Wednesday, August 12, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 11, 2020

So much news this week, it’s hard to know where to start.  But let’s begin with some important new research:

 ● Prof. Kelly Fong effectively embedded with a child welfare agency, interviewing more than 100 caseworkers, family members and “mandatory reporters.” The result is a damning indictment of a system that fails even when everyone tries to do the right thing. I have a discussion of the study, with links to the full study, on this blog.

 ● Even as one major news organization after another has debunked the whole “pandemic of child abuse” myth, The New York Times bought into it. And instead of doing the story themselves they outsourced it to a reporter with a disturbing track record.  I have a blog post about it.

 ● Some in New Mexico want to double down on the failed approach the Times story advocates. I have a column in Youth Today about why that will backfire.

 ● Everything the Times doesn’t seem to understand is explained in this op-ed column for The Imprint by New York City family defenders. They write:

 In our view, those who call the police on Black people for “looking out of place” are motivated by the same thing that people who anticipate a child abuse pandemic due to a lack of white eyes on poor Black and brown children: racism.
White America is slowly beginning to understand the fear that Black people experience when confronted by the police. We know that this same fear exists for many Black and brown people about child welfare authorities, especially in low-income neighborhoods. 

● And in Illinois, Attorneys at the Shriver Center on Policy Law write in the Chicago Sun-Times about why Gov. J.B. Pritzker should expand his ambitious agenda for reforming juvenile justice to reform the system that does so much to fuel the failed juvenile justice system – the failed child welfare system.  They write:  

As in the juvenile legal system, Black families are disproportionately entangled in the foster system. The often racialized and biased assessments of what constitutes “good” or “bad” parenting explain why approximately 53% of Black children nationwide will experience an investigation for abuse or neglect by age 18, and why Black parents in Illinois are over-represented in these investigations.
It also explains why Black people statewide are 14% of the population while Black children make up 44% of the foster population. In Cook County, Black people are 24% of the population while Black children represent over 70% of the foster population. 

● The failings described in Prof. Fong’s study ultimately lead to the biggest failing of all: The anishment of parents from a child’s life – at least for the duration of her or his childhood.  That process has been accelerated by a vicious, racist federal law, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.  Like the infamous crime law and welfare law passed at about the same time, ASFA was animated by hatred of poor people – in particular poor women of color.

 Its provisions include a requirement that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state must petition for termination of parental rights – even if the child was wrongfully taken in the first place, and even if delays prolonging foster care were the agency’s own fault.  (There are, in fact, exceptions to this requirement, but since states often are enthusiastic about tearing apart poor families, those exceptions often are ignored.)

 The timelines apply even when it is impossible for parents to jump through all the required hoops because of, say, a pandemic.

 But now, as Michael Fitzgerald reports in The Imprint, Rep. Gwen Moore, (D-Wis.) has introduced a bill to suspend the timelines when there is a public health emergency and for one year after the emergency ends.

 Oddly, all those child welfare groups like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America that issued pious pronouncements supporting racial justice and proclaiming solidary with #BlackLivesMatter haven’t yet sent around the usual “sign-on letter” to support this bill.  Must be just a temporary oversight – right?

 ● Another bill is a lot more popular with these groups – because it spends more money on child welfare.  But at least this one doesn’t spend more on the policing functions of child welfare. In fact, unlike many other such bills, this one spends money in ways that might do some good.  The Imprint has a summary.

 ● Something else Prof. Fong’s study makes clear: You won’t fix the failures of child welfare just by firing those caseworkers who think it’s a good idea to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional Kidnapper” as happened in Arizona.  But, for the record, the Arizona Republic has an update on that story.

 ● Still another crucial failure of child welfare in coping with COVID-19: Cutting off all in-person visits between children in foster care and their parents. Many states now are beginning to allow some in-person visits, but it’s too little, too late.  Just ask former foster youth, as Legal Services of New Jersey did in this video:

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

New study is a damning indictment of the child welfare surveillance state. It’s also excellent journalism

Study shows how even when everyone wants the system to work, it leaves families worse off.

