Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: When anecdotes – and “whistleblowers” – collide

An editorial in the Bangor Daily News wisely
recommends rejecting Maine Gov. Paul LePage's
bad ideas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Although Maine child welfare is careening full-speed backwards, Maine journalism about child welfare, fortunately, is not.  The editorial response to the bad ideas spewing forth from Gov. Paul “Trump-Before-Trump” LePage shows the same prudence and open-mindedness that helped reform child welfare in Maine after Logan Marr died.

On June 1, for example, The Bangor Daily News called LePage’s solutions “heavy handed and overly punitive.”  The editorial wisely urged rejection of LePage’s idea to impose criminal penalties on mandated reporters who don’t report their suspicions of abuse and neglect. 

As for LePage’s embrace of the Big Lie of American child welfare, the myth that child safety is at odds with family preservation, the Daily News reminded readers of what so many in Maine have forgotten:

The focus on family reunification came after the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was suffocated by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who prosecutors said wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head, suffocating her.

The editorial also pointed out that there is no need to change statutes to encourage a take-the-child-and-run approach, as LePage wants, because “Maine’s statutes on child placement already emphasize that a child’s safety is the ‘paramount concern.’”

But then the editorial veers a bit off course. According to the editorial:

Rather than rewrite the statute, it may be more effective to put measures in place to ensure that DHHS follows this directive. For example, whistleblowers have reported that some caseworkers are so intent on reunited a child with her parents that they are willing to overlook risk factors, like drug abuse. Changing this does not require a change of law; instead better training and support can change this practice.

There are several problems with this.

● Drug abuse sometimes is indeed a “risk factor” – but it is not cause for automatic confiscation of the child.  This is discussed in detail in this NCCPR column for the trade journal Youth Today.  The workers criticized by the “whistleblowers” may not be overlooking drug abuse or other risk factors, they may simply be weighing those risks against the enormous known risks of needless foster care, and reaching a conclusion the “whistleblowers” don’t happen to agree with.

Sometimes, as they attempt to balance the risks, the workers will get it wrong – in both directions. Assuming that the errors go only one way only increases the risk of harm to all vulnerable children.

● It’s a lot easier for white, middle-class professionals to “blow the whistle” than it is for those whose children have been needlessly taken – since they are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  There are plenty of poor people who would love to blow the whistle on how their children were needlessly taken, but they don’t know how to pull together documents and speak to reporters. And if their cases are still pending they often fear retaliation by DHHS.

Occasionally, you get a whistleblower who has both professional status and insight into wrongful removal.  Someone such as former Maine foster parent Mary Callahan, who led efforts to improve Maine child welfare after Logan Marr died.  Here’s how she blew the whistle.

And on those rare occasions when the long arm of DHHS reaches into the middle-class, those parents can blow the whistle. This recent example is especially worth reading in light of the fact that one of those who shares responsibility for this family’s pain also was a leading campaigner against the reforms that followed the death of Logan Marr.

Looking at the data


So what happens when anecdotes – and the experiences of whistleblowers – collide? That’s when it’s time to look at the data. 

As is explained in detail in this previous post, the data show that when Maine embraced family preservation it made children safer.  And the data from around the country show that the LePage take-the-child-and-run approach (whether it involves changing laws or “putting measures into place” at the administrative level) makes children less safe.

● And finally, no one has to tell DHHS to put “measures into place” to take away more children. I’ll bet it’s already underway – with a vengeance. Maine almost certainly is in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in the number of children taken needlessly from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.

Of course that’s not what the editorial suggested should happen. On the contrary, the Bangor Daily News and other Maine newspaper editorials have gone out of their way to avoid pouring gasoline onto the fire of foster-care panic. That’s a good start, but more is needed.

Someone claiming that there exists a “practice” of ignoring “risk factors” doesn’t make it so.  Far more likely, overloaded workers don’t have time to consider those risk factors properly – so they’re making more mistakes in all directions, taking more children needlessly while leaving other children in danger in their own homes. Indeed, were DHHS actually to provide “better training and support” as the editorial suggests, it would result in fewer removals of children and more emphasis on family preservation – since that’s what makes children safer.

But obviously DHHS can’t be counted on to do that.

And that’s why even more is needed from the state’s most influential journalists. Refusing to pour gasoline on the fire is a good start, indeed it’s far better than the performance of journalists in many other states.  But what would really help is for people with influence to pour water on those flames - that is, demand a stop to the foster-care panic.

