Sunday, July 22, 2018

Los Angeles child welfare and the definition of insanity

If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then politicians and child welfare officials in Los Angeles need what parents so often are put through when child welfare agencies get into their lives: a psychiatric evaluation.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is doing what it does best
after a child-abuse tragedy: grandstanding at children's expense

Do we really have to go through this again?

Do we really have to go through another round of preening, posturing, finger-pointing and general sound and fury signifying nothing in the aftermath of a horrible child abuse death?  Do we really need another round of “[name of politician here] demands answers”-type press releases?  Don’t political leaders in Los Angeles finally owe the county’s most vulnerable children more?

Those are the questions we should be asking after the latest high-profile death of a child “known to the system” – the death of Anthony Avalos.  But so far, all we’ve gotten is more of the same. Take out the name Anthony Avalos and substitute Gabriel Fernandez, or Yonatan Aguilar or Dae’von Bailey or Lars Sanchez, among other Los Angeles child welfare tragedies, and you could barely tell the difference. 

That’s because the real root of the problem is that Los Angeles takes away too many children, not too few. That overloads the system, leaving less time for workers to find children in real danger. Each time there’s a high-profile death it sets off a foster-care panic – encouraged by those grandstanding politicians. Even more children are taken needlessly. So workers have even less time. So the cycle repeats over and over.

It happens almost everywhere, of course.  But part of the reason it’s often worse in Los Angeles is that Los Angeles child welfare has long suffered from being overseen by one of the worst governing bodies in America on these issues, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – or as I’ve called them before, the B.S. 

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote about the m.o. of the B.S.:

In 1954, Sen. Ralph Flanders of Vermont denounced his notorious colleague Joe McCarthy in words that need be changed only slightly to explain the modus operandi of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in child welfare cases. To paraphrase Flanders:
They don their war paint; they go into their war dance; they emit their war whoops; they go forth to battle -- and proudly return with the scalp of a social worker.

Though there’s been a lot of turnover on the B.S. in recent years, when it comes to child welfare, most of them share their predecessors’ fondness for clueless grandstanding.

Consider this statement from supervisor Kathryn Barger, who said that after Gabriel’s death:  “I didn’t think something like that could happen again…”

In fact, it’s never stopped happening.  Every year, among the tens of thousands of cases investigated by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, there are some in which warning signs, sometimes subtle, sometimes achingly obvious, are overlooked.  And every year some of those children die.  It’s just that every few years, for reasons ranging from particularly horrible details to random chance, media and politicians fixate on a single case.

That distorts our entire perception of what’s wrong with DCFS and how to fix it.  Child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA.  They can hide almost all their blunders behind “confidentiality.”  Almost the only time we see their failures is when a child “known-to-the- system” dies. So we assume that all the errors go in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.

But child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel – they err in all directions.  They tear many children from their homes needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect.  In other cases, there are real problems but they could be solved without resorting to traumatizing the children by taking them from their homes.

Lessons from the border

One need only look about 129 miles south of Los Angeles, to the Mexican border, to see just how horrible such separation can be.  A professor of pediatrics called the trauma of separation “catastrophic.”

Remember those sounds of crying children smuggled out of a detention center and published by ProPublica?  It doesn’t matter if the person separating parent from child is a border patrol officer carrying out a policy of pure evil or a DCFS caseworker with the best of intentions – the children shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons; the damage done to them is the same.  So it’s no wonder massive studies have found that, in typical cases, children left in their own home fare better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.

That harm is done even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. As for group homes and institutions: The record in California speaks for itself.

The typical response to high-profile tragedies – the general chest thumping and calls for heads to roll - makes everything worse. Workers become terrified of having the next tragedy on their caseload and facing everything from media censure to criminal charges. So there’s a foster-care panic: Workers rush to inflict more catastrophes on children by taking more of them needlessly. 

That only makes the other kind of catastrophe – the death of a child “known to the system” – more likely, because overloaded workers have even less time to find children in real danger.

Just as tearing apart more families at the border doesn’t improve border security, tearing apart more families in Los Angeles County won’t improve child safety.

Enter the Fox News of Child Welfare

Already the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare, is laying the groundwork for the next foster-care panic in Los Angeles. The Chronicle ran a story that seeks to justify the panic in advance, arguing, in effect: What do you expect? More people call in reports alleging child abuse so of course more children will be removed. 
But often, during foster-care panics the increase in removals far exceeds the increase in reports.  And because, during a foster-care panic, anyone and everyone is hectored repeatedly to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, a greater proportion of reports is likely to be false. There should be no automatic assumption that more people calling in their slightest suspicion should mean more children torn from their homes.

