Tuesday, January 31, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 31, 2023

● When the miracle cure turns out to be snake oil:  There’s still another problem with Pittsburgh's predictive analytics “child welfare” algorithm.  Now, on top everything else, such as ethically-challenged ethics reviews and concerns about racial bias, there’s this: The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into whether the algorithm discriminates against families in which a parent is disabled.  

● Now that people have finally caught on that much of what family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child protective services” agencies) do is confuse poverty with neglect, the child welfare establishment has come up with a new excuse to justify all that surveillance of impoverished families and removal of their children: Neglect, they suggest, is a gateway allegation.  In The Imprint, I explain why it’s not.

The Missouri Independent reports on how that state’s family policing agency claims it’s going to rebuild the system – including NCCPR’s take on why the agency is still getting it wrong.

On The Imprint podcast, former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack discusses the stunning dissent she wrote in her last child welfare case – a call to transform “child welfare” in Michigan, and everywhere else. 

The Montana Free Press has a good rundown on the status of a whole series of excellent bills being considered in a state that, until now, has been anything but a leader in “child welfare.” I have some additional context here. 

● In Arizona, a father takes too many painkillers so he can work to raise his diabetic son.  He’s jailed and his son is thrown into foster care.  The boy dies in foster care just two weeks later.  In this post, I contrast this father to a mom who used to live in my neighborhood. She had a similar addiction to painkillers – and to booze as well.  But nobody took away her children. 

● The problems with the family policing approach to drug use are bad enough when the drug tests are valid.  But what if they’re not?  Vice News has a follow-up to their earlier reporting on this.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The “druggie mom” in my neighborhood

Betty Ford was addicted to booze and pills, and had
mental health problems. But no one took away her children.

Richard Blodgett admits he was using fentanyl illegally.  The single father told the Associated Press he had to in order to control pain enough to support his 9-year-old diabetic son, Jakob. 

“I wasn’t getting high. I wasn’t abusing them. I was using them to be able to work and provide for my son,” Blodgett said. “Unfortunately, they are illegal. I can’t get around that. But they were stronger than my meds, and they were working.” 

Arizona authorities arrested Blodgett for drug possession, and the state’s family police agency threw his son into foster care.  Just two weeks later the boy was dead.  

From the AP story: 

A medical examiner listed Jakob’s death in late December as natural with complications from diabetes, a condition he was diagnosed with as a toddler. Specifically, Type 1 diabetes, which means his body was unable to produce enough insulin to survive. 

Blodgett said he suspects the Arizona Department of Child Safety failed in its duty to protect his son, either by not monitoring his blood sugar levels or not ensuring that Jakob had enough insulin to prevent a serious, life-threatening complication known as ketoacidosis. 

“They couldn’t keep him alive for two weeks, two weeks,” the father told the Associated Press … 

The story reminded me of another parent with a similar history of addiction. 

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, long before my family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, this addict raised her children in our neighborhood. 

It happened to her as it does to so many others.  It started with prescription opioid painkillers.  She got hooked. Unlike Blodgett, this addict got hooked on booze, too.  "I liked alcohol, it made me feel warm,” she would later say. “And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain."  On top of that, this addict had serious mental health issues. 

She was what the tabloids would have called a “druggie mom” – if she were poor, and especially if she were poor and nonwhite.  

Yet during all this time, no one took away her children.  She was never even investigated.  And in 1974, when her husband suddenly got a new job and they had to move to D.C., no one from a family police agency ever knocked at the door of the family’s new address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  

On the contrary: Betty Ford was hailed as a hero, and deservedly so, when she publicly disclosed her addictions and got treatment. She even established a celebrity rehab center.  Gallup polls found she was one of America’s ten most admired women every year through 1991 – the year she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  And the house where this “druggie mom” raised her kids is now a National Historic Landmark. 

Ah, defenders of this double standard might say, there was no evidence Betty Ford’s addiction impaired her ability to raise her children.  Of course it didn’t.  Because she had money.  She could get all the childrearing help she may have needed and, eventually, the best drug treatment money could buy. 