I hope they’ll do it before more children get hurt.

Monday, June 11, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: Child welfare policy on drug abuse lives at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance

Everybody knows it's a bad idea to leave children unsupervised at a dangerous intersection.

Unfortunately, that's how America's child welfare establishment has responded to the "opioid epidemic."  They've put our most vulnerable children at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance.

Read NCCPR's column in Youth Today

And for more on one part of the problem, child welfare's hostility to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, see this excellent 2015 Pacific Standard story from Mais Szalavitz.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: A response to institutional amnesia

Did a foster child’s plea to see her mother lead to her death?
 
The lawmakers - and most of the journalists - who remember
what happened to Logan Marr are not in government or
journalism anymore.
In the previous post to this blog, I summarized the story of five-year-old Logan Marr. She and her younger sister, Bailey, were taken from their mother in Maine, primarily because their mother’s poverty was confused with neglect.  They were placed with Sally Schofield, a foster mother who was, herself, a former supervisor for the Maine child welfare agency.

Logan tried to tell people she was being abused by Schofield – it’s even on videotape.  But the child welfare agency wouldn’t listen.

In January, 2001, Schofield dragged Logan to the basement and tied her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape. Logan died of asphyxiation. Schofield was convicted of manslaughter.  Last year she was released from prison.

Logan’s death helped lead to a surprising result: real child welfare reform. The state became a recognized national leader by emphasizing safe, proven alternatives to foster care.  

But, as I wrote yesterday, Maine has term limits, so the state legislators who were there when Logan Marr died, and who pushed for real reform, are no longer in office.  And between the passage of time – it’s been 17 years since Logan died – and the turmoil in the news business, almost all of the Maine journalists who covered the death of Logan Marr are gone.  So there is almost no institutional memory.

That has left the state’s “Trump-before-Trump” governor, Paul LePage, and his Department of Health and Human Services, free to run roughshod over the reforms and return to a take-the-child-and-run, pre-Logan Marr mentality.

Two documents to refresh memories


So today I’d like to introduce people who’ve never heard of Logan Marr to her and to her family. And I’d like to refresh the memories of those who have forgotten.  I’ll do that with two documents.

The first is one I’ve reprinted on this blog many times before. It is a letter that Logan’s mother, Christy, wrote to Schofield weeks before Schofield killed Logan. The letter originally was published in Logan’s Truth, independent journalist Terrilyn Simpson’s comprehensive account of the case.

The second document is one I didn’t know about until I started researching yesterday’s post. It’s from a story I missed when it was published a year ago in the Kennebec Journal. It’s by Betty Adams, one of the few reporters still around who covered the death of Logan Marr.

Adams wrote about Logan’s surviving sister, Bailey. At the time Bailey was 18 and a high school honor student.  It’s an extraordinary story about an extraordinary young woman. The story includes a link to Bailey’s full college admissions essay, in which she writes about the night her big sister died. It reveals, for the first time I know of, that it may actually have been a plea by Logan to see her mother that led to her death.

“PLEASE DON’T HIT OR HURT MY CHILDREN”:
A LETTER FROM LOGAN MARR’S MOTHER TO LOGAN'S FOSTER MOTHER

Dear Sally,
 My name is Christy. I'm Logan and Bailey's Mom. I'm writing this so you can know and understand my children. I thought I would let you know their likes and dislikes.
Logan - she likes butterflies, pizza (what kid doesn't?), flavored noodles, pitted black olives (she likes to put them on her fingers), white cheese, grape soda, Babes in Toyland (her favorite movie) the Cartoon Arthur. Logan's dislikes - peas, fish sticks, going to bed early, not picking out her clothes. Bailey's likes - her brown teddy bear blanket (she takes it everywhere, including visits), dry cereal, pitted black olives, cheese, eggs, cooked carrots.
Bailey's dislikes - having her poopie diaper changed (if you haven't noticed), someone taking her pacifier, fish sticks, someone feeding her (she likes to do it herself). Please ask [caseworker] Allison Peters what the kids are allergic to.
I don't blame you for not wanting me to know who you are, I will respect that. Regardless of what you have heard or read, I love my little ladies with all my heart. I have never hit, spanked or put my hands on my girls. I do respect my children. I'm not saying you would or wouldn't, but Please don't hit or hurt my children. The girls have already been through enough they don't need the added stress in their life.
Every night I look up at the sky about 7:45pm and say goodnight to my girls. In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. Please tell the girls before they go to bed I love them and give them a big hug and kiss. Thanks again!
--Christy