And, of course, the story quoted DCFS director Bobby Cagle falsely equating child removal with child safety – just the way Donald Trump falsely equates child removal with border security.  But then that’s the same Big Lie of American Child Welfare that Chronicle publisher and self-proclaimed "child welfare expert" Daniel Heimpel pushes at every opportunity. 

(A quick reminder of Heimpel’s track record: He has analogized the increase use of family preservation to cancer, dismissed concerns about racial bias in child welfare as a “panic” and published and promoted a column using a vile racial stereotype to attack one of the mothers profiled in the New York Times story about foster care as the new Jane Crow.)

Computerized “poverty profiling” won’t help

Nor will we fix the system by taking all the human biases that exist now and automating them. That’s what the current fad sweeping through child welfare, “predictive analytics” really is all about.  Predictive analytics involves using masses of data about people – mostly, it turns out, poor people – and coughing up a score that supposedly tells workers for agencies like DCFS who is most likely to abuse a child.

Contrary to a column in the Los Angeles Times by Naomi Schaefer Riley (the same Naomi Schaefer Riley who was barred from blogging for an education trade journal after writing a column widely viewed as racist) the first Los Angeles experiment with this approach was not dropped because the county used a private company. It was dropped because the software produced a false positive rate of 95 percent.  As Judge Michael Nash, director of the county’s Office of Child Protection explained, 95 percent of the time, the software labeled as “high risk” children “who were not at risk for a negative outcome.” 

The same column goes on to praise the predictive analytics experiment in Pittsburgh.  But, as I discuss here, that experiment doesn’t correct the biases of humans, it magnifies them.  In her book, Automating Inequality, Prof. Virginia Eubanks aptly called it “poverty profiling.”

Los Angeles already takes away children at more than double the rate of New York City and more than triple the rate of Chicago, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. There is no evidence L.A. children are two and three times as safe from abuse.

If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then politicians and child welfare officials in Los Angeles need what parents so often are put through when DCFS gets into their lives: a psychiatric evaluation.

No large child welfare system in America ever has been able to stop every child abuse death – just as no police department can stop every murder.  But the few that do better at curbing child abuse have one thing in common: They do far more than Los Angeles to keep families together and avoid needless foster care.

Why not try that for a change?

Friday, July 20, 2018

One element of NYC foster care panic eases; everything else still stinks

New report finds the worst form of child removal is still increasing far faster than the rate of investigations; caseworkers and courts are dangerously overloaded

The full report is available here

New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services remains an agency in foster-care panic mode, with no sign that the current commissioner, David Hansell, has any interest in doing anything about it. 

One element of the panic has slowed – but not stopped. In other respects, things are as bad as they’ve been since the panic began more than a year-and-a-half-ago.  They remain as bad as they were when The New York Times found that New York City foster care had become the new “Jane Crow.”

The panic has done nothing to make children safer. Key measures of child safety improved before the panic, as entries into foster care declined, and one of them got worse afterwards.

The fact that the panic, and the harm to children, continues is made clear once again by an impressive new analysis released yesterday by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. It's called Child Welfare Surge Continues.

What the new report found

The report looks at data for the 20 months since the tragic child abuse death of Zymere Perkins set off the most recent New York City foster-care panic in October, 2016 and compares the data to the 20 months before the panic began.

Among the findings:

● Investigations of reports alleging child abuse or neglect increased 11 percent, as more people were encouraged to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd.

More people calling in reports is the standard excuse for foster-care panics. Agencies say, in effect: Well, of course we’re taking away more children, we’re investigating more reports!  In fact, during a foster-care panic a far greater percentage of reports is likely to be false, so there should be no such assumption.  But in any event…

●… the worst form of removal, so-called emergencies, in which the child is removed on-the-spot without so much as a court hearing beforehand, soared at more than double the rate of investigations, up 28 percent during the same period.  And, as the report notes, ACS doesn’t even report all such removals.

As the Center for New York City Affairs report explains:

Lawyers who represent parents in Family Court say that ACS seems, more frequently, to be making emergency removals that aren’t justified by a child’s circumstances. “Those are the removals that are the most traumatic for children,” says Emma Ketteringham, the managing director of the Family Defense Project at The Bronx Defenders. “They’re often done in the middle of the night, without preparation. You find out five minutes before that your child is going to be removed.”
The rise in emergency removals, Ketteringham argues, is the clearest indication that an over-reactive child welfare system can hurt children—especially in the context of the current conversation about children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“With all of this attention being paid, nationally, to what removing a child from a parent actually looks and sounds like, it’s no different when a child is removed from a parent here in the Bronx,” she says.

