words, at a time when most of the rest of the country was trying to shut down institutions, city officials in Philadelphia and their state counterparts in Harrisburg thought it would be a great idea to send children to a brand new one.

● And no, the almost universal cry of those who institutionalize children and their apologists – the claim that the children are just too difficult to handle in families – is not true.  There is nothing a “residential treatment center” can do that can’t be done better (and at lower cost) through Wraparound programs.

As they name implies, such programs do whatever it takes – bringing the help a child needs into her or his own home or a foster home.  In this video, Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis describes how it worked on the kind of case that usually lands a child in a place like Wordsworth.

Not only does Philadelphia overuse institutionalization; it institutionalizes children for whom the harm is greatest: younger children.  This is such horrific practice that in his original version of the proposed Family First Act, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed to simply eliminate all federal aid for any placement in any institution for any child under age 13.

That never passed, of course.  So all American taxpayers continue to subsidize places like Wordsworth.

● Worst of all, there’s no guarantee that the children are any better off now that Wordsworth is closed. Because the children were simply shipped to other institutions, often out-of-state – so it will be even harder to keep track of what happens to them.

Even when institutions don’t become hellholes, rife with physical and sexual abuse, a mountain of research shows that they are inherently bad for children, and there are better alternatives.  And there is nothing unusual about the kind of abuse that was rife at Wordsworth.   The Wordsworth story is repeated in America over and over, year after year. When the topic is institutionalization, we’re not talking rotten apples. We’re talking rotten barrels.



Monday, May 1, 2017

New columns on race and class bias in child welfare from the 19th Century to today

NCCPR has two new columns on racial bias in child welfare.  One deals with how the same newspaper can expose racial bias in policing while remaining blind to it in child welfare.
Read the column here.

Another deals with the the desperate lengths to which some will go to deny there's a problem.
Read the column here.

This column deals with another example of how the biases in child welfare are magnified by the latest fad in the field, "predictive analytics."
Read the column here.

None of this is new. In fact, American child welfare has its very roots not in benevolence but in bigotry. That's the topic of this column for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va. It sets the record straight about Charles Loring Brace and his "orphan trains."
Read the column here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A lesson for child welfare from the Hillary Clinton campaign: Don’t rely on predictive analytics

Hillary Clinton
I’ve written before about how one of the biggest losers in the 2016 elections was “predictive analytics.”  All those algorithms kept assuring us that Hillary Clinton was all but certain to win.  The media were suckered.

It turns out the media were not alone.  In her review of a new book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times writes that the campaign itself made the same disastrous error:

As described in “Shattered,” Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook — who centered the Clinton operation on data analytics (information about voters, given to him by number crunchers) as opposed to more old-fashioned methods of polling, knocking on doors and trying to persuade undecideds — made one strategic mistake after another, but was kept on by Clinton, despite her own misgivings.

Yet “predictive analytics” continues to be sold, literally and figuratively, to child welfare systems as a way to target which parents should have their children taken away.  In fact, as is discussed indetail here, predictive analytics magnifies the racial and class biases that are built into the child welfare.

It will work every bit as well in child welfare as it did in the Clinton campaign.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New columns on state-sanctioned ransom, child welfare's addiction to bad science, and a tragedy in Pennsylvania

In Youth Today, I’ve written about the payments some parents are forced to make to get their children back from foster care. The euphemism used by child welfare systems for such payments is “child support.” But when someone takes away a child and makes parents pay money to get the child back, the proper term is “ransom.”  


In the Chronicle of Social Change, I have columns about how Arizona’s plan to secretly tape record parents and then run the tapes through a “Computer Voice Stress Analyzer” is another example of child welfare’s 163 year addiction to bad science ...


... and on the latest twist from the latest example of that addiction, "predictive analytics": a plan that specifically targets poor people - and penalizes those among them who reach out for help.

In the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., I look at how child welfare's double standards are at the heart of the tragic death of a child, allegedly at the hands of the foster parents who adopted her.

Monday, April 3, 2017

NYC’s new child welfare chief is looking for help in all the wrong places

● The consultants he’s bringing in have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling.

● Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has crusaded against racial bias in law enforcement, now seems to find it acceptable it in child welfare.


