Thursday, July 22, 2021

“Pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” “extremely high”: New data reveal the extent of the invasion of Black homes by family policing agencies.

It’s even worse than previous research suggested (and it’s not great for white kids either). 


Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race
 and ethnicity in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).


By now, people working in “child welfare” know, or at least should know, of the national study published in 2017 which revealed that about one-third of all children and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.  Earlier this year, a California study produced similar results. 

But, at least when it comes to most of America’s largest counties, these data underestimate the problem.  A new study of data from America’s 20 largest counties (with the five counties of New York City counted as one) reveals a system that is arbitrary, capricious, cruel and very, very racist. 

The study reveals an infrastructure of surveillance of families – especially nonwhite families -- that is, in the words of the study authors “pervasive” “ubiquitous” and "extremely high."  

The data tell us that, step by step, brick by brick over more than half a century America has built a monstrous machine inflicting state-sanctioned emotional child abuse on a huge proportion of nonwhite children. 

For example: The study estimates that in Los Angeles County, 72% of all Black children – seventy-two percent – will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation during the course of their childhoods.  Neither this, nor the previous studies, provides data specific to income, but of course, we know that the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect means we’re talking almost exclusively about impoverished families.  So if 72% of all Black children in L.A. must endure this, imagine how rare it is to avoid this trauma if you’re poor and Black. 


Riverside County and San Bernardino Counties, next door to L.A., are nearly as bad.  So are Wayne County, Michigan (metropolitan Detroit), San Diego County, California, Clark County, Nevada (metropolitan Las Vegas) Middlesex County, Massachusetts (suburban Boston) and Maricopa County, Arizona (metropolitan Phoenix).  In none of America’s 20 largest counties does the percentage of Black children enduring a child abuse investigation fall below 40 percent. 

Phoenix and Los Angeles are also #1 and #2 respectively among America’s largest cities in NCCPR’s calculation on overall rates of tearing apart families and consigning children to the chaos of foster care over the course of a year. 

In none of these giant metropolitan areas does the proportion of Black children forced to endure a child abuse investigation fall below 41 percent.  Even for white children, in all but three of these counties, more than 20% will have to endure a child abuse investigation. 

Yes, an investigation is a big deal 

Before going further into the data, I want to pause here to respond to anyone thinking: Well, an investigation is no big deal, they’re just social workers knocking on the door to offer help Indeed, some weird comments made by one of the researchers, discussed below, suggests he may believe that.  But just to set the record straight, this story from The New Yorker gives some idea of what it’s really like: 

You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks.   

You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. … If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened. 

You may never find out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. [Emphasis added.] 

On one of the incredibly rare occasions when this actually happened to a white, middle-class foster parent, it sparked days of outraged news stories and demands for action from a state legislator.  The fact that this will happen to almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Los Angeles, almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Phoenix, and more than half of Black children nationwide somehow doesn’t provoke the same response. 

Almost every allegation is false 

All that is required for a caseworker to “substantiate” an allegation is for her to check a box on a form stating her personal conclusion that it is slightly more likely than not that the “abuse” or “neglect” occurred.  There is no trial beforehand, no neutral arbiter hears all sides.  Unsurprisingly, the only study we know of to second guess these decisions, and it’s a very old study, found workers two to fix times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly declare one “unfounded.” 

And yet, even with this incredibly low standard of proof and propensity to over-substantiate, this study found that, on average, in more than 90% of cases, the workers found that the allegation was false.  Even among Black children, where racial bias and the confusion of poverty with neglect make it more likely workers will check the “substantiated” box, on average workers decided at least 80 percent of reports were false.*  (And, of course, among those that are “substantiated” the vast majority are “neglect” – which often means the family is poor.) 

So even by the workers’ own assessment, nine times out of ten, children are forced to endure this trauma for nothing.  That also means that roughly 90% of the time, workers are spinning their wheels, chasing down false allegations, making it less likely they’ll find the very few children in real danger. 

1 in 5 Black kids in L.A. endures foster care 


Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race and ethnicity
in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).