There’s no evidence Richard Blodgett’s drug use impaired his ability to raise his child, either, even without all that help.  In fact, the available evidence suggests that the biggest dangers to Jakob Blodgett were the police who arrested his father and the family police who forced the boy into foster care. 

The fact is, the world is full of Betty Fords – people who, for all sorts of reasons, use drugs without endangering their children.  And where there really is a danger, the solution is giving those other parents a small fraction of the resources Betty Ford had.  

We need to apply the Betty Ford standard to all parents with substance abuse issues. If only someone in Arizona had thought of that, Jakob Blodgett might be alive today.

Friday, January 27, 2023

NCCPR in the Albuquerque Journal: An infatuation with foster care won’t save kids

Decades ago it would happen all the time: After the tragic death of a child “known to the system,” advocates would rush to blame a supposed fanatical desire to put “parents’ rights” ahead of “child safety.” After all, the case file had more red flags than a Soviet May Day Parade, so what else could explain it? 

Understandably, people would buy it. That would cause a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden increase in the number of children torn from their families and consigned to the chaos of foster care. That would further overwhelm caseworkers, so they’d have even less time to investigate any case with care. So it’s no wonder, in state after state, child abuse deaths didn’t stop – often they increased. 

That’s because the real explanation for these tragedies almost always involves caseworkers overloaded with cases that are nothing like the horror stories. … 

Read the full column in the Albuquerque Journal

Thursday, January 26, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 25, 2022

The Imprint has a good round-up of research documenting the confusion of poverty with neglect.  Raise the minimum wage and you reduce what family policing agencies call “neglect.” Increase SNAP benefits: Less “neglect.”  Expand Medicaid: Less “neglect.” Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit: Less “neglect.”  As the story puts it: 

Notably, the type of public benefits offered doesn’t seem to make a difference. Whether it’s housing subsidies, child care assistance, or cash aid, there appears to be the same positive effect — reducing CPS reports. 

● Unfortunately, the federal Administration for Children and Families hasn’t quite gotten the message.  On the one hand, they have explicitly acknowledged that the confusion of poverty with neglect is a huge problem and something needs to be done.  That's certainly a step forward.  And they have adopted (though without credit) the language of Joyce McMillan, founder of JMAC For Families, declaring that "There has been a growing national awareness and interest in encouraging mandated reporters to become 'mandated supporters.'"

But instead of getting more money directly into the hands of poor families, they’re going to give up to $10 million over five years to some consultant or other – to teach mandatory reporters and child abuse hotline operators how to stop confusing poverty with neglect!  Once again the suffering of poor people will enrich some child welfare establishment group or other.  At worst it could go to some awful group like Prevent Child Abuse America, which falsely defines the issue as poverty causing neglect when the bigger issue is poverty itself confused with neglect.  Or, as bad or worse, it might go to an outfit like Chapin Hall (see the item below about whitewashing abuse in foster care). 

But even if it goes to a group that genuinely understands the issue, it won’t get to the heart of the problem: Mandatory reporters who already know they’re confusing poverty with neglect, but are afraid not to report so they do it anyway. 

● The web version of NPR’s latest outstanding stories about children taken from their parents, sometimes forever, because the parents couldn’t pay child welfare’s version of ransom to get the children back is now online. 

● There are horrifying details about the sexual assault of two young teenagers in Texas foster care.  One is 16, the other 13.  But as The Imprint reports for the 13-year old 

[t]he October assault was not the first she had survived. After running away from a foster care placement two years ago, the court monitors found, she was abducted from a gas station, drugged and sexually assaulted by two men. 

● If you’re wondering how often foster children are abused, do not ask Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.  They’re about to undertake a “study” of the issue that’s almost certain to grossly underestimate the true rate of abuse.  I have a blog post about it

● Family policing is one of America’s ugliest exports.  For decades Britain has been imitating America’s worst practices – including massive discrimination against families where a parent has a physical or mental disability. The UK’s Channel 5 News produced this in-depth report on the topic: 

● From the “Wait, this really required a court decision?” file: In removal-happy Colorado, apparently so.  As the headline on this story from Colorado Politics puts it: “Judge wrong to terminate mom's parental rights without her or her lawyer present, appeals court says.” 