The depressing script is being followed to the letter in New York City.

Newspapers discover that children “known to the system” sometimes die. Though there is no evidence that these tragedies are any more common than before, now the press is paying attention.  That turns the deaths into a “series” or a “spate” or a “rash.” Then the child welfare agency, in this case the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), officially is christened “embattled” and/or “beleaguered.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
As is discussed in detail in a series of previous posts to this blog, a slew of mayor wanna-bes rushes in exploit the tragedy by announcing investigations and issuing reports. Gov. Andrew Cuomo does the same to gain leverage in his feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio fails to stand up for an agency that has, in fact, made remarkable progress, taking away far fewer children with no compromise of child safety.

That should come as no surprise. Back when he chaired the City Council’s Human Services Committee de Blasio proved adept at grabbing headlines for himself by exploiting an earlier tragedy, the death of Nixzmary Brown.

And of course there is the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief, in this case Gladys Carrion. (Officially she retired. If so, it was because the mayor wouldn’t stand behind her.)  Her replacement, David Hansell, has no experience specific to child welfare. So he’s seeking advice. 

There are several outstanding reformers in the field to whom he could have turned. But chances are he doesn’t know about them. Instead Hensell is looking for help in all the wrong places.

The people/organizations he’s bringing have done nothing to distinguish themselves in the field. And they have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling, or to use the child welfare field’s preferred euphemism, “predictive analytics.”

Consultant #1


David Hansell
Of all the choices Hansell has made the most difficult to explain is his choice of Philip Browning, who

recently resigned as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

In the 40 years I’ve followed child welfare, when I’ve read stories in which people are asked to name systems that function relatively well, I’ve never heard anyone mention Los Angeles.

There’s a reason for that. The Los Angeles child welfare system is almost always embattled and/or beleaguered. It has the same sorts of high-profile horror stories as New York City, and they provoke the same sort of response: Foster-care panic.  But unlike New York City, L.A. tends not to recover from those panics. It just lurches from crisis to crisis.

Browning is beloved by those who embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. That’s because while Los Angeles has all the same problems keeping children safe as New York City, Los Angeles tears apart families at among the highest rates of America’s big cities. In fact the rate-of-removal in Los Angeles is well over double the rate of New York City – in fact, it’s more than 150 percent higher.

Or to put it another way, if New York City tore apart families at the rate Los Angeles tears apart families, instead of taking away 3,702 children in fiscal year 2016, the city would have had to take away more than 9,200 – a number that would be higher than all but four of the past 24 years.

Philip Browning
Browning did not make Los Angeles’ dreadful record of removals any worse. But he didn’t make it any better. The already high rate-of-removal in Los Angeles increased further at the beginning of his tenure, which started at the end of 2011, then returned to about where they were when he got there.  And the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day increased by more than 15 percent during his tenure.

And, by the way, Chicago does better than both New York and Los Angeles – and in Chicago independent court monitors have found that the emphasis on family preservation has improved child safety.

Los Angeles outperforms New York City in just one area: the percentage of children placed in kinship foster care – that is, with relatives instead of strangers. That improvement took place during Browning’s tenure.  Other than that, however, the only thing Philip Browning can teach New York City is what not to do.

There was one other distinguishing feature of Browning’s tenure in Los Angeles. He was a huge cheerleader for “predictive analytics” in which computer algorithms use various “risk factors” to tell caseworkers who is supposedly most likely to abuse a child.

As is outlined in detail in our publication Big Data is Watching You, predictive analytics has  proven itself permeated with the same kinds of racial and class biases that already plague child welfare. Yet in Los Angeles, Browning brought in a private for-profit software firm to experiment with predictive analytics using secret, proprietary software.

They didn’t use it on any actual cases. Rather, past cases were fed into the computer and then it predicted risk. The algorithm predicted many of the cases that, in fact, lead to deaths, near fatalities or “critical incidents.” There was just one problem: It predicted vastly more cases where there none of those things actually happened. In fact the rate of “false positives” was over 95 percent. If you predict that a vast number of cases will result in catastrophe, it’s no wonder you’ll often be right, even as you are wrong far more often.