But, of course, the harm doesn’t necessarily stop with an investigation.  The new study has stunning data on the cumulative effect of all that investigation: More than 20% of Black children in Los Angeles will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods – the figure is nearly as high in Phoenix.  Phoenix also is where it’s proportionately most likely that a Native American child will be forced into foster care, and second most likely for Hispanic children. 

Though family police almost always mean well, that means all these children endure the same trauma endured by children taken from their parents at the Mexican border.  Again, from the New Yorker story: 

If the caseworker believes your kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you—you’re using drugs, your apartment is filthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone. 

Just ask someone who went through all this, such as, say, this 14-year-old what “just an investigation” really means: 

I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. All because if my Mom and Dad don’t do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us.

I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18. Then I know [no one] will ever be able to put us in a foster home again. 

That’s best case – it doesn’t even begin to account for the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. 

When it comes to child welfare’s death penalty – terminating children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) Phoenix is again #1 – by a wide margin.  Nearly three percent of all children and nearly six percent of Black children in metropolitan Phoenix will have their parents taken from them forever. 

The family policing bias Olympics 

If one thinks of this study as scoring a family policing bias Olympics, different counties may “win” individual events.  But who does “best” all around?  Probably Middlesex County, Mass.   

In a state known for discrimination against Hispanic families in child welfare, Middlesex had the worst rate among the counties studies for inflicting child abuse investigations on such families.  It also had the worst rate for Native American families.  

Percentage of Middlesex County, Mass. Children likely to be subjected to family police investigation by race:* 

Asian                          19%

White                          28%

Native American       59%

Hispanic                     60%

Black                          68%

Middlesex also is the county in the study in which Hispanic children are proportionately most likely to have to endure foster care. 

Of course, this is the state where the head of the family policing agency and the state’s “child advocate” are doing everything possible to deny that racial bias is a problem

The other disparity – geographic disparity 

Communities are consistent about overinvestigating and overremoving Black children, but there is no consistency in how often they do it.  That, in itself, shows how arbitrary and subjective the whole process is. 

The rate at which caseworkers check a box on a form saying they think it’s slightly more likely than not that “abuse” or “neglect” occurred, (what the study wrongly describes as “confirmed maltreatment”) is ten times higher in metropolitan Detroit than in metropolitan Seattle.  A child is five times more likely to be placed in foster care -- and 17 times more likely to lose rights to her or his parents forever – in Phoenix than in New York City. 

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that Phoenix is such a cesspool of depravity compared to New York City that there really is 17 times the amount of child abuse severe enough to merit termination of parental rights.  But it’s more likely the result of the culture in a state family policing agency in which caseworkers thought it would be a great idea to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional kidnapper.” 

These data track with NCCPR’s comparisons of rates of child removal for states and, as noted above, for big cities, which find enormous differences, even when factoring in rates of child poverty. 

It’s probably worse in rural America 

Bad as these data are, odds are the omnipresence of the child welfare surveillance state is even worse in much of rural America.  That’s suggested by the fact that, even when adjusting for rates of child poverty, the states that tear apart the most families tend to be states that don’t have any big cities – states like Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.  Of the 20 states most prone to tear apart families, only two, Massachusetts and Arizona, have counties big enough to be included in the new study. 

Substituting surveillance for foster care is not “success”

In a weird press release announcing the study – but not, it should be emphasized, in the study itself - one of the researchers, Christopher Wildeman, suggests that New York City is somehow a success story because, even though the proportion of children investigated is a little above average (though not, it should be noted, above average for the places in this study), and even though New York City caseworkers “substantiate” allegations at a relatively high rate, they take away proportionately fewer children and terminate parental rights at one of the lowest rates among the counties studies. 

Somehow Wildeman leaps from this to the conclusion that family policing is “working” because ultimately the families aren’t destroyed forever.  UPDATE: Asked for comment about this view, the lead researcher for the study, Frank Edwards, told NCCPR: "I think that the massive surveillance and separation of Black, Brown and Native kids is at crisis levels and needs to be dramatically reduced rapidly.” 