 There’s a new study out by Dr. Kelly Fong, now a professor of sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Fong’s graduate work at Harvard included a study of mothers in Rhode Island who are scared away from seeking help due to mandatory child abuse reporting laws, something I discuss here.

 Dr. Fong has a new, even more extensive study out. For this one, she effectively “embedded” with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, doing more than 100 interviews with caseworkers, family members and mandated reporters.  The result is an indictment of our entire overpoliced, surveillance-state approach to child welfare.


People will probably be tempted to read only the plain-language summary published by the Council on Contemporary Families. But I hope readers won’t stop there.  The middle portion of the full study, published in the American Sociological Review, where we read about some of the families caught up in the system, is great journalism.  It starts on Page 11 with the section called  “Gaby’s Investigation.”

 That case turns out to be the perfect illustration of why the child welfare system, in its current form, is fundamentally unfixable.

 As you read that part of the study, consider:

 ● This study was done when Connecticut was a rapidly improving system with good leadership.

 ● The mandatory reporter who turned in Gaby meant well.

 ● The investigation was conducted by a caseworker who was experienced, smart and empathetic.

 ● The amount of intrusion into the family was the bare minimum possible when agencies such as Connecticut DCF intervene.

And yet, the family still was left worse off.

 That is the theme throughout the study.  You can’t fix child welfare just by getting rid of the kind of caseworker who thinks it’s funny to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Professional kidnapper” – as happened in Arizona last month.

 In fact, the biggest lesson from the study is simply this: The notion that people working for an agency with the power to take away children can ever really “take off the investigator hats, and put on our services and support hats,” as one child welfare administrator in Michigan put it, is a self-serving myth.

 Child protective services is a police force.  Its primary job is policing poor people, especially poor people of color.

 The helping function in child welfare needs to be separated from the policing function.  And the helpers must be exempt from our failed system of mandatory reporting.

Friday, August 7, 2020

New York Times contracts out child welfare fearmongering – to an expert

A story full of hype and hysteria is written by a reporter with a disturbing track record.

               Even as other major national news organizations, from the Associated Press, to The Marshall Project to Bloomberg CityLab have written careful stories debunking the whole “hidden pandemic of child abuse” myth, The New York Times has fallen for it - bigly.

             The theme of a Times story today is a little different from the usual. Most fearmongering stories say the sky is falling because of a drop in calls to child abuse hotlines.  The Times story focuses on another side effect of the coronavirus. Its thesis boils down to: Oh my God! Children are being horribly abused because selfish caseworkers and their evil union have cut back on in-person visits, thereby preventing the same level of intrusion into the homes of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite kids as occurred before COVID-19.

             The story does this by using the ugly recipe that has characterized the worst child welfare reporting for decades.

             Step 1: Find a horror story.  After digging through piles of data in a state that investigates 360,000 reports of child abuse every year, the lead reporter, Garrett Therolf, found what he wanted:  A child known-to-the-system whose death may have been due to the failure of a county child protective services agency to make in-person visits.

             Step 2: Extrapolate from this one fatality using vague phrases such as “scores of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or sharply curtailed during the pandemic.”  (The story offers no evidence that any of these delays actually endangered a child.  And, in a state that, again, investigates 360,000 allegations per year, “scores” isn’t very many.)

 Step 3: Extrapolate further by telling us that “One in seven children is reported to a [California] child abuse hotline by age 5 ...”  The juxtaposition of the horror story and the figure leaves the impression that one in seven California children is the victim of horrific abuse – and now they’re all going unnoticed because of those selfish caseworkers who won’t visit them and their awful union that is backing them up.

