Tuesday, September 22, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 22, 2020

 Before getting to the news, two big events:

 ● On September 30, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law begins a series of webinars on the foster care system with Moving from Why to How: Parent Leaders’ Perspectives on the Movement for Child Welfare Justice

 ●The UpEND Movement has its website up and running, including details about its big virtual event at the end of October.

 Remember how little there was last week? I guess everyone was waiting for this week:

 ● First, two important stories debunking the racist “master narrative” involving child abuse and COVID-19: It is depressing to contemplate that, while several national news organizations have debunked the myth, this excellent story from Kate Masters of the Virginia Mercury might be the first local news story to challenge it.

 Instead of just rounding up the usual suspects, Masters also spoke to Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Family and Child Welfare Program, who said:

 “There’s this sort of false narrative that during the pandemic, there’s been this epidemic of children being beaten and otherwise harmed at home. But really, there never was, ever.  The reality is that a small percentage of the reports that are made have to do with abuse. The majority have to do with neglect.”

 In Teachers College Record, Professors Mical Raz and Frank Edwards deplore the use of this myth as a reason to endanger children by prematurely reopening schools:

 Schools are universally accepted as important. However, we argue, their importance is not as sites of surveillance and reporting of child abuse, and there is no evidence that school closures impede efforts to safeguard children from maltreatment.

 ● But, of course, this hasn’t stopped schools in New York City from harassing families with reports alleging “educational neglect” when their children can’t get online.  The City has an update to a story they broke last Spring.  (New York City is not alone.  In August, The Boston Globe reported on the problem in Massachusetts.)

 ● How do myths like the one about child abuse and COVID-19 become so entrenched? Decades of hype and hysteria from child welfare establishment groups who justify their distortions in the name of “raising awareness.”  But reporters get fooled over and over again.  In fact, one journalist argues that mainstream advocacy groups’ misrepresentation of issues related to sex trafficking helped pave the way for QAnon. I have a blog post about it, with links to his reporting.

● From the Indianapolis Star, Holly V. Hays has this story from a state that takes away children at one of the highest rates in the country:

 An Indianapolis couple is suing the Indiana Department of Child Services alleging the agency removed their two young children from their home under false pretenses and fabricated evidence that left them in foster care for months.

 There were several important stories and commentaries in The Imprint:

 ● Last year, a rigorous large-scale study proved that high-quality family defense reduces time in foster care with no compromise of child safety. Now, a follow-up study helps explain why it works.

 Vivek Sankaran warns that the COVID-19 crisis soon will become a housing crisis. And unless child welfare radically changes direction, that means even more families needlessly torn apart for lack of housing.  He writes: 

When teachers, doctors or neighbors learn of children living in these conditions, they may call Child Protective Services, driven by both mandatory reporting laws which broadly define neglect and a genuine desire to help. We’ve created a narrative that CPS has the tools to support families in crisis.  But that narrative is false.

 ● This jibes with what Prof. Kelley Fong found in her research when she embedded with a state child protective services agency. She writes about one mother who was subjected to an investigation because of a false report from a mandated reporter:

 The CPS report left [her] frustrated with the hospital social worker who notified CPS and wary of similar service providers going forward. “This social worker who spent four minutes with me in the hospital gets to determine strangers coming in,” she said, adding that she would hesitate to be so open next time: “If a social worker came into my room, I wouldn’t speak to anybody without my mother or somebody like a third party with me … I would, this time, now question a little more. Social worker, for discharge? Why? Why are you here? What purpose are you serving here for me?” This distrust and disengagement distances families from the systems tasked with assisting them.

 ● And a commentary by the director of Chapin Hall, one of the most regressive policy organizations in child welfare raises the question: Is Chapin Hall really going to change? I have a blog post on it. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

“You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness”

For decades the child welfare establishment has been exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories – but only to “raise awareness,” of course.  

