Thursday, June 20, 2019

No, you can’t use predictive analytics to reduce racial bias in child welfare

And if you’re claiming success in reducing racial disparities by ensnaring more white children in the system instead of fewer children of color, you’re missing the point.

Pittsburgh's supposed success in reducing child welfare racial disparities
consists mostly of slapping scarlet number "risk scores" on more children such as these.

“When it comes to stopping state-sanctioned violence – whether an unjustified police shooting or child removal – shouldn’t we use the most advanced tools at hand?” Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change, asks in the conclusion of a recent column. 

Since he’s long been one of the most ardent supporters of using predictive analytics in child welfare, [UPDATE: In a tweet, Heimpel takes issue with this characterization, which is based on my impression of years of Chronicle stories] his answer is unsurprising: “It seems to me that predictive analytics – which has been so maligned as the harbinger of automated racism – could actually be a key to eroding its hold.”

But the principal child welfare study Heimpel cites teaches a very different lesson.

Whodunit vs. who might do it

Heimpel begins by suggesting that predictive analytics could be used to find caseworkers who are racially biased – as demonstrated, presumably, by the fact that they are outliers in the number of times they “substantiate” alleged child abuse or neglect or remove children from families of color.  He cites research showing that it is possible to pinpoint which police officers stop and frisk African-Americans at a disproportionate rate.

But that’s not predictive analytics. That’s just math.  You’re not predicting what people are going to do – you’re just looking at what they’ve actually done. In other words, you’re looking for whodunit, not who might do it next week or next year. If all the other variables, such as nature of allegations, income of the family, etc. are the same, and a few workers are far more “trigger happy” about removing children of color than most others, odds are those workers have a bias problem.

Of course, there’s also an underlying assumption that child protective services agency administrators want to find such workers and change their behavior.  It is at least as likely that many CPS agencies would seek out and punish workers who are more cautious than most about substantiating alleged abuse and removing children – because take-the-child-and-run is a terrible policy for children but it’s often good politics.  That’s one reason why we have foster-care panics.

In any event, predictive analytics applied to families is very different. As I discuss in detail here, it’s more like the dystopian sci-fi movie Minority Report.

When the images happen to be true

Heimpel writes that “The idea of using predictive analytics in child welfare easily conjures images of child abuse investigators targeting parents a machine deems likely to harm their children.”
Yes, it does. Because those images are accurate.

The “machine” uses a series of data points, many involving whether a family is poor, and uses it to “predict” if that family will abuse or neglect a child in the future.  But if the data points are biased – confusing poverty with neglect, for example, then the predictions are likely to be biased.  Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality aptly calls it poverty profiling.  And Prof. Dorothy Roberts, an NCCPR board member, advances Eubanks’ analysis to show the racial bias as well.

Furthermore, when actually put into effect, these models have been shown to have enormously high rates of false positives – predicting terrible harm will come to children when in fact it didn’t.

But what about Pittsburgh?

Heimpel cites a recent evaluation of the nation’s most advanced predictive analytics model, one I’ve criticized often, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) used in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa. For every neglect call received by the county, AFST generates a risk score between 1 and 20 – an invisible “scarlet number” that supposedly predicts how likely it is that a given child will be harmed.  The number then helps call screeners decide when to screen out a call and when to send a caseworker out to investigate.

The evaluation suggests that AFST reduced racial disparities at one child welfare decision point – opening a case for investigation.  And it did.  But in the worst possible way.

As the evaluation itself acknowledges, this achievement was accomplished through

increases in the rate of white children determined to be in need of further child welfare intervention coupled with slight declines in the rate at which black children were screened-in for investigation. Specifically, there was an increase in the number of white children who had cases opened for services, reducing case disparities between black and white children. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, what they’re really saying in Pittsburgh is: Great news!  We’re running around labeling so many more white parents as child abusers that we’ve reduced racial disparities!  (“Opened for services,” is a euphemism, by the way. It means the caseworker decided the allegation should be “substantiated” and the family put under the thumb of the child protective services agency.)

This is rather like a child welfare system suddenly throwing thousands more children into foster care, sending those children home after only a few days and then saying “Great news, folks!  Our average length of stay in foster care has plummeted!”

