Sunday, August 19, 2018

And now there are (at least) five: Still ANOTHER study confirms that, in typical cases, children do better in their own homes than in foster care

A new study suggests that the child welfare system in Finland
is depressingly similar to the child welfare system in America.

There are a couple of studies that I cite so often on this blog and elsewhere that I once suggested readers could run a betting pool to guess which paragraph would contain the reference.

They are the two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases conducted by MIT researcher Prof. Joseph Doyle.  The longitudinal studies compared children in typical child welfare cases who were placed in foster care to children experiencing the same sort of alleged abuse or neglect who were left in their own homes. 

The studies didn’t guess what happened to these children based on subjective assessments. And the studies didn’t track the children for just a few months or maybe a year or two.  These studies tracked the children all the way into late adolescence and young adulthood and looked at what actually happened to them.  Typically, on measure after measure, the children left in their own homes did better.  A second, even larger study, confirmed the findings.

That was a decade ago.  In all the time since, the study has remained definitive. Nothing has matched it for size, scope or rigor. The closest that foster-care apologists could come to finding a flaw is their claim that the studies didn’t follow young children.  (In fact, they followed children as young as age 5.)

So the only straw at which the foster-care apologists could grasp was the hope – with no evidence – that the results would be different for even younger children.

But that ignored still another study, (also discussed here) from University of Minnesota researchers.  Using different methodology and outcomes, but again tracking actual outcomes all the way into adolescence, this study looked at children who first entered foster care anywhere from birth to age 9.  This study also was an apples-to-apples comparison. The researchers  looked at children under comparable circumstances and it, too, found that the children left in their own homes did better.

OK, the foster care apologists might say, but what about just infants. If we limit the study to just infants will we get the results we want?  No. Not even when the infants are born with cocaine in their systems.

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of such children; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

None of these studies is perfect, of course. But compare the rigor of these studies to the best the foster-care apologists can come up with.

The latest study

And now comes study #5.  Unlike the others, this one concerns children in Finland.  Once again it directly examined comparable cases. Once again it tracked the children all the way to young adulthood.  And, like the Minnesota study, this one was limited to young children – ages 2 to 6.  Once again, the children left in their own homes did better.

The researchers note one point about their child welfare system that they seem to think might make it different from the one in the United States. They write:

…in the Finnish context, the main reason for placement is not abuse but some level of neglect or inability to care for the child as a result of parental poor mental health, financial difficulties or the accumulation of problems.

But in fact, those are the main reasons for placement in the United States as well.  And,  as this investigative report from Finland’s public broadcaster YLE makes clear, the Finnish system’s denial of due process and penchant for needless removal are depressingly similar to the American system.

The fact that researchers got these results in Finland is important for a very different reason: In America foster-care apologists constantly blame the rotten outcomes of foster care on the fact that the system is underfunded.  If only we had more money, they claim, we could fix it.

But Finland is a world leader in social welfare spending; by some measures it’s #1 in the European Union.  If money is the problem, then the results from Finland should be vastly different.  That they are not is still more evidence that foster care is inherently so traumatic for a child that it is fundamentally unfixable. 

(And, for the record, still another American study reached a similar conclusion. This one created a mathematical formula for how much better the awful outcomes for foster children would be if the system were magically made perfect. The answer: 22.2 percent.)

It is, of course, well worth trying to achieve that improvement.  And none of these studies suggests that no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. The horror stories are very rare but they’re also very real.  There are cases in which the trauma of removal, bad as it is, is less bad than leaving the child in her or his own home.

But the Finnish study is still more evidence that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used much more sparingly and in much smaller doses than it is used in America today.  And the study is still more evidence that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

For the record: No, Los Angeles County does NOT have the nation’s largest child welfare system

No matter how many times the Fox News of Child Welfare says it does, it’s still not true.

I have previously noted the serious potential for harm caused by the slanted “journalism” practiced by the so-called Chronicle of Social Change – the Fox News of child welfare. Things like promoting a column using a vile racial stereotype to attack an impoverished birth mother, or the Chronicle’s cozying up to the group home industry. 

But there’s something else worth noting: A bizarre, if relatively harmless, obsession on the part of its publisher - and self-proclaimed "child welfare expert" -- Daniel Heimpel:  His demonstrably erroneous claim, repeated over and over, that Los Angeles County has the largest child welfare system in America.

It does not.

Even using Heimpel’s measure of choice, it does not. 

I have no idea why it matters so much to him. Sure, he lives in Los Angeles, but it’s not as if having a super-sized child welfare system is anything to be proud of. Yet Heimpel’s fervor about this runs so deep that less than a month after Chronicle’s editor John Kelly corrected the error, Heimpel repeated it, and seemed to double down on it. It’s been repeated in story after story ever since.  It’s reached the point where people in Los Angeles County child welfare are starting to believe it.