In fact, the New York data tell a very different story from Wildeman's spin.  They show only that, thanks largely to pressure from grassroots family advocates and a network of high-quality family defense providers, the city family policing agency has been stopped from doing the very worst things it can do to families. 

But, as the Movement for Family Power documents in this report, the decline in foster care numbers has been replaced by an almost precisely equal increase in oppressive, needless surveillance of families.  (One outcome the study does not measure is the proportion of families forced into such surveillance in each county). 

So no, success is not substituting needless family surveillance for needless foster care; success is substituting community-based community-designed concrete help for families for both forms of family oppression. 

*-These are estimates based on the graphics in the study. The authors did not supply accompanying tables so each may be off by a percentage point or two.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 20, 2021

 We start with four stories from Los Angeles: 

● You may think you know all about how the family policing system tears children from mothers whose only crime is to be survivors of domestic violence.  But public radio’s Latino USA has a story in which such a case turned into the ultimate tragedy.  

● Suppose a white couple from Beverly Hills decided to opt for home birth. The baby came sooner than expected, there were possible complications, so the family called paramedics.  The paramedics said the newborn was fine, but took mother and infant to the hospital anyway.  When the hospital wanted to draw blood from the baby, the parents said they’d rather that be done by their private physician.  The family went home.  For this hypothetical white family from Beverly Hills, what do you think would happen next? Bet you didn’t guess this 

● Los Angeles is taking the first step toward possibly curbing racial bias in child welfare. As The Imprint reports, the county plans to try “Blind Removal Meetings.” 

● And following up on reporting from NPR and The Marshall Project, the county also took a first step toward letting foster children keep their own money.  Yeah, you wouldn’t think it would take a resolution of the Board of Supervisors to do that – unless, of course, you’ve either followed the NPR/Marshall Project stories or just have a sense of how callous and greedy the child welfare system can be. 

The discovery of mass graves of Native Canadian children who died after being taken from their homes and tribes and forced into white-run “boarding schools” has led to renewed scrutiny of the same practices in the United States.  

Indian Country Today has an overview of what happened in each country as a result of what one historian calls “education for extinction.”  Here’s one difference: 

[W]hile Canadian officials have apologized for their operation of the schools and are in the process of paying compensation to those who were forced from their homes into the boarding school system, the U.S. has offered no such apologies or payments. In fact, U.S. officials have barely acknowledged the policy existed. 

Although many schools were run directly by the government, the article explains, some were run by private religious groups.  At one point, Catholic and Protestant groups actually were fighting over which would get to strip Native Americans of their culture. 

The New York Times talked to survivors, including Noman Lopez: 

His grandfather taught him how to carve a flute out of the branch of a cedar. When the boy brought the flute to school, his teacher smashed it and threw it in the trash. 

He grasped even then how special the cedar flute and his native music were. “That’s what God is. God speaks through air,” he said, of the music his grandfather taught him. 

● And NBC News reports on the difficulties ahead in piecing together the full scope of crimes committed – and covered up – for generations. As the story explains: 

The endeavor acknowledges a truth Indigenous peoples across North America have known for generations: that the governments of Canada and the U.S. didn’t just take the culture of the Indigenous children that both countries attempted to assimilate through boarding schools. In countless cases, they also took these children’s lives, each one representing a stolen generation. 

● But it would be a huge mistake to view these solely as crimes of the past.  You don’t need a boarding school to destroy a family or a culture.  South Dakota’s fanaticism about tearing apart Native American families right now was documented nearly a decade ago by NPR. And look what just happened there last week. 

In other news: 

● On The Imprint podcast, Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan explains “hidden foster care,” in which families are coerced into surrendering custody of their children but the placements are labeled “voluntary” and not reported in official data.  He says there may well be as many children torn from their homes and placed in this system as the officially reported figure.  That would mean that family policing agencies tear children from their families half a million times every year. 