This means that, were this kind of system actually implemented, vast numbers of innocent families would come under additional scrutiny and their children would suffer the enormous trauma of needless foster care placement – because no caseworker is going to risk being on the front page as the worker who defied the algorithm and left a child in an unsafe home. So all those children would face the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

And in the real world, all the time and resources squandered pursuing these cases would be stolen from finding children in real danger – potentially undermining any alleged gains the  algorithm produced in finding such children.

Consultant #2


Consultant #2 is a private child welfare agency based in Florida known as Eckerd Kids. In Florida, everything after the initial removal of a child is handled by private “lead agencies.”  Eckerd, which had the contract for the St. Petersburg area was brought in to take over nearby metropolitan Tampa after, yes, a “series” or “spate” or “rash” of deaths of children “known to the system.” 

They implemented a predictive analytics algorithm called Rapid Safety Feedback. Eckerd then implied that this caused the deaths to stop – they brag about this on their website.  As the same time, they piously proclaim that they don’t really know if the two are related – and they really aren’t claiming any such thing.

In fact, the picture in Tampa is far murkier than Eckerd and proponents of predictive analytics claim.  Full details are in Big Data is Watching You.  (Scroll down or search for “What Really Happened in Tampa.”)

And while backers of a take-the-child-and-run approach across the country have been fawning over Eckerd’s methods, the agency seems to be having trouble keeping its own house in order. A foster child in the care of one of Eckerd’s subcontractors died late last year and the foster mother has been charged with first degree murder and aggravated child abuse. The foster mother worked as a marketing manager for another Eckerd subcontractor.

There is no indication that Eckerd uses Rapid Safety Feedback to screen foster parents. But if they did, this one probably would have gotten a low risk score. Why? Because as the Tampa Bay Times put it in an editorial that revealed a lot about bias in child welfare, analytics – and journalism – the accused

seemed in many ways an ideal foster mother. College-educated with a $70,000 income, she lived in a nice Riverview neighborhood …

Of course, every agency has such failures. But it appears that Eckerd is being sought out by child welfare systems across the county largely on the basis of hype about how it supposedly stops such tragedies with predictive analytics.

Consultant #3


Consultant #3 is Casey Family Programs. This is one of several separate but similar foundations all endowed through the fortune of UPS founder Jim Casey (the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which, long ago, funded NCCPR, is another). Casey Family Programs is run by William Bell who joined Casey after an undistinguished tenure running ACS.  But I think the reason Casey is being brought in is because of the recent work of its Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement, David Sanders.

Sanders also ran the Los Angeles child welfare agency – and he did a good job there. But more recently he’s been far less successful. Sanders chaired a wretched mess known as the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. 

The commission was chaotic, it was angry, it was dysfunctional, it was secretive and it made its decisions based on newspaper horror stories.  In other words, a commission tasked with studying the child protective services system devolved into a microcosm of that system.  Details are in a series of previous posts to this blog, in NCCPR’s report critiquing the commission’s work, and in a scathing dissenting report from one of the commissioners.

And what was the key recommendation from this commission? Take the racially biased, class biased approach of predictive analytics and make it even worse.  And what was the basis for this recommendation?  Eckerd’s supposed success in Tampa.

From all this, an ugly picture emerges. New York City appears poised to reverse decades of progress, albeit inconsistent progress, in safely reducing the number of children consigned to the chaos of foster care.

And in another classic example of liberals who forget everything they claim to believe in when someone whispers the words child abuse in their ears, we have Mayor de Blasio. He has campaigned against racial bias in policing, but apparently he’s ready to accept it in child welfare.

 Good reason to be scared


During a previous foster-care panic in New York a 14-year-old wrote an essay called “I am scared of ACS.” 

Today, New York City’s vulnerable children have good reason to be scared of ACS once again.


Friday, March 31, 2017

New columns on #CASAsoWhite and protecting homeschooled children

In a follow-up to a column about a law review article challenging the most sacred cow in child welfare - Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) I write about a former judge who was deeply offended by that column, and the article itself - mostly because they dared use the term "white supremacy."

But how in the world are we supposed to have an honest discussion of race in this country without using the words “white supremacy”? How can anyone, especially a former judge, dismiss a law review article out-of-hand just for using the term? How is it that, in child welfare, “white supremacy” is the hate that dare not speak its name?