Does it really matter? Not nearly as much as the Chronicle’s other failings.  But if they can’t – or won’t – get something so basic correct, why should they be trusted on larger policy issues?

It’s big – but not biggest

The Los Angeles County child welfare system is very, very big. That makes sense given that Los Angeles County is very, very big. It’s likely that Los Angeles has the largest child welfare system run by a county or other unit of local government.  But in most of America, states, not individual counties, run child welfare. And it’s easy to forget that there are states that have many more children than Los Angeles County – so many more that it’s unlikely on its face that Los Angeles County would have a larger child welfare system.

TABLE #1: Sources are listed at the end of this post

So if you simply measure the system by the number of children it has the potential to be involved with, Florida and Texas (as well as Georgia and Illinois, by the way) all are bigger. (Other states with larger child populations are like California – individual counties run child welfare.)

Another approach is to use only measures that detail how often the child welfare agency actually intervenes in a family’s life.

This table offers several possible measures, including Heimpel’s choice, discussed below. Los Angeles comes out third in all of them:

TABLE #2: Definitions and sources are listed at the end of this post.

● Number of children who were subjected to child abuse investigations? Los Angeles is third,  behind Texas and Florida.

● Number of children in foster care? Los Angeles is third again, behind Texas and Florida.

But Heimpel offers an answer for this one, writing:

Los Angeles’ child welfare agency is the largest in the nation, serving more than 34,000 children, almost 21,000 of whom are placed in out-of-home foster care.

In other words, he simply combines the number of children in foster care and the number receiving “services” in their own homes.

There’s just one problem: Florida and Texas also provide in-home “services.”  And yes, they report doing it for a larger number of children than Los Angeles.

So in category after category after category – including Heimpel’s category of choice -- Los Angeles County, California is not the largest child welfare system in America.

Complicating things further: There is plenty of room for fudging some of these figures. For example, Texas coerces large numbers of children into kinship foster care placements without taking the family to court - and doesn’t count them in its statistics on the number of children in foster care.

And, of course, these figures say nothing about the rate at which these jurisdictions place children in foster care. One reason the Los Angeles system is so large is the simple fact that it takes away too many children.

The UN-correction

The Chronicle’s error actually used to be even bigger. A year ago, the Chronicle published this story which, in its original form, called the Los Angeles system the biggest in the whole world!  So I sent an email to Chronicle Editor John Kelly pointing out the problem. I’ve excerpted it here:

From: Richard Wexler 
Date: Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 5:10 PM
Subject: Errors in the Charity Chandler-Cole story
To: John Kelly

I know it’s difficult for Heimpel & Co. to grasp that Los Angeles is not the center of the universe, but there is one blatant factual error in this story, 

Los Angeles County does not have the largest child welfare system in the world, or even in the United States.  The state-run systems in Texas and Florida both are larger, whether measured by the number of children living in those states or the number of children trapped in foster care in those states.  If you measure only by child population, Illinois and Georgia also are larger. …

Kelly corrected the text of the story and, after I sent a second email, he corrected the headline.

But while the Chronicle has never again called the L.A. system the largest in the world, in story after story the Fox News of Child Welfare has insisted it’s the largest in the United States.  The story citing the combined in-home and foster care numbers – published only a month after the Chronicle corrected the earlier story - seemed to be Heimpel’s way of doubling down.

That only made him doubly wrong.

It may not be true that everything’s bigger in Texas, but the child welfare system is.

Table #1: Sources:
Texas and Florida: Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, 2016: (Impoverished child data average the figures for 2014, 2015 and 2016); Los Angeles: Bureau of the Census, Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 2016:

Table #2 Definitions and sources:
 CPS investigations are for the most recent 12 month period for which data are available; the other categories are snapshots of the number of children receiving services on the indicated date. 

Definition of in-home services: Texas: Children receiving Family Preservation Services, August 31, 2017; Florida: Children receiving in-home services and family support services, April 30, 2018; Los Angeles: Defined as “In-home Services” mostly “Family Maintenance Services,” August 31, 2017  Dates are the same for number of children in foster care.

Florida: Florida Department of Children and Families, Out of Home care and In-home services, DCF dashboard: Children in CPS investigations: Office Of Child Welfare, 2017 Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Year 2016-2017; Texas: Department of Family and Protective Services, DFPS Data Book:; Los Angeles County: Department of Children and Family Services, Out of Home care and In-home services: Child Welfare Services Data Monthly Fact Sheet, August – 2017 CPS investigations: California Child Welfare Indicators Project   

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The story New Hampshire CASA really, really REALLY doesn’t want you to read

I’m going to provide a link to a story about a horrific case of abuse in foster care in New Hampshire and a lawsuit filed in connection with that case. But as you consider whether or not to click on it, please remember: The New Hampshire Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program would rather you didn’t.