Given all we know about the enormous harm of needless child abuse investigations and needless foster care, the solution to racial disparities should involve treating black families more like white families, not the other way around.

And nowhere mentioned in the evaluation is something else that happened after AFST was implemented – something deeply disturbing: There was a sharp, sudden spike in the number of children torn from their parents in 2017.  In a typical year, Allegheny County tears children from their parents about 1,000 times. In 2017 that spiked to 1,200 before returning to 1,019 in 2018. 

We don’t know of AFST contributed to the spike – the evaluation never addresses it.  But in the past the longtime director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), Marc Cherna, has taken pride in avoiding such spikes in entries.  This time, there is silence.

And even the usual number of removals in Pittsburgh, about 1,000 per year, is disturbingly high. When compared to the number of impoverished children it represents a rate-of-removal as bad as Phoenix, which has the highest rate-of-removal among child welfare systems in America’s largest cities, and worse than Philadelphia, which is second worst.  If anything, all this raises questions about whether Cherna, the one-time reformer who has led Allegheny County DHS for decades, has stayed too long. 

AFST widens the net

Indeed, among the deeply disturbing findings of this evaluation is that AFST is widening the net of coercive, traumatic state intervention into families, with no actual evidence that children are safer.  And the results would be even worse if not for the fact that the human beings who screen calls are “standing up to the algorithm” more often than the county seems to have expected.  But DHS appears to want to prevent this, so the effects of AFST on families are only likely to worsen.

A flawed measure of accuracy ...

The evaluators made their case that AFST has improved accuracy based on the following premise: Workers who go out to investigate cases are concluding that a greater proportion of them warrant further intervention.  And since the investigators don’t know the actual scarlet number – somewhere between 1 and 20 for each child in the family – the evaluation assumes AFST must be singling out a greater proportion of cases where there really is a need for DHS to intervene.

Here’s the problem.  The investigators don’t know if the scarlet number was, say, a 6 or an 18. But the investigators know enough for the very existence of AFST to bias their decision-making.  They know that the algorithm that is the pride of Allegheny County, and has gotten an avalanche of favorable national attention is probably what sent them into this home in the first place. That alone probably is enough to make them more skittish about potentially “defying” the algorithm and saying there’s no problem here.  So what the report claims is an increase in accuracy is more likely a self-fulfilling prophecy. the net grows wider

A child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  Even when it does not lead to removal it can be enormously traumatic for children.  But under AFST this trauma is increasing. According to the evaluation, before AFST the proportion of reports “screened in” was declining.  AFST stopped that decline.  That is deeply disturbing in itself, all the more so when combined with the one-year increase in entries into care noted earlier.

The human factor

The one bit of good news in this evaluation is that the human beings who do the actual screening have been less afraid to stand up to the algorithm than I’d expected.  But what’s interesting here is the fact that DHS seems to be upset by this.

One of the biggest selling points for AFST has been that it’s supposedly just a tool, something that gives advice to the screeners who still, with their supervisors, are making the actual decisions.  According to the evaluation:

“…there is considerable lack of concurrence with the AFST by call screeners … only 61 percent of the referrals that scored in the ‘mandatory’ screen-in range were, in fact, screened in.  Therefore, the county will continue to work with call screeners to understand why they might be making these decisions.”

That does not sound like DHS is happy with the screeners daring to question the algorithm.  It’s frightening to think of the effects on the poorest communities in Allegheny County if DHS takes this one “brake” off AFST.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending June 18, 2019

● There’s nothing unusual about a child protective hotline being used as a weapon of family destruction by those making malicious false reports and by “mandated reporters” making CYA calls.  It is unusual when the child protective services agency admits this is a problem – even when they won’t actually do anything about it.  That’s what’s happing in New Mexico, as revealed in an excellent story from Searchlight New Mexico.  And I have a blog post about what could be done about the problem if agencies ever mustered up the courage to do it.

● Still another abuse of families is state central registers of alleged child abusers. They’re really easy to get on and really hard to get off.  WNYC Public Radio has a story about how that hurts children and families.

● Did racial bias prompt Texas child welfare authorities to needlessly tear a black child from his parents? Yes. Who says so? The caseworker assigned to the case.  The Houston Chronicle has the story; a story that also illustrates why the longtime flack for the state child welfare agency needs to see an otolaryngologist.  All that time defending the indefensible has compromised his sense of smell.