Read the full column here.

I've written before about the tendency of some on the left to start sounding like Donald Trump as soon as anyone whispers the term "child abuse" in their ears. Here's another case in point: proposals to spy on any family that opts to homeschool their children.

Read the full column here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

New columns on the failure of CASA and the obscene rate of removal in Iowa

Call it #CASAsoWhite: Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the most sacred cow in child welfare, is "an exercise of white supremacy" according to an excellent analysis in the City University University of New York Law Review.  I write about the article here.

In Snohomish County, Washington, a judge found what she called "prevasive and egregious" misconduct in the county's CASA program  Read about it here.

In Iowa, politicians are up in arms after two horrific cases of abuse involving children adopted by their foster parents. But, of course, they're ignoring the heart of the problem - Iowa's obscene rate of child removal. I wrote it about it in this column for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

New columns on confessions of a caseworker and the state where kangaroo court is always in session

Of all the crimes against children committed in the name of “child protection,” none is worse than when white America weaponized child welfare in an effort to destroy the culture of Native Americans.

Today, of course, people no longer say that the goal of child welfare is to “kill the Indian, save the man.” But whatever the intent, a series of federal court rulings from South Dakota make clear that Native children remain in danger from a state child welfare system out of control.


Read our column in Youth Today about South Dakota Child Welfare: Where Kangaroo Court is Always in Session.

One of the things caseworkers often say is just not true. Caseworkers often claim they are “damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.” But when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t. It’s one of the reasons so many children are needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care.

Now, a leader of a union representing caseworkers has admitted as much.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A reporter whitewashes racial bias in child welfare

In former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf’s world, white people “marshal data.” Black people rely only on “folkways.”

Therolf has left the building. But he left behind  a story
permeated with racial bias.
UPDATE, FEB. 22: Compare Therolf's failure to how Laura Nahmias covered the same issue for Politico New York.

Imagine for a moment that a reporter on the criminal justice beat wrote a story claiming that there are “two theories” about the police and the African-American community: Either there is more crime in poor Black neighborhoods - because there is more poverty - or there is police brutality, harassment, needless stop-and-frisk searches, traumatic interrogations of the innocent, false arrests, etc.

One would hope such a journalist would be laughed out of the newsroom.

But, as is so often the case, the standards for child welfare, and for reporting on child welfare, are lower.

That brings me to the last two stories begun by reporter Garrett Therolf before he left the Los Angeles Times last year. He completed them while at his new job and they were published last week.

Several years ago, Therolf faced a lot of criticism on this blog and elsewhere for his child welfare coverage. Therolf is certainly not the only reason Los Angeles tears apart children at a rate well above the average for big cities, double the rate of New York and triple the rate of Chicago, but he’s a part of it.

One of his last Times stories follows a particular case through the Los Angeles County child welfare system.  That story actually is pretty good - except when it tries to deal directly with issues of race. And there are serious problems with a sidebar devoted specifically to that issue.

The error of either/or


Therolf begins the sidebar by noting that while eight percent of Los Angeles County children are Black, they represent 28 percent of the county’s foster children.  Then he writes:

There are basically two theories, and the approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part, on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized at higher rates.

So it’s either/or, all-or-nothing.  This eliminates the obvious possibility that, as with criminal justice, because of poverty, both can be at play.

The problem is even more complicated in child welfare. Most state laws, including California’s effectively define poverty itself as “neglect.”*  So it’s easy to point to statistics and say: See? There’s more “neglect” in Black communities precisely because there is more poverty there – and that poverty is confused with “neglect.”

In addition, child abuse is related, in part, to stress. Poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, and African-Americans are more likely to be poor. So again, the key issue is poverty.

But in the main story Therolf claims that on top of all the stress of being poor, the "prevailing view" is that Black parents are more prone to abuse their children “following generations of deprivation and inequity.”  (In fact, there is no "prevailing view" - but it certainly seems to be Therolf's view.)

In other words, Therolf suggests, past racism makes Black parents abusive, but there is no present racism affecting the decisions of child protective services workers.