● Even when a child is not removed, forcing the family into court and then forcing that family to endure onerous supervision also takes an enormous, needless toll on the children. Such cases have skyrocketed by 54 percent. Again from the report:

 “At this point everybody’s so afraid, they’d rather cover their ass,” the caseworker said. “Take the case to court and let the judge say no. Then we can document we tried. Nobody wants to end up with their face in the Daily News. They don’t want to face criminal charges.”
Once ACS decides to file a case, however, it’s unlikely that a judge will dismiss it outright, says [Ronald] Richter, the former ACS commissioner and Family Court judge. “Judges may yell and get frustrated with ACS” for filing a petition without a strong enough cause of action, Richter says. “But they’re anxious: Maybe there’s something here.”

What does that mean in real life? Consider this New York City case, involving an African-American mother expecting twins. Her extreme morning sickness was so severe she couldn’t keep food down. Her doctor said she had to eat more for the sake of the babies. The only thing that helped was marijuana. So she dared to think she could behave like a middle-class white woman and smoke pot. Read her op-ed in the Daily News to see what “merely” being under supervision did to her family.

All of this, of course, also overloads the system. Worker caseloads are now dangerously high, especially in the Bronx and Staten Island – increasing the chances that the next Zymere Perkins will be missed.  And court backlogs delay the provision of help to families and potentially delay reunification. 

Now, the good news

There is exactly one piece of good news: The rate at which children are torn from their parents in New York City apparently has slowed in the most recent six months for which data are available, the period ending in May, 2018.  This suggests that what usually happens during foster care panics is happening now: Everyone is calming down and returning to something closer to business-as-usual.

This can be seen by comparing entries into foster care for the full 20 month period covered in the new report to shorter time periods used in the Mayor’s Management Report.

During New York City Fiscal Year 2017, which includes the first nine months of the foster-care panic, the number of children torn from their families increased 13 percent over FY 2016. During that same time period, investigations increased by only about seven percent.  Similarly, during the first four months of FY 2018, investigations were up 6.1 percent over the same period the year before, but removals increased 16 percent.

But then, as the month-to-month graphs in the Center for New York City Affairs report make clear, removals started to fall back to their pre-panic levels.  That explains why, when comparing the full 20 month period since Zymere Perkins died to the 20 months before, the new report finds that the increase in entries is 3.8 percent – which, the report points out still “represents a reversal of the longstanding trend” toward reducing entries into foster care.

No doubt David Hansell will rush to claim credit for this, since, as we’ve seen before, if there’s one thing at which he is particularly skilled it is claiming credit for things that have nothing to do with his own tenure in the job.

A real leader would have stopped the foster-care panic in its tracks, or at least drastically curbed it, as soon as he took office, which in Hansell’s case is well over a year ago. Instead, the overall panic finally is slowing of its own accord, while so much else in New York City child welfare continues to get worse under his leadership.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why is foster care so easy and everything else so hard?

A Kansas City police officer, with a lot of backup, saves three children from needless foster care. But look what it took to achieve that result.

Gina English talks about the family whose poverty wasn't 
confused with neglect in this Kansas City Star video.

On one level this very good story, written by Cortlynn Stark, an intern for the Kansas City Star, is inspiring. On another level it’s frustrating. And and on still another it’s outrageous.

On June 28, at about 2:00 a.m. Kansas City police Sgt. A.J. Henry found a Chantre Russ and her three children, ages 4, 2 and 7 months, sleeping in a parking lot stairway.  They had arrived on a bus from California. The family had to leave that state after the father of the oldest child was murdered.

Sgt. Henry took out his phone and made a call – but not the one you might expect. 

He did not call Missouri’s child abuse “hotline” to have child protective services rush out and throw the children into foster care.  Instead, even though it was 2:00 a.m., he called Gina English. She’s the Kansas City Police Department’s Social Services Coordinator – a job that exists only because of grants from a private foundation.

The inspiring part

Sgt. Henry wasn’t going to let these children be thrown into foster care. “It was not going to happen on his watch,” English said. “That family was not going to be separated.”

And it wasn’t. But oh, what it took to achieve that result. 

The story goes into great detail about all the different people who had to be contacted and mobilized just to keep the children in this one family out of foster care: The people who came up with car seats for the children, the officers who pooled their own money to get the family a hotel room, the groups that supplied diapers and baby wipes. As the story said:  “Support from across Kanass City poured in…”

It all happened just in time. Ms. Russ was on the verge of calling child protective services on herself.