A Forbes commentator writes about a new study in JAMA Network Open, part of the Journal of the American Medical Association network of medical journals. The study found that child neglect decreased in states that chose to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The story includes a link to the study.  In an invited commentary in JAMA Network Open the author says the findings may indicate “an unexpected benefit” of Medicaid expansion.  But by now we should realize that nothing is more predictable.

● Prof. Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic (and President of NCCPR) and Susan Jacobs, founding executive director of the Center for Family Representation discuss the implications of that landmark study demonstrating the success of high-quality family defense in safely reducing foster care.

● And I have a postscript to the brilliant Netflix series When They See Us. It’s about how the mother of one of the Exonerated Five, Sharonne Salaam, went on to help reform child welfare in New York City.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Weapon of family destruction: Child abuse hotline becomes a tool of harassment through false and malicious reports – according to the people who run it!

But, of course, actually doing something about it is another matter

Image by cbsperna from Pixabay

Every state has some sort of child abuse “hotline” that people can call to report alleged abuse and neglect.  Every state allows such calls to be made anonymously.  And many professionals are “mandated reporters” required to report their slightest suspicion of alleged abuse or neglect. 

There is no enforceable penalty for a false report and plenty of penalty for failure to report – even though in the half century since the first mandatory reporting laws passed there has not been a single study documenting their effectiveness, and some one-time supporters of such laws have had second thoughts.

“Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.”

The result is predictable: False allegations inundate the hotlines. Some are malicious – often from schools striking back at parents demanding better education for their children. Others are CYA referrals from mandated reporters terrified not to report.

HuffPost and the Hechinger Report documented the nationwide problem last year.

The first step is admitting you have a problem

But there is something new in New Mexico.  For the first time that I know of, a state child protective services agency actually admits there is a problem.

The admission comes in an excellent story by Ed Williams of the nonprofit New Mexico news site Searchlight New Mexico.  That state only centralized its hotline in 2011.  But, Williams reports that officials at the state Children Youth and Families Department

have been raising concerns over malicious use of the abuse and neglect reporting system ever since … As soon as the phones started ringing at the Statewide Central Intake call center in 2011 … [r]eports started coming in that were clearly false, and often malicious or retaliatory in nature.
"Every hour we spend sorting out false and malicious allegations is an hour taken from a frightened child who truly needs our help," said then-Secretary Yolanda Deines, during a press conference shortly after the hotline’s launch.
"Please find a healthier way to express your anger, and don't take time away from a child who might be in danger," Deines said.
Eight years later, CYFD employees say that the Statewide Central Intake office, or SCI, continues to receive malicious reports on an almost daily basis, most commonly from school staff and divorced couples in the midst of custody battles. A lack of data, however, has led to questions within CYFD about the frequency of such calls.
 “We don’t want our agency to be used as a mean guard dog” to bully parents, said SCI manager Paul Williams. “But I see it all day long.”

It isn’t just parents who are bullied, however.  In the case at the center of Williams’ story, from the small town of Carrizozo, a child was being bullied.  Other children in the family allegedly were denied their rights to special education.  Their mother, Christy Cartwright, did what any good mother would do: She raised hell.

The school allegedly did what any lousy school would do: They weaponized child protective services and used it to bully the entire family.

The school principal denies that the calls were retaliation. But he also denies that bullying even exists in his school!  Here’s what he said during a taped meeting with Cartwright:

“Everything’s ‘bully, bully, bully,’ that’s all you ever hear about.  I’m telling you for a fact, there is no bullying at this school.”

Indeed, Williams reports, in one of their calls to the hotline, the school alleged that Cartwright was “brain washing the children to say they are bullied at school.”

(Oddly, this principal has yet to be recognized by national education leaders for having the only school in America in which there is absolutely no bullying.)

This case is not isolated.  As Williams writes:
 Searchlight New Mexico has spoken with 28 parents who shared personal stories of retaliation by school employees. Almost invariably, those instances of alleged retaliation followed arguments with the school over special education programs or student behavior problems in class.

Huffpost and The Hechinger Report found much the same.

But while CYFD is willing to admit the problem, they’re not actually willing to do anything about it.