             In fact, the one-in-seven figure is for calls to a child abuse hotline in California, nothing more. We know that, nationwide, 91 out of 100 of those calls is a false report and most of the rest involve the confusion of poverty with neglect.  We also know that all the time wasted on false reports, trivial cases and the confusion of poverty with neglect leaves workers less time to find children in real danger. 

Balancing harms

  The second key problem is the latest twist on the classic failure of both the child welfare system and a lot of journalism about child welfare:  the failure to balance harms.

              In this case a vivid account of neglect and death is contrasted with vague concerns about COVID-19 – written in a way to suggest that only caseworkers are at risk if they march through homes, and that these caseworkers and their evil union are putting their selfish interests ahead of the children.

              But let’s imagine what might happen if we did it the way reporter Therolf seems to prefer: The same level of intrusion, the same level of poking and prying through bedrooms, cupboards, refrigerators, the same long, personal interviews with family members, the same stripsearching of the children.

How many people would have contracted coronavirus as a result? How many would have died?  How many parents would have died? How many grandparents?  How many children who had never been abused would wind up orphaned? And, given that recent research suggests we may have underestimated the risks to children, how many children would have died?  If even two children died as a result, that would suggest trying to do business-as-usual probably would have been more dangerous than what California, in fact, did. 

The wrong partner

 Compounding the problem: The Times should have been more careful when it decided to contract out some stories in California.  They contracted with the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where the child welfare stories are written by Garrett Therolf.

             Therolf has a disturbing track record dating back to when he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a record that includes accusations that he sometimes may have made stuff up; accusations he denies. 

             The concerns about Therolf were well described in this 2010 story from the Los Angeles online news site WitnessLA. That story fleshes out reporting by Daniel Heimpel, now the publisher of the child welfare trade journal The Imprint. 

             One of Therolf’s last stories for the Times was actually an attack on the whole notion that there is racial bias in child welfare – a story that went out of its way to demean scholars whose work demonstrates such bias.

             Then he moved to Berkeley, where he built a career out of fearmongering stories that exploit horror story cases.  That work includes a notorious Netflix documentary in which he showcases one of the most extreme proponents of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, Elizabeth Bartholet, and promotes the Orwellian use of predictive analytics in Pittsburgh’s child welfare system.

             The turmoil in American journalism brought on by the collapse in advertising revenue has led to all sorts of partnerships and collaborations that, in the past, would have been unthinkable. Many of them have resulted in excellent work. 

            But The New York Times is one of the few legacy news organizations that has thrived amid the chaos. It can afford to be more careful in choosing its partners.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 4, 2020

● The book is called Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms. One of these prisons is the child welfare system.  That part of this important book is excerpted by In These Times.

 ● An aunt writes in Rise about what the racism that permeates child welfare has done to three generations of her family.

 ●Elizabeth Brico writes in Rewire News about still another way child welfare agencies destroy families – including her own: By making parents homeless. She writes:

 Agency-induced homelessness is a common phenomenon known among parent attorneys and advocates as a weapon wielded by caseworkers and judges, who can impose it upon parents at will.

 ● I discussed the harm inflicted on children by the bad child welfare system in Oregon on Jefferson Public Radio

 ●…and I have an op-ed column in the Arizona Republic about the even worse system in Arizona. (You know, the one where some caseworkers wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words “professional kidnapper.”)

 ● In one case where those sorts of words were backed up by action, a father finally got his child back. As the Republic reports:

 What's the cost of losing out on the first five years of your child's life?

 For one father, it's $25 million. Donald Williams Jr. is suing the state in federal court after his parental rights were cut off, then restored, in a child-welfare case that lasted nearly five years and stretched over two states.

Monday, August 3, 2020

NCCPR in the Arizona Republic: Arizona DCS has a bigger problem than those who wore 'professional kidnapper' shirts

Arizona removes far too many kids from their homes, causing trauma without gains in safety. Why are we surprised that fired workers bragged about it?

