Tuesday, December 5, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 5, 2023

● Take a step back, see – and hear – how the family policing system really works in this report from NPR, featuring perspectives from JMAC for Families and NCCPR: 

● You know how defenders of computerized racial profiling in family policing (more accurate terms than “predictive analytics” in “child welfare”) defend their biased algorithms by a. claiming they’re not biased and b. claiming the algorithms are just advisory and humans still make the decisions?  Well, the U.S. Dept. of Justice is investigating claim a.  As for claim b – check out this post to this Blog based on a story from the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal

● Whether the decisions are made by humans or machines, in most of the country, the power of family policing agencies is nearly absolute.  For the latest massive debunking of claims that the courts serve as a check on this nearly absolute power, check out part two of a three-part series from WBTV and The Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.  

● Last week theBoston Globe exposed the state family police agency’s bias against Latino Families The story begins this way: 

Growing up Latino in Massachusetts carries a greater risk of entering the foster system than anywhere else in the nation, and for those who end up in foster homes — as well as those who are the subject of child welfare investigations — the consequences can be devastating. 

Then the Globe editorial page added additional reporting in this excellent commentary

● Although family police agencies call it “child support,” when you take someone’s child and make the parents pay money to get the child back, the proper term for that money is – ransom.  Yes, states actually do that.  Thanks to some excellent reporting by NPR two years ago, some states and localities are curbing the practice.  Now, The Imprint reports, California has taken the biggest step of all, not only abolishing ransom but wiping out the debt of parents who owe it. 

­● For The Conversation, Prof. Ashley Landers discusses her research on the enormous trauma endured by generations of Native American families, thanks to the massive needless termination of Native American children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than “termination of parental rights”).  Any claim that rushing to tear apart these families regularly leads to happy endings is belied by one fact from Prof. Landers’ research: “more than 80% of Native American people who were fostered or adopted eventually reunify.” 

● In New York, a bill that would allow children continued contact with their parents even after their legal rights to those parents have been terminated has – again – been passed by the State Legislature.  Two New York governors have pandered to the middle-class foster and adoptive parent lobby and vetoed it in the past.  Theresa Moser, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York’s juvenile rights practice - which represents children in these cases -- told The Imprint why such a law is needed. 

Without such protections, Moser said, “relationships with the biological parent, extended family members and sometimes the siblings” can be disrupted, as well as “an understanding of their culture and history.” 

And Professors Abigail Williams-Butler and Frank Edwards explained the need for the legislation in the Albany Times Union: 

Given the vastly disparate impact and harm that Black children and children of color experience within this system, it is important that the law allow for every opportunity for children to maintain relationships with their families of origin, including being able to have access to their racial, ethnic, religious and cultural histories, which are critical to developing a sense of self.

The Imprint reports on how family police in Minnesota – long one of the most fanatical states in the nation when it comes to tearing part families – are responding to legalization of marijuana. The answer seems to be: by finding every excuse possible to keep right on harassing families where someone smokes pot. 

MedPage Today has an update on the scandal over a child abuse pediatrician in Pennsylvania – and how one prominent politician is trying to thwart accountability. 

Upcoming event

Check out the Preventive Legal Advocacy Virtual Summit on December 15:

By providing legal guidance, social services, and resources to at-risk families, early legal advocacy programs across the country are working to promote family integrity, protect against the trauma of child welfare interventions, and reduce entries into foster care.

There's more information about the event, and about preventive legal advocacy here.

New resources

● I have previously written about how parents of older children somehow must be better than parents of newborns and infants.  This must be true, since why else would children be far more likely to be taken from their parents forever just because those children are really, really young? 

Since we know there is absolutely no racial or class bias in family policing, it can’t possibly be because poor people’s children are a market, and the data reflect supply and demand. It can’t be because caseworkers are more likely to have their own rescue fantasies triggered by a “kiddo” (they love to say “kiddo,” have you noticed?) about whom they can gush, “Awwww, he’s so cute!” so they rush those “kiddos” into homes with parents who have more money and lighter skin.  Nah, that can’t be it. 