“There is a potential for the system to be abused, and CYFD could take a proactive role,” said CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke. “But the tradeoff is that we might dissuade people from making [valid] calls. The question I have is, have these calls been enough of an issue for us that we would consider an action like that?” [Emphasis added.]

This is worth examining in detail.

First, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  At a minimum, children endure the trauma of strangers coming to their home, asking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, turning the house upside down, and leaving everyone in fear. If the allegation is physical or sexual abuse, the children may be subjected to a strip search and an intrusive medical examination. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse. 

So even one needless hotline call such call should be “enough of an issue” to prompt action, just as even one case of child abuse should be “enough of an issue” to warrant action.

Second, as CYFD comes close to admitting, the bigger risk when it comes to missing real abuse is all that time wasted on false reports.

There are solutions

Whether the harm to children is inflicted by a small public school in rural New Mexico or an elite private school in New York City, if child protective services agencies really wanted to stop the institutionalized bullying of children and families by schools and others who abuse their hotlines there are several steps they could persuade state legislatures to take:

● Replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting.  If a teacher or principal or anyone else who may have a grudge or someone who simply may be clueless wants to claim that a parent is abusing a child, that person should be required to give the hotline operator his or her name and verifiable contact information.  That information still should be kept secret from the accused in almost all cases, but the hotline needs to know. 

That will immediately discourage false and trivial reports.  It also will allow hotlines to detect patterns of false or malicious reporting, screen out such reports – and bring charges when necessary.  The law also should allow the accused to go to a judge and explain why s/he feels the family is being harassed by false reports, and by whom.  The judge should check the record and, if the accused is right, and if the judge is persuaded that the reports are an act of harassment, the name should be released to the accused, who should have the right to sue for damages.

● Eliminate mandatory reporting.  Let professionals use their professional judgment concerning when to report alleged child abuse.  As noted above, there is not a shred of evidence that mandatory reporting laws actually have made children safer.  And the fact that more than 80 percent of reports nationwide are false suggests strong evidence that mandatory reporting is inundating the system, stealing time from finding children in real danger.

● Eliminate the category of “educational neglect.” A majority of states actually don’t have such a category in their child abuse statutes – they treat the failure of children to make it to school as exactly what it is, an educational problem for which school districts should be responsible.  A decade ago the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice found that overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism. Details on the findings are in this post.

● If you don’t have the guts to do the first three, at least change the messaging.  Training for mandated reporters should include not just what to report but also what not to report.  And instead of constantly telling anyone and everyone to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, urge people to report only when they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect.

Read the full story about the Cartwright family in Searchlight New Mexico

Thursday, June 13, 2019

From a criminal justice tragedy, a child welfare hero

A postscript to Ava DuVerney’s searing Netflix drama about the Central Park Five EXONERATED Five.

Ava DuVernay (Photo by Sandra Moreno)

One of the few moments of hope in the first episode of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s searing drama about five boys falsely accused of rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989, comes when the mother of one of the accused confronts the lead persecutor (that’s not a misprint) and demands that the illegal interrogation of her son stop immediately – or she’ll contact The New York Times.

As a result, Yusef Salaam is saved from making a false, coerced confession – saved by his mother Sharonne Salaam.  (It does not save him from being convicted as a result of the appalling behavior of everyone from the police to the district attorney to much of the media to a certain sleazy New York real estate developer.)

Ultimately Yusef Salaam and the others were exonerated, but not before spending years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. 

But Sharonne Salaam didn’t stop with fighting for her own son.  She formed an organization, People United for Children. 

As David Tobis explains in his book From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York’s Child Welfare System, PUC originally focused on helping youth incarcerated in New York’s juvenile justice system.  But, Tobis writes,

Salaam soon realized … that problems for children in the juvenile justice system begin farther upstream in the child welfare system, which she saw as a main feeder for the juvenile justice system. She says that PUC “made the decision to take the preventive approach by stopping the cycle of children first entering the foster care system . . . ”  By 1996 PUC had become, as Salaam later accurately wrote, “the Harlem community’s best-informed advocates for foster care children.” …

Before the issue of racial bias in child welfare was on almost anyone else’s radar, PUC and the Center for Law and Social Justice sued the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) over the widespread needless removal of Black children from their homes.