That’s led to everything from the McMartin Preschool Satanic panic, to the vast oversurveillance of Black families by the child abuse police, to the tragic misuse and overuse of foster care, to the false, racist “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19. 

And now, one journalist argues, it’s even led to QAnon.

            Sex trafficking.

           What does that conjure up in your mind?  Probably a young woman or girl kidnapped off the street, smuggled in the back of a truck or on a plane and sold into sex slavery.

           That happens – just as the kind of horrors we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” happen.

           But both are, in fact, extremely rare.  And in both cases, the horror stories, spread on purpose by advocates who know better but want to “raise awareness,” have done enormous damage.

           Sex trafficking, in fact, means anytime someone who is underage trades sex for money, or food, or shelter; in short, to survive.  The overwhelming majority of victims are runaways. Some ran away from genuinely abusive homes.  The vast majority ran away from the foster homes and group homes to which they were consigned either because of that abuse or because of some other problem that could have been solved without resorting to foster care or, as so often happens, because their parents’ poverty was confused with “neglect.”  (And when it comes to group homes and institutions being a prime recruiting ground for sex trafficking, Congress may actually have made that problem worse.)

           In contrast, the total number of sex trafficking victims identified by the Department of Homeland Security last year who might fit the stereotype was 428.  Of course, some victims surely were not found.  But 428 is somewhat short of the estimate proffered by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, which puts the figure at “potentially over 1 million.”

           I learned most of this from Michael Hobbes, a senior enterprise reporter for HuffPost who has made sex trafficking – and understanding its real causes – his beat.  He wrote about this in detail in February, but I only found out about it when he was interviewed by NPR’s On The Media earlier this month.


Get ready for the déjà vu


          Anyone who has followed the claims commonly made about child abuse by advocates and echoed by credulous media is about to have a case of déjà vu:


In his story Hobbes writes about the mainstream anti-sex trafficking groups that know full well the real causes of the problem and the real solutions, but they engage in fearmongering because they think it’s the only two-by-four with which to hit us over the head that’s big enough to get our attention.

           There are signs in airports telling people to call authorities if they suspect the person sitting next to you in the gate area with a child is actually a sex trafficker – even though, Hobbes notes, not one of the groups he spoke to could point to a single case of someone being smuggled through a U.S. airport by sex traffickers.

But there have been plenty of false alarms, thanks to the “warning signs” we’re supposed to look out for – warning signs which are, in fact, racist.

           Hobbes quotes Sabra Boyd, a writer and anti-trafficking advocate who was, in fact, trafficked, by her own father:

           “Almost all of the messages we get about trafficking are slanted toward imaginary victims, especially immigrant women and young children who look like they’re a different race than their parents.”

Hobbes continues:

           This scenario is already playing out in transit hubs across the country. Last September, flight attendants accused a white adoptive father of trafficking his Black 12-year-old son. In 2015, an eight-member Korean pop group was detained at LAX for 15 hours on suspicion that they were trafficked sex workers. Cindy McCain, an anti-trafficking advocate and wife of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), had to apologize last February for reporting a woman to Phoenix Sky Harbor authorities simply for walking through the airport with a child of a “different ethnicity.”

           Hobbes spoke to a senior staffer for one such group, who admitted they are deliberately misleading the public:


Sexual and labor coercion could be better addressed through government policy related to poverty, migration and working conditions, she added. As for why anti-trafficking nonprofits continue to repeat the same debunked myths about trafficking in their publicity campaigns, she said the sensationalized messaging was necessary to bring attention to the issue.

          “If we didn’t use the word ‘force,’” she said, “would anybody care?”


Enter QAnon


Hobbes wrote all this before there was much awareness of a crazy conspiracy theory – QAnon – which has the notion of vast international sex-trafficking rings at its core.

But it was very much in the news by the time Hobbes was interviewed for On The Media, which asked him to discuss a follow-up story he wrote about how the media had accepted all the usual breathless hype about a supposed sex trafficking ring that wasn’t.