● In Arizona, dozens of organizations, including NCCPR, have joined in support of a mother who is appealing the state’s decision to put her on a blacklist of alleged child abusers – solely because she made legal use of medical marijuana to control severe nausea and vomiting.  Phoenix New Times tells her story. 

● In Massachusetts families for whom English is not their first language may be interrogated by the state family policing agency in a language they don’t understand and, as their children are taken from them, handed documents they can’t read.  CommonWealth Magazine reports on a lawsuit filed in an effort to end these practices.  

The Imprint reports that New York State is finalizing plans to help counties and New York City take advantage of federal reimbursement for half the cost of lawyers for parents and children in many child welfare cases.  According to the story: 

Beyond simply giving court-appointed lawyers raises, or hiring new ones, each jurisdiction will have to first submit “enhanced quality plans.” That could include hiring parent mentors and social workers for legal teams … or providing parents and kids with access to counsel at the earliest stages of a child welfare investigation, before a petition has been filed in family court.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 13, 2021

● We may never know exactly how it happened or how they did it, but I’ve noted before that the most progressive leadership team at the U.S. Children’s Bureau, possibly in its entire history, was the one in place during the previous Administration.  We were among those who hoped the Biden Administration would keep Jerry Milner and David Kelly in place.  But, as The Imprint reports, Milner and Kelly are doing the next best thing. 

● My guess is one state where leaders won’t be interested in Milner and Kelly’s work is Massachusetts.  Both their family policing agency and their so-called “Child Advocate” seem determined to drag a state that already tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average full-speed backwards.  This can be seen in their desperate attempts to use a commission named by the state legislature as a way to expand the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law -- despite a tsunami of opposition at public hearings.  This week NCCPR released its own in-depth analysis of the commission’s work

● When you take away too many children, as Washington State has done for decades, you wind up with an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.  That sets off a cascade of failure that ultimately leads to children sleeping in offices and even cars, moving from place to place night to night.  And, as KING-TV reports, that ultimately leads to this: 

[One foster youth] said her depression and anxiety is what led her to attempt suicide. But there were times, she admitted, she injured herself so she could go to the hospital instead of sleeping in the DCYF office, where she said she felt unwanted, unloved and alone. 

“Sometimes I’d cut so I’d have at least three or four days of stable placement, where I can live and not have to worry about eating or drinking or where I'm going to sleep,” she said. “The life I was living got to be too much for me, and it kind of made me explode." 

This story is a follow-up to one in which KING revealed that the state Department of Children, Youth and Families used tactics on these youth that international human rights organizations call torture, such as forcing children to sleep in cars and then repeatedly waking them up.  Now, KING reports: 

DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter repeatedly denied those claims following KING 5’s investigation, which “infuriated” [former after hours caseworker Deanna] Ginter and prompted her to go public with her own experience working in the field.

 “It’s so frustrating to hear those things being denied, as somebody who is on the ground and has seen those things happening,” said Ginter, who added that supervisors instructed her, on multiple occasions, to stay with foster youth in cars overnight and make them uncomfortable as a form of punishment. “I didn’t feel like I could speak up. I didn’t feel like I could say anything.” 

So, who should we believe?  Well, let’s consider Ross Hunter’s track record.

● And finally, a column that, on the surface, has nothing to do with child welfare, but inadvertently has a lot to do with the journalism of child welfare.  New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples writes about the racist history of American journalism, and the fact that many newspapers are reexamining that history – and profusely apologizing for it.  But the apologies ring hollow when so many news organizations (including the Times) keep buying into the racist myth about child abuse and COVID-19.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Child welfare in Massachusetts: NCCPR releases in-depth analysis of Mass. Mandated Reporter Commission report

Job One now falls to the Massachusetts Legislature.

Regular readers of this Blog know that we’ve been following closely the work of a commission named by the Massachusetts Legislature to study the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.  The Commission released its final report on June 30. 