Sadly, there are people in child welfare who believe this.  In fact, even as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group not known to be dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, issues an apology to communities of color for racial bias in policing, a faction of liberals in child welfare denies their field even has a problem.

Apparently unlike in the police force, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, child welfare workers are simply so much better than other people that they have acquired a kind of magical immunity from the biases that plague mere mortals.

This is reflected in the willingness of some of my fellow liberals to forego everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties and due process when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.  Consider how, as is discussed here, some liberals, appalled by stop-and-frisk, embrace the use in child welfare of  “predictive analytics,” a similar infringement on civil liberties that boils down to computerized racial profiling.

Harvard’s resident extremist


Then Therolf tells us about a 2011 conference at Harvard on the topic.  What he does not tell us is that the conference was organized by the leader of the “denial” movement – Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School.  Bartholet’s views on child welfare are so extreme that if one takes the recommendations in her own book bashing family preservation seriously and literally (and surely we’ve learned by now that this is wise when dealing with extremists) states would have to take away at least two million children every year.**

She also proposes that every family in America with a young child be required to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”  Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of, her word, “surveillance.”

Bartholet says this “would simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.

Nor does Therolf tell us that the conference was an exercise in deck-staking.  Bartholet decided who was invited to speak, and almost every speaker she chose shared her views.  Having listened to this parade of people who’d already decided that racial bias is not a problem, Therolf then tells us that the “prevailing view” among researchers is that racial bias is not a problem.

He also tells us that “Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates.” Of course they did. It’s what they believed when they walked in the door.

Double standards for describing experts


But where the story becomes most condescending is in its treatment of experts on each side.  First, he gives one paragraph to one of the few dissenters Bartholet invited to speak at the conference.  He writes that those who believe racism is a problem

…gained encouragement from University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart black families.” 

He never mentions that Prof. Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) also is the author of several books on issues of race in America and beyond, including Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2001).

Bartholet gets very different treatment.  There is no mention of her extremism. Instead, in a paragraph that sounds like it should have begun with “Some of her best friends are…” Therolf writes about how she was once, long ago, a real life civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense fund!  (So of course, anything she says about child welfare and race could not possibly be tainted by bias.)  This is like suggesting Ronald Reagan could not possibly have been out to break unions or enact a radical right-wing agenda as president because decades earlier he’d been a liberal and a union leader.

Bartholet didn’t rely on mere anecdote, Therolf tells us. Bartholet “marshaled data to argue that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Compare this with Therolf’s treatment of the next expert to appear in his story, Cheryl Grills. Dr. Grills is a clinical psychologist and director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University.  She also served as Co-Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. 

But Therolf identifies her only as “a professor at Loyola Marymount” who, Therolf claims, wants to “institutionalize child protection based on African and African-American folkways, not the latest studies and academic research.” [Emphasis added.]

Got that everyone? White people “marshal data.”  Black people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.”

It is offensive, and speaks to the extent of bias not just in child welfare but in newsrooms, that the following even needs to be pointed out:

The data are overwhelming that there is, in fact,

racial bias in child welfare.


Much of that data can be found in Prof. Roberts’ book.  NCCPR has prepared a short summary of some of the studies finding profound racial bias, over and above the class bias and other problems that permeate child welfare.

Therolf goes on to suggest that caseworkers can’t possibly be biased because many of them are, themselves, Black. He dismisses the notion that institutional bias can push any caseworker to treat less favored groups differently. He ignores the scholarship of, for example, Prof. Tanya Cooper of the University of Alabama Law School, who writes:

Unconscious racism is embedded in our civic institutions; and the foster care system is vulnerable as one such institution controlled and influenced by those in power. Those in power in turn may unwittingly discriminate against people of color, which history demonstrates.

But also, the issue of bias isn’t so, uh, black and white.  If there is a racial, religious or ethnic group that doesn’t have to grapple with biases among themselves I have yet to find it. Often, though not always, the fault-line for intra-ethnic conflict is class.

In child welfare, racial bias and class bias combine to create a toxic mix for poor families of color.