The frustrating part

This amazing collective effort is the part of the story that’s inspiring. Here’s the part that’s frustrating:

I’m sure this isn’t the first time Sgt. Henry, Ms. English and others have extended themselves for families this way.  But no one can sustain this kind of collective ad hoc volunteer effort for every family who needs it.  So it’s frustrating that this risks becoming one of those feel-good stories that warms our hearts about the family that was helped, as we forget all the others who are not.

Nationwide, multiple studies have found that 30 percent America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had decent housing.  So I hope readers, and other journalists, who see this story will remember the thousands of other families, just like this one, whose children are in fact torn from their parents every year because their parents lack housing.  And I hope they will realize that those children suffer the same sorts of trauma as that endured by children taken at the Mexican border.

The outrageous part

The part of the story that’s outrageous can be boiled down to a single question:


Why is foster care so easy, while everything else is so hard?  Why does it take foundation grants and police chipping in their own money and this enormous collective effort to do what’s right and keep one loving family together, while doing what’s wrong – consigning children to the chaos of foster care -- takes little more than a phone call? 

The technical answer has to do with arcane child welfare funding formulas that reimburse states for a significant share of the costs of foster care in many cases, while providing far less to keep families together. (And by the way, the grossly overhyped Family First Act would do nothing for the family in this case – the kind of concrete help they need isn’t covered.)

The larger answer is that foster care is easy and everything else is hard because so much of America wants it that way.  Foster care is easy and everything else is hard because so much of America hates poor people in general and nonwhite poor people in particular.

That leaves good people like Sgt. Henry, Ms. English and the others who banded together in this case to do the best they can, largely on their own.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Demonized in absentia: What The Nation got wrong about child welfare and opioids

There is a lot that is good in The Nation’s cover story “Lessons from the Opioid Epidemic: How public schools have become the safety net of last resort for traumatized children.”  The story, by Associate Washington Editor Zoë Carpenter, makes clear that the “root causes” of everything that has gone wrong are poverty and unemployment.  The story decries, albeit briefly, the lack of drug treatment.  The story even acknowledges some of the failings of previous journalism on similar issues.

Unfortunately, they learned the wrong lessons
But, in many ways, a publication that ought to know better has perpetuated stigma and stereotype,
and contributed to the dominant false narrative in American child welfare: that increases in foster care are inevitable because of opioids.

In fact, foster care is not increasing because of opioids. Foster care is increasing because of child welfare’s typical, knee-jerk, take-the-child-and-run response to opioids.

The story describes the effects of opioid abuse on children in one of the states where the problem is worst: West Virginia.  In particular, as the subtitle suggests, it focuses on the daily work of teachers in poor rural communities who try to help children affected by parental drug use.

The story makes the now-obligatory nod to the excesses of “crack baby” coverage in the 1980s and how that stigmatized both the children and their parents. But while the story goes to great lengths to avoid similarly stigmatizing children, it does almost nothing to counteract similar demonization of their parents.  

The parents are silenced

That’s because the voices of those parents are silenced.  In more than 5,000 words, we hear from children, from teachers, from counselors, from grandparents stepping in to provide kinship foster care, from law enforcement from emergency room doctors and on and on.  Not one of those 5,000+ words comes from a parent. That leaves everyone else to paint a picture of them. So they are demonized in absentia.

● The story is filled with anecdotes about the trauma inflicted on children by their parents’ drug use. The anecdotes are not hype. There are times when drug use inflicts exactly this kind of trauma on a child. But while the story does not overtly condemn the parents for it, it is still implied that all children whose parents use drugs inherently suffer this kind of trauma.  And that is not true.

● That false impression is reinforced by that total absence of  parents’ voices.  There are no voices from parents such as this one. We don’t even hear from former foster children such as the young woman, now a social worker herself, who wrote in Teen Vogue about how she never should have been taken from her parents; parents who were heroin addicts.  These perspectives contrast sharply with the “master narrative” of most coverage of child welfare and substance abuse, a narrative largely accepted in The Nation’s story.

So a grandmother raising her grandchildren says “We do our best to give them the best. But no matter what we give them, we can’t give them what a mom and dad who truly loved them could have given them.”

Do these children’s mom and dad not love them? We don’t know. We never hear from them.  But that kind of characterization certainly fits the dominant media stereotype of parents who “choose drugs over their children” (which, if one believes addiction is a disease, is like saying parents “choose cancer over their children).

And, indeed, according to the story, “Several [teachers] spoke resentfully about adults who, they felt, chose drugs over their kids’ well-being.” The closest thing to a dissent was from a teacher, whose own son has a serious drug problem, who said: “after a while, it’s not a choice,” [emphasis added].