In fact, it’s important to them that you not read the story. Really important to them. So important to them that they actually went to court to try to prevent the New Hampshire Union Leader (known as the New Hampshire Sunday News on Sunday) from publishing the story – even though CASA had been dismissed from the lawsuit in question.

So if you want to make CASA feel better, whatever you do DON’T CLICK THIS LINK.

And you probably also shouldn’t read the next two paragraphs, from another Union-Leader story that summarize the case.

The New Hampshire Sunday News story details how DCYF and the Spaulding Center ignored red flags and rushed through the licensing of a Northfield foster home when they were faced with an emergency placement.
Six months later, the toddler suffered traumatic brain injury; today he struggles with medical and developmental issues. The foster mother, Noreen Stohrer, eventually pleaded guilty to child endangerment. She had a troubled history, including the death of a foster child under her care in New York state, the reports said.

My guess is they also might prefer it if you don’t read my op-ed column for the Union Leader on learning the right lessons from the tragedy.

The reason it was even possible to ask a judge to suppress the story is because it was based on material that was placed in a public court file by accident.  But the judge agreed that since the newspaper did nothing illegal, it had a First Amendment right to publish the story.

New Hampshire CASA was not the only organization to go to court to try to suppress the story.  So did the state Division of Children Youth and Families and the Spaulding Center, the private foster care agency involved in the case. 

But CASA’s position is particularly odd.  After all, unlike the other parties, as noted above, CASA actually had been dismissed form the suit (though the lawyer suing these agencies says he may try to change that).  And CASA programs always insist that they are the only ones who have absolutely no interest other than what’s best for children.  So surely they’d want the public to know about what this child had endured and what might be learned from it – wouldn’t they?

Why, then, did CASA want the story suppressed? According to the Union Leader, CASA was willing to see the public left in the dark because “CASA lawyer Dan Deane said he didn’t want CASA to suffer from the publicity and guilt by association.” 

That attitude may come as a surprise to those whose only knowledge of CASA comes from the gushy news stories about the program that appear all over the country.  But it is less surprising considering the actual track record of the National CASA Association and some CASA chapters across the country.

● There’s the study, commissioned by National CASA itself, that found the program prolongs foster care and reduces the likelihood that children will be placed with strangers instead of relatives – with no evidence that it improves child safety.

● There’s the second study, done by a CASA, that also found CASA didn’t work.

● There’s the scandal surrounding the CASA program in Snohomish County Washington where a judge found “pervasive and egregious misconduct.”

● There’s the matter of the former CASA for that same program whose diatribe about the overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite parents the program sees would make Donald Trump blush.

● There’s the CASA program in Kansas that held a fundraiser that featured a blackface act.

● There’s the CASA program in California that fell apart over a simple request that volunteers be more diverse.

● There’s the law review article which argues that CASA is “an exercise of white supremacy.”

As for the current case, according to the story that CASA doesn’t want you to read, the mother’s lawyer, Peter Hutchins, says:

state procedures allow him to appeal the decision to drop CASA once the underlying case is resolved. “I’m not letting CASA off the hook on this,” he said. “I’m committed to appealing it. They’re a corporate entity.”

So eventually, there may be more stories from New Hampshire that CASA doesn’t want you to read. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: After anonymous child abuse reporting Is “weaponized” to attack family of #BlackLivesMatter activist, congressional candidate asks “What’s going on?” Here’s the answer.

When she first learned that journalist and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King and his family were being harassed by a troll who had called in a false report of child abuse, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was outraged. She is the activist and champion of the poor and working class who was catapulted to national prominence when she won an upset victory in a Democratic congressional primary in New York City.
But even with all her experience as a progressive organizer and activist, she was shocked by how child protective services agencies work.
“This is wrong,” she tweeted. “Shaun is an activist that has been targeted in the past. Anonymous claims should be thoroughly vetted before exposing his children + family to a potentially damaging experience.”
And then she added a question: “What’s going on here?”
What’s going on here? Business as usual, that’s what’s going on here. The only part that’s unusual is that this is one of those rare occasions when child protective services targeted a family with the resources to fight back (not to mention more than one million followers on Twitter).

Friday, August 3, 2018

Elizabeth Vorenberg, 1931 - 2018

            A few months after my book, Wounded Innocents, was published in 1990, I received a handwritten letter from Betty Vorenberg.  I’d known Betty when I was a reporter in Massachusetts in 1980 and ’81 and she was Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. 

