Monday, August 28, 2017

Remember when Joe Arpaio’s men allegedly threatened to have a reporter’s children taken away?

Joe Arpaio (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Among the many unpardonable (or is that the wrong word?) things that allegedly happened during the reign of former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, let’s not forget the time two of his top deputies allegedly threatened to have a reporter’s children taken from her.

According to a report from another county sheriff’s office, it happened several times. According to the Phoenix alternative weekly New Times, “’[The reporter] was always threatened that her child would end up in the hands of CPS, which was very upsetting to her,’ the report states.”

It allegedly happened in 2009, but didn’t come to light until two years later. I wrote about it at the time, and that post is reprinted below.  A couple of updates:

● In the 2011 post, I discussed a foster-care panic ending in Florida and continuing in Arizona.  Now, Florida is panicking again and in Arizona, at long last, the foster-care panic may be ending.

● The post criticizes coverage of child welfare in the Arizona Republic. That coverage improved significantly over the past year, as a result of a new project led by reporter Bob Ortega. Unfortunately, Ortega recently left the Republic to join the investigative unit of CNN, to it is not clear whether the progress will continue.

Here’s the original post:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Child welfare in Arizona: They don’t threaten reporters, do they?

Two top deputies in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office allegedly threatened to retaliate against a reporter by taking away her child.  That should give Arizona journalists second thoughts about their embrace of unchecked power to intervene in families – but it probably won't.

It took Florida seven years to end the foster-care panic that swept through the state starting in 1999.  But with Florida having reversed course and made children saferwhile significantly reducing entries into care, there now is a new record-holder for perennial foster care panic: Arizona.

That state’s panic started much like Florida’s: First a high-profile death of a child “known to the system” then a new governor embraces a take-the-child-and-run approach. In Florida it was a Republican, Jeb Bush, in Arizona it was a Democrat, Janet Napolitano.  (In child welfare idiocy tends to be bipartisan.) 

Just four days after taking office Napolitano told caseworkers to just take away the kids “and we’ll sort it out later.”

Although there are strong indications Napolitano herself realized within months that this was a huge mistake, she never said so publicly.  Now, more than eight years later, Arizona still hasn’t sorted it out.  Details are in our report on Arizona child welfare.  The Arizona Foster-Care panic has broken Florida’s record.   Nationwide, between 2002 and 2010 entries into foster care over the course of a year declined nearly 15 percent.  In Arizona they soared 70 percent, with no end in sight.

As always with foster-care panics, the one in Arizona backfired.  All those false allegations and trivial cases and all that needless removal of children from their homes further overloaded caseworkers leaving them less time to find children in real danger.  So the cycle of failure continues year after year. Every few years, when a new high-profile case or cases grabs headlines, everyone repeats the same mistakes – like assuming that the solution is to encourage everyone to report their slightest suspicions to CPS, further overloading the system.  As a matter of fact, that’s happening right now.

And sometimes it gets worse.  Although politicians started the Arizona Foster Care Panic, a lot of the responsibility for keeping it going rests with the state’s press corps.  The one reporter at a daily newspaper in the state who really came to understand child welfare, Karina Bland of the Arizona Republic, was transferred off the beat several years ago.  So whenever there were signs the panic might abate, someone at the Republic in Phoenix and/or the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson would respond to a horror story by pouring on the hype and hysteria and start it up again. 

It’s not that these reporters didn’t hear from parents who said they were falsely accused or threatened with removal of their children for no good reason, perhaps as retaliation for being insufficiently cooperative with authorities.  It’s just that, like many reporters across the country, the journalists at the big Arizona dailies rolled their eyes and figured it was probably just some lousy parent making up excuses.

But one would think they’d reconsider after it happened to one of their own.

Actually, it happened a couple of years ago, but only became public in May, and I just stumbled on it this week.  It’s all explained in this story from the “Valley Fever” Blogon the website of the Phoenix alternative weekly New Times.

The story revolves around one of the many scandals involving the right-wing sheriff of Maricopa County, (metropolitan Phoenix) Joe Arpaio.  (The “Valley Fever” home pageon the New Times website includes a countdown clock – or, more accurately a count-up clock, ticking off the days that the sheriff has been under investigation by the federal government. Click on it and you’ll get to a page with 15 years of New Timesinvestigative stories about Arpaio and his office.)

But here’s the bottom line. According to the Valley Fever post on May 13, a reporter for the Republic, Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, says two deputy chiefs of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Dave Hendershott and Paul Chagolla, threatened to arrest her  – and take away her child – because the reporter was doing her job. The story quotes from a report on an investigation of Arpaio’s office done by the sheriff in another county.  Here’s the relevant section of the story:

A year [after the incident], after Arpaio had put Hendershott on administrative leave, Wingett complained to [sheriff’s office spokeswoman] Lisa Allen that he and Chagolla repeatedly had threatened to arrest her over the incident.