Consider the very case on which Therolf focused.  The children were taken because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) alleged that, in Therolf’s words:

One: [The mother, Monique] Baker’s house is “filthy,” placing “the children at risk of physical harm, damage and danger.” Two: Baker is not taking her children for psychiatric treatment.
 Three:  Baker has “mental and emotional problems, including major anxiety disorder, major depression and PTSD, which renders the mother unable to provide regular care.”

But even if we assume all of these allegations are true, had a case such as this arisen in, say, Beverly Hills, DCFS never even would have noticed. It would have been solved privately by application of the following “preventive services”:

One: a maid.
Two: a nanny.
Three: a psychiatrist.

And that brings us back to Bartholet’s claim that “when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Back before scholars such as Prof. Roberts marshaled all that data to show how pervasive racial bias is in child welfare, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach insisted that agencies never take away children because of poverty.  Now, rather than admit to racial bias, they effectively admit to class bias.  I suppose that’s progress.

But neither bias should be tolerable in child welfare, and neither bias should be whitewashed by journalists.

* In California, neglect includes: “The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child” and “The willful or negligent failure of the parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.” 

**In her book, Nobody’s Children, Bartholet argues that children should be removed from the home in cases of “serious” abuse and neglect. In the same book (p. 61) she writes that “Estimates indicate that more than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and neglect.” Even if she could be persuaded to leave one-third of “seriously” abused children in their own homes, that would mean taking away two million children every year.



Friday, February 17, 2017

New columns on abuse in foster care in Iowa and Nebraska and #CASAsowhite: racial bias in CASA

Cowley County, Kan., a place almost exactly in the middle of middle-America, is conservative and working-class. It would seem to have little in common with coastal Marin County, Calif., one of the wealthiest places in America, where the politics are as blue as the ocean.
But it seems the two places have one thing in common: an inability to confront issues of race and class biases in that most sacred cow of child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
An advocate of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare now is claiming that a case in which a child was removed from her parents, placed in foster care, adopted by the foster parent and then allegedly severely abused by the foster/adoptive mother somehow is an example of “family preservation at all costs.”  Seriously.
And speaking of abuse in foster care: Everyone should be shocked by the fact that the inspector general of Nebraska Child Welfare, Julie Rogers, has identified 36 cases of children consigned to the “care” of the state, only to be sexually abused in foster care. But no one should be surprised.  The heart of the problem: Nebraska still is tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the country.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New columns on malice and mandated reporters, child abuse "central registries" and why the foster-care-at-all-costs crowd will never give up their horror stories

How malicious does a "mandated reporter" of child abuse have to be before immunity from all accountability applies? I have a column about it here.

What about if a false report lands you on a state "central registry" of child abusers? The lack of accountability there is the topic of this column for the Louisville Courier Journal.

And you know how the foster-care industrial complex loves to scapegoat family preservation when a child is returned home from foster care over the objection of foster parents? What happens when it's the other way around?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why journalists need to override child welfare’s veto of silence

It’s tough to verify a story when a child welfare agency won’t talk or release records. But it can be done. At the end of this post I’ve included links to 23 examples.



Imagine for a moment that it is 1972. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

One of the reporters calls the White House for comment. A spokesman (or as reporters might derisively call him, a “flack”) for President Nixon replies: “You’ve got it all wrong, but we can’t say anything – it’s all a matter of national security.”  To which Woodward and/or Bernstein reply: “Oh, well, in that case we’ll just forget the whole thing.”

Of course that would never happen – except in child welfare, where it seems to happen a lot.

A family complains that their children were needlessly taken by child protective services. They tell their story to a reporter. The reporter calls the child welfare agency and is immediately referred to their flack who says: “Oh, well, there’s really so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you but we just can’t; confidentiality, you know.”  And, of course, they won’t share any records either.

Over and over I’ve seen journalists who would never let other agencies get away with this give up when told this by a child welfare agency. Or worse, knowing that the records are secret, they won’t even try.

Most of the time, reporters won’t admit it.  But one newspaper reporter did recently during an email exchange. I won’t penalize her for her candor by naming her.

This reporter wrote that she would not write an in-depth story about a child welfare case unless she had access to the actual child protective services documents in the case or access to the relevant court hearings.