● The New York Civil Liberties Union has a blog post about that study, commissioned by New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, in which ACS workers themselves condemned racism in the agency.  The post includes excellent recommendations for reform. 

● And NCCPR has a column in the Albuquerque Journal about why “An infatuation with foster care won’t save kids.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Chapin Hall prepares to whitewash abuse in foster care

Their “study” methodology guarantees most abuse will be overlooked, and their advisory panel consists of extremists who want to expand the child welfare surveillance state while denying any problem with racial bias.

Worst of all, they’re trying to persuade an “advisory board” of foster youth into believing  this is legitimate. I don’t think they’ll be fooled. 

I have often written that there are a couple of easy ways to tell if a family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) is bulls----ing you.  One way is if they hand you that line about “we don’t remove children – a judge has to approve everything we do.” For anyone who still believes that, please see here, here, here, here, here and here. 

The other is if they try to pass off official figures about abuse in foster care as bearing any resemblance to reality.  States typically claim that, in any given year, fewer than one percent of foster youth are abused or neglected in foster care.  In fact, as of 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, half the states put the figure at 0.27% or less!

Family policing agencies want you to believe that, on average, if you put 370 former foster youth in a room and asked: “During the last year you were in foster care how many of you were abused or neglected?” only one would raise her or his hand.  

I don’t believe anyone really believes that -  but they just keep putting that b.s. out there. 

It’s not just common sense that tells you this is wrong.  When independent researchers do the studies the results are somewhat different.  Over and over they’ve found abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes.  The rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. And remember, more than one-third of foster youth will endure more than two placements in a year.  Do the math. 

Bottom line: The independent studies find rates of abuse at least 92 times higher than the median that states are willing to admit to.  (Though, in fairness, if you give the foster care apologists every benefit of the doubt you could make a case that it’s only 46 times higher*)  

What accounts for the difference? 

Simple.  When a family police agency is investigating an allegation of abuse in foster care the agency is, in effect, investigating itself.  After all, the agency has legal custody, the agency picked the foster home or group home or institution and the agency forced the child to live there.  The embarrassment alone is reason enough for caseworkers to convince themselves the allegation is unfounded.  

Then there are the practical considerations.  If there’s abuse in the foster home the child has to be moved.  The other children have to be moved.  The home is no longer available for future foster children.  This exacerbates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.  (Artificial because it’s caused by taking away too many children in the first place.) 

When the abuse is in a group home or institution there’s another problem: The abused children are effectively prisoners.  Except for an agency caseworker who may or may not visit once in a while, anyone they would tell works for the institution.  That is likely to induce enormous fear of retaliation if the prisoner – sorry, foster child – speaks up. 

For all of these reasons, when it comes to abuse in foster care, there is an enormous incentive for caseworkers to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file. 

And if you have any doubt about the extent to which family police agencies will cover up abuse in foster care, check out what USA Today found. 

Fortunately, independent researchers have found a brilliant way around this problem.  They meet foster youth after they are out of the system and need not fear retaliation.  Then they find out if the foster youth have been abused – by asking them. 

So, for example, researchers for the Casey Family Programs Northwest Foster Care Alumni study interviewed 479 foster care alumni in Oregon and Washington State – including alumni of Casey’s own program, considered to be a model program.  The study found that one-third reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the foster home.  That doesn’t even count foster youth abusing each other.  

Enter Chapin Hall 

So, there you have it.  Two ways to measure rates of abuse in foster care.  Accept family police agency figures at face value, or go out and actually interview a representative sample of former foster youth. 

Guess which method Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago is using for a big new study they proudly announced last week.  (If you know Chapin Hall, you won’t be surprised that it’s the one that guarantees most of the abuse will be missed.)  

