Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Arizona court decision offers another chance to see how a child welfare agency really works

And, as usual, the picture is ugly.

An Arizona Court of Appeals decision illustrates how
the Arizona Department of Child Safety undermines child safety

Monday’s post to this blog discussed a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals overturning a lower court decision to approve a request from the state child welfare agency to terminate a mother’s parental rights.

That post focused on how the case was part of a pattern by the state’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) to, in fact, undermine child safety by taking away the children of battered mothers.  That is so harmful to children that one expert has called it  “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

But this case also illustrated many other failings in the Arizona system – failings that are common in child welfare agencies throughout the country.

Like the Connecticut case discussed in NCCPR’s analysis The DCF Revenge Machine, this Arizona case is one of those typical cases that dominate the caseloads of child protective services workers.  And the failings of the agency are typical as well.  As such, this case is another of those rare opportunities to take a close look at the day-to-day failings of America’s child welfare establishment.

But I’ll let the court do most of the talking.

Failing #1: Sloppy casework

From the court ruling:

In the summer of 2016, a new case manager was assigned.  The new case manager testified at the severance hearing that she mistrusts Mother’s judgment and ability to protect the children from future abuse.  But  … [t]he case manager testified that in reaching her conclusion she read several but not all of the parent-aide notes (which total 145 pages), never met with Mother outside of court hearings, only consulted with one of the service providers who worked with Mother, never attempted to confirm her suspicions that Mother and Father were still dating, never observed Mother with the children, and never visited or attempted to visit Mother’s home to see if it would be safe for the children.

Among the most interesting sections of the opinion is where the court blasts DCS for relying heavily on a single note from a parent aide – and misinterpreting that note. Again, from the opinion:

This entry (one of dozens made over the course of eight months) is not proof of Mother’s inability to protect the children. To the contrary, it shows that Mother was concerned with Father’s treatment of I.R. and confronted him about it. Nor is there a single notation in 145 pages of parent-aide notes to suggest a pattern of selection of abusive partners by Mother, or abuse by Mother. According to the parent-aide provider’s records, there was not a single instance of Mother failing to come prepared for a visit nor a single situation involving Mother that required the assistance of the parent aide. Every entry notes the love and affection Mother showed for the children.

Given the extent to which caseworkers tend to be overloaded in Arizona and in most of the country (largely by false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with “neglect”) there is no reason to believe what happened here was unusual. 

Failing #2: A crappy “psych eval”

No matter what the reason for removal, parents almost always are forced to undergo a “psychological evaluation.”  That’s because of another child welfare obsession – trying to turn every family problem into a mental health issue – instead of facing up to what often is the real issue: poverty. 

That orientation, combined with the fact that the people doing the evaluations typically are paid by the child welfare agency means that, as one lawyer put it long ago, “Nobody walks out of [a psychological evaluation] with a clean bill of mental health.” There is evidence from across the country, that psych evals often are a sick joke. See, for example, this ProPublica story.

In the Arizona case, the court found that the evaluation was “untethered to the evidence” and questioned whether it ever should have been admitted into evidence at all.  The decision suggests that DCS stacked the deck by being selective about what it told the evaluator – and then the evaluator compounded the problems because of his own biases. According to the decision:

Conspicuously absent from the information the Department gave the psychologist is any reference to the 14 months of services Mother had successfully completed or was currently receiving. Mother had — without exception — tested negative for drug use; successfully closed out of her drug-testing service because of the lack of any positive test; closed out of drug rehabilitation because the service provider determined that no drug treatment was necessary; participated in domestic-violence counseling and group meetings; and successfully completed at least eight months of parent-aide services and supervised visitation, where she always came prepared and showed proper parenting skills.…
Because he neither considered the available information nor attempted to evaluate Mother’s parenting skills, his conclusion that she is unable to successfully parent for the foreseeable future is not reasonable evidence of Mother’s parenting ability. Indeed, the foundation for his opinion is so lacking that we question (though we do not here decide) its admissibility.

Failing #3: The hype about drug abuse

In light of the fact that we are currently drowning in hype and hysteria over drug abuse and child welfare, the most useful part of the decision may be how the court concluded that both the Arizona child welfare agency and the psych eval misrepresented the issue of drug use by the mother:

Mother never tested positive for drugs, and the service provider concluded that she needed no services to address drug abuse.[Emphasis in original.] Yet the psychologist opined that Mother was at a high risk of relapse and was only sober because “she sees herself in trouble.” …
According to the psychologist’s own notes, Mother experimented with a variety of drugs before turning 21 and regularly used marijuana thereafter, but she ceased all drug use when J.R. was born (when she was 25) and had not used drugs for at least three years. The Department failed to inform the psychologist of Mother’s negative drug tests and the treatment provider’s determination that she did not need drug treatment - - even the evidence he had did not support his conclusions about drug use.

NCCPR has long supported creating a strong “rebuttable presumption” that court hearings and most case records in child welfare cases should be public.  Details are in our Due Process Agenda.  But that’s not because we think those records are Holy Writ. On the contrary, they are one side of the story – the child welfare agency’s side of the story.

There’s almost always another side.  But few reporters – or appellate courts – are willing to look for it.  Fortunately, one appellate court in Arizona did.