 He called the tactics of mainstream anti human-trafficking groups in exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories “totally immoral totally cynical and leading all kinds of unintended consequences” adding:           

You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness willy-nilly because you end up with QAnon. QAnon stuff is only a 20% exaggeration of the kinds of myths we’ve been getting on human trafficking for 20 years now.  There’s not really that much of a difference between the QAnon version and what you can find on very mainstream human trafficking websites.  Once you’ve poisoned the well for that long, then you have people who will come along and poison it a little bit further …

 But this well has been poisoned for more than a century.  And what is even worse than the advocates who keep doing the poisoning is the willingness of journalists to drink from the well and allow themselves to be fooled, over and over and over.


Anybody remember McMartin?


 Let’s start with the closest analog to how we’ve been misled about sex trafficking:

 In the 1980s mainstream child welfare pushed conspiracy theories rivaling if not QAnon then certainly the remarkably similar “pizzagate”.  Journalists wrote seriously and earnestly about mass molestation supposedly rampant in day care centers – sometimes with Satanic cults as the perpetrators.  The most notorious example was the McMartin Preschool.  Mainstream media swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

           Many of the “true believers” in the McMartin claims – and true believers means just that, they sincerely believed they were rescuing children - formed an organization, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), that still exists today.


As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, Satan’s Silence“From its inception APSAC’s leadership roster was a veritable directory of ritual-abuse architects.”  Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the McMartin Preschool case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin.  And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member, received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.

           I don’t know if anyone at APSAC still believes in those secret tunnels – but I am aware of no apology from the group for its role in all this.

           In some cases, the child welfare mainstream went full-Q:

           Consider what happened to a San Diego couple whose grandchildren were taken because a mentally unstable relative, after much “therapy,” had come to believe much of her family was part of a Satanic cult. The relative reported the grandparents to child protective services, which assigned the case to a worker who was a prominent member of the San Diego County Ritual Abuse Task Force.  

As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 1991, when the grandparents wanted to send one of the children a birthday card, their child protective services caseworker said the card could not have animals on it – because, she claimed, devil worshipers use such images to send subliminal signals to the children in their thrall. No clowns either, for the same reason. The caseworker already had confiscated all the letters the grandparents had written to their grandchildren, claiming they contained subliminal Satanic messages. 

This was no rogue caseworker. The Ritual Abuse Task Force actually trained caseworkers and mental health professionals.  The task force produced a widely-circulated booklet informing fellow professionals, the press and the public that: 

Numerous cults exist which have sophisticated suppliers of sacrificial persons, from kidnappers through ‘breeders’ (women who bear children intended for sexual abuse and sacrifice)…

         Still wondering how we got to QAnon?


Hyping the numbers


          But it doesn’t end there. 

● In her book Heroes of Their Own Lives, Linda Gordon writes about how 19th Century Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children targeted poor immigrant parents whom they deemed genetically inferior and whose poverty they deemed “neglect.” But to increase their power, and to raise funds, they showcased the extremely rare cases of horrific abuse, complete with “before” and “after” pictures. That tactic has never gone away. 


  ● As early as 1993, in a brief article called “Damned Lies and Statistics,” Time Magazine called out the group that now calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America for using “flagrantly flimsy figures” to hype the supposed number of cases of child abuse in the United States.  But almost no other journalists paid attention.

          Apparently, the leaders of PCAA knew exactly what they were doing. Because, in language remarkably like what that staffer for an anti-sex trafficking group told Hobbes, this is what Prevent Child Abuse America wrote in 2003: 

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities. 

          Notice how PCAA both effectively admits misleading the public and tries to justify it.  

          Many groups and individuals, all with good intentions, are still at it.  In most cases, they themselves probably don't know they're misrepresenting the problem.  They grew up on on this kind of hype and often don't understand the context themselves.