Whatever the mysterious reasons for this phenomenon, the New York City Family Policy Project has new details on the extent of it nationally and in New York – and excellent ideas about what to do about it.

● While we continue to wait for the federal government to put out the annual AFCARS report, its official foster care statistics for the year ending September 30, 2022, The Imprint has released its own survey, covering the year ending March 31, 2023.  Though answering The Imprint’s questions is voluntary, their data tend to closely track the official AFCARS figures, so they are probably roughly equally accurate.  But The Imprint does not ask about entries and exits over the course of a year, and both databases don’t track hidden foster care. 

The Imprint survey does ask some questions AFCARS doesn’t.  And, as I read it, it confirms NCCPR’s longstanding suspicion that it’s ridiculously easy to evade the federal Family First Act restrictions on paying to institutionalize youth by simply getting your cruddy old “residential treatment center” relabeled a “Qualified Residential Treatment Program.” 

In this week’s edition of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions 

From The Indianapolis Star and ProPublica: 

…It was the third time since 2019 that police or child protective services formally accused a female staffer at Pierceton Woods of sexual abuse or misconduct involving male residents.  In response, the state’s Department of Child Services temporarily stopped referring children to Pierceton Woods, a nonprofit residential facility which treats boys for substance use disorders and sexually harmful behaviors. 

That lasted 11 days…. 

From the Detroit News: 

Attorney General Dana Nessel charged two Lansing area couples Monday with 36 criminal child abuse charges, months after other similar charges against the foster and adoption families were dismissed.

 The DeWitt couples are being charged in relation to eight of the 30 children who have been in their charge since 2007. Nessel alleged the couples' collected more than $1 million tax free through the adoption subsidy program.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

“The machine has labeled you as high-risk”

Is Pittsburgh’s “child welfare” predictive analytics algorithm running amok? Inquiring minds (at the US Dept. of Justice) want to know! 

The Allegheny Family Screening Tool slaps an invisible scarlet number "risk score"
on every child whose parents or other caretakers have been accused of neglect.

(For a comprehensive examination of the dangers of this kind of computerized racial profiling, see our publication Big Data Is Watching You.)

 The most highly touted, most far-reaching example of computerized racial profiling in family policing (more accurate terms than “predictive analytics” in “child welfare”) is the one in Pittsburgh.  Called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) it slaps an invisible scarlet number “risk score” between 1 and 20 on any child who is the subject of a hotline call alleging neglect.*

 In response to allegations of bias, the designers and supporters of AFST offer three defenses:  1. The algorithm is used only at the screening stage, to decide which allegations are most in need of investigation.  2. The investigators can’t be biased by this because they don’t even know the risk score.  3. The algorithm doesn’t tell investigators when to tear children from the arms of their families and consign them to foster care; that’s left to humans. 

We’ve always known that the claim about workers not knowing the risk score was b.s.  They may not know the precise risk number but if they’re told to rush out and investigate a particular family, they know the predictive analytics algorithm, known as the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), has labeled the family “high risk.”  So of course that’s going to bias the investigator.

But now we know about a case in Pittsburgh that is calling into question all the claims about AFST’s supposed lack of bias, and about who -- or what -- makes the decisions.  And the U.S. Department of Justice is doing some of the questioning.  These revelations come in a story from the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal.  That story builds on outstanding reporting by the Associated Press

Both stories center on Andrew and Lauren Hackney, who followed their doctor’s advice and took their infant to the ER when the baby wasn’t eating enough.  They believe the hospital called the Allegheny County family police agency, which immediately took away the child.  

Here’s where we find out who’s really calling the shots, the humans or the algorithm.   According to the Hackneys’ lawyer 

when the Hackneys asked their caseworker what they could do to get their daughter back, “the caseworker said, ‘I’m sorry. Your case is high-risk. The machine has labeled you as high-risk.’” [Emphasis added.] 

That was the first the Hackneys knew about AFST.  

As for why the machine labeled them high-risk – nobody knows.  Allegheny County brags that the data elements in AFST are public, but they don’t say how much weight they give to each factor or even if it counts for or against a family.  And they don’t say what led to the risk score in a given case. 