            In her letter, Betty asked if I had any interest in trying to form an organization around the principles in my book.  I said yes.  Betty did the rest.

            So all of us were deeply saddened to learn of her death at the age of 87.

            As NCCPR President Martin Guggenheim said:

There wouldn’t have been NCCPR without Betty. She organized the first gathering of about six people in her home in Cambridge in 1990 and helped us talk through the importance of trying to influence the public through the media. We’ve been trying ever since.

            After that initial meeting in her home came a larger, formal conference at Harvard Law School.  Then she used her contacts and her reputation as one of the nation’s foremost child advocates to do the seemingly impossible: persuade a foundation interested in civil liberties to take an interest in child welfare, and a foundation interested in child welfare to take an interest in civil liberties.

            Betty was NCCPR’s first president and always our guiding spirit.  As Prof. Guggenheim said:

Betty was a genuine champion of our cause. We will miss her dearly. She believed in NCCPR with all her heart.

            NCCPR is only a small part of Betty Vorenberg’s legacy. She served as an Assistant Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare during the Dukakis administration.  She was a member of the National Board of the ACLU, and President of the ACLU of Massachusetts.  You can read more about her here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

UPDATE, AUG 2, 2018: ACS: We DO disclose total number of removals; but we don’t say how often judges overrule us at the first hearing.

Previously, we reported that New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, omits from its “Flash Monthly Indicator”  reports to the press and the public an entire category of children taken from their parents. ACS now says those removals ARE included in grand totals, but not broken out so the public can see how often these types of removals occur.

The category involves those cases where the child is removed with no prior approval by a judge.  Then, at the first court hearing, either ACS decides the removal was unnecessary or a judge refuses to approve it.

So the child endured the trauma of foster care needlessly.

When we queried ACS about this, their initial reply, included in full here, left us with the impression that these removals were not included anywhere in its public reports.  Indeed, the ACS response specifically states "As you noted, the FLASH report does not include cases where a remand was not approved at the first hearing, or a decision was postponed to a later hearing." Emphasis in original.  Since the total number of entries in other documents is almost exactly the same as the total in the FLASH reports, it appeared that this category of removal was not included in those reports either.

In response to a follow-up query, ACS now says that impression was wrong. ACS now says that the statement about these removals not being in the FLASH report applied only to one part of the FLASH report.  ACS now says the total number of entries into care are reported elsewhere in the Flash Monthly Indicators report and in the Mayor’s Management Report do include cases in which the child was returned home at or before the first court hearing.

But what we still don’t know is how often ACS resorts to the most drastic form of removal – taking a child on-the-spot – only to have a court say the agency was wrong.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Trump Administration’s excuse for failure to reunite families torn apart at the border: We’re just erring on the side of the child!

In previous posts, such as this one, I’ve discussed how the Trump Administration’s excuses for tearing apart families use the same kinds of fear tactics as those used by child protective services agencies.  Trump would cite extremely rare horror stories about people killed by illegal immigrants in the same way advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to American child welfare cite extremely rare horror stories of children killed by their parents.

But, I noted, the Trump Administration still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it.  As I wrote at the time:

If you really want people to support tearing apart families you have to be sure to call it “erring on the side of safety.”

Well, the Trump Administration is unspeakably cruel, but never let it be said they’re not quick studies.

On Wednesday, I was a guest on Margaret Prescod’s Pacifica Radio program Sojourner Truth.  She played a clip from an interview I’d overlooked when it first aired on July 10. It’s  this clip from a CNN interview with Department of Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar

The interview concerns why the federal government has been so slow to reunite the families, as it’s been ordered to do by a federal court.  In the clip, Azar shows he’s mastered child welfare establishment rhetoric almost word-for-word.  Says Azar:

We could put children back with individuals who are murderers, kidnappers, rapists or not their parents. But we've worked with the court to ensure that we do our duty, which is to protect child welfare and ensure that they are, in fact, that. … I don't think a kidnapper, or a child abuser, or a child trafficker ought to be able to take a kid out of country or be reunited in ICE facilities. … And if we hadn't done this work these children would have been reunited in exceedingly dangerous situations.

See? They’re just erring on the side of the child!  They’re putting child safety ahead of family reunification!  Who could be against that?

And then came the part that could have been lifted straight out of a press release from almost any child protective services agency in America:

I'm proud of the work that we do. I believe we are saving kids' lives here, by the work we are doing before.

So you see, if you don’t want families separated needlessly, and if you insist that such families should be reunified, clearly you don’t care if children die.

The only difference is this: When the topic is the children separated at the border, we know it’s BS.  The day America realizes that it’s also BS when U.S. child protective services agencies say the same thing is the day U.S. child welfare really starts to change.