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:

●UPDATE, July 22, 2017: The New York Times got past the veto of silence to report on how fostercare has become the new “Jane Crow.”

The Times got past the veto of silence again 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.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New columns on the "new normal" for Black children - and other child welfare system horrors

There’s a new study out which includes some frightening estimates about the likelihood that a child abuse investigation will be a part of one’s childhood. If the study is correct, enduring such an investigation is the new normal for African-American children. Unfortunately, the researchers were not frightened.  I wrote about it here

I spoke to Errol Louis, anchor of Road to City Hall on NY1, a local all-news cable channel about foster care panic.  The video is here.

Other columns deal with:

--How the McMartin Preschool case was child welfare's prelude to #Pizzagate

--How one writer's proposed "New vision" for foster care is just another call to go back to orphanages 

--The real lesson from the closing of a California group home: Group homes don't work.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Child welfare in New York City: HORRORS!!! Some Family Court judges reportedly are behaving like – judges!

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

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
I noted in a previous post that, when it comes to responding to the latest high-profile tragedy involving the death of a child “known to the system” in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage, but at least he’s done better than others – notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a whole slew of mayor wannabes.

Unfortunately, the gap is narrowing.

De Blasio has found a way to claim credit for improved safety outcomes in New York City child welfare while blaming others for the failures. Unfortunately, the method he’s chosen fans the flames of foster-care panic.

It’s also at odds with reality.

The mayor now claims that Family Court judges “often” keep children in supposedly dangerous homes or return them there, over the objections of caseworkers and lawyers for the Administration for Children’s Services.

The first indication that this is b------t is the simple fact that, as noted in previous posts, child safety is improving. In fact, the key measures used by the federal government to assess child safety are at their best levels in at least six years.

In addition, on the three separate occasions over the past 20 years when this exact question has been studied in New York City, the findings were the opposite: Judges routinely rubber stamp needless removals – on one occasion judges even admitted it to a panel of national experts.

Rubber stamps or gavels?

● In 2000, Mark Green,the city’s first Public Advocate – and the only one to get child welfare right - issued a scathing report on how the Family Court deck was stacked against families. He found that families won on the merits only 1.6 percent of the time.  And that was not because ACS was 98.4 percent perfect.

● At about the same time, a panel of national experts created as a result of a class-action lawsuit settlement issued another of those reports worthy of words like “blasts” or “slams” in headlines. They were so appalled by what they saw in Family Court that they devoted a special section to it. Judges freely admitted to the panel that they regularly rubber-stamped removals even when they didn’t believe ACS made a good enough case:

The judges had much to say about their frustration with ACS for cases in which it lacks adequate preparation or fails to present a solid evidentiary case of abuse or neglect. Yet they acknowledge that they do not hold ACS accountable by refusing to grant their petitions in these cases. They felt that they could not risk making a mistake and having a child die; spoke of the withering media attention to decisions which turn out badly; and cited the lack of Court of Appeals support for insistence upon solid legal evidence for removal, noting the doctrine of "safercourse" that the higher court typically relies upon.
When we suggested that it sounded as though the weaker the case ACS presented, the more likely it would be to prevail (because judges would be especially afraid that something bad was going on in a home when they couldn't get clear information), several judges nodded. Such practice lowers the standard of accountability to which ACS ought appropriately be held, and comes frighteningly close to abdicating the Court's basic responsibility to protect the rights of children and families. [Emphasis added.]      

But hey, that was in 2000. It’s not like that now, is it?

Yes and no.

The mayor seems to want Family Court Judges to wield
rubber stamps ...
There certainly have been improvements. For starters, in 2004 the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals rejected the so-called “safer course” doctrine,* in part because it recognized that given the inherent harm of removal and the risk of abuse in foster care it isn’t necessarily safer.
In a unanimous decision, the court wrote that “the term ‘safer course should not be used to mask a dearth of evidence or as a watered down impermissible presumption.”