The Hackneys and their lawyer suspect that the algorithm, and the humans who may be slavishly following it, discriminated against them because of disabilities.  As the ABA Journal story explains: 

Lauren Hackney has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder that can cause memory loss, and Andrew Hackney has some resultant damage from a stroke. 

That’s why the Justice Department is involved. In this case, and at least two others, they are investigating whether, in Pittsburgh, humans and machines alike violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The ABA Journal article quotes two experts on disability law and family policing, Prof. Robyn Powell of the University of Oklahoma School of Law and Prof. Sarah Lorr, co-director of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic at Brooklyn Law School.  They say that 

Not only are some of the criteria [used in the AFST algorithm] explicitly disallowed … pointing to disability-related factors, but long-standing racial biases also are implicitly included. 

“The ADA explicitly says that state and local government entities cannot discriminate based on disability, and within that requirement is the idea that you cannot use screening tools or eligibility criteria that would [point to] people with disabilities,” Powell says. 

And in Colorado, where at least one county is using a similar algorithm, family defender Sarah Morris says 

“All this does is launder human biases through the mirage of some kind of transparent nonbiased machine calculation.” 

Notwithstanding the specific comments allegedly made by the caseworker in the Hackney case, a co-designer of AFST, Emily Putnam-Hornstein still claims that the risk score is just one of many tools and it’s “advisory only.” 

But even if that’s true, should we trust the “advice” of an algorithm designed by someone who denies the field has a racism problem, demeans Black activists, and takes pride in being part of a group that defends a self-described "race realist" law professor who hangs out with Tucker Carlson. 

She has said: "I think it is possible we don’t place enough children in foster care or early enough" and signed onto an extremist agenda that proposes requiring anyone reapplying for public benefits, and not otherwise seen by "mandatory reporters," to produce their children for a child abuse inspection.  And she helped design another algorithm that explicitly uses race as a risk factor.  (Designers of that one say it’s only supposed to be used to target “prevention.”) 

It's been almost two years since the machine said the Hackneys’ infant was “high risk.” She’s still in foster care.

*-In Pennsylvania, the state runs the child abuse hotline but counties do everything else.  Counties are allowed to screen most “neglect” allegations but not allegations of abuse or “severe neglect.”

Thursday, November 30, 2023

NCCPR in the Kentucky Lantern: The only way to end abuse in children’s institutions is to end the institutions

Recent news stories illustrate both the terrible harm Kentucky’s “child welfare” system inflicts upon its most vulnerable children and the root cause. Until the findings in these stories are examined together the harm will never stop. 

The ultimate harm can be seen in the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s expose of how the state systematically ignores abuse of children institutionalized in “residential treatment.”  Over and over children’s stories of vicious abuse were not believed. In more than half the “unsubstantiated” cases the children were not even interviewed before the cases were closed and their claims dismissed. The story also revealed that, remarkably often, the places where young people alleged abuse occurred were places where video cameras were not present or mysteriously didn’t work. 

The reason for this is no mystery. … 

Read the full column in the Kentucky Lantern

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

NCCPR in the Albany Times Union: Yes, for most children, there is a 'better alternative' to foster care

Imagine that you run a small software firm. One of your engineers just stopped by for his annual performance review. You ask what he accomplished in the past year and he says: “My new software crashed the systems of half our clients. They lost millions and they’re considering suing us! But you can’t fire me because anyone else you hire would be worse. So you have to keep me. What is the better alternative?” 

Now consider what happened during a New York State Senate hearing on the child welfare system and Family Court. … 

Read the full column in the Albany Times Union

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, weeks ending Nov. 29, 2023

Through the story of a mother whose children were torn from her after she did the right thing -- fleeing an abusive partner and going, with her children to a shelter -- and through the work of a former family police caseworker turned whistleblower, WBTV in Charlotte, NC and the online magazine The Assembly tell the story of how family policing really works. 

From the story: 

About 11,000 North Carolina children … were in DSS custody at the end of September. … And despite federal and state laws requiring “reasonable efforts” to reunify families, most will never go home.  Their parents are disproportionately Black and overwhelmingly poor, and often lack the resources to battle a powerful system that operates with little scrutiny. 