In a courthouse far from Arizona, a 7-year-old girl, still traumatized from being taken from her family and placed in foster care, turns to her lawyer and asks: "Can I have that quarter? I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me. If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

I thought of that little girl when I read Mary Jo Pitzl’s story about the state Department of Child Services caseworkers in Prescott who apparently were fired for wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional Kidnappers.”

Clearly, that little girl understands the child welfare system better than most of the professionals who work in it.

The caseworkers were not really fired for their sentiments or for acting on them. They were fired because they were dumb enough to literally wear those sentiments on their sleeves. We know this because the numbers from Prescott and across Arizona back up their bragging.

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 29, 2020

● I’ve been writing for many years about how federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds – money intended to help poor people become self-sufficient – is misused by states to fund child abuse investigations, foster care, and even subsidize adoptions by the middle class and the wealthy.  Now Stateline, the Pew Charitable Trusts news service, has a comprehensive investigation of how TANF has become a slush fund.  I have a blog post about it, highlighting the child welfare portions, with a link to the full story.

● Alan Detlaff, dean of the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston, and co-chair of the UpEND Movement writes in the Houston Chronicle about why the child welfare system is proof that social workers should not partner with police:

We only need to look at the child welfare system to see the harm that social workers cause Black families. Social workers over-surveil, over-police and over-remove Black children from their parents. Black children are overrepresented in foster care at a rate nearly double their proportion in the general population. We have known about this for decades and have been unable to resolve this.
We also know that separating children from their parents causes harm. As a nation, we’ve witnessed the harm and trauma that result when children are separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. This same harm and trauma occur when children are forcibly separated from their parents by child protection authorities. And although those decisions are supposed to be made in the name of safety, they are often based on racial biases among child welfare caseworkers, many of whom are social workers. To be effective in resolving crises, we need to examine our own systems, and begin to train social workers to not only respond to crises, but to do so in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harmful, racist outcomes.

● Shanta Trivedi, clinical teaching fellow at Georgetown University Law Center writes for NBC Think about how police, like so many other “mandated reporters,” are too prone to report Black families to child welfare agencies when they confuse those families’ poverty with neglect. She writes:

 Common behaviors in white communities can lead to removal in minority neighborhoods, often because police are more likely to patrol there. …
Once embroiled in the child welfare system, there is bias throughout. Two studies in Texas demonstrated that even though Black families on average were given lower risk scores than white families when initially assessed on whether children could safely remain at home, they were 20 percent more likely to have their case opened for services, and 77 percent more likely to have their children removed instead of being provided with family-based safety services.

● In the Chronicle of Social Change Emma Williams writes about why the first step toward getting the public to see the “child welfare” system for what it really is, is to stop calling it the child welfare system, and start using a more accurate term: family regulation system.

● Notwithstanding the ugly behavior of some child welfare bureaucrats pandering to selfish foster parents, it is, in fact, often possible for foster children to get safe, in person visits with their parents.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has detailed guidelines concerning how, and when, it can be done.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Stateline exposes use of TANF as a child welfare slush fund

Billions of dollars that should be used to help poor people become self-sufficient are routinely diverted to fund child abuse investigations, foster care, and adoption. 

            For at least 14 years, I’ve been writing about how the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has become a child welfare slush fund. 

            Billions of dollars that should be used to help poor people become self-sufficient are routinely diverted to fund child abuse investigations, foster care, and adoption.  Reporting requirements are vague and details are scarce, but we know this much: In 2016, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, of the $13.5 billion in federal funds spent each year on the child welfare system, (or as Prof. Dorothy Roberts more accurately calls it, the “family regulation system,”) 20 percent - $2.7 billion -- came from money that was supposed to help poor people to, among other things, keep their children out of the family regulation system.  I explained how the TANF child welfare slush fund works in detail for Youth Today in 2010 and again in 2016

Even without counting TANF, this year the federal government is expected to spend nearly $12 on foster care and adoption for every dollar spent on prevention and family preservation.  The gap has actually worsened from four years ago when it was “only” 10 to 1.  Now, add to the foster care / adoption / child protective services side of the ledger up to $2.7 billion* in TANF money that should have gone to impoverished families. As I noted in 2010, had Madonna decided to adopt a child from Michigan instead of Malawi, she would have been eligible for a subsidy – paid for with federal TANF funds.