Today we release our in-depth analysis of that report.  Our analysis, called Failing Job One, is available here. The analysis summarizes our overview of the failure of mandatory reporting and our overview of how the Commission was manipulated, something discussed in detail in our previous posts.  We then go on to examine the report page-by-page. 

Though the analysis is specific to the deliberations of a Massachusetts commission, much of it is relevant in every state, since every state has a mandated reporter law with failings similar to, or, in some cases, even worse than the one in Massachusetts. 

The title of the report is derived from something said by a member of the Commission itself, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan.  Like many Commission members, Ryan was stunned when, after more than a year, the Commission held public hearings and almost every witness opposed the Commission’s draft recommendations.   

That came as a surprise because the Commission chair, the state’s “Child Advocate,” Maria Mossaides, and her allies at the state Department of Children and Families had, in effect, kept the commission in a bubble, staging carefully orchestrated presentations that told the Commission only what Mossaides and DCF wanted them to hear. 

So at the first Commission meeting after hearing from the public Ryan said: 

I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t – and even if it does, perception is reality.  A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation. [Finding out if they’re right] should be Job One. 

The Commission wasn’t able to do Job One. Mossaides, and her allies in DCF prevented it.  

Therefore, as we note in the conclusion of our analysis, doing Job One now is the responsibility of the Massachusetts Legislature: 

Unfortunately, most legislators right now are where the dissenting commissioners were before the public hearing – finding it incomprehensible that expanding mandatory reporting is even controversial, much less that it should be curbed or abolished.  In addition to skewing the final report, Mossaides has bragged about her regular meetings with key lawmakers – so she’s had months and months to spin all this without the rest of us even knowing what she’s been saying. 

Maria Mossaides and her allies prevented the Commission from doing “Job One” – taking an in-depth, open-minded look into whether all those scholars, advocates and people with lived experience, and all those researchers who have questioned mandatory reporting for decades, are right.  The Legislature needs to do that job. 

Oops, they’re doing it again 

There’s one more reason why a close examination of the behavior and tactics of Mossaides and DCF is useful: They’re at it again.  Mossaides and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears co-chair a “Data Work Group” studying the gathering and presentation of data about Massachusetts child welfare. 

They have been laboring to whitewash – in every sense of the term – the facts about racial bias in Massachusetts child welfare.  To the extent that there is any bias at all, they argue, it’s almost all because of what happens at the “front door” – that is, because of the people who file reports alleging child abuse – you know, people like mandated reporters.  

Yes, that’s right. After spending nearly two years trying to open the “front door” as wide as possible, Mossaides and DCF now are claiming that any racial bias is due to what happens at the front door – and, they say, they have no control over that! 

READ OUR FULL ANALYSIS HERE.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 6, 2021

● The Associated Press reports that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, plans to address how the family policing system sought to "eradicate our culture and erase us as a people." 

● What is worse than a family policing system failing to learn the right lessons from child abuse fatalities?  How about a system that did learn the right lessons, and then forgot.  Sadly, that happens a lot, most recently in Maine.  Maine foster parent Mary Callahan and I discuss what this failure has meant to Maine children in this commentary for the Bangor Daily News. 

● Last week I wrote about how the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission became “the Seinfeld of commissions” when it opted to recommend – nothing.  CommonWealth Magazine summarizes the reasons for the impasse. But that didn’t stop the Commission chair, Massachusetts “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides, from misrepresenting the Commission’s work and the underlying issues in the Commission’s final report.  I have a blog post about one of the worst examples. 

● While Mossaides seeks to expand intrusion into families, people who understand the harm that does to children are seeking to amend or repeal some of the worst laws encouraging such intrusion, such as the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  But, there also are provisions in law that protect families – they just are routinely ignored.  Prof. Vivek Sankaran explains in The Imprint how it’s actually possible to accomplish a lot simply by enforcing those existing protections. 

● Another family victimized by a “child abuse pediatrician.” Lenore Skenazy writes in Reason about how even after the children finally were returned home, the trauma remains: 

They have mounted cameras throughout their home so that if one of their boys hurts himself, there would be proof it wasn't child abuse. Understandably, the boys have terrible anxiety. If the kids aren't warned that pizza is coming, hearing the doorbell sends them running to hide. 