Even the section decrying the lack of treatment options implies that few of these parents would take advantage of treatment anyway.  The story quotes an ER doctor who says: “It’s really sad.  We get a few that actually, legitimately want help …” [emphasis added].

● The trauma anecdotes are reinforced by a long, detailed discussion of Adverse Childhood Experiences – the various traumas that can scar a child for life.  There is much about the trauma inflicted by lives of uncertainly for children still living with their own parents.  There is much about how even seemingly small traumas can have big consequences. But one of the biggest traumas of all, the trauma of being removed from parents, is viewed as harmful – but inevitable.

Taking questionable numbers at face value

So, citing a local television news story as documentation, The Nation tells us:

There are 6,300 children in the foster-care system in West Virginia; nearly half were separated from their parents because of substance misuse.

That’s wrong for several reasons.

● The figure really means only that for about 3,150 children a caseworker checked a box on a form alleging substance misuse – often the easiest way to get a judge to rubber-stamp removal.

● Substance misuse can mean anything from parents overdosing in front of their children to a mother smoking marijuana to ease the pain of labor.  And, in the case of opioids, children often are taken from parents using medication, such as methadone or buprenorphine that is prescribed as part of their treatment plan.

● Most important, The Nation is accepting the conventional wisdom that the only answer to substance misuse by a parent is taking away the child.  There is no mention of states, such as Connecticut, where the child welfare agency does not view removal as inevitable, and is pioneering better alternatives.

With enough therapists ...

So The Nation focuses on the need for help to ease the trauma of separation after the fact, instead of questioning why all this separation is happening in the first place.  The story leaves the impression that if we just send in enough therapists the wounds inflicted on the children by the separation from their parents will all be healed. Surely what’s happening at the Mexican border should have debunked that myth once and for all.

● Similarly, the story is filled with references to children in foster care because a parent is in jail.  Yet   (The only reference to the possible misuse of incarceration is a throwaway line suggesting, correctly, that this is a problem in predominantly African-American inner-city neighborhoods. The possibility that it also could be a problem for poor whites in rural West Virginia goes unexplored.)
the story never asks if these parents should be in jail.

In short, there’s almost nothing wrong with what’s in the story – the problem is all that is left out.

So the story concludes that, in the community at its heart, “they need access to doctors and treatment centers, to jobs that don’t leave them with broken bodies. They need funding for teachers, for classroom supplies, for counselors.”

At no point does the story actually say foster care is the solution.  But the story gives no hint that foster care is part of the problem, either.

The Nation could have learned a lot from the far better reporting done by a small newspaper in Montana, The Missoulian, and a team of remarkably talented journalism students.  For one thing, they decided that parents with substance use problems actually were worth talking to.

The Nation story notes the common claim that this drug plague is being treated with more sympathy because it has a whiter face.  But while that may be true in some quarters, there is little evidence to support that claim in child welfare.  On the contrary, child welfare systems are jerking their knees in response to opioids the same way they did in response to crack – by rushing to tear apart families.

And The Nation doesn't seem to have a problem with this.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The new leader of Tampa’s embattled child welfare agency is already living down to his reputation

In a column for Youth Today last month, I wrote about how the state’s own “Peer Review Team” report found that in metropolitan Tampa, Florida, far too many children were being needlessly taken from their parents and consigned to the chaos of a foster care system so awful that some of them were literally parked all day in a convenience store parking lot.

Chris Card discusses his agency's "corrective action plan" in
a story from WFLA-TV
In a follow-up column for this blog I noted that things are only likely to get worse. That’s because of who has been chosen as head of “community-based care” for Eckerd Connects, the embattled agency that’s sort of in charge of child welfare in the region.  Eckerd chose Chris Card. Card has a long, ugly history of supporting a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.

I concluded that column this way:

Granted, a primary tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change. But does Chris Card want to change?

Unfortunately, it looks like the answer already is in: No, he doesn’t.

The answer came in a story in the Tampa Bay Times. (As usual, the Times was playing catch-up to WFLA-TV, which had the same story days earlier.) It concerns the “corrective action plan” Card’s agency has to submit to the state.

The Times story finally mentioned the “Peer Review Team” report’s findings about the high rate of removal in Hillsborough County - while failing to mention that the report said this high rate of removal was unnecessary and illegal.  Then the story quoted Card, who declared:

Just because we’re taking more kids into care doesn’t mean that’s wrong necessarily. 

And the fact that a team of your own “peers” said it’s not only wrong but illegal?  Well, who cares, right?

Card’s statement suggests that the parts of the “corrective action plan” about doing more to keep families together are just b.s. to placate state officials.

This would be disturbing at any time.  It’s especially now, when all over America, what Donald Trump is doing to children at the border has professionals speaking out about the catastrophic effects of tearing apart families. 