Salaam’s fierce determination (portrayed well in the series by Aunjanue Ellis) and PUC’s militancy were critical factors in building the infrastructure of family advocacy that led to significant child welfare reform in New York City.

As Tobis writes, Salaam

recognizes that her militancy made other organizations demand more from ACS and made the positions of moderate groups more acceptable to ACS. The extremes define the center, and PUC was on the far end of the spectrum. Salaam says, “We were able to push CWOP [the Child Welfare Organizing Project], and they were able to seek out more.”

Sharonne Salaam remains a social justice advocate. She now runs a group called Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated.

As for the D.A. …

As for the District Attorney, Linda Fairstein, she did just fine in the years after the trial.  She became, as The New York Times put it, “a best-selling crime novelist and celebrity former prosecutor.”  She served on the boards of directors of several prestigious organizations including Safe Horizon, whose work includes running a network of “Child Advocacy Centers” in which police, prosecutors, caseworkers and “clinical forensic specialists” come together to interview and examine children alleged to be victims of child abuse.

Safe Horizon’s website includes a list of so-called “signs of child abuse” that include almost every possible negative change in a child’s behavior.  The website describes these as “common” signs of abuse.  There is not even the usual boilerplate note of caution that these could be  “signs” of anything other than child abuse.

In the weeks since When They See Us started streaming on Netflix, Fairstein has lost some of her privileges. She resigned under pressure from Safe Horizon.  But Salaam and the other accused were exonerated all the way back in 2002.  That same year, Sharonne Salaam’s confrontation with Fairstein was described in a critical story about the D.A. in The Village Voice.

That story cites a Newsday interview in which an appellate court judge who dissented from an opinion upholding the convictions of Yusef Salaam and the others said:

“I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. . . . Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care. She wasn’t a human.”

But that didn’t prompt any action concerning Fairstein. 

Then, the abuses in the case were exposed in a Ken Burns documentary in 2012.  That didn’t change anything either.

Why didn’t Safe Horizon act until now?

For her part, Fairstein has been all over the place claiming she is the real victim here.  She says she was portrayed unfairly in the series.  To hear her tell it, you’d think she was the victim of, how might one put it?  A miscarriage of justice?

For more about When They See Us, and the case on which it is based, see these excellent commentaries in The New York Times from culture critic Salamishah Tillet and columnist Jim Dwyer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending June 10, 2019

Catching up with some of the news over the past three weeks while I was away, starting with two important stories from Arizona:

● The Arizona Daily Star reports on the state’s use of coerced “voluntary” placements into foster care that deny families even the minimum due process protections of the formal system.  There are hundreds of such placements, and, like other states, Arizona admits they don’t even report them to the federal government as entries into care.  That is an apparent violation of federal regulations.  I discuss those regulations in this blog post about Texas, where the practice is so widespread it probably accounts for nearly two-thirds of foster care entries.

The Arizona Republic reports on a scathing decision by an Arizona appellate court overturning the termination of a father’s parental rights. As the Republic story puts it: “Sloppy work, lack of evidence and outright lies caused a father to lose parental rights to his daughter, the Court of Appeals argued in an opinion that criticizes the work of nearly everyone involved in the four-year-long case.” Republic columnist Laurie Roberts has an excellent column linking this case to other failings in Arizona child welfare.

The court decision aptly illustrates the point made by Vivek Sankaran inhis latest column: High quality appellate advocacy also is essential to prevent this kind of harm to children.

● I often write about how child welfare systems err in all directions.  It doesn’t always err in all directions involving the same person – but that’s what happened to Sarah Harris. As a child, her cries of sexual abuse were ignored. As a mother, her own child was taken needlessly.  Few people are in a better position to critique HBO’s documentary Foster.  Ms. Harris does just that in this excellent column for Rise.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 18, 2019

● The good news: In Montana, the state that tears apart families at the highest rate in the nation, the state Supreme Court finally found a case in which the child welfare agency’s rush to terminate parental rights was so egregious they felt compelled to overturn it. The bad news: Out of 250 appeals since 2012, this has happened no more than five times. Simply by reciting the facts of the case the story offers useful insight into the appalling mentality that permeates child welfare in Montana.