This side of the child welfare story - what happens to mothers like Alexis after their children enter the system - is seldom seen. It plays out in courtrooms where records are sealed, journalists’ notes are seized, and observers can be ejected on a judge’s whim - even as families are ripped apart. 

There’s no question that some children live in dangerous environments, and it’s in their best interest to be removed from their homes. At least 45 kids died of abuse or neglect in North Carolina in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When that happens, social services officials come under fire. But there are few consequences for wrongly removing children from their homes. 

You can see for yourself here 

And here (The image looks the same, but it's another part of the story):

 ● In Florida, it’s a grandmother waging a prolonged fight for custody of her grandchild as the state’s family police agency throws one obstacle after another in her way.  WFTS-TV’s story includes comment from NCCPR

● If anyone still doubts the need to replace anonymous reporting of alleged child abuse with confidential reporting, check out this story from ProPublica.  Here’s how it begins: 

It was 5:30 a.m. Flashlights beamed in through the windows of the ground-floor apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Police officers and child welfare caseworkers were ordering a woman to open her front door. 

When she did, the first thing she saw was that the police had their guns drawn. Her hands flew up into the “don’t shoot” position; she was well aware of the recent stories of cops “shooting first and asking later.” She prayed that her 7-year-old son was still asleep in his room. 

The Imprint also has an excellent story about this case.  The story includes this quote from the mother: 

“I wasn’t able to protect him like a mother.  Especially when he had to come home and cry to me that the kids were teasing him, saying: ‘ACS are gonna come and take you.’ 

“I just felt like I failed him.”

And I have a blog post about the two questions anyone covering stories like this in New York always should ask. 

● More than a decade ago I first wrote about how states use federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds – which are supposed to help poor people become self-sufficient – to investigate those same poor people and take away their children.  In 2021 ProPublica published a superb expose of this practice.  One of those two things probably is part of the reason why the Biden Administration is proposing regulations to curb this practice.  ProPublica reports that 

The new rules would also restrict states from spending TANF funds on child protective services investigations, foster care or any other programs that don’t meet the fundamental purposes of welfare: strengthening poor families and keeping them together. ProPublica found that in Arizona and elsewhere, money meant to help parents struggling to raise their children is instead used to investigate them for alleged child maltreatment — which often stems from the very financial circumstances that they needed help with in the first place. 

Under the Biden plan, Arizona would likely have to find other ways of funding its aggressive child protective services investigations of poor parents and use welfare dollars to help families stay together rather than removing their kids into foster care. 

But we're going to have to pore over the fine print to see how much of a change this is.  There may be at least one loophole.

● Back in April I wrote about another of those appalling extremist statements that come from Penn State Prof. Sarah Font.  As I noted at the time: 

According to Font, what has long been viewed as the worst option of all – “aging out,” in which a young person exits at age 18 or age 21 with no family whatsoever, and for which it’s well-documented the results are dismal, may be better not just than reunification with those birth parents for whom Font has such contempt; it also may be better than guardianship with extended family, better than loving grandparents or aunts or uncles.  Why?  Because aging out might provide the foster youth with financial benefits. 

I don’t know if Font thinks that’s especially true for Native American children. I do know that Font, who is part of the “Scooby Gang” that denies there is racism in family policing, wants to get rid of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  

All of this is by way of introducing a story from Youth Today and Crosscut, centered around the life of a Black and Native American foster youth forced to make exactly the choice Font describes.  Check out how it worked out for her.  And check out all the other times she was failed, from the very beginning.  Here’s how the story starts: 

One day in second grade, Janell Braxton’s teacher told her, unexpectedly, that her mom had come to pick her up for a dentist appointment. Janell, thrilled to avoid reading time, trotted off to the school office. But she did not see her mother. 

Instead, a social worker told Janell that the adults had lied about the dentist. She would move into foster care, which Janell’s young mind imagined as a form of jail. Why had this happened? she wondered. Because she hadn’t eaten her vegetables? She worried about her younger brother, and volunteered to “do time” for him. 

“Oh honey, that’s not how it works,” the social worker told Janell.

