Monday, August 8, 2022

NCCPR in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly doesn’t have too few foster homes. It has too many foster kids.

The city can make smarter choices that will reduce the number of kids placed in foster care, which will reduce strain on the system — and save kids from having to sleep in conference rooms. 

We’ve all heard the adage that goes: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” A classic example of that adage is Philadelphia’s approach to the welfare of its children. 

In 2016, Philadelphia closed its only juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility — Wordsworth — after a 17-year-old died in a fight with staff. The city opened another in 2020, but that facility soon lost its license due to “multiple child right violations,” according to the state. Now, the city is asking providers to bid for a contract to create another facility. 

So, the plan is to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution. Meanwhile, because Philadelphia still is taking too many children from their homes, there are not enough foster homes, so the children are held in conference rooms. 

There are better answers. … 

Read the full column in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Friday, August 5, 2022

At last! One news organization gets the makeshift placement story right!

Once touted as a model institution, the Glen Mills School was closed after
the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed widespread abuse.

The Philadelphia Inquirer zeros in on real solutions 

Here’s something I never thought I’d see in a story about children trapped in night-to-night placements because family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) had no place else to put them: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix.

But there it was, in one of two outstanding stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer Thursday.  It’s taken a long time. 

For as long as I’ve been following family policing – and that’s more than 45 years now - I’ve been reading stories exposing the horrors inflicted on children forced to endure days, sometimes months in makeshift placements such as family policing agency offices, hotels, hospital wards, jails – even parked cars. 

As I recall, every one of those stories got the solutions wrong.  Oh, there might be a token paragraph somewhere about how “prevention” is a really good thing.  But that part about “not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix”?  Never! 

Instead, the reporters would accept as gospel the party line from the “residential treatment” industry. It’s always some version of: “See, we need to build more places to institutionalize kids!” Or, “See? We told you you shouldn’t have shut down our hellholes sorry, therapeutic communities!”  

It would have been easy for The Philadelphia Inquirer to fall into the same trap.  After all, Philadelphia has made significant progress in reducing the number of children torn from their families.  But Philadelphia now has a serious problem with children staying night-to-night in family police agency conference rooms, among other awful places.  Workers sum up the conditions there as “chaos.”  And Philadelphia either shut down or pulled kids out of several institutions in recent years – because the institutions themselves were so abusive. 

But perhaps because colleagues of reporter Samantha Melamed exposed horrific abuse in some of those institutions, such as Glen Mills (which is now closed) and Devereux, she wasn’t ready to accept the idea that the answer is to reopen them, or build new ones. 

Yes, the story includes the usual claim from a residential treatment trade association representative, whining that, now that the city has “reduced capacity” (by refusing to warehouse all those children in hellholes) it’s “destabilized the industry” making it hard to find placements for children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs.” 

But instead of simply accepting this claim at face value, Melamed broadened her source base.  For starters, she explained Philadelphia’s longstanding dismal status as a child removal outlier: 

For years, Philadelphia DHS removed children from their homes at one of the highest rates in the nation. It was an agency shaped, in many ways, by its response to abuse scandals including the 2006 starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly while under DHS supervision. 

Now, the city is part of a national and statewide push to stop institutionalizing kids, spurred on by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. That shift comes amid a widespread recognition that abuses happen in those institutional settings, too — and with startling frequency. It’s also an acknowledgment of racial disparities: Black children account for 13% of Pennsylvania youth, but 35% of those in foster care and two-thirds of those in state juvenile-justice placements … 

But the story goes on to explain that, even with the improvements, Philadelphia still is an outlier when it comes to tearing apart families.  That means there still is plenty of opportunity to free up “capacity” by not filling family foster homes with children who don’t need to be there. 

From the story: 

In the child-welfare system, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s Kathleen Creamer said the city needs to double down on preventing family separations. 

Already, she noted, Philadelphia DHS has reformed its process for screening and investigating abuse allegations, and increased funding for legal aid for families. It also begun holding rapid-response meetings to enlist extended families to help kids in danger of being removed. She said that work now needs to go even further, reallocating some of the millions that would be spent on group homes or foster care to properly fund the supportive services that can help families working to stay together. 

“The question is, what’s the policy solution for this?” she said. “The policy solution is to stop separating so many families. We don’t have good placements for them, so let’s actually try to work with the family.” 