● Could it possibly get any worse? Check out this story from The Appeal.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Child welfare in Massachusetts: A commission report suffers from “The Mossaides Touch.”


The Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission was chaired by, staffed by, and repeatedly mislead by the state’s “Child Advocate,” Maria Mossaides.  Despite the best efforts of dissenting commissioners, the Commission’s final report remains largely an exercise in misdirection.  

Here, we single out an example worthy of Orwell: She turned an argument on behalf of doing more to protect the children of battered mothers from being thrown needlessly into foster care into an argument for doing nothing.

Over the past several months, I’ve written repeatedly about the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission.  The Commission was chaired, and staffed, by the office of the Massachusetts “Child Advocate,” Maria Mossaides.  Mossaides has long been among the state’s foremost proponents of expanding the child welfare surveillance state and using what amounts to a “take the child and run” approach to child welfare.

Her strongest allies on the Commission were representatives from the agency that takes those children, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and its parent agency, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.  They seem to believe that a state that already takes away children at a rate 60% above the national average still isn’t taking enough.

For more than a year, Mossaides made sure the Commission heard only those who shared her general outlook.  But then, after already drafting a series of proposed recommendations, the Commission finally held a public hearing.  At that hearing, commissioners finally heard the information Mossaides had kept from them for so long.  Several commission members said they were “shocked” “surprised’ and “taken aback.”


As a result, in its
final report, the commission made no actual recommendations to the Massachusetts Legislature.  Dissenting commissioners demanded changes in the way the final report presented the issues.  They got a few of those changes, particularly in a preamble to the report.  But it was not enough to stop Mossaides and her allies from skewing the narrative in the 93-page final report to support the recommendations the commission would not actually make – and oppose one of the very few that might make things a little better.

NCCPR is preparing a detailed, page-by-page analysis of the document. But one application of what might be called “The Mossaides Touch” is so disturbing – and do cruel – that I’m highlighting it now.  That one statement effectively reverses the true meaning of public testimony, in order to advance the goals of Mossaides and her allies.  It concerns one of the biggest problems with mandatory child abuse reporting laws: The harm done to the children of battered mothers.

The issue in context

Let me start by recapping part of a previous post:

Of all the tragedies inflicted on children by the nation’s family policing agencies, few are worse than tearing a child away from a parent (usually a mother) whose only “crime” is to herself be a survivor of domestic violence.  

All of the trauma for a child is compounded if the removal was for this reason.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  He testified in a lawsuit that led to making the practice illegal in New York State. (NCCPR’s Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs.)  But, as I’ve often written before, in much of the country, family police agency policy on this issue boils down to “please pass the salt.”  That is certainly true in Massachusetts.  And the state family policing agency is fighting tooth and nail to keep things just the way they are. 

As with so much that’s wrong in child welfare, the harm begins with mandatory reporting.  A battered woman works up the courage to break free from her abuser, often for the sake of the children.  But almost anywhere she turns for help, the helper is a “mandated reporter.”   Whether that reporter thinks it’s a good idea or is just afraid to do otherwise, the reporter may well call the family police.  If you want to know what happens next,  please take two minutes – just two minutes – to listen to this excerpt from the testimony of Western Massachusetts Attorney Michelle Lucier before a commission studying mandatory reporting in that state:

 Then, for additional context, please read the testimony from Jane Doe, Inc, the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.  That will give a full understanding of how widespread the problem is – and how it places both battered women and their children in danger by deterring them from reaching out for help.  National research confirms it

Turning testimony on its head

One of only three draft recommendations from the commission that actually would make things slightly better concerns this issue.  An earlier Commission document put it this way:

[P]ersons who provide direct confidential services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking should be excluded from mandated reporting responsibility. The reasoning behind the proposed exclusion is to reduce the barriers, or perceived barriers, in the way of persons who may be seeking immediate physical safety. Persons who seek physical safety are likely to be seeking to improve the safety situation for their children. 