“I DO IT ALL FOR LOGAN AND ME”:
COLLEGE ADMISSION ESSAY BY BAILEY CHAREST, LOGAN MARR’S SISTER

I believe everyone has a certain person in their life that inspires them to live each day to the fullest. It is what makes them tick. A sole moment in time can be all it takes for a person’s view on life to change forever. Looking back into my own past, I can quickly identify who inspires and motivates me to live my life to the fullest. It is her, the one that I feel so close to me yet nearly impossible to reach. As much as I would love to feel her touch, I know she is in a place with no pain or suffering. She is the reason I wake up every day ready to fill my own shoes while attempting to fill a pair for her.
My memory of her does not deceive me. Fifteen years later, when I close my eyes at night, the nightmare is still the same.
“No!” shrieks a small, dark haired little girl, “I want to see my mumma!”
“For the last time, it is not going to happen” the woman insists while trying to stay calm. As if on cue, the lights above flicker, and the snow outside is still falling fast. A blood curdling scream starts coming out of the little girl’s mouth. Losing the calm demeanor she just had, the woman shakes her head with fury.
“Stop this now, I cannot handle this anymore!” the woman is screaming and shaking with anger.
I sit as still as possible on the soft run nearby not wanting to be noticed. Another scream is let out by the little girl, somehow this one is louder and more powerful than the previous. The woman stands up and forcefully grabs the child’s small, delicate wrist and pulls her towards the nearby door. Wide eyed, the child decides to stay quiet, but is still sobbing. The lights briefly flicker again. The woman opens the door, and leads the child down the stairs to the basement. I hear two sets of footsteps descend down, my heart is pounding. I am frozen in place. All is quiet at first, then a violent scream starts. It is heart wrenching. Finally, the saddest sound, one a wounded animal might make when it knows it is going to die. I hear the little girl’s voice for the last time, it is the word “help.” Everything goes silent, but it seems louder than the screams. Finally after some time, I hear footsteps coming back up the stairs, but this time it is only one set. A single tear falls down my face.
I wish I could say that this is just a nightmare that I am able to wake up from and have everything be all okay. Sadly that is not the case. This is a nightmare that I will have to live with awake or asleep for the rest of my life. I heard my older sister’s last words during one of Maine’s darkest moments on January 31, 2001. My five-year-old sister’s death became national news. Her story prompted Maine to reexamine many of DHS’s Child & Family Services policies. Our own foster mother murdered my older sister, Logan. Being the survivor of this horrid incident, I push myself to my limits and strive for excellence in everything for the both of us. I am not saying that any of this has been easy, but it has most certainly shaped me into the person I am today. I know that her life was taken away from her all too soon. This causes me to live each day of my life to the fullest. There are no guarantees in life, so I make the most out of the path I have been given. I do it all for Logan and me.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: Who will remember Logan Marr’s voice?

As a little girl who died in foster care is forgotten, Maine embarks on a course that makes child abuse tragedies more likely.
The gravestone of Logan Marr

First of two parts. Read Part Two here.

I have written many times on this Blog about the death of a little girl in Maine named Logan Marr.  She and her sister, Bailey, were taken from their mother when the mother’s poverty was confused with neglect. They were placed with a foster mother who had once been a caseworker for the Maine child welfare agency. 

Logan herself tried to tell people she was being abused in foster care. She can be heard disclosing the abuse on a video taken during a supervised visit with her mother. But the child welfare agency wouldn’t listen.

One day in January, 2001, that foster mother took Logan down to the basement, tied her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape and left her there to die of asphyxiation.

The case was so emblematic of what has gone wrong with American child welfare that the PBS series Frontline devoted three hours of programming to the case and its implications.

Unlike many deaths in foster care, the death of Logan Marr led to real reform. A new governor, John Baldacci, named new leadership to what is now the state Department of Health and Human Services. They rebuilt the system to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to foster care.  They curbed needless removal of children and made all of Maine’s vulnerable children safer.