"Next week, Yvonne, you're going to be arrested ... and your child is going to end up with Child Protective Services," they said, Wingett Sanchez told Allen, adding that she could barely speak about it without getting "emotional."

The threats to Wingett Sanchez came in person and, at least once, by telephone, Allen reported.  "She was always threatened that her child would end up in the hands of CPS, which was very upsetting to her," the report states.

So maybe some of those parents some of those Arizona reporters have been rolling their eyes about aren’t so crazy after all.  And maybe the kind of unchecked power law enforcement and child protective services have in the child welfare arena isn’t such a great idea after all.

It’s not only reporters at the dailies who could learn from this story.  If this little itemin the Valley Fever Blog itself is any indication, it seems that when the reporter who understood these issues best, Sarah Fenske, left New Times to become managing editor of Riverfront Times in St. Louis, the paper’s institutional memory concerning these issues left with her.


In fact, it’s not just journalists who could learn from this story.  I’ve often written about the hypocrisy of  some of my fellow liberals - those on the left who forget everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. (The response among many on the left to the FLDS case in Texas being a prime example.)  But there’s plenty of hypocrisy among those on the right who say they’re against state interference in families and abuse of power by “big government” - but love people like Joe Arpaio. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Another study documents the transformative power of cash

It also illustrates child welfare’s tendency to confuse poverty with “neglect.”


Behold!  A revolutionary new program to prevent child neglect!

“The rich are different from you and me.”
“Yes. They have more money”
--Exchange attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway,

Want to cut the rate of child “neglect” in America by ten percent? You don’t need another task force or study commission, you don’t need to hire more caseworkers, you don’t need a predictive analytics algorithm and you don’t need to put more families under surveillance and shovel them into meaningless counseling and parent education.

All you need is cash.

Specifically, raise the minimum wage by just $1 an hour.

That’s the finding of a new study from researchers at the University of Indiana and the University of Connecticut.

According to Indiana University’s press release on the study, the researchers

reached their conclusions by analyzing nine years of child maltreatment reports from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. More than 30 states had minimum wages exceeding the federal requirement by an average of $1 during the study period, allowing the researchers to track changes in the number of reports to child protective service agencies with increases in the minimum wage. …
"Money matters," [study co-author Lindsey Rose] Bullinger said. "When caregivers have more disposable income, they're better able to provide a child's basic needs such as clothing, food, medical care and a safe home. Policies that increase the income of the working poor can improve children's welfare, especially younger children, quite substantially."

It is, of course, a testament to the willful blindness of the child welfare system, and its obsession with treating what we define as child neglect as a public health problem instead of a social justice problem, that people in child welfare even need studies to tell them that parents do better at providing basic needs for their children when they have more money.

The findings are consistent with other studies

This is not the only study to reach similar conclusions. 

As this latest study notes:

The direction and magnitude of our results are consistent with what others have found. Cancian et al. (2013) found that only a modest increase in income of $100 per year reduced the likelihood of a child maltreatment report by 2 percentage points. Moreover, Berger, Font, Slack, and Waldfogel (2013) found that a $1000 increase in income via the EITC [Earned Income Tax Credit] decreased the probability of CPS involvement by 7–10%.

And here’s a story about another study documenting the transformative power of cash.

The latest study also is still more evidence of the single biggest problem in child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect. After all, if child welfare systems weren’t confusing poverty itself with neglect, then simply ameliorating poverty would not reduce neglect. Yet, lo and behold, it does! Or rather, it reduces what child protective services agencies label neglect.

Of course, if you actually did refocus child abuse prevention on alleviating poverty there’d also be an income reduction problem: A lot of counselors, parent educators and assorted other professionals who provide help that makes the helpers feel good, instead of what really helps families, would have to find other jobs.

The Indiana University-University of Connecticut study is part of a “special issue” of a child welfare journal “on the economic causes and consequences of child maltreatment.”

But the real answer doesn’t need an entire scholarly journal. It’s simple:

The poor are different from you and me. They have less money.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

NYC child welfare officials can’t get their story straight

Still another ACS official makes still another claim about the New York City foster-care panic

 Before anyone reads this, I recommend checking out this brilliant op-ed column in The New York Times by Emma Ketteringham of the Bronx Defenders. It explains everything that the editors of the Chronicle of Social Change, and their “Blogger of the Year,” don’t understand about child welfare.