Yes, the motives are different.  I think Chris Card has the best of intentions.  But that’s not good enough – because regardless of the motive, the effects on the children are the same.

If anything, the Tampa Bay Times is worse.  In an editorial, the Times, as usual, resurrected the Big Lie of American child welfare, suggesting that family preservation and child safety are at odds and that, if not for the Times’ eternal vigilance the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy will rise up and leave children in danger.  Or, as the editorial put it:

While Hillsborough may have tilted too far in some cases toward removing children from their parents, it will be equally important not to over-correct and leave children in dangerous situations in the name of keeping families together at virtually any cost.

So, let’s review. Children are literally being parked in cars. The state’s own report says there is widespread needless illegal sundering of families. An infant in Hillsborough County was taken from his mother solely because the mother was poor – and then died in foster care.  And all you can do, Tampa Bay Times, is dredge up that Big Lie about advocates for family preservation supposedly out to keep families together “at virtually any cost.”

Donald Trump would be proud.  

The editorial caricatures anyone who wants to keep families together in Tampa in the same way Trump says anyone who wants to keep families together at the border supports “open borders” and gang violence.

In fact, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care. For the overwhelming majority of children it’s also safer than foster care. And the more you overload your system with children who don’t need to be there, the less time workers have to find children in real danger.

So here is the one-point “corrective action plan” I wish someone would impose on Chris Card and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board:

Make them sit in a room and listen to the audio of desperate children crying for their mothers and fathers at a detention center on the border. Then make him listen again.  And again.  And again.  Until, finally, it sinks in that the children needlessly and illegally torn from their families in Hillsborough County, Florida, every day, shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.  And finally it sinks in that their casual dismissal of the problem of needless removal is adding to the terrible harm already done to the vulnerable children of Hillsborough County. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Paying the price of foster-care panic in Upstate New York

There's a court hearing scheduled for today in Rochester in a case where the real solution is: Go away and leave this family alone.

[UPDATE, JULY 2: The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that the case is likely to be dismissed - but not before harassing the family some more. Because child protective services agencies can never, ever just admit they were wrong, the parents are going to be forced to take "parenting classes" when they return to Tennessee.]

Clarissa and Ryan Webster (Photo from the Gofundme page
created to help pay their legal expenses)
There’s a hypothetical example I often use when illustrating the fact that even determining responsibility for a child’s death is surprisingly subjective.  It goes like this:

Early one Sunday morning, a young child finds a way to unlatch the back door while his parents are asleep. He wanders off, falls into a body of water and drowns. Accident or neglect? If the body of water is a pool behind a McMansion, it probably will be labeled an accident. If it’s a pond behind a trailer park, it probably will be labeled neglect.

I’ve previously written about a real-life case that parallels this hypothetical almost exactly – and how child protective services made everything worse.

A far less tragic real-life version of that hypothetical is playing out right now in the Rochester,  New York, suburb of Irondequoit.  It’s far less tragic because the child is not only alive, she is entirely unhurt – physically.  But she and her siblings probably suffered emotional trauma, not at the hands of the parents, but at the hands of child protective services.  Because of where the children wound up, the trauma is not as great as that being inflicted on children at the border by Donald Trump.  But it is equally unnecessary.

It’s happening in a county where child welfare is careening full-speed backwards under the “leadership” of a county executive whose interest in children appears confined to what will score her the most points politically.

Here’s what happened, according to a page established by the family’s Nashville, Tennessee-area church to raise funds for their legal defense:

Ryan [Webster] and his wife, Clarissa (who is currently 22 weeks pregnant), and their 5 children recently traveled to Rochester, NY [from Tennessee] for the purpose of selling their converted school bus (RV) to a family friend who needs a mobile residence in order to help take care of her mother who is receiving aggressive cancer treatment.
They arrived in Rochester after an exhausting two-day drive (with Ryan driving the bus and Clarissa driving the van full of children) on Thursday evening, June 21. The following morning (Friday, June 22), their youngest child woke up abnormally early and got out of the bus while everyone else was sleeping. She wandered over to a neighbor’s front yard. The neighbor, not knowing who their daughter was, contacted the local police.

According to the news accounts, the parents also called police as soon as they realized their daughter was missing.

Here’s what should have happened next:

1.      1.  Police return child.
2.      2. Parents thank police profusely.
3.      3.  Everyone goes on their way.

And that almost certainly is what would have happened had the child wandered away from a McMansion in one of Rochester’s more affluent suburbs, such as Brighton or Pittsford.  Conversely, had this family been Black, what ultimately happened to the children probably would have been far worse.