By 2009, Maine’s child welfare reform was a finalist for an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Maine Gov. Paul Lepage
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
But none of that mattered to the next governor of Maine, Paul LePage.  That should be no surprise.  With his penchant for lying, racism, vulgarity and miscellaneous cruelty, LePage has been aptly called “Trump before Trump.”

As with Trump, facts don’t matter to LePage. So he soon set about getting rid of the child welfare reformers and backing away from the child welfare reforms. 

Maine already was well into a retreat from reform when two children “known to the system,” Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, died in late 2017 and early 2018.  Instead of  “raising questions” about the way the LePage Administration had undermined safe, proven reforms, those deaths kicked the backlash into high gear. LePage embraced the Big Lie of American child welfare; the lie that family preservation and child safety are opposites that need to be balanced.

This flies in the face of the track record of states – including Maine itself – that improved child safety by embracing family preservation.

A pre-Logan Marr mentality


A year ago, Logan Marr’s mother made this plea: “Don’t forget Logan’s voice. Just don’t forget her voice.”

But not only her voice, but her story have been largely forgotten.

Maine has term limits, so the state legislators who were there when Logan Marr died, and who pushed for real reform are no longer in office.  And between the passage of time – it’s been 17 years since Logan died – and the turmoil in the news business, almost all of the Maine journalists who covered the death of Logan Marr are gone.  So there is almost no institutional memory.  In part two of this post, I've published two documents to refresh the memories of those who have forgotten and introduce Logan and her family to those who never knew about them. 

All this leaves LePage and his DHHS free to revert to a pre-Logan Marr mentality. It leaves them free to take actions that endanger all of the state’s vulnerable children and make another tragedy such as the death of Logan Marr – or the death of Kendall Chick or Marissa Kennedy - more likely.

So in a letter to lawmakers, LePage writes:

First, we will be recommending that Maine’s statutes are revised so that the priority is on what is best for the child, not family reunification. Placing the priority on family reunification forces the system and the courts to try to keep vulnerable children in a family when the best thing would be to remove the child from the situation.

The claim is echoed in a report issued by Maine DHHS.  Neither LePage nor DHHS specify which Maine law supposedly forces “the system and the courts” to keep children in dangerous homes. That’s because there is no such law. It is, however, far easier for LePage and DHHS to say “these tragedies happen because the law makes us do it” than to say “these tragedies happen because we screwed up.”

Much of the harm LePage and DHHS are doing to children is obscured by invoking a phrase that seems entirely benevolent: “what is best for the child” – a variation of the classic “best interests of the child.”  After all, who could be against that? In fact, these are among the most dangerous words – for children – in the entire child welfare lexicon.

An unchecked “best interests” test gives caseworkers and courts free reign to impose their whims and prejudices on families. What is “best” is whatever a caseworker happens to think is best.  So it devolves into comparison shopping, in which birth parents, often poor and disproportionately people of color, are forced to compete with overwhelmingly white middle-class foster parents – people with whom caseworkers can far more easily identify.

Material poverty is easy to see – the love between an impoverished child and her or his parents is harder to see. So the child is needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care – because the caseworker can impose her arbitrary, capricious and cruel vision of “best interests” on the child.

A phrase filled with hubris


Because of term limits, the Maine lawmakers who fought
for reform after the death of Logan Marr are no longer in office.
“Best interests of the child” also is a phrase filled with hubris.  It says we are wise enough always to know what is best and capable always of acting on what we know.  In fact, those are dangerous assumptions that can lead us to try to fix what isn’t broken or make worse what is.

More than forty years ago, three scholars, Albert Solnit, Joseph Goldstein, and Anna Freud, proposed an alternative phrase.  They said “best interests of the child” should be replaced with “least detrimental alternative.”

“Least detrimental alternative” recognizes that whenever we intervene in family life we do harm.  Sometimes we must intervene anyway, because intervening is less harmful than not intervening.   In other words, foster care, even when done well is not “good for children.” But sometimes it is less bad than any other option.

The phrase “least detrimental alternative” is a constant reminder that we must always balance the harm that we may think a family is doing against the harm of intervening. It is exactly the shot of humility that every child welfare system needs.

It is exactly the shot of humility that was missing when the Maine child welfare agency first intervened in the life of Logan Marr.

● When Logan Marr was torn from her loving mother, largely because that mother was poor, it was done in the name of her “best interests.”