● In Arizona, the judge presiding over the case in which police broke down a family’s door and took the children at gunpoint has returned the children to their parents – but, the Arizona Republic reports, legal custody remains with the state, so they’ll still have to jump through all sorts of pointless hoops.

● I have a blog post about how the advocates-in-scholars’-clothing at Chapin Hall are fanning the flames of foster-care panic in Illinois.  And the Family Justice Resource Center has a letter to the Chicago Tribune warning of another group trying to exploit recent tragedies in that state: so-called child abuse pediatricians.

A former foster youth on the HBO documentary “Foster”: “In regard to dignity for foster youth, this film is a travesty.”  (We agree.)

●Two more examples of the horrors of being a foster child in Oregon:

--After a scandal involving the placement of Oregon foster children in out-of-state institutions, the state child welfare agency promised to visit the places to be sure that Oregon children were not ill-treated.  So off they went to the Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, Utah.  They came back with a glowing report that made the place sound like the best summer camp you could imagine.

Just one problem: As Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, one day later, Utah issued its own report.  They found such severe problems that they put the institution’s license on “conditional” status.  Actually, make that two problems: The Oregon DHS representatives visited the place, and wrote their gushy report “shortly after a brawl erupted on campus where a SWAT team responded and reportedly aimed guns at the foster youth.”

Why did the Oregon visitors see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in their report? Because Oregon tears apart families at a rate far above the national average, creating an artificial “shortage” of in-state foster homes.  So they ship kids all over the country and absolutely do not want to know what really happens to them.

--This also explains the other horror to come to light in Oregon last week: If the allegations in the lawsuit described in this story are correct, Oregon all but guaranteed that the foster children on whose behalf the suit was brought would be abused in foster care.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Foster-care panic in Illinois: Chapin Hall throws gasoline on the fire

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about foster-care panic in Illinois which includes links and citations for all data and studies.

Back when he ran – and dramatically improved – the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Jess McDonald had a graph he called his “EKG chart” – because that’s what it looked like.

The chart showed the spikes in the number of children taken from their parents during any week in which a child abuse fatality was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun- Times.

Right now, odds are the EKG would be off the charts.  Illinois almost certainly is experiencing its worst foster-care panic since 1993 – when the scapegoating of family preservation after the death of Joseph Wallace caused removals to skyrocket, plunged an already bad system into chaos, and was followed by an increase in child abuse deaths. 

The problem isn’t that the deaths are on the front page – that’s exactly where they belong. The problem is that politicians are rushing to learn the wrong lessons; and a bunch of people with a depressing record for dressing up their advocacy as “scholarship” are pouring gasoline on the fire.

The most recent horror stories, including the death of A.J. Freund, were caused by overloaded caseworkers, budget cuts and an ill-conceived privatization of services for families.  But you’re much more likely to score political points – and less likely to have to spend state money - if you rush to scapegoat family preservation.

And so, Gov. J.B. Pritzker does what politicians so often do in these situations: He embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare, and confuses child removal with child safety.  While he didn’t quite utter the common mantra “if in doubt, yank ‘em out” he came depressingly close, declaring: “We will make sure the message is clear: If the child is unsafe, we don’t want there to be any hesitation about removing a child.”

But it is far better for children when you remove the risk instead of the child – and, since most cases are nothing like the horror stories, in most cases, it is possible to do just that.

The problem with Pritzker’s approach is that it increases the danger to children – and I don’t just mean the enormous emotional trauma of needless removal. Pritzker’s approach also means increasing the already high risk of abuse in foster care itself, and increasing the overload for caseworkers, making it even less likely that they will find the next A.J. Freund.  These are all lessons that were learned after the Wallace tragedy – but now, apparently, have been forgotten.

Perhaps one should expect no better from politicians. But we should expect better from those who proclaim themselves to be scholars.  But Pritzker actually was responding to a quick-and-dirty “review” from advocates who have a long, ugly track record of presenting their anti-family advocacy as "scholarship" – Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

A not-so-systemic review

Chapin Hall was hired by the governor to do a “Systemic review of Critical Incidents” involving families that had received what Illinois calls “Intact Family Services.”  They spent all of six weeks on the task.

But there was nothing systemic about it. 

Instead, Chapin Hall simply reviewed existing reports on horror story cases conducted by the DCFS Inspector General’s office, reviewed a grand total of three fatality cases and some other documents and forms, and interviewed all of 14 “stakeholders.”