            And now we know more. Stateline, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has published an excellent investigative report by Jenni Bergal, all about the legal, but flagrantly immoral, diversion of TANF funds for all sorts of purposes.  (It’s amazing how many ways states can find to make poor people subsidize the rest of us.)  The practice is so despicable that it was denounced across the political spectrum, by scholars from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to the American Enterprise Institute to the Heritage Foundation.

            Here are the highlights specific to child welfare:

            Let’s start with Arizona, where at least eight caseworkers, almost the entire investigative staff of one child protective services office, dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional Kidnapper.” The workers were fired, but only because they were dumb enough to literally wear their sentiments on their sleeves.  The numbers back up the words – Arizona tears apart families at a rate nearly 50 percent above the national average – but no one else has been fired for it.

            Now we know the extent to which poor people in Arizona are subsidizing having their children “professionally kidnapped.”  According to Stateline:

In Arizona, nearly two-thirds of the $334 million in federal and state TANF spending in 2018 went to its child welfare system to deal with abused or neglected children, foster care and other services. Just 12.5% went to cash assistance and 2% to work-related activities and support, according to [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] data.
That decision — made by the legislature — angers Democratic state Rep. Mitzi Epstein, who said child welfare programs should be funded through general revenue, not TANF dollars.

Now, let’s pause to consider that for a moment. Remember all those hype-filled stories about how the so-called Family First Act would be a revolutionary change for the better because sooooooo much new funding would be available to help poor people keep their families together?  Don’t believe the hype.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next ten years, for the entire country, the amount of money formerly reserved for foster care that states actually will use under Family First to help impoverished families keep their children out of the family regulation system will average only $130 million per year.

                                                                                                  Map from

 But Arizona alone is diverting more than $200 million in federal TANF money from impoverished families to “professional kidnappers” and the foster care system every year.

Elsewhere, even some child welfare agency administrators are upset. From the story:

Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, said in an interview with Stateline that she would like to see her state distribute TANF money differently and stop using it to pay for programs such as child abuse investigations and a homeless initiative.  “But all these programs have a legislative champion,” she said.

It’s similar in Georgia, a state whose horrific approach to TANF was first exposed by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones more than a decade ago.  As she wrote at the time:

Some states have used surplus TANF money to expand child care, job training, and transportation to help recipients find jobs. But Georgia didn’t use the bulk of its money for those programs—instead, it cut spending on child care and put the money into child protective services in the wake of a lawsuit against the state over the mistreatment of children in foster care. 
Needless to say, the lawsuit in question – the one which wound up taking money away from impoverished families to help fund child abuse investigations and foster care – was one of the McLawsuits brought by the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights.”

So, let’s see what’s changed since 2009. Again, from Stateline:

[W]hile Georgia invests only 2% of its state and federal TANF dollars on work, education and training activities, it spends 43% on the child welfare system, …  
“State policy makers have been supportive of child welfare services as a safety net for children and families,”[Georgia Department of Human Services Spokesperson Patrice] Meadows wrote in an email, “but in general our policy makers are not big supporters of high levels of cash assistance.”

Unless the cash goes to middle-class foster or adoptive parents, of course.

*-A case can be made that not all TANF spending on child welfare is wrong. Some money goes to help grandparents and other relatives providing kinship foster care. These grandparents can’t be paid like stranger-care parents unless, like the middle-class strangers, they can meet all sorts of hypertechnical licensing requirements geared more to middle-class creature comforts than to health or safety.  But in most cases there is a better solution: Streamline the licensing requirements and then help poor people to meet them.