 Double standards


In fact, neither she nor most other reporters seem to apply this to all cases. This reporter has written many stories about deaths of children “known to the system” even though the child welfare agency stonewalled. But those are the kinds of cases reporters tend to be comfortable with. The heroes are people reporters can identify with – middle-class foster parents, and/or “child advocates.”  The villains are presumed to be birth parents – people who almost never have anything in common with reporters – different backgrounds, different life experiences, different class and, often, different race.

That also helps explain why cases in which a family alleges the children were needlessly taken are another matter entirely.  They make a lot of reporters queasy right from the start.

What all this means is that when it comes to cases alleging wrongful removal, child welfare agencies have a de facto veto of silence. All they have to do is stonewall and the story will go away.  So even as journalists who cover child welfare regularly, and rightly, complain about agency secrecy, they enable and encourage that secrecy.  I’ve long thought that every time a reporter refuses to override the veto of silence, somewhere an agency flack gets his wings.

A distorted picture


And, of course, this leaves the public with a distorted picture of how and when child protective services agencies err; that is, they seem to err only in the direction of leaving children in dangerous homes because that’s almost all that ever gets into the newspapers, online, or on television.

Among the reasons the newspaper reporter who emailed me recently gave for caving in to the veto of silence: “People lie.”

Well, yes. But case records also sometimes lie. So do caseworkers. Occasionally, caseworkers even assert what amounts to a right to lie – in court.  But somehow that doesn’t stop reporters from writing story after story about cases in which, supposedly, agencies bent over backwards to coddle abusive families – often based on nothing more than an unsupported claim by the reporter’s favorite “child advocate.” Because when it comes to who’s telling the truth, people like us always get the benefit of the doubt over people like them.

No, that does not mean a journalist can or should simply take a family’s word for what happened.  And yes, getting at the facts in a case of wrongful removal can be difficult.

Of the many people who claim a child welfare agency acted unjustly some are, in fact, guilty as sin. Some are crazy.  Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  Some have a good point on some issues while others involve many shades of gray.  And some are absolutely right.

But even when the stories are true, because most victims of child welfare agencies are poor, they often are less educated. So they may be less able to gather their thoughts – and their documents – and compose a clear, coherent narrative. So it takes a lot of work to understand the story at all, even before trying to check it.

All that is why, when journalists do focus on wrongful removal a disproportionate amount of the coverage is devoted to those rare times when the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class – as in this case and this one.

And yet, for all that, it can be done.

Some families have enough copies of documents to bolster their case. They may have lawyers or other witnesses.  And good reporters know that when an agency truly is being treated unfairly and can’t talk on the record, usually someone will still leak their side of the story. If they won’t give specifics, even off the record, odds are they don’t have a good case.

 The honor roll


All over the country, good reporters are finding ways to override the veto of silence and tell families’ stories. They’re not doing it nearly enough, but some very important stories make it into print and on the air. A previous post to this blog cited five examples, four published over a period of less than two weeks.

Here are some more:

●The New York Times got past the veto of silence to report on how parents can lose their children for smoking pot.

● NPR refused to let stonewalling stop them from exposing what South Dakota child welfare does to Native American children.


● For a brilliant examination of a case filled with shades of gray, check out this series from The Boston Globe. When it was published, more than half of the hundreds of comments – and most were surprisingly civil – disagreed with my own point of view. But it’s on this list because it is comprehensively reported, beautifully written, and gives readers the information we need to make up our own minds.

But you don’t have to be a big news organization to override the veto of silence:

● The Philadelphia Daily News, a small paper in a big city, did this storyAnd this oneAnd this one.

● The reporter who would go on to expose the Flint water crisis did this story for Detroit’s alternative weekly Metro Times about what typical child welfare agencies do in typical cases.


● And this story from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette. And this one. And this one.

● And this series from the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

It’s not just print reporters who do good work. 

● There’s this story from WXYZ-TV in Detroit. (There were many more from WXYZ, but broadcast websites tend to be less good about keeping their stories online.)


And then there’s what happened when the Biloxi, Miss. Sun-Herald ran into the veto of silence. Instead of backing down they made how secrecy harms families the theme of a six-part series.