In the previous post to this blog I discussed the resurrection of an odious racial stereotype in a column in the Chronicle of Social Change – the Fox News of child welfare. The stereotype appears in a column by the Chronicle’s “Blogger of the Year,” Marie Cohen, in which she complains about the New York Times story on foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

But Cohen’s column did serve one useful purpose.  It brings us still another official from the New York City child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, contradicting claims made by his colleagues concerning the extent of the foster-care panic in New York – the sharp spike in removals that tends to follow high-profile tragedies.

ACS Commissioner David Hansell told WNYC Public Radio there had been no increase at all.  A deputy, Andrew White, contradicted him, claiming that removals had increased, but only at about the same rate as the increase in reports passed on from the state child abuse hotline for investigation. The Center for New York City Affairs said both had increased by about 20 percent.

But now Cohen tells us she was told by ACS that “ACS investigated 27,549 allegations of maltreatment in the first five months of 2017, 2,000 more than in the first five months of 2016” – that would be an increase of less than eight percent – while removals increased 20 percent.

Cohen makes other claims about ACS data that are wrong, however.

She misreads the data when she suggests that ACS is responding with more use of family preservation.  There has, indeed, been a sharp increase in cases under “court supervision.”  But that does not mean ACS is providing more help – only that the “help” is being provided with more surveillance and more hoops to jump through.  As the Center for New York City Affairs explains in its report, that’s actually led to less help for families.

Cohen is correct in noting that the rate at which children are removed from their homes is lower in New York City than most places – though not all. Chicago is lower, and independent court-appointed  monitors have found that the reforms which reduced foster care in the state-run Illinois system improved child safety.

Child safety also improved in New York City as the number of children taken away each year declined.

But, as Cohen is quick to point out, there are still horror stories, such as the death of Zymere Perkins. They have the same kinds of horror stories in all those places that take away, proportionately, far more children.  (That means, of course, that the very real problems exposed by the Times are probably far worse almost everywhere else in America.)

Perhaps if caseworkers spend less time harassing parents such as those profiled by the Times they’ll find the next Zymere Perkins before it’s too late. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Foster care, racial bias and the Fox News of child welfare

Chronicle of Social Change should apologize for column that revives an odious racial stereotype


As many of my friends know, I often referred to writing for a child welfare trade journal that calls itself the Chronicle of Social Change as analogous to being the token liberal at Fox News. It’s not that the Chronicle has a right-wing agenda, but it has a strong take-the-child-and-run agenda.  (The issue of writing for them is moot – they’ve rejected my last four columns, including this one.)

But I didn’t think even the Chronicle would allow blatant racial stereotyping in its columns.  My mistake.

Shortly after The New York Times published its landmark story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” a more truly fair and balanced trade journal, Youth Today, decided the story was so important it linked to the story from the top of its homepage.  The Chronicle, on the other hand, treated the story the way Fox News treats revelations about Russian meddling in the 2016 election: Story? What story?

Until, that is, Marie Cohen was ready to complain about the Times story. Cohen is the Chronicle’s 2016 “Blogger of the Year.”  Her views often are similar to those of Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel.  Both are, like most people in child welfare, well motivated. In their own way, both really want to help vulnerable children. But that does not excuse what Cohen wrote, or the fact that the Chronicle published it without even a disclaimer - and promoted it on social media.

Cohen’s argument seems to be that the Times dared to report on the problem of needless removal of children in New York City without discussing in detail, in the same story, the fact that sometimes children known to the city’s child welfare agency die. She cited a recent case in point, the death of Zymere Perkins. In fact, the Times has published scores of stories on such tragedies. The fact that the Times devoted even one story to wrongful removal is simply more than Cohen can bear.

Had she stopped there, then the column would have been pretty much like almost every other column Cohen writes. But she didn’t stop there.  And that’s where the racial stereotyping comes in.

The sneaker stereotype


Though the Times story cited many cases of needless removal, Cohen focuses only on one.  The way she writes about it is disturbing.

Here’s how the Times story actually begins:

Maisha Joefield thought she was getting by pretty well as a young single mother in Brooklyn, splurging on her daughter, Deja, even though money was tight. When Deja was a baby, she bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could. When her daughter got a little older, Ms. Joefield outfitted the bedroom in their apartment with a princess bed for Deja, while she slept on a pullout couch.

Here’s how Cohen paraphrases that paragraph and comments on it:

Reporters Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg began with a description of Maisha Joefield, a mother who “splurged” on her daughter even when money was tight. For example, the reporters added helpfully, Ms. Joefield “bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could.”
It is odd to me that the authors seem to consider splurging on brand-name diapers, sneakers, or apparel to be an indicator of good motherhood.

Sneakers?  What sneakers?  The Times story never mentions sneakers – or any other “apparel” aside from the diapers.