In the middle of the child welfare bias scale

But this family falls somewhere in the midrange of the child welfare bias scale: Not well off, but white.

To police, the living arrangement they originally encountered probably looked like the functional equivalent of that hypothetical trailer park.  It probably didn’t help that the children are homeschooled – and there is a bias against homeschooling among many in child welfare.

So even though the police themselves think what happened in this case was an unfortunate accident the couple were arrested on misdemeanor charges of “child endangerment” and all of the children are now in the legal custody of Monroe County Child Protective Services.

Fortunately, they were not placed with strangers. According to updates on the fundraising page, thanks to a massive outpouring of support, including one testimonial after another from members of the family’s church, the entire family initially was allowed to move in with the friends to whom they were planning to sell the bus. Those friends who, remember, already have to help a seriously-ill relative of their own, were required to keep watch over Ryan and Clarissa at all times.  Then custody was transferred to Ryan’s parents. 

As the Websters themselves have written: “We are not insensible to how much of a blessing it is to be allowed to be with them, when many others who are wrongly accused are not so fortunate.”

A court hearing is scheduled for today, and I think the chances are good that the family will be reunited.

So, no problem right?  It was just an abundance of caution, right?  After all we have to “err on the side of border security” – oh, sorry, I mean “err on the side of the child” don’t we?


The way to err on the side of the child in cases such as this is to leave the child, and the family, alone and go away. The intrusion of police and child protective services on this family, turning their lives upside down and questioning the children will leave psychological scars .  They are likely to wonder if they police will come back again – and take them away. The consequences probably won’t be “catastrophic” as one professor of pediatrics described what’s happening to the children at the border, but they may well be serious.

Playing politics with children’s lives

Monroe County Executive
Cheryl Dinolfo
It is likely that part of the reason this trauma was inflicted is because the family happened to be in a
county where the county executive is playing politics with children’s lives.

There was a high-profile child abuse death in the Rochester area last year, and ever since County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo has been running around trying to show everyone how tough she is on child abuse. (In Upstate New York individual counties run child welfare.) There is almost certainly a foster-care panic underway, with more children needlessly investigated and removed from their homes.

Earlier this year, when the county was awarded a grant to replicate a high-quality model of family defense, a model that improves the safety and well-being of children – at no cost to the county - she stepped in and refused to let the county office of public defender accept the grant.  Then she canceled the county’s differential response program, even though more than two dozen studies across the country have found this approach to be safe.

But the children of Ryan and Clarissa Webster aren’t the only ones who have suffered.  Other children are suffering, too. We just don’t know who they are. While child protective services, the police assorted lawyers and the courts are tied up wasting all this time, money and making the trauma for an innocent family worse, what Monroe County child in real danger is being missed?


In one sense, things might have been better had this happened in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County Pa. But in another sense, it probably would be much worse.  My guess is that  had this happened in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, the child welfare agency never would have taken custody.  Allegheny County has a good record of resisting foster-care panic.

On the other hand, the report alleging child abuse would have gone straight into the massive database Pittsburgh uses for its child welfare “predictive analytics” algorithm, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST). It doesn’t matter that the report was false. Previous reports, whether true or not, are a key factor in raising the “risk score” coughed up by AFST and stamped on a child like an invisible “scarlet number” if anyone ever reports these parents for alleged child maltreatment again. The fact that the referral came from law enforcement might raise the risk score still further.

That would make it more likely the children would be removed, and kept in foster care for a long time.

And from that moment on, the children would be labeled more likely to mistreat their own children when they grow up – because they had been the subject of a report alleging child abuse when they were growing up, and that is a “risk factor.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why is Tampa, Florida child welfare probably going to get even worse?

Because one of the biggest cheerleaders for one of the worst leaders in modern child welfare history is now in charge of making it better.

It was WFLA-TV, not the Tampa Bay Times that exposed the chaos engulfing
Hillsborough County child welfare, including foster children forced
to spend their days in cars at a convenience store parking lot.
In a column for Youth Today on June 21, I discussed a report blasting the child welfare system in metropolitan Tampa, Florida, for tearing apart families needlessly – and illegally. The report, commissioned by the state child welfare agency itself found that workers  are doing this, in part, because they are so afraid of being vilified by the Miami Herald and/or the Tampa Bay Times if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.

This has plunged the entire child welfare system in Hillsborough County into chaos, complete with children being literally parked - forced to spend days and sometimes nights in cars in a convenience store parking lot, as revealed by WFLA-TV, which has beaten the Times on this story over and over again.  Of course, the overload also has made it even less likely that caseworkers will find children in real danger.