More important, the city now contracts with institutional providers of high-quality legal representation for families – but only for about half of all cases. (All children have had their own lawyers for decades – and that’s in addition to the ACS lawyers.) The improvement in family defense is thanks in part to the panel and its report, and in particular to John Mattingly, a panel member who went on to run ACS. (I’ve often criticized Mattingly, but he deserves credit for this.)

These providers don’t “get bad parents off.” Rather, they point out when ACS has not done all it could to keep a family safely together and they come up with better, safer alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” often churned out by ACS. This story, from The Nation, describes how it works.

So yes, there’s been some progress.

“We practice New York Post” law”

...instead of gavels
But in 2007, when anthropologist Tina Lee spent more than a year embedded in the New York City
child welfare system, doing in-depth research, interviewing parties on all sides, observing cases in court, etc. she found things had not changed nearly enough.

Lee observed initial hearings in 60 cases. “In only two cases,” she writes in her book, Catching a Case, “did the judge find that a removal was unwarranted.”

And the reasons hadn’t changed much, either.  She quotes a private attorney for families who told her:

Certainly, they wouldn’t tell you for attribution, but if you were to ask my colleagues  what … motivates judges, they will tell you quite frankly that we practice New York Post law, and what that means basically is that no judge wants us to let a kid go home and see his name in the tabloids the next day that a kid got killed or maimed badly because of a decision he or she made.

Lee writes that this, plus overloaded court calendars, plus the fact that judges are appointed – or not – by the mayor

Create a situation in which judges have little incentive to challenge ACS when they seek to intervene in families…

Now, it’s been another decade.  Have things gotten better? I certainly hope so. I hope that lawyers for the Bronx Defenders no longer are heckled by other attorneys just for actually advocating for their clients at initial hearings, as Lee found in 2007.

But the mayor seems to want to turn back the clock all the way to the worst excesses of decades ago. He practically said as much.

The mayor seems to have gotten the blame-the-judges idea from an ACS lawyer who whined about not always getting his way during the mayor’s weekly segment on WNYC Public Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show. The mayor rushed to agree. 

I think that it is pretty damn clear when all other alternatives have been tried, and ACS believes it’s time to take that step [to remove the child] even if it’s a radical step, I believe the benefit of the doubt should go to ACS and the work they’ve done.

But when ACS wants to remove a child from the home ACS always claims that “all other alternatives have been tried” – if ACS said otherwise, ACS would be admitting to violating both federal and New York State law, which require “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.

Does the mayor really think there are times when the ACS lawyer stands up in court and says “Why yes, your honor, there are alternatives to taking away the child that we haven’t tried, but we want you to tear apart this family anyway”?

So what the mayor is really saying to judges is: Put away those gavels, bring back the rubber stamps and do exactly what ACS says whenever ACS tells you to do it.

An odd stance for a “progressive” mayor

The mayor’s demand is still another example of how depressingly easy it can be to get many of my fellow liberals turn their backs on everything they claim to believe in just by whispering the words “child abuse” in their ears.

Can anyone imagine this mayor saying that every time police stopped and frisked someone it was because they had used every other alternative and there was simply no other way to protect public safety? How about every time the police used deadly force?

Lauren Shapiro, director of family defense practice for Brooklyn Defender Services appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show the next week to respond. But the next day de Blasio was at it again declaring that there are

many situations where ACS wants to remove a child from the family and a judge may not agree. …  ACS often wants to be more aggressive than a judge allows it to be.

Neither the mayor nor the whining lawyer from ACS offered any actual statistics.  Everything we know says the claim is false.

As for simply giving ACS the benefit of the doubt, the Court of Appeals rejected that idea – for
good reason. The court declared:

The plain language of [state law] and the legislative history supporting it establish that a blanket presumption favoring removal was never intended. The court must do more than identify the existence of a risk of serious harm. Rather, a court must weigh, in the factual setting before it, whether the imminent risk to the child can be mitigated by reasonable efforts to avoid removal. It must balance that risk against the harm removal might bring, and it must determine factually which course is in the child's best interests. [Emphasis added.]

When courts do that it creates more work for ACS lawyers. But it also makes children safer.