● When Logan Marr’s complaints that she was being abused in foster care were ignored, it was because workers were convinced that her placement in foster care was in her “best interests.”

● And when Logan Marr’s foster mother tied her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape and left to die of asphyxiation, that happened, in part, because caseworkers were convinced the placement was in her “best interests.”

When anecdotes collide


Of course one could argue that Logan Marr’s tragic death is a horror story and shouldn’t be the basis for policy.  But the current undermining of reform in Maine also is rooted entirely in horror stories – the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.

When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.   As I have written before, I would be glad to negotiate a mutual moratorium on the use of horror stories and stick strictly to what research and data tell us about what happens in typical cases.

● It is the data that tell us that in typical cases, not the horror stories, children do better when they are left in their own homes. 

● It is the data that tell us that, while extremes like the death of Logan Marr are, of course, rare, abuse in foster care is not. 

● It is the data that tell us that when Maine reformed to emphasize family preservation, there was no compromise of child safety. 

So it is the data that tell us that the best way to really promote the best interests of the child is to do more, not less, to keep families together.

Other bad ideas


LePage’s second bad idea is to create criminal penalties for mandated reporters who don’t report when they have “any reason to suspect” abuse or neglect. 

But the real reason for most tragedies involving deaths of children “known to the system” almost always is that caseworkers are overwhelmed. Penalizing mandated reporters for not calling in anything and everything will deluge the child abuse hotline with even more false reports and trivial cases.  That will do enormous harm to the children needlessly investigated.  But it also will further overwhelm workers, leaving them even less time to find children in real danger – so more such children will be missed.

Indeed, although we have had mandatory reporting laws for more than 50 years, there is not a shred of evidence that they make children safer. Even some of the biggest original proponents of mandatory reporting laws are having second thoughts.  But there is abundant evidence that they make politicians happy because they can issue press releases about how they “cracked down on child abuse.”

Though not mentioned by LePage, still another DHHS initiative undermines the state’s differential response program, known in Maine as “alternative response.”  Differential response has become a favorite scapegoat for those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare – despite more than two dozen studies showing it is safe.

Tyranny of Personal experience


There is one more complication in Maine: As he notes in his letter, Gov. LePage himself was abused as a child. So even beyond his Trump-like disdain for facts, the governor also is a victim of the tyranny of personal experience – an inability to recognize that other people have very different personal experiences, and no one personal experience can be a rational basis for policy.

After all, what if Logan Marr has survived and grown up to be governor of Maine.  What would her personal experience have told her to do?  Of course, we’ll never know. Because Logan Marr never survived Maine’s strenuous efforts to protect her “best interests.”

In part two of this post: A letter from Logan Marr's mother, and a college admissions essay from her sister.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Mr. Butts and the foster-care apologists


Saying we don’t know if foster care causes rotten outcomes for foster children is like saying we don’t know if cigarettes cause cancer
There is an old Doonesbury cartoon in which Mr. Butts, the anthropomorphic apologist for the tobacco industry is testifying before Congress.

“Good News, Congressfolk!” says Mr. Butts. “The evidence linking smoking with cancer and heart disease is still inconclusive!  That’s right, the jury is still out! Is that great or what?”

I thought of Mr. Butts as I read a column by Naomi Schaefer Riley in which she tries to persuade us that, when it comes to whether it is harmful to tear a child away from everyone he knows and loves and consign him to foster care – well, the jury is still out.

Riley, you may recall, is a now former blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was kicked off that blog after writing a vile column smearing the entire field of Black Studies – based solely on her disdain for the titles and summaries of three dissertations in the field.  Years later, in a column for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, she would go on to explain that racism is so over because

African-Americans have full legal rights. Hate crimes are anomalies. Black people are running corporations, universities and until recently the White House.

So who could possibly be a better judge of whether children in foster care – children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite – are harmed by being there?

Pipeline, what pipeline?


Riley is upset by the notion of a “foster care to prison pipeline” – that is, the idea that if a child is placed in foster care the harm of that experience makes it more likely that the child will wind up in jail.  She seems even more upset by the notion that racial bias might contribute to the needless removal of children - after all, racism is over, remember?

Riley doesn’t deny that former foster children are overrepresented in our prisons. She does not deny – but also doesn’t mention – a whole slew of other rotten outcomes for a shocking number of children who endure foster care, such as their high rates of unemployment, food insecurity and homelessness, and their extremely low rate of college graduation.