I don’t know why Cohen brought sneakers into the discussion. I do know that there is a crude, pernicious racial stereotype that says African-Americans are poor because they waste money on expensive sneakers. 

It’s a staple of right-wing rants on internet comment boards. In one such rant on Glenn Beck’s site, The Blaze, about “HOW TO PREVENT BLACK CHILDREN FROM GETTING MURDERED” (caps in the original, of course) a commenter writes: “#5 INSTEAD OF BUYING THEM EXPENSIVE SNEAKERS AND SMARTPHONES - BE A REAL PARENT.” 

(If editors at the Chronicle still don’t see the problem, I recommend they  read this.)

The Chronicle not only published Cohen’s exercise in stereotyping, it promoted it on Twitter and Facebook. Heimpel even promoted it in his personal twitter feed. All this, just four days after the tragedy in Charlottesville, a time when, one would hope, editors would be extra careful about racial stereotypes.
 
By the way, if you did not see the part about sneakers when you clicked on the link to Cohen’s column, it means that the Chronicle decided to sanitize it by editing out the offensive words, while leaving the rest of the column. (As is discussed below, there’s a precedent for that.)  So on the right you'll find a screenshot of the original, just in case.

Coping with issues of race


This is not the first time Cohen has had difficulty coping with issues of child welfare and race.

In another column, Cohen claimed that a group known as the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare “quietly suspended its work” a claim so obviously false the Chronicle felt compelled to add a correction – but only after it had stood uncorrected for weeks.

Or consider Cohen’s take on “predictive analytics” a form of computerized racial profiling, that I have called the stop-and-frisk of child welfare.

During the 2016 campaign, former house speaker and early Donald Trump supporter Newt Gingrich said this in defense of stop-and-frisk:

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

Here’s what Cohen, a self-proclaimed liberal, originally wrote about predictive analytics in child welfare:

As to the concern about racial profiling that has haunted the predictive analytics debate, I find it very hypocritical. Letting more black children die to protect them from racial profiling cannot possibly be an ethical approach or one that is endorsed by responsible child welfare leaders.

The Chronicle persuaded Cohen to delete the paragraph, but it was briefly published by mistake.

In yet another column, Cohen complains that “As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple low-quality, heavy-handed trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases.”

The Chronicle owes the African-American community, and all of its readers, an apology for publishing a column from its “Blogger of the Year” that indulges in racial stereotyping. 

 Another cheap shot at the mother


The sneaker remark was not Cohen’s only comment about Ms. Joefield’s case. Here again is what the Times wrote:

One night, exhausted, Ms. Joefield put Deja to bed, and plopped into a bath with her headphones on.
“By the time I come out, I’m looking, I don’t see my child,” said Ms. Joefield, who began frantically searching the building. Deja, who was 5, had indeed headed for the grandmother’s house when she couldn’t find her mother,[as she had been taught to do] but the next thing Ms. Joefield knew, it was a police matter.

Here is Cohen’s reaction:

The reporters quote legal aid attorney Scott Hechinger as saying, “In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s … a story to tell later … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the future of your child.”
I don’t know where Mr. Hechinger lives, but I have never heard of a friend or neighbor alone with a small child putting on earphones and listening to music so loud with the bathroom door presumably closed that her child could not hear her.

First of all, the fact that Cohen hasn’t heard of something doesn’t mean it never happened.  If a friend or neighbor had done this, or made any other mistake in the course of raising a child,  s/he might not rush to confide in Marie Cohen. 

And, apparently Cohen doesn’t live near any New York Times editors. 

While discussing the story on WNYC Public Radio, one of the Times reporters, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, said that after the story ran, 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 Silver-Greenberg that “This has become family lore.”

Cohen might argue that the Times editor did not specify where he was; he says nothing about bathing or headphones. But the point is, his child couldn’t find him and did exactly what Ms. Joefield’s child did.

 “Pockets Full of Stones”


Not that Cohen is alone in her sentiments. Some readers expressed similar views in the comments section for the Times story. That prompted this response from someone identified only as LF:

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.

Cohen’s column also displays a misunderstanding of key data provided by the New York City child welfare agency. That will be discussed on this blog tomorrow.

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.


UPDATE, AUGUST 23: Before it was published here, this column, concerning the appalling comments of a man who says he was a CASA for 20 years, was submitted to the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, an online child welfare trade journal. It was rejected.  In contrast, the Chronicle had no problem publishing a column by Marie Cohen, it’s “Blogger of the Year,” that actually promotes a racial stereotype. I discuss that column here.

That’s part of the reason I refer to the Chronicle as the Fox News of Child Welfare.


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.