Indeed, in a sidebar serving as what Malamed herself tweeted is “the tl;dr version” of the story she includes that paragraph I quoted at the top: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. 

The residential treatment typically responds by saying something like: Even if you have enough families, what about all those children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs”?  

But even when residential treatment centers are not hellholes, there is no evidence that they can meet “really complex or sophisticated behavioral needs.”  On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure. 

In contrast, Wraparound services, in which anything a child needs is brought right into the child’s own home, or, when placement is genuinely necessary, a family foster home, do work.  There is nothing residential treatment does that Wraparound doesn’t do better and at less cost. 

How does it work? differently for every child – that’s the point.  So the best way to understand Wraparound is to let one of its pioneers, Karl Dennis, give you an example: 

But perhaps the best indication of why building more institutions won’t work comes in this part of the Inquirer story, the ultimate example of the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result: 

Wordsworth, Philadelphia’s lone juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility, was shut down by the state in 2016 after 17-year-old David Hess died in a fight with staff. A replacement opened in 2020 — then quickly lost its license, too, due to what the state said were “multiple child right violations.” (The city last year invited two new providers to negotiate contracts for yet another replacement, but it’s not clear when such a facility may open.) 

So what if, instead of trying to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution, Philadelphia invested those funds in Wraparound programs and other supports for families? 

What if, at the same time, Philadelphia built on its progress to date and reduced its rate of removal to, say, that of New York City?  That would be well under half the Philadelphia rate.  What if Philadelphia then said to the foster parents in those now-empty homes: Take in the relatively few children who really need placement – and we will bring into your home whatever help the children – and you – need to cope with those “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs” and make the placement work? 

Would that mean that no Philadelphia child ever again would have to spend even one night in an office or some other awful makeshift placement?  Probably not.  But it would happen to a hell of a lot fewer children than endure it now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 2, 2022

Just two items of interest this week, one of which I’d missed when it was published in May:

● A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, alleging that UPMC drug tests pregnant women and their newborns without consent, reports the results to the family policing agency and, even if it’s no more than a false positive result for marijuana, the agency automatically investigates. 

As The Legal Intelligencer reported, the judge wrote that:

“Averments set form in the amended complaint allege that [Allegheny County Children Youth and Families] used UPMC as a form of ‘cat’s paw’ to undertake inquiries and to administer drug tests on UPMC’s labor and delivery patients without their consent, and then to use reports of those ostensibly private and confidential medical inquiries and ‘provision and uncertain’ test results as a predicate to launch unwarranted and unconstitutional child abuse investigations.” 

This case has significant implications well beyond Pittsburgh.  And it touches on multiple vital issues in family policing, including the harm of the so-called Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the dangers of “predictive analytics” algorithms in “child welfare.”  I’ve updated our in-depth examination of the case on this blog

● On the matter of algorithms, we have a full update of our report on predictive analytics, Big Data is Watching You.

Bloomberg CityLab reports that: 

Four major corporate landlords filed thousands of evictions while federal moratorium orders were still standing, using aggressive tactics to force out tenants at the height of the pandemic, according to a new investigation by a House subcommittee. … 

An email from an executive at [one major Texas landlord], for example, advised a property manager and regional manager in San Antonio to harass a tenant by towing her car, replacing her air conditioning unit with a nonworking unit, knocking on her door “at least twice a night” and even calling child protective services on the tenant if any children were present. (The committee referred its findings to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.) [Emphasis added.] 

The referral will do no good, of course, because, though false reports are illegal in Texas, anyone can evade the law by making the call anonymously, something that won’t change until anonymous reporting is replaced with confidential reporting.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 26, 2022

● The Columbia Journal of Race and Law is out with a second set of papers from the Strengthened Bonds symposium.  I’ve only begun reading them, but I particularly want to call attention to this groundbreaking paper by Ashley Albert and Amy Mulzer.  But read it only if you are ready to reconsider everything you think you know about adoption. 

● NPR and The Marshall Project have a follow-up to their groundbreaking stories about family policing agencies swiping foster youth’s Social Security benefits.  And Cal Matters reports on California counties that continue this odious practice. 