Rather she falls back on the classic excuse of America’s foster care-industrial complex: Hey, it’s not our fault; those kids were all messed up by their no-good parents before we ever got 'em. What do you expect us to do, actually make things better?

So Riley claims that “We can’t separate the effect of kids being in abusive and/or neglectful homes and the effect of the foster care system.”

There are two problems with this claim. First, not all children placed in foster care came from “abusive and/or neglectful homes.” Many came from homes that were simply poor.

And second, the claim that we can’t separate the effect of the children’s circumstances before foster care to the effect of foster care itself is simply not true.

We can. And we have.

Findings from the definitive studies




MIT Prof. Joseph Doyle did a direct head-to-head comparison of outcomes in typical child welfare cases. He looked at records of more than 15,000 children, followed them all the way into their late teen years and, in some cases, young adulthood.  He compared children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes. He focused on the typical cases, not the extremes. Most important, he didn’t simply make a subjective assessment of the youths, or rely on the subjective assessments of others.  Rather, he looked at what actually happened to them.

Compared to the comparably maltreated children left in their own homes, the foster children were:

● Less likely to hold a job for at least three years.
● More likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
● More likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system.
● More likely to be arrested as young adults.

And, by the way, these studies are not alone. A third study, from researchers at the University of Minnesota, using different methodology and outcome measures also found that children placed in foster care fared worse than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.

So yes, Naomi, there is a foster care to prison pipeline – and a whole lot of other harm, too.

To make her Mr. Butts-style the-jury-is-still-out case, Riley cites one article, by Youngmin Yi and Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University in which the authors claim that

prior research provides little insight into the direct effects of foster care placement on children: the few studies designed to isolate the effect of foster care placement haven’t reached a consensus regarding its impact on children.

A foundation of sand


But Yi and Wildeman build their case on a foundation of sand.  They rely on a single, smaller study by Lawrence Berger and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, using far more subjective criteria than the MIT studies, and suggest this somehow is equal to the MIT studies. (They don’t mention the University of Minnesota study at all.)

The MIT studies followed children well into adolescence and beyond, and looked at what actually happened to the children. The University of Wisconsin study followed children for an average of only two-and-a-half years, measured only two outcomes and, for one of those outcomes – the extent of the children’s behavioral problems - relied on questionnaires filled out by the children’s current caretakers. Obviously that’s a far more subjective method than the method used for the MIT studies – seeing what actually happened to the youth.

Compounding the problem: Berger and his co-authors admit that when these sorts of questionnaires are filled out by different people at different times, it “may be problematic.”  No kidding.  In fact, alleged “differences” in behavior may simply mean differing perceptions by the people filling out the questionnaires.

They fail to acknowledge still another problem: Foster parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire assessing the children’s behavior while in their foster homes.  In effect, they’re being asked how well they are doing as foster parents. No chance of bias there!

Berger & Co. then use several different “analytic models” to compare the two outcomes, including the subjective evaluations of behavior for the foster children and the subjective evaluations of behavior for the children left in their own homes. They argue that the model that produced the results most favorable to foster care is the least biased.

After all that: no improvement


But even this method for calculating results from this one study did not find that foster care made things any better for the children.  The best Berger and Co. could say is that, using some of the models they applied to a partially subjective evaluation of only two outcomes, the foster children didn’t do any worse than the children left in their own homes.

Consider the implications:  Suppose you went to a doctor complaining of an illness.  The doctor said: “I’d like to prescribe this medicine. Massive studies indicate that the medicine has terrible side effects and may well make you sicker.  But there is one study that says it won’t do you any good, but it won’t actually hurt you.”


Would you take the medicine?

Of course, it’s worse for foster children. They have no choice. Similarly, the Mr. Butts approach to research is worse when the topic is foster care than when the topic is tobacco. At least no one is forced to smoke cigarettes.

Trashing kinship care


But Riley doesn’t stop with sliming birth parents. She also slimes the least harmful form of foster care, kinship care - placing children with relatives instead of total strangers.  She quotes a conference speaker from Harvard who claimed that “If you have a parent who has been arrested, you are twice as likely to have an aunt or an uncle who has been arrested.”

To which the proper scientific response is: So what?