Unfortunately, one of the key steps taken since the crisis emerged is likely to make things worse.

It has to do with that time honored practice in child welfare, the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief.

In Florida, much of the responsibility for child welfare rests with private “lead agencies” These “lead agencies” have huge contracts to sort-of oversee child welfare in their regions. (I say “sort-of” because so many different groups have responsibility for different parts of the system that it’s not clear if anyone actually is in charge.  A cynic, or just someone familiar with Florida child welfare, might conclude that the system was designed for easy buck-passing.)

The lead agency for Hillsborough County is Eckerd Connects.  They got the contract after high-profile tragedies prompted the state to oust the previous “lead agency,” Hillsborough Kids, in 2012.

Now, of course, with Eckerd Connects having made everything worse, that agency is being threatened with losing its contract.  So they replaced their chief of community-based care. But she was replaced by a questionable choice.  Eckerd has now put in charge of an agency that holds far too many children in foster care* someone who built his career cheerleading for taking away too many children.

They’ve brought in Chris Card, whose track record includes formerly serving as CEO of Hillsborough Kids – the lead agency that Eckerd Connects replaced. (He was not their CEO at the time Hillsborough Kids lost the contract.)

But the connection to Hillsborough Kids is not the reason this choice is so problematic.

Difficult as it may be to believe at the moment, there was a time when Florida child welfare was even worse than it is now. It was run by the single worst leader I’ve ever encountered in child welfare anywhere in the United States.  It was run by someone who set off the largest single-year foster care panic I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States.  It was run by a former judge named Kathleen Kearney.  Kearney was appointed in 1999 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death.  In her first year, the number of children taken from their parents in Florida skyrocketed by 50 percent – because that’s what she wanted.

That’s not because she was ill-motivated. On the contrary, I view her as a tragic figure in child welfare precisely because she truly believed that this kind of confiscation of children would protect them.  It backfired so badly that Florida became the national model of child welfare failure, generating headlines across the country. Full details are in NCCPR’s reports on Florida child welfare.

The Kathleen Kearney fan club

But Kearney did have her fans.  In fact, one of the leaders of the Kathleen Kearney Fan Club was Chris Card.  At the time he was running one of the first experiments in child welfare privatization, in Sarasota.

Even as Florida was careening into chaos, in March of 2000, Chris Card was still cheerleading. Here’s what he said:

Under the leadership of Gov. Bush and Judge Kathleen Kearney … Florida is now in the beginning stages of a full-fledged reform of the child-protection system. ... With [the governor's] significant financial commitment and the changes in policy and law that make the focus of the system 'child safety,' we ought to be shouting from the mountain tops!

Not only did Card gladly buy into the  Big Lie of American child welfare, that child removal equals child safety,  he went on to demean efforts to keep families together. Here’s what he told the Tampa Tribune in 2002:

When you go into their living rooms for the first time, they say, “Get out of my house.” We've implemented some voluntary programs for people and tried to prevent the abuse from happening. To think that's going to make a dramatic difference is a tough sell.

In fact, a variety of voluntary programs have made a dramatic difference all over the country.  For starters, if the person at the door isn’t from an agency that wants to take children away, families are more likely to say “come in” instead of “get out of my house.”

But Card backed his ugly words with action. When he first came to Hillsborough County to run Hillsborough Kids, he quickly canceled contracts for programs to help keep families together.

When Card resigned from Hillsborough Kids in 2005, a story in the St. Petersburg Times (as it was known then) reported:

Board members of Hillsborough Kids also have been asking Card to work to reduce the number of children in Hillsborough County who have been removed from their homes and placed in various types of foster homes. A DCF report issued late Tuesday says the agency should have done a better job in this area.

(The story does not appear to be available online.)

You can read more about Card’s track record in this excerpt from our 2002 report on Florida child welfare.

So now, with Hillsborough County taking away children at the highest rate in Florida, even as Florida tears apart families at a rate above the national average, and with the state’s own report condemning the high rate of removal and calling it illegal, are we really supposed to believe that the best person to turn this around is – Chris Card?

Granted, a primary tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change. But does Chris Card want to change?

*-Eckerd would argue that the high rate of removal is not their fault. They don’t make initial decisions on removal because Hillsborough is one of a handful of Florida counties where sheriff’s deputies do the child abuse investigations. But the state report noted that part of the reason the deputies take so many children is they have no confidence in Eckerd’s in-home services.  And, as the lead agency, Eckerd has the most influence in the system. Eckerd could educate the deputies about the harm of removal and press the department not to take so many children needlessly. They also could press the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. Chris Card is, at best, an unlikely choice for such tasks.