*The decision was an outgrowth of a federal class-action suit, Nicholson v. Scoppetta. NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that case.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Child welfare in New York City: “I am scared of ACS”

In January, 2006, NCCPR and several New York City advocates held a news conference in response to a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden surge in removals of children from their homes following a high-profile tragedy. In this case the panic followed the death of Nixzmary Brown.

At that news conference we distributed a written statement from a 14-year-old who had been wrongly removed from her home and placed in foster care by the city child welfare agency some years before by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). She wrote about being abused in foster care and about how the fear of being taken again never left her.

To protect her privacy the 14-year-old did not appear at the news conference, and her name was not used.

Sadly, more than a decade later, her statement is relevant again, so we reprint it here:

 “I am scared of ACS”

I am scared of ACS.  All the news reports of the deaths of kids scares me. 

My Mom is being investigated by ACS now because the Board of Ed can't keep track of our home school records.

I'm scared because no one cares that Mom and Dad are not abusing me and my brother.  Nobody cares the only abuse I got was in the foster homes they put me in.  ACS took me from my family and put me with people who told me and my brother my family didn't want us.  I knew they were lying.  I knew my Mom would get us back.  That’s what I held onto during night after night of sexual abuse.

The foster parents didn't feed me and my brother all the time.  One time my brother took a cookie out of the fridge because he was hungry.  The foster mother beat him with a shoe.  I yelled at her I was going to tell my Mom because we were going to have a visit with her the same day.  The foster mother grabbed the broom and as I tried to run she hit me on top of my head.  Blood ran down my face and covered my shirt.  She put me in the bed and put a towel on my head.  It kept bleeding.

She took the other two kids for their visit with their Mom.  Later that night the agency caseworker came and took me to the hospital.  We never went back to that foster home, thank God.   I still have a big mark on my head were my hair won't grow because of that.  Later I found out the other foster child told the caseworker what happened to me.  The foster mother had called and said she couldn't make the visit. 

My Mom never beat us, she just made us turn the TV off and read.  I got beat in the foster homes they put me in but no one cared. The foster parents told me I was ugly and stupid.  My Mom always told me I could be anything I wanted to be in life, all I had to do was try. 

I never wanted to talk about what happened to me in the four foster homes I was in because I was ashamed.  I didn't want people to know what happened to me.  I wanted to write a story so everyone could understand there are kids who are scared of ACS.  ACS was not a savior to me.  I hate them so much but my Mom tells me not to hate.

Why do they do this to kids?  I had a Mom who loved me and took care of me.  Even if my Mom couldn't take care of us, we have a big family that would.  Instead, ACS put us in hellholes and for what? 

ACS sees all parents the same once the call is made.  My Mom and dad then have to prove why they should be allowed to keep us.  I think ACS should have to prove why they should be allowed to take kids.
We just moved downtown to a nice area.  I thought I could put all of the bad ACS memories behind me.   ACS called my new school and I don't want to go back there.  I don't want everyone looking at me like I'm an abused child.   I don't want them asking: Is everything ok at home?

We just moved into the building so everyone knows when ACS comes a knocking.

People always know.  I feel ashamed.  I want to leave New York City.  I want to leave so ACS can never take me and my brother again.  My Mom said we can't leave just like that while the case is open. 

I'm scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming.  I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home.  All because if my Mom and Dad don't do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us. 

I feel safer at home.  I feel like my Mom and Dad could keep them from taking me.  I failed a test I had to take for my new school on purpose because I'm scared ACS will come to the school and take me.  My head started to hurt every time it came time to leave the house.  Every morning I was sick throwing up and diarrhea.

I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18.  Then I know ACS will never be able to put us in a foster home again.

When I started to write this story, my Mom asked me: If I had a chance what would I say to ACS and people who read this?  I wanted to say please leave me and my brother alone and other kids who don't need to be put in foster care. ACS don't take us and put us back in those bad homes.  I want to be with my Mom and Dad.  I want to be a normal kid.  I don't want to be scared to go to school.  I don't want to jump every time there is a knock at the door.  I want to feel safe in my own home without worrying that acs is coming.

The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer... Psalm 18:2