For starters, many parents who lose children to foster care have not been arrested. Others have been arrested for the same basic reason their kids were taken: they are poor and nonwhite. And being arrested does not preclude being a good parent – something that is apparently beyond the ability of some academicians to understand.

And here, again, the evidence is in. Multiple studies have found that kinship care typically is better for children’s well-being, more stable, and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care.

In fact, even Youngman Yi and Christopher Wildeman admit this.  In the same article Riley cites when it supports her point of view, Yi and Wildeman also write that:

A wealth of evidence illustrates the benefits of kin-based care relative to other placement types and shows that existing social networks play a critical role in supporting children’s wellbeing.  

For some reason, Riley doesn’t mention that part of the article.

Foster care is fundamentally unfixable


And what does Riley propose as an alternative to curbing the needless removal of children? The usual foster care-industrial complex bromide: Make foster care “better.”

Well yes, we could make foster care better.  But not by much.  Here again that pesky research gets in the way.

One of the many, many studies documenting the horrible outcomes for foster children found that only 20 percent of the children studied were doing well as young adults.  But this same study also attempted something else: It came up with a formula to estimate how much better the outcomes would be if somehow everything wrong with foster care were fixed and the system were perfect. The answer: The outcomes would improve by 22.2 percent.

So if foster care were made perfect, it would churn out walking wounded only three times out of five instead of four.

That’s well worth trying. But the real lesson from that study, and all the others, is that foster care is fundamentally unfixable.

But Riley really reveals her true colors when she explains how to “fix” foster care. Her first recommendation “We could do a better job recruiting more stable middle-class families of all races.” [Emphasis added.]

Right. Because nothing is more important for a child’s well-being than how much money his caretakers have.

None of this means that no child ever should be placed in foster care.

There are times when parents really are horrible and children really need to be saved from those parents. There are times when foster care clearly is the least bad option. Not a good option, but the least detrimental alternative.

Burden of proof


As so often happens when foster-care apologists try to defend the system, they put the burden of proof in the wrong place.   Long ago, when I was just starting out as a reporter, it was actually the head of an adoption agency who said something I've never forgotten: "The burden of proof should always rest with those who believe children don't belong in their families."

Yet Riley suggests the fact that there exists a study showing that foster care does not make things worse is reason enough to keep right on throwing children into the system – and failing to hold the system accountable for what happens to those children.  When will we finally demand that the foster-care apologists prove that their intervention is actually better for children in typical child welfare cases?

Of course they can’t do that.  Because, contrary to Riley’s claim, when it comes to the way the foster care system harms children in typical cases, the jury is in.  And the verdict is best summed up by another famous line from Doonesbury:

“Guilty, guilty, guilty!”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

NCCPR in MinnPost on Minnesota's obscene rate of child removal

Minnesota tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the country. And Minnesota has been an outlier for nearly 20 years - maybe even longer.  Our take on what's gone wrong and how to fix it is in this column for the online news site MinnPost.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Predictive analytics in child welfare: The harm to children when “the stuff stays in the system.”

Marc Cherna is one of the best human services leaders in America. But even he shouldn't have the power to be the Mark Zuckerberg of child welfare.


Today, across America and much of the world, the big story will be Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress about how personal data from millions of Americans wound up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica. Although the data breach is outrageous, at least those data were originally uploaded voluntarily – Facebook users have the right to not share their data in the first place.

In Pittsburgh, Pa. poor people have NO. SUCH. CHOICE. They are forced to surrender their data.  And their data can be used to decide whether to take away their children. I’ve written about the implications here and here.  Another example comes courtesy of a Pennsylvania dentist:


Last week, I published a post about a dentist in Pennsylvania who sent threatening form letters to some of his patients. The patients had dared to not schedule follow-up appointments when the dentist thought they should. In the case which brought this to public attention, the patient didn’t like the dental practice and had made clear her intention to go elsewhere.

The letters threaten to report patients who don’t schedule follow up appointments to child protective services.  According to at least one news account, the dentist acknowledges following through on the threat 17 times last year.

The earlier post discusses the potentially devastating consequences for children. If the report is “screened in” – as is likely because it came from a medical professional – it means, at a minimum, a highly intrusive investigation that could do lasting emotional harm to the children.  That harm can’t be undone if the child welfare agency realizes the report was false.