Jane Doe, Inc. and others who testified said this did not go nearly far enough – because battered women are likely to come into contact with so many other mandated reporters. 

As Jane Doe’s written testimony explains:

We appreciate the consideration of excluding sexual and domestic violence advocates from mandatory reporting requirements and recognize that this exclusion was considered to address the need to maintain relationships between these providers and survivors in their communities. However, these exemptions will not suffice.

Jane Doe did not say this was a reason to do nothing, rather the group said it was a reason to do far more.

During Commission deliberations, Mossaides and her allies made clear they opposed any exemption for any mandated reporter when a battered mother comes to that mandated reporter seeking help.  So now, behold how the Mossaides Touch stands the argument from Jane Doe, Inc. and others on its head – weaponizing it against the children of domestic violence victims.  According to the final report:

The Commission members expressed some opposing viewpoints on this proposal and Commission discussion ended by discussing that it is unlikely that such an exclusion would have the desired effect as victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking come into contact with many other mandated reporters besides those providing direct confidential services.

It's not clear when the Commission as a whole reached any such conclusion (I never heard them say such a thing, though I missed one meeting following the hearings.)  

But more important, since the testimony at the hearing urged the commission to do more, not less, this sounds more like Mossaides misinterpreting the intent of public hearing speakers – in fact, turning that intent upside-down.

I heard no one at the hearing say that because giving battered mothers one or two people in whom they could confide without fear of triggering an automatic report to a child abuse hotline isn’t enough, it made more sense to continue to offer them none. 

Rather, what groups such as Jane Doe, Inc. said is that this meager proposed exemption does not make up for the additional harm to battered mothers and their children that would result from enacting so many of the Commission’s other draft recommendations that would vastly expand who must report and what must be reported.

Though the report’s handling of the domestic violence issue is the most blatant example, it is the approach seen throughout what is technically a report from the Commission, but really a report from Maria Mossaides and her allies. 

That’s not because they are ill-motivated.  It’s way worse than that.  They actually believe massive intrusion into families, especially poor families of color, protects children. (It doesn’t.) They see themselves as what their 19th Century predecessors proudly called themselves: “child savers.” That breeds an ends-justify-the-means mentality that’s been aptly described as “health terrorism.” 

It would be far better if Mossaides and her allies were ill-motivated.  Then one could appeal to their consciences to get them to change. 

Instead, thousands of children – especially poor children, children of color, and children of battered mothers – are paying the price for Maria Mossaides’ good intentions.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending June 30, 2021

● A commission studying mandatory child abuse reporting in Massachusetts makes child welfare history by reversing course and refusing to pass a series of horrible recommendations – because several commissioners listened closely to public hearing testimony, took it seriously, and changed their minds.  There’s a good story in CommonWealth Magazine and I have a blog post about it

The Imprint summarizes two new reports, one from Rise and one from the upEnd Movement, calling for a radical reenvisioning of child welfare. The story includes links to both documents. 

● And speaking of radical reenvisioning: "If foster care were a good thing, the only way we'd get in is through affirmative action,” says Joyce McMillan, founder of JMacForFamilies, during this webinar, Child Welfare Justice: A Public Health Abolitionist Approach sponsored by Radical Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago: 


Indiana Lawyer profiles a mother who finally won a ten-year battle for her son – freeing him from foster care with the help of a dedicated public defender.  The child never should have been placed at all.  

● But what if you don’t have a lawyer? We hear a lot about states where parents don’t get high-quality representation.  But there are some states where they sometimes get no representation at all.  That may be about to change  thanks to pending legislation in one of those states – Minnesota. The Minnestoa bill also would reduce barriers to placing children with relatives in kinship foster care instead of with strangers.

The Houston Press takes a close look at racial bias in child welfare in Texas – and finds it’s even worse in Houston than in the state as a whole. 

A new Texas law requires child protective services to inform parents of at least some of their rights – including their right to record interviews when caseworkers interrogate them.