As their statement explains, the study will use only data officially reported by family policing agencies using two federal databases, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).  No actual foster youth will be interviewed about her or his own experiences. 

And why are they doing it this way?  As one of the researchers, Amy Dworsky, explained in an email: 

Because we are doing secondary analysis, we are limited to what is contained in the NCANDS data.  We recognize that this is a significant limitation of the study.  However, we see this study as shining a light on an issue that has not received much attention at all from researchers over the past 2 decades and hope that it will lead to future research that involves talking with young people about their experiences. 

Got that?  By using bad methodology we can shine light on an issue and maybe that might lead to future research using good methodology!  Somehow, Chapin Hall couldn’t cope with skipping right to doing the research the right way. 

And here's the problem with the “secondary analysis” that’s supposedly to determine “the relationship between child maltreatment in out-of-home care and child characteristics”: If your sample omits the overwhelming majority of the abuse, there’s no way to know if those few cases agencies will admit to are even a representative sample.  And, by the way, the principal “characteristic” that leads to a child being abused in foster is the fact that the child is in foster care

Meet the advisors 

It gets worse.  The study is being conducted with advice from “an External Advisory Board made up of child welfare scholars.”  These "scholars" undoubtedly believe their approach helps children. But they are a who’s who of child welfare establishment extremism.  They are: 

Emily Putnam-Hornstein, the nation’s foremost evangelist for using “predictive analytics” in child welfare.  She was co-author of the notorious Pittsburgh algorithm that was the subject of this scathing expose by the Associated Press. UPDATE, FEB. 1, 2023: Putnam-Hornstein's algorithm is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible bias against families where a parent is disabled. 

It’s the algorithm family police agency officials in Pittsburgh touted with ethically-questionable ethics reviews.  Putnam-Hornstein also has gone out of her way not simply to disagree with a leading Black advocate for change, but to mock her comments. And she is on record as saying she believes "it is possible we don’t place enough children in foster care or early enough.” 

● Perhaps even more extreme is Sarah Font, of what should properly be called the Penn State Penance Institute, since it was created after the Jerry Sandusky scandal in an apparent effort to show no one would be tougher on child abuse than Penn State.  (Contrast this to how Penn State responded to the national reckoning on racial justice.)  Font has proclaimed  her opposition to the Indian Child Welfare Act and written a paper claiming that families in Pennsylvania get too much due process.  That same paper includes a graphic labeling everyone accused of child abuse or neglect a “perpetrator” – even after they’ve been found innocent. 

Both Font and Putnam-Hornstein collaborate with one of the most extreme advocates for tearing apart families, Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute.  Riley was kicked off a blog run by the Chronicle of Higher Education for a column widely condemned as racist.  But the “child welfare” establishment has been more welcoming.  Riley brags that her book attacking family preservation is modeled on the work of her AEI colleague Charles Murray – who claims Black people are genetically inferior. 

Font and Putnam-Hornstein collaborated with Riley on a set of proposals so extreme they include forcing every parent whose children are not otherwise seen by a mandated reporter to submit their children for a child abuse inspection.  Well, not every parent – only those reapplying for “public benefits.”  So don’t worry affluent parents, you’d be exempt.  The three also collaborated on an AEI publication denying that there is racial bias in child welfare or that poverty is confused with neglect. 

● The third advisor, Melissa Jonson-Reid has a lower profile. But she frequently co-authors papers with one of the foremost proponents of the idea that there is no racial bias in child welfare, Richard Barth.  Indeed, she and Barth co-authored a paper making that very argument. 

In a world filled with genuine scholars of child welfare, these three extremists were the only ones Chapin Hall turned to for “expertise.”  You’d also think they could do a little better on diversity: None of the research team or the advisors is Black. 

All of this fits perfectly with the long, unfortunate history of Chapin Hall itself, from the time one of their researchers tried to retaliate against a scholar who exposed journal bias, to their attacks on Intensive Family Preservation Services, to calling for double standards in evaluating programs, to throwing gasoline on the fires of foster-care panic in Illinois, to exaggerating the rate of child abuse by using a graphic that, literally, made the numbers up, (when we called them out on it, they made the disclaimer bigger) to cosponsoring a conference with the specific intent of denying that there is any racial bias in child welfare.  Yes, they’ve tried some reputation laundering lately, but this “study” reveals what Chapin Hall still is really all about. 