● Speaking of Native American children: South Dakota Searchlight and the Argus Leader continue their series about what the state of South Dakota has done to these children, with stories on how the system severs cultural connections and what’s being done about this.  When it comes to the state itself, the answer is what you’d expect: Not much. 

● After one witness after another at a New York State Senate hearing described the trauma of the child welfare surveillance state and needless foster care, one lawmaker asked “What is the better alternative?” In the Albany Times Union, NCCPR offers some answers

● We all know about usually white, male law enforcement officers and prosecutors stretching laws to persecute pregnant women – especially nonwhite pregnant women -- for using drugs, something that only endangers children by driving mothers away from prenatal care.  But Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project report that in Mississippi they’re taking it an ugly step further. 

● Among the enormous harms of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act is a dramatic escalation in the number of times children’s rights to their parents are terminated. (That’s a more accurate term than termination of parental rights.)  ASFA makes it easy since it allows termination if enough time has passed even if the child was wrongly taken in the first place. Some states compound the injustice by making a prior termination automatic grounds to terminate again without even trying to keep the family together. In the journal Social Work, Professors Mical Raz and Frank Edwards argue that 

TPR is not a rare event that universally serves as proxy for parental unfitness.  Rather, it demonstrates how harsh child welfare policies target certain marginalized communities, often faulting parents for their circumstances, and place their healing and recovery on a strict timeline. Thus, a history of a prior TPR should not be the sole reason to deny a parent reunification services.  

In this week’s edition of The Horrors go in All Directions: 

● It is horrific, it is pervasive, and authorities repeatedly look the other way.  That’s what Louisville Public Media and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found when they took a close look at abuse in that state’s residential treatment centers in a story including NCCPR’s perspective.  As the story explains: 

The system that promises to monitor these facilities and protect children from abuse often devalues the child’s perspective of what happened — communicating to them time and time again that they are untrustworthy and unbelievable. 

More than half the time the child who disclosed the abuse was not even interviewed by those charged with investigating the allegation.   I have an op-ed column in the Kentucky Lantern on the root cause of this massive failure. (Yes, it's what you think.)

WKRN-TV in Nashville reports that 

The homes sheltering some of Tennessee’s most at-risk children as they await foster care placement comes with its own dangers and issues, according to logs of calls made to Metro Nashville Police. 

News 2 obtained the logs for more than 500 calls made to two neighboring Department of Children’s Services (DCS) transitional homes in Davidson County between Jan. 1 and Oct. 27 of this year. 

The reports show multiple instances where police were called to the homes for fights, criminal activity, theft, and reports of a person with a weapon.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The two questions reporters covering child welfare in NYC should always ask

Even these two excellent stories leave two key questions unanswered - as almost always
happens when reporters write about family policing in New York

Brooklyn Defender Services has filed a lawsuit against the New York City family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, on behalf of a family that has been subjected to repeated, traumatic investigations as a result of false anonymous reports alleging child abuse. 

ProPublica broke the story. The Imprint also has an excellent account. 

The family has been harassed with false reports more than 24 times.  Over and over, ACS would show up at the home at all hours and pound on the door. At least once they were accompanied by police, guns drawn.  Here’s how ProPublica describes one encounter: 

It was 5:30 a.m. Flashlights beamed in through the windows of the ground-floor apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Police officers and child welfare caseworkers were ordering a woman to open her front door. 

When she did, the first thing she saw was that the police had their guns drawn. Her hands flew up into the “don’t shoot” position; she was well aware of the recent stories of cops “shooting first and asking later.” She prayed that her 7-year-old son was still asleep in his room. 

Or they’d interrogate the child at school.  As his mother told The Imprint: 

“I wasn’t able to protect him like a mother.  Especially when he had to come home and cry to me that the kids were teasing him, saying: ‘ACS are gonna come and take you.’ 

“I just felt like I failed him.”

Ultimately two different judges had to intervene to curb ACS’ harassment of the family.  One of them even ordered ACS to refer the matter to the Brooklyn District Attorney to investigate the caller – but, of course, since the calls were anonymous that won't be easy. 