● A doctor and a lawyer have some advice for people who may face a false allegation of child abuse.  But, as I explain in this blog post, it should have been called “The middle-class white person’s guide to dealing with a child abuse allegation.”

● Even when it works right, the vastly overhyped Family First Act won’t do much good.  But, as Mississippi Today reports, that state is managing to screw up what little opportunity there is. 

● In Arizona, KJZZ Public Radio reports on a lawsuit demanding the standard of proof be raised before someone is blacklisted in that state’s central registry of alleged child abusers. 

● Last week’s round-up reported on an innovative plan in some Wisconsin counties designed to help families with the housing they need to reunify with their children.  One of the counties voted it down

NBC News reports that two senators are launching an investigation of some of America’s largest residential McTreatment chains.  The good news: They’ve included one scandal-plagued nonprofit chain, Devereux. That’s important because too often reporters assume that if we could just get rid of the for-profit players everything would be fine.  The bad news: The investigation appears based on the implicit premise that, with enough regulation, residential treatment can be fixed.  But it can’t. 

● And finally: Pope Francis set an example for the entire North American family policing establishment this week by apologizing for one of that establishment’s worst sins.  Every one of the big, mainstream “child welfare” groups has so much to apologize for, not just in terms of what was done decades ago, but what they continue to do today.  But don’t expect them to follow the Pope’s example anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The middle-class white person’s guide to dealing with a child abuse allegation

The doctor will report you now.

That’s not what the recent article in the online publication Parent Map is called, of course. The actual title is “What do Do If You Are Mistakenly Accused of Child Abuse in a Hospital Emergency Room.”  But the authors should have made clear the advice only applies if the “You” in that headline is a white, middle-class person. 

Between them the co-authors, a doctor and a lawyer, have five sets of  “look-at-all-my advanced -degrees!” initials after their names.  It begins with what happened to one of the authors,  Katheryn Goldman, DMD, MPH, ABD: 

My 9-year-old daughter was jumping on her bed. She bounced off, and I wound up taking her to the emergency room. She got two small stitches under her eye. Just a week later, two of our sons were engaged in some rough horseplay. Oops! Off to the emergency room I went again. Thankfully, no stitches were needed on the 4-year-old’s head. Both times, we were treated by the same nurse in the same examining room! I could sense that she looked at me with a tad of justifiable suspicion. That’s why I made sure that in both instances the children told the nurse what had happened. I did not want to give the impression that the kids were being coached in any way. 

Oops?  Just – oops?  Would she call the suspicion “justifiable” were she, at this very moment, making sure the house was spotless in case of a surprise inspection from CPS – in between her mandatory “counseling” and “parent education” classes?  Would she feel that way were she fighting to get her child out of foster care?  Two trips to the E.R. in a week, and one required a child to get stitches?  How many impoverished Black parents could have that happen to their children without so much as a call to the family police? 

This article is not the worst of its kind.  One pediatrician / author has practically made a career out of writing this sort of essay. 

But at no point do Dr. Godman and her lawyer co-author, Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, so much as acknowledge that the kid gloves, anyone-can-have-an-oops treatment is reserved for the white middle class. 

Then comes a claim that, for some hospitals, is demonstrably false.  They write: 

Simply because a child gets injured and is treated at an emergency room does not mean that Child Protection Services (CPS) will become involved. The hospital contacts CPS only when staff suspect maltreatment. 

But just two days after the Parent Map story was published, KFMB-TV in San Diego reported this story: 

A Marine Corps pilot and his wife are suing the County of San Diego after Child Welfare Services took their seven-month-old son from their home for more than a month after the boy head-butted his mother as he played after breastfeeding.  

According to the story, the hospital apparently didn’t believe the infant was abused but

submitted a hotline referral to the county as required when an infant is injured and admitted to the hospital.

California law does not require this - it's simply a hospital policy that makes every parent who brings in an infant with an injury automatically suspect.

Similarly, when Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported City Councilmember David Oh as a potential child abuser after one of his children was injured as he taught the child martial arts, Oh says the hospital social worker explained that she “typically reports injuries children suffer in all sports.”

By the way, Councilmember Oh’s child was interviewed separately and told the social worker what happened – just like Dr. Goldman’s children.  But somehow, the result was different. 

And these are just the hospitals that will say it out loud. 