The mere existence of a false report in a child welfare agency file can increase the chances that, if there’s another false report, the new report will be wrongly substantiated – because of a bizarre notion in child welfare that enough false reports are bound to equal a true report. This increases the odds that the children will be consigned to the chaos of foster care.

And, of course, all those false reports steal time caseworkers should be spending finding children in real danger.

The only good news here is that this dentist practices in eastern Pennsylvania.  At least in that part of the state a child abuse “hotline” operator deciding if a case should be “screened-in” can check the file and, seeing a previous allegation based solely on a missed dental appointment, might realize how absurd it was.

Were this dentist at the other end of the state, in Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) it could be far worse.

Automating absurdity


That’s because Allegheny County is home to the nation’s most advanced experiment in using “predictive analytics” to decide when to investigate if a child is in danger of being abused or neglected. 

Whenever the county receives a report alleging that a child is being abused or neglected, an algorithm known as the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) uses more than 100 different data points to spit out a secret “risk score” between 1 and 20 -- an invisible “scarlet number” that tells the county how likely it is that the child is, in fact being abused or neglected or is at risk of abuse or neglect.  The higher the number the more likely the report will be “screened in” and investigators will be sent out.

Though the investigators don’t know the risk score, they do know that a high risk score is why they are being sent out in the first place.

Prof. Virginia Eubanks offers a devastating critique of AFST in her book, Automating Inequality. Part of that chapter is excerpted in Wired magazine. I discussed her findings in detail in Youth Today and I discussed the ethically-challenged “ethics review” used to justify AFST on this blog, so I would repeat that overall critique here.



But the case of the disgruntled dentist prompts me to focus on one particular piece of the Allegheny algorithm: The mere fact that a previous report exists – regardless of how stupid that report may have been – raises the risk score.  No human being intervenes first to see if the report had any legitimacy.

In fact, it appears that the Allegheny County algorithm even counts previous reports that were considered so absurd they were screened out with no investigation at all. 

So suppose, hypothetically, an Allegheny County dentist reported someone just for missing a follow-up appointment.  This was considered too absurd even to investigate.  A few months later someone else calls the child abuse hotline about the same family.  The existence of that previous, uninvestigated report from the dentist raises the risk score.  So now, the child has a higher scarlet number.

Making it even worse: In the Allegheny algorithm still another factor increasing the risk score is if a report, no matter how absurd, was made by a medical professional – such as a dentist.

And Cherna is pretty fanatical about keeping and using data – regardless of the data’s reliability.  This is clear in what he told Prof. Eubanks about a related issue: reports that are legally allowed to be kept for far longer, those in which caseworkers “substantiate” the allegation. In Pennsylvania, as in most states, that means only that the caseworker decides it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred.

In cases alleging actual abuse, there is a long, almost impossible appeals process.  And in a bizarre twist of Pennsylvania law, in less serious cases there is no appeals mechanism at all.  In such cases, the county keeps a record of the case until the child who was the subject of the report turns 23. 

This is where we find out how Marc Cherna feels about keeping junk reports and using them in his algorithm.  He told Eubanks: “The stuff stays in the system.” And, of course, Cherna said what those who hold onto junk reports of child abuse always say. In effect, enough false reports are bound to equal a true report. Said Cherna: “A lot of times where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

But a lot more often there’s someone who’s just blowing smoke.  So let’s just be grateful that a certain dentist hasn’t opened a branch office in Pittsburgh.

And, as we watch what's happening in Congress today, let’s also remember one thing more.  Marc Cherna is now the Mark Zuckerberg of child welfare. Both Zuckerberg and Cherna amass huge quantities of data. Then they decide what will happen to those data.  There are two key differences: Marc Cherna isn’t doing it to make money. In fact both his intentions, and his track record as a child welfare leader are excellent.  On the other hand, Facebook can’t use data to take away your children. Marc Cherna’s agency can.

UPDATE: 11:45 am: In an earlier version of this post, I asked whether inclusion of certain elements in AFST violated Pennsylvania law concerning expungement of records involving unfounded reports. This was based on a list of factors included in AFST. I noted that I had e-mailed Cherna and his deputy Erin Dalton on April 5 and received no response.  I have just received a response from Cherna, in which he makes clear that, in fact, AFST does NOT include any information that legally should be expunged.  Therefore, I have deleted that portion of the original post.