How did ACS respond to media queries about the case?  By hauling out its standard playbook of lies and misdirection – the one that works almost every time. 

ACS’ outright lie 

For starters, there was their standard out-and-out lie. 

When ProPublica asked about the specifics of the case and the agency's response, ACS just ignored those questions.  But when The Imprint asked, out came the standard-issue lie: 

A spokesperson for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services told The Imprint that her agency is unable to publicly discuss individual cases. 

They say that over and over and over.  And except for one New York Times story, no reporter ever seems to have checked to see if it’s true. 

It’s not. 

The failure to check is, in some ways, understandable.  Reporters are used to the extent to which various laws allow family police agencies to cover up the harm they do to families.  So they just assume it must always be true. 

But while it is true that family police agencies can’t comment on individual cases in most states,  it’s not true in New York. 

Nearly 30 years ago, New York State law was changed to specifically allow family police agencies to comment on individual cases under certain circumstances.  

This is a link to the law.  Have a look. 

Did you spot it?  It’s the part where it says circumstances in which family police agencies can comment include where 

there has been a prior knowing, voluntary, public disclosure by an individual concerning a report of child abuse or maltreatment in which such individual is named as the subject of the report … 

I’d say a case in which the accused is doing interviews and filed a civil lawsuit qualifies. 

This clause is included in a law commonly known as “Elisa’s Law,” after Elisa Izquierdo, a child known-to-the-system who died in 1995. 

So the first question any reporter in New York should ask whenever a family police agency claims it can’t comment is: “What about Elisa’s Law?” 

By the way, Arizona law is even more generous in allowing its state family police agency to comment, but that agency pulls the same stunt – and always gets away with it. 

As for other states: The laws that stop them from commenting were not handed down on tablets from Mount Sinai.  If family police agencies in these other states wanted the right to comment, they could persuade lawmakers to give it to them.  But, of course, they’d rather hide. 

ACS’ game of misdirection 

New York is one of 13 states in which local governments run family policing systems with some sort of state supervision.  The nature of this supervision varies, but in New York, the state runs the child abuse “hotline.”  If the state screens in a report – and the criteria for screening-in are extremely low – the local family police agency, in this case ACS, has to investigate. 

UPDATE: For this post about the need to ask more questions, I didn't ask enough questions.  Nora McCarthy, director of the New York City Family Policy Project, points out something I didn't know: ACS and its counterparts across the state have the right to ask the state hotline to reconsider any report it screens in. In fact, they're required to do this if they think the report doesn't meet the legal criteria for screening-in.  The hotline still has the ultimate authority.  It sure would be interesting to know how often ACS has exercised what amounts to right to appeal - if ever.

And sure enough, that was ACS’ copout here.  To read what ACS told The Imprint you’d think they were the real victims – dragged kicking and screaming by the state to gently knock on the door of this family.  So ACS passes the buck by saying: 

“The State should conduct a full review and assessment of [State hotline] practice and policies, as well as mandated reporter laws, and then take actions (legislative or otherwise) to address.” 

There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that, once you’ve investigated the same family over and over and found nothing, you don’t need to go in with guns drawn and otherwise make the process as traumatic as possible. For some reason, in this case it took two separate judges to explain this to ACS.  [UPDATE: In fact, once you know a family is being harassed this way you could appeal the hotline decision to keep screening-in these anonymous, harassing calls.] 

But also, notice what’s missing in the list of things ACS wants the state to do.  There is no request that the state simply allow ACS and its counterparts do to their own screening. 

That’s how it’s done in most cases in Pennsylvania.  The state runs the hotline, but for the overwhelming majority of calls, counties are allowed to do their own screening.  Decades ago, in New York, metropolitan Rochester and Syracuse did it all themselves, running their own hotlines. 

Why doesn’t ACS want the power to screen calls referred by the state hotline?  Probably because they like having no choice.  Because choices come with accountability.  The status quo is perfect for ACS.  They can do anything they want to tens of thousands of families and then pass the buck to the state.   But if they had screening power, they would be unambiguously responsible whenever they harass a family by investigating multiple false reports. 