Since the sample was both tiny and non-random, it is impossible to draw sweeping conclusions – but Chapin Hall does so anyway.  You may be sure that had any family preservation advocate cited three carefully-chosen success stories to “prove” the fact that family preservation typically is better for children than foster care Chapin Hall would have thrown a fit.

But since we respect scholarship, we don’t do this. Instead, we cite massive peer-reviewed studies, including two specific to Illinois.

So, if you were going to judge the safety and appropriateness of various interventions, which research do you think is likely to be more valid? A handful of horror stories, selected precisely because they are horror stories, or a carefully matched experimental design involving more than 15,000 cases?

But then, Chapin Hall clearly had drawn its conclusions before even starting the “review.”  They rushed out a press release highlighting the low rate of child removal in Illinois – clearly signaling that was what they would conclude was a key problem.  And sure enough, that was the very first sentence in their review.

In fact, independent court-appointed monitors, who examine the system as part of a longstanding consent decree, have found again and again that as Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.  (Indeed, even the Chapin Hall review mentions, in a single sentence, a statistic that calls its entire thesis into question: Even now, with all the budget cuts and other recent mistakes, the rate of child abuse deaths in Illinois is below the national average.  That doesn’t prove that a low rate of removal reduces child abuse deaths, but it doesn’t exactly support a hypothesis that a low rate of removal puts children in danger.)

And, as we noted previously, the low rate-of-removal statistic is misleading. It’s skewed by Cook County. In the rest of the state, the rate of removal is much higher.

That’s not the only example of statistics abuse in the review.  In the recommendations section, the review implies that if there are enough reports alleging abuse that alone should be enough to take away the child.  Why? Because “research suggests that young children with previous allegations of physical abuse die at a rate 70% higher than children with allegations of neglect.”

A basic fact about child abuse fatalities

What this neglects to mention is a basic fact for which we all should be grateful: Though each child abuse death is among the worst imaginable tragedies, they are extremely rare tragedies. 

There are more than 73 million Americans under age 18.  Even if we double the official estimate, that would mean that 3,440 die each year of child abuse.  Even if we narrow this down and look only at the number of children who, in some way, become known to child protective services agencies, and fatalities among these children we’re still talking about a very few needles in a gigantic haystack – as Illustrated here nationally and for Illinois. 

That’s based on national figures.  Here’s the Illinois version:

So this “research” tells us only that the chances of any parent killing a child are infinitesimal – and the chances of a parent who was the subject of previous allegations killing a child are ever-so-slightly less infinitesimal.  Yet based on this, Chapin Hall seems to want a massive increase in the removal of children from their homes, solely based on previous allegations, regardless of whether those allegations had any validity.

This was, in fact, the same mentality behind DCFS’ failed experiment in using “predictive analytics – a dangerous fad in child welfare that amounts to what Prof. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality calls “poverty profiling.” It appears they factored in things like: “people with multiple reports might be more likely to kill their children” without factoring in the fact that almost no parent ever kills her or his child.

caseworkers were alarmed and overwhelmed by alerts as thousands of children were rated as needing urgent protection. More than 4,100 Illinois children were assigned a 90 percent or greater probability of death or injury, according to internal DCFS child-tracking data released to the Tribune under state public records laws.  And 369 youngsters, all under age 9, got a 100 percent chance of death or serious injury in the next two years, the Tribune found.
At the same time, high-profile child deaths kept cropping up with little warning from the predictive analytics software, DCFS officials told the Tribune.

And yet, one of Chapin Hall’s recommendations is that DCFS “revisit the use of predictive models …”  Because in child welfare nothing succeeds like failure.

On top of everything else there is, at a minimum, an appearance of conflict of interest in turning to Chapin Hall.  The whole place is run by a former DCFS director, Bryan Samuels.

It’s not as if there is some shortage of genuinely objective scholars out there.  Some of them, from the University of Illinois School of Social Work Children and Family Resource Center, are already on the job: They’re the ones who monitor the consent decree – and who have found that when Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.

And there are plenty of groups outside Illinois.

But as long as Illinois politicians’ knee jerk response is to ask Chapin Hall for answers, the answer will always boil down to take the child and run.  And it will always be wrong.