Remember, no doctor, nurse, or other mandated reporter will get in trouble for making a report that turns out to be false.  They can face huge penalties for failure to report if, later, it turns out there really was abuse.  So even in the absence of a formal policy that creates a huge incentive to report any injury, especially to the youngest children.

But not only does the Parent Map article mislead on this point, at no point does it mention the slew of studies showing that, where a report isn’t automatic, medical personnel are far more likely to call the family police if the family is not white.

Indeed, though the article claims that “Making a decision to contact child protective services is a difficult call for the vast majority of health-care providers” in fact, we’ve created incentives that make it way too easy – especially if the parent is not white and middle-class.

Now let’s consider some advice the authors offer concerning lawyers:

Even though things are happening fast in the ER, depending on the allegations, you may want to have an attorney present with you during any interviews with a CPS investigator.  Under many circumstances — but not all — you may be inclined to proactively grant CPS access to your child. While you may have the authority to deny that access in some states, such a denial may cast you in a negative light. This is a judgment call to quickly consult an attorney about. [Emphasis added.]

Is it really necessary to point out the problem with this advice?  Poor people generally don’t have a lawyer on speed dial.  And with extremely rare exceptions, the government isn’t going to provide one, either.  In some states, impoverished families have no right to a lawyer at all.  In the rest, except for a few pilot programs, they’re only guaranteed a lawyer after the family police have decided to haul the family into court.

Even then, it’s not the kind of lawyering the authors of the Parent Map article have in mind.

Scholars who worked on studies of more than 20 different family policing systems found that

attorneys  who  represent parents or children have very high caseloads, in some jurisdictions, as high as 300 cases per attorney. Parents and youth consistently reported quick interactions with their  attorneys, and many reported not knowing the name of their attorneys. Parents are routinely told  to plead and accept case plans as the quickest way to get children back home and end system involvement.

So let’s not kid ourselves.  Poor, nonwhite parents, the very parents most likely to be viewed with unwarranted suspicion in the ER, are also those least likely to be able to follow that nice advice about lawyers.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with giving advice that applies only to white middle-class families – provided it comes with a warning label.  The very fact that the authors saw no need to place such a label on their story, or even acknowledge that racial and class bias exist in the family policing system, is part of the reason we have such a system in the first place.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 19, 2022

● What – again???  Yes, another not-so-shocking study tells us that just a little more concrete help for poor people – in this case increasing SNAP benefits – reduces what family policing agencies call child abuse.  According to a story about the study in The Hill

States with more generous SNAP policies — and therefore more program participants — had fewer children involved in Child Protective Services (CPS) and foster care, according to the 14-year nationwide survey, published in JAMA Network Open on Wednesday. 

And here’s a review highlighting some of the many other studies reaching similar conclusions. 

● None of this will convince those who have built their entire careers (both in family policing agencies and in academia) on denying any such connection – or falling back on the: well, it’s not poverty alone defense.  But for the rest of us Nora McCarthy, co-founder of the Family Policy Project, offers some suggestions concerning what to do next. 

● If you’re relatively new to all of this, take 20 minutes to let Joyce McMillan of JMacForFamilies give you an overview of how the system really works in this podcast from Black Agenda Report: 

● If you’re a journalist relatively new to covering child welfare, please don’t repeat the mistake made by a reporter in Illinois who accepted without question the Illinois “Public Guardian’s” big little lie about who is in the system and why. 

● It’s always useful when family policing agencies admit they are trapping children in foster care solely because their parents can’t afford adequate housing.  They generally admit this when they are applying for grants.  The Wausau (Wis.) Pilot and Review reports on a case in point

● One member of Congress who understood the confusion of poverty with neglect before almost anyone was the late Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii.  She was the only Democrat to vote against the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act back in 1997.  She knew how much harm it would do.  I’ve reprinted her prescient speech against the bill in this blog post. 

● According to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Dr. Barbara Knox "fled to Alaska" after leaving "a legacy of flawed shaken baby diagnoses in Wisconsin."  According to the Anchorage Daily News, Dr. Knox’s time in Alaska was “brief but calamitous.”  What state could possibly want to hire someone with a track record like that? Here’s a hint: This story is from Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell.  Oh, and the Anchorage Daily News has an update of its own

● Also in Florida (you'd already guessed, right?) WFTS-TV has another excellent story about extended families who were denied custody of their children in favor of strangers who sometimes had connections to the system – like the couple who work in that state’s notorious CASA program. 