When reporters cave in to child welfare’s veto of silence it’s usually not because there’s no way to get around it.  Usually, it’s because they don’t want to get around it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Attn: Liberals. If you sound like Kellyanne Conway, you’re getting child welfare wrong

Photo by Gage Slidmore
Kellyanne Conway justifies the Muslim ban in much the
same way many on the Left justify child welfare's  
infrigements on civil liberties.


Child welfare systems have vast power and little accountability. 

Caseworkers usually can take away children entirely on their own authority; parents often have to go to court after-the-fact to try to get them back. The poor often are not guaranteed a lawyer, and rarely get a good one. The standard of proof is far lower than in a criminal case, and in most states the hearings are secret. NCCPR documents those abuses, and more, in our Due Process Agenda.

Though the system was largely created and is now largely justified by people who consider themselves liberals, when they seek to justify running roughshod over due process they sound remarkably like Donald Trump and his top aides.



Not that many are detained


Liberals justifying a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare often will say something like: “Only a small portion of the children investigated as possible victims of child abuse actually are removed from their homes.”

Here’s what Kellyanne Conway said about the Muslim ban – and make no mistake, that’s what it ison Fox News Sunday today:

And so, you’re talking about 325,000 people from overseas came into this country just yesterday through our airports.  So, 325,000, you’re talking about 300 and some who have been detained or are prevented from gaining access to an aircraft in their home country.  They must stay for now.  That's 1 percent. 
And I think in terms of the upside being greater protection of our borders, of our people, it's a small price to pay. 

In fact, of course, the consequences often were far more serious. I’m sure that's one reason my fellow liberals found her comments as infuriating as I did. But consider what happens in child abuse investigations:

The definitions of neglect are so broad that neglect often is confused with poverty. And all it takes to “substantiate” an allegation is a caseworker checking a box on a form stating it is slightly more likely than not that the abuse or neglect occurred. And yet the percentage of children in “substantiated” cases who are “detained” in foster care is more like 35 percent. And the detention can last months, years, or an entire childhood.

It’s only temporary


Many times I’ve heard my fellow liberals in child welfare say “Foster care is only temporary. If we make a mistake, we can always give the child back.” They say they’re just erring on the side of safety. 

They argue that the harm of foster care is a small price to pay for making sure children don’t die of child abuse. They argue that if they are not allowed to run child welfare exactly as they see fit – civil liberties be damned – children will die.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway put it:

…this is what we do to keep a nation safe.  I mean, there are – [the] whole idea that they’re being separated and ripped from their families, it’s temporary … as opposed to the over 3,000 children who will be forevermore separated from the parents who perished on 9/11.

We know stuff that you don't


Over and over, when people in child welfare agencies are confronted with a case of wrongful removal they say "Oh, there's so much more to it, but we can't tell you - it's confidential." And their liberal supporters say: Trust them, they know more than we do and they are just acting in the best interests of the children.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway said:

[Tump] is privy to information that the rest of us aren’t, particularly the media.  The political media aren't national security and intelligence experts receiving briefings every single day like our president is.  

The Muslim ban and the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare have something else in common: They backfire. In the case of child welfare, the infringements on civil liberties overload child welfare systems so they have less time to find children in real danger – and more children die.

I’ve written before about just how much people on the Left start to sound like Donald Trump when the topic is child abuse.  And, as noted above, NCCPR has documented in detail the lack of due process.


So while we on the Left are fighting the horrors the Trump administration is inflicting on men, women - and children - abroad by denying them entry into the United States, let’s also take a moment to do something for children here at home: Stop casting aside everything we claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A lot of good journalism about child welfare

Here’s a good problem to have: So much good journalism about child welfare lately that it’s hard to keep up.

●The Arizona Republic has begun a new project on child welfare – and it’s off to an excellent start. Check out the first story.  And a strong editorial.

● But you don’t have to be a relatively large news organization to do outstanding work.  Check out this story from The Day in New London, Ct., about the biggest problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with “neglect.” The same reporter wrote this excellent story as well.

● The nonprofit journalism site ProPublica has a detailed look at the misuse of “psych evals” – and how advocates in New York City brought about some improvement.


● And, as you read this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, imagine what the response would be if the status of the alleged killer and the people who lost custody of the child were reversed.