          ● When the so-called Alliance for Children’s Rights engages in the dissembling and distortion documented here, exaggerating the rate of child abuse while understating the harm of foster care, they mislead the public. 

          ● When Oregon legislators misread a study that, itself, uses broad, vague, and unintentionally racist definitions to make absurd claims about the prevalence of child abuse, they mislead the public. 

          ● When a trade association for so-called “child advocacy centers” that are supposed to evaluate whether a child has been abused suggests they know the answer – and the answer is always yes – before the child even shows up, it misleads the public.          


The extent of the poison


          The extent to which our consciousness has been poisoned can be seen in how readily the general public and almost every reporter to consider the issue blindly accepted a racist master narrative about child abuse and COVID-19.  

          You know the one: 

Now that fewer mostly white, middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents supposedly will unleash upon those children a “pandemic of child abuse.” 

The claims are accompanied by calls for helpers to turn food drop-offs and virtual visits into opportunities to spy on families – and child welfare agencies provide broad, vague “symptom lists” and even cheat sheets for questions to ask during video chats with kids – the same approach taken by the anti-trafficking groups in their airport posters and lists of warning signs. 

          But 91 percent of all calls to child abuse hotlines are false reports. Almost all of the rest involve “neglect” which often means poverty.


           Yes, the pandemic is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope with it is to beat up their children?

           The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated Press, The Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab debunked it.  (And see also this analysis from Teachers College Record.) But they were the exceptions. Most journalists continue to buy in.


 Because for decades we have been conditioned, thanks to all that poison, to believe that child abuse means the horror story cases and we’ve been conditioned to believe such cases are rampant – because, Prevent Child Abuse America tells us “the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness…”-- just as we’ve been conditioned to misunderstand sex trafficking.

The problems of child abuse and the problem of sex trafficking are serious and real.  But in both cases, the solutions have been phony.

The real solutions to both problems are remarkably similar.

 “Nobody wants to view trafficking as embedded in how our global economy is structured,” American University Professor Janie Chuang told Hobbes. “It’s more convenient to view it as the product of individual criminal behavior.”

Similarly, we want to believe that what we call child abuse is a function of people who are at worst evil and at best sick.  But overwhelmingly, the problem is rooted in poverty; poverty that leads to the stress that can cause some parents to abuse and, far more often, the poverty that is, itself, confused with “neglect.”

 But understanding that is going to require that we stop drinking from all those poisoned wells.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An epiphany at Chapin Hall? That depends on whether the noble words in a commentary by its director are backed-up by action

          At first the commentary in The Imprint by Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago since 2013, might seem like just another in a long line of “well, what do you know? There is racism in child welfare!” commentaries from organizations that understand it’s the right p.r. move at the moment. 

             After all, it begins like pretty much all the others:             

Inequities have shaped our country since its founding. Centuries of discrimination have inflicted deep wounds, with disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and brutal policing being current symptoms of that troubled history. Outrage over these symptoms has sparked an examination of bias in our criminal justice, health care, education and financial systems. To that list I would add one other: the child welfare system.

             But here’s what makes this one intriguing.  Less than a decade ago, Chapin Hall did examine bias in the child welfare system – and found that there was none!  Now, not only do we have Samuels’ commentary, it also appears that the 2011 document denying the role of racial bias in child welfare has disappeared from Chapin Hall’s website.

             So is Bryan Samuels about to lead Chapin Hall in a new, better direction? The signals are mixed.

             For decades, Chapin Hall has been a bastion of 19th Century-style “child saver” ideology and advocacy dressed up as “scholarship.”  You can read some examples of their track record here and here.

             But Chapin Hall has probably been at its worst concerning the whole issue of race.  They worked hand-in-glove with Elizabeth Bartholet, one of America’s most extreme advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to discredit the whole idea that there is racial bias in the child welfare system.  Two years before Samuels arrived there, Chapin Hall co-sponsored the stacked-deck conference discussed here.   Then one of their “scholars” co-authored an Issue Brief, issued in the name of Chapin Hall, whose thrust is 180 degrees from Samuels’ recent column.