● Still more evidence that when family police agencies say “We don’t remove children on our own – a judge has to approve everything we do” they’re lying.” Carolina Public Press reports on a county where the head of the family police agency signed custody orders herself. (In case anybody thinks this only happens in rural North Carolina, more than a decade ago WXYZ-TV exposed a similar appalling practice – in Detroit.  Also, recall how a longtime child welfare apparatchik recently fessed up.) 

● A Texas legislator who co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to narrow the state’s definition of “neglect” writes in the Dallas Morning News about how the change is making all children safer. 

● Sixto Cancel, founder and CEO of Think of Us, discusses his organization’s new Center for Lived Experience on The Imprint podcast.  He also shares findings from his organization’s participatory research, including some disturbing data about failed adoptions. 

● Among the children most vulnerable to being needlessly torn from their parents are those whose parents are disabled.  Two federal agencies condemned Massachusetts over this.  There have been similar problems in Oregon and Pennsylvania – and those are only the cases that made headlines.  Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that might help these children and families.  Here’s the bill text.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Illinois “Public Guardian’s” big little lie

● He smears all birth families with a claim that is – by definition – false.  

● It’s the same claim that appears in scores of news stories.  It would never be tolerated in a story about criminal justice.  Yet it almost never is challenged by journalists reporting on child welfare.

 A question for any journalists reading this: 

Suppose you were working on a story about the criminal justice system, and a prosecutor said: “By definition, anyone in jail is a criminal – they’re rapists and torturers and all sorts of other crooks.”  Wouldn’t you follow up with something like: “Wait a minute: Aren’t there plenty of people in jail just because they can’t make bail?  No court ever said they were guilty of anything – so why do you say they’re all criminals?” 

The same is true in cases alleging – and that’s the operative word – child abuse and neglect.  Children can be held in foster care for months before a court ever decides if the child was, in fact, abused or neglected.  (And, of course, overwhelmingly, the allegation is neglect and that often means simply that the family was poor.) 

Yet story after story after story about the “child welfare” system will include – unchallenged – statement’s such as this one, from the Cook County (metropolitan Chicago) “Public Guardian” Charles Golbert: 

“By definition, any child who is in [the Illinois ‘child welfare’ agency’s] care has been removed from the custody of their parents due to abuse or neglect or sex abuse, or torture or abandonment or being drug exposed,” Golbert said. 

No. By definition, Golbert’s statement is false. 

I’m not going to link to the story or name the reporter, because there’s no reason to pick on one well-meaning journalist for an error that is more the rule than the exception.  In fact, in all the times I’ve written to news organizations who have used this framing only one, Kaiser Health News, ever corrected it. 

The claim is particularly damaging now in Illinois.  The story in question is about the fact that foster youth are trapped in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile jails because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has no place to put them.  The reason for that is a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden surge in the number of children torn from everyone they know and love in the wake of high-profile child abuse deaths. Such a panic has swept through the state, creating an artificial “shortage” of foster homes. 

So Golbert’s false statement is not trivial.  Journalism that accepts as fact the stereotyping of all families who lose children to foster care as rapists, torturers or hopeless addicts, wipes off the table the one and only option that can actually solve the crisis in Illinois, and similar crises across the country: Illinois needs to stop taking away so many families needlessly.  Illinois actually learned this lesson once; now it needs to learn it again.  

Get the many children who don’t need to be in foster care at all back home and Illinois will have plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children who really need them – and plenty of resources to provide in-home “Wraparound” services for what the story calls “high- needs youth.”  But that will never happen as long as every parent who loses a child to foster care is stereotyped as they are in this story, and so many others. 

The failure to challenge the Golbert quote – the fact that the reporter apparently considered it an obvious truth beyond questioning – isn’t the only failure in this story and many like it. 

Almost no one today would do an in-depth story about the criminal justice system and speak only to police, prosecutors and judges.  Of course, reporters doing that kind of story also would talk to the accused and to their lawyers.  Yet in the case of the story quoting Golbert and many, many others, it is common in child welfare to view parents as so sub-human they’re not even worth talking to.  

By definition, that is bad journalism.