But there’s another reason: If ACS had screening authority and it wrongly screened out a legitimate call and tragedy followed, they’d be the ones at the other end of headlines screaming “Who let this baby die?”  

Conversely, the state has an incentive to screen in all sorts of cases it shouldn’t because the burden will fall on the localities they overload with all those false reports.  But if the state hotline wrongly screens out a case then state officials are on the receiving end of those headlines. 

So the second question any reporter in New York should ask is the one they should ask when ACS (or its counterparts in the rest of the state) say: “The state made us do it”: Have you asked the Legislature to let you screen reports after the state passes them on? [UPDATE: And also: How often do you exercise your right to appeal a hotline decision to screen-in a call?]

The third question, of course, is: Why not?

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Is this family police agency leader really bragging about misleading the public?

Perhaps if we all say it often enough we can stop
family police agencies from misleading us about this.

Last week, Virginia’s Director of Social Services, Danny Avula, gave a presentation to the state Commission on Youth.  According to Virginia Public Media

Avula noted Virginia’s rate of placement with relatives is less than half of the national average — a statistic he said is skewed by the fact that local social services departments in the state prioritize informal placements with relatives before sending a child into the foster care system. 

“The upside of that is that it keeps our overall numbers of kids in formal foster care low,” Avula said. [Emphasis added.] 

The practice Avula seems to be bragging about, and the hoodwinking of the public that goes with it is, in fact, shameful. 

On the surface, Virginia appears to have a low rate of tearing apart families.  But that’s only because Virginia hides a whole lot of its foster care placements – by not calling them foster care.  

There’s a term for these kinds of placements – “hidden foster care” (of course).  But I prefer “blackmail placements” because that’s how they usually work. 

The family police agency decides to remove a child from the home.  To make the process easier, for the agency, not the family, they essentially blackmail the parent: Give us the child and let us place him “informally” with a relative -- without involving the court, without having to deal with a family defense attorney and without even the minimal due process rights you normally have -- or we’ll go to court and throw your child into the home of a stranger, or worse, a group home or institution. 

By some estimates, nationwide, there may be as many children in hidden foster care/blackmail placements as there are in the kind where the numbers are officially reported to the federal government and the public.  That means that instead of tearing apart families 206,000 times per year, it’s more like 412,000.  

When they fail to report these placements, states are, at best, exploiting a loophole in federal regulations.  At worst, they are ignoring those regulations and the federal Administration for Children and Families chooses to look the other way. 

The deception is compounded when family police agencies deny that these placements are foster care – calling them kinship placements or worse “kinship diversion.” 

Though kinship care is almost always the least harmful form of foster care, kinship care is still foster care.  

There’s nothing unusual about family police hoodwinking the public by keeping hidden foster care hidden and calling it something else.  What is unusual is when they seem to brag about it. 

That sure sounds like what Avula was doing when he said that when it comes to all those blackmail placements “The upside of that is that it keeps our overall numbers of kids in formal foster care low.” 

Upside for whom?

The children still have been torn from their families.  And while they are in kinship foster care with a relative, that could have been done through the formal system with the state forced to report that they did it and at least some minimal due process rights for the families. 

When state officials say blackmail placements are better because the child is being placed with relatives, once again they’re trying to hoodwink you.  Going to court does not deny a child placement with kin instead of strangers – unless that’s what the family police always wanted in the first place. 

There’s no “upside” for the children, and there’s no upside for the families.  It’s only an upside for the state of Virginia, which can pretend to be tearing apart fewer families and for local family police agencies (in Virginia these systems are county-run) which don’t have to deal with those pesky family defense lawyers, can save money on court costs and never have to pay the relatives the way they pay strangers.  (Formal placement doesn’t guarantee relatives will get such placements, but informal placement guarantees they won’t.)

 The families know this.  As Virginia Public Media pointed out: 

[A] 2022 report from the newly created Office of the Children’s Ombudsman found issues with Virginia’s practice of informally placing children with relatives. It included comments from parents who felt they’d been coerced into giving up their children for an unspecified amount of time, without representation from an attorney. 

“My children were kidnapped,” the report quotes one anonymous parent. “There was no court order.”