If you deny there is racial bias in child welfare, if you deny poverty is confused with neglect, if you think families get too much due process and if you think we may need to put more children in foster care and do it sooner, then clearly a study that minimizes the extent of abuse in foster care is to your advantage. 

The one hope in all this (aside from Chapin Hall having a crisis of conscience and having the decency to do a study of abuse in foster care the right way) is in a second advisory group.  In her email responding to my question about relying only on the abuse agencies themselves admit to, Dworsky added: 

We have a young adult advisory board made up of young people who had been in foster care and we talked with them about this very issue just last week. 

One can only wonder how that talk went.   But I’m betting they won’t be fooled. 

*-Foster care apologists may note that the official figures are for a single year, while the independent studies may cover a young person’s entire time in foster care.  But other limitations in the independent studies counterbalance this.  One study asks only about the one home in which the children stayed the longest, another excludes abuse by other foster children.  But hey, let’s give the apologists every benefit of the doubt: Average length of stay in foster care is between one and two years.  So let’s say two.  That means that, on average, if official stats are to believed, an average of 0.54% of foster children are abused and neglected while in foster care – a mere 46 times lower than what was found by independent researchers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 17, 2023

The Imprint profiles Sandy White Hawk, author of A Child of the Indian Race.  The book describes how she was forced into an abusive white adoptive home during the era of mass adoption of Native children, before passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  She went on to reclaim her Native identity and establish the First Nations Repatriation Institute in Minnesota – the state with the worst record of anti-Native racism in family policing. 

● Based on her extensive research, Prof. Kelley Fong writes in The Imprint about why the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act is “A Dangerous Tool in An Arbitrary System.” 

● A terrible mistake by a former Arizona governor 20 years ago still reverberates today.  Now, a  new governor appears determined not to repeat it.  I have a column about it for the Arizona Republic. 

● There is more tragic evidence of the urgent need for change in Arizona in this Associated Press story about the death of a foster child.  Said the boy’s father: “They couldn’t keep him alive for two weeks, two weeks.” 

● Even at its worst Arizona looks good compared to Montana, which year after year tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  I have a post on this blog about a proposed law that might go a long way to change that.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Montana is a perennial candidate for child removal capital of America. The state family police agency wants to keep it that way. That's why it's fighting an excellent bill.

If the bipartisan bill becomes law, Montana's family police agency will no longer be able to do whatever it damn well pleases to whomever it damn well pleases, and plead its own incompetence as an excuse.  

Last week, the Montana House of Representatives Judiciary Committee heard testimony
on a bill that could move Montana to the forefront of doing child welfare right

UPDATE, JAN. 25:  The Montana House of representatives Judiciary Committee passed the bill nearly unanimously.

Year after year, Montana tears apart families at the highest or second highest rate in America, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Just over a year ago, a performance audit by the Montana Legislature’s Audit Division confirmed that the all-purpose excuse for this offered up by the state’s family policing agency, the Child and Family Services Division (CFSD) – drugs -- was, to put it kindly, nonsense. 

But now, Montana has a chance to move to the forefront of doing child welfare right. 

The chance comes in the form of a bipartisan bill, HB-37.  The bill would: 

● Narrow Montana’s breathtakingly broad definition of “neglect” to exclude conditions related to poverty. 

● Specify the steps CFSD must take to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.  Federal law already requires reasonable efforts – but does not define them. 

● Require that impoverished parents be given a lawyer (in Montana that’s now discretionary). High-quality legal representation has been shown to significantly reduce foster care with no compromise of safety.  This provision is an important first step. 

● Require that CFSD get a warrant before putting children at risk of the enormous trauma of needless foster care. Such warrants can be obtained by phone or electronically and there are exceptions for genuine emergencies.  

Last week, the Montana House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on HB-37.  NCCPR testified via Zoom.  We also provided an in-depth written analysis of the bill and the underlying issues. 

But in this post, I’m going to focus on some of what happened at the hearing. 

During NCCPR’s testimony I predicted that sooner or later someone would invoke the Big Lie of American child welfare – that child removal supposedly equals child safety and child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.” 

And sure enough, one opponent of the bill did just that, telling the committee the issue is: 

“trying to balance the protection of children and … avoiding needless investigation, removals and the associated harm." 

That suggests that the more needless investigation and removals, the more that children are “protected.”  If that’s true, then Montana children must be safest from abuse (or second safest from abuse) in America!  There is, of course, no evidence for this.  In contrast there is plenty of evidence that needless removal does enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, puts them at high risk for abuse in foster care, and so overloads the system that workers have less time to find the relatively few children in real danger.  In short, Montana’s take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe. 

There also is no evidence that Montana is a cesspool of depravity, with three times the rate of child abuse as the national average.  But apparently CFSD does not agree.  Because a CFSD official said: 

“Child and Family Services only removes children when it is unsafe and it is urgent and there are no other options to prevent removal.”
 So either Montana really is the child abuse capital of America – or CFSD is mistaken.  


● CFSD bragged that the current horrible rate of removal in Montana is lower than it was a few years ago.  But the agency was selective in her use of figures.  Yes, in 2021, the most recent year for which federal comparative data are available, Montana’s rate of removal (again the worst or second worst in America) was lower than it was a few years ago.  But it remains higher than it was in every year from 1999 through 2014.  So what CFSD really is saying is that the agency went from a horrible rate of removal to an obscene rate of removal and now they’re almost back to merely horrible. 

And suppose this hearing had taken place a few years ago. Do you think CFSD would have said: Yes, you’re right!  Our rate of removal is outrageously high and unnecessary!  Or would the agency have repeated the same boilerplate it offered up last week? 

● CFSD was remarkably candid about its own lack of competence.  As noted earlier, the warrant provision in the bill would not require running down to the courthouse for a hearing.  In fact, it wouldn’t require a hearing at all.  All it would take is a phone call or an email explaining to the judge why the caseworker believed removal was the only option.   And again, this would not apply in actual emergencies – just as, if police want to search the home of someone they suspect is a child murderer, they must get a warrant – except in emergencies. 

CFSD’s response: Oh, but that would be soooooo hard, and soooooo onerous and sure, other states have done it, but they had to create a special form!   

There was similar whining about a provision that would require that, after CFSD drags a child away from everyone s/he knows and loves, there has to be a hearing within 72 hours.  Right now, in Montana, it can be anywhere from five to eight days.  For an adult that may not be much, but for a small child it’s an eternity.  But even though other states do it in less time, CFSD insisted that meeting even a 72-hour time frame would be just too difficult for them to manage. 

● Did the judges attending the hearing notice how CFSD insulted them?  During the debate on warrants, someone from CFSD said something like: Why bother!  As soon as there’s a hearing the judges always rubber-stamp our decision to remove the child anyway!  (CFSD didn’t use the term rubber-stamp, of course, but that was the message.) 

Unfortunately, judges probably do rubber-stamp CFSD far too often.   But that’s often because, especially at that first hearing, they’re getting only one side of the story.  The family typically either doesn’t have a lawyer at all, or has one they may have met five minutes before the hearing.  But another provision of HB-37 would start Montana toward changing this,  by requiring lawyers for all indigent parents going up against CFSD.  (Montana is one of the few states that doesn’t require this now.) 

But during the hearing one judge put CFSD on notice: The standard  boilerplate used by CFSD which boils down to little more than: “We took your child because we felt like it” is not enough to get a warrant.  

And that’s the real reason CFSD is opposed to the warrant provision and the rest of HB-37.  If the bill becomes law CFSD will no longer be able to do whatever it damn well pleases to whomever it damn well pleases, and plead its own incompetence as an excuse.