             Let’s compare:

            In his recent commentary Samuels declares:

 [J]ust as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we are delinquent in addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our family and child well-being systems.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there is no such bias. The Issue Brief ignores or misrepresents the abundant evidence of racial bias in the child welfare system. Here’s a summary of what Chapin Hall left out.

              In his recent commentary Samuels says:

             The systematic separation of children of color from their parents – without regard for the lasting trauma it entails –is a thread that runs through our nation’s history from slavery to Native American boarding schools to present day child welfare practice.

            This has been perpetuated by the misconception that we are nobly “rescuing” children from dangerous situations. On the contrary, research suggests that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there hasn’t been enough of that “noble rescuing.”

             According to the Issue Brief, Black parents are “significantly” more likely to abuse and neglect their children – and, if anything, even more Black children should be taken away.  As the Issue Brief notes with approval:

 One speaker summarized: “African American children are at least as likely to be underserved as overserved” by current removal rates.

             In his current op-ed Samuels writes:            

Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, and to strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. This will require that we de-scale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work.

             But the Issue Brief dismisses the notion of radical change and denies that there are “racist practices” to dismantle.

             So, will the real Chapin Hall please stand up?

             The good news is that when I went looking for the Issue Brief I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Chapin Hall website.  Perhaps my search was insufficient, or perhaps it was an accidental oversight the last time the site was updated.  But other documents from 2011 and earlier still are there.  (It’s readily available elsewhere for those who want to search for it; I prefer not to link to documents permeated with racial bias when it can be avoided.)

             The bad news is that the old Chapin Hall, blind to racial and class bias and blind to the harm of needless removal, was very much on display just two years ago.  Shortly after the high-profile death of a child “known to the system” Chapin Hall was commissioned to do a review.  A foster-care panic already had begun – and the slipshod quick-and-dirty review threw gasoline on the fire.

             Now, we’re seeing the results.  Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

             Of course Chapin Hall wasn’t solely or even primarily responsible for that. But they had a chance to be a genuine scholarly voice of reason, and instead made everything worse. 

             All of the noble sentiments in Samuels' column are contradicted by what those who work for him have done in the past – and still are doing.

             So which is it going to be?

             If Samuels really means what he says, there are two things he could do right now:

             ● Formally and publicly apologize for co-sponsoring Betsy Bartholet’s whitewash – in every sense of the term – of racial bias in child welfare and formally withdraw the Issue Brief.

             ● Withdraw the poorly done, ill-though-out Illinois “review” and start over – this time with a review built around enacting the very reforms Samuels himself calls for.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 15, 2020

● We’ve all heard the stories: Families forced to endure traumatic, needless child “neglect” investigations for allowing children to engage in perfectly normal activities such as walking to school by themselves or playing in a playground without parents hovering over them.  A recent case from Kentucky, discussed at the end of this blog post, is an example of similar harassment.  Now, for the American Bar Association Committee on Children’s Rights Litigation Diane Redleaf writes about the harm done to families in such cases – and model legislation to curb that harm.

 ● In case anyone still thinks there should be a place in child welfare for institutionalizing children; add this to all the other reasons it’s horrible for kids, from Roxanna Asgarian’s story in The Imprint:

 The spread of COVID-19 among children in Texas’ long-term foster care system has been rampant, particularly in residential care facilities, and the pandemic has left more than five dozen kids without a bed to sleep in, a new report filed in federal court shows.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

NCCPR in the Arizona Daily Star: COVID-19 is not leading to more child abuse, it’s cleaning the 'pollution' of false reports

Faced with the fact that COVID-19 led to a drop in calls to Arizona’s child abuse hotline but children are being torn from their families at the same high rate as before, Arizona Department of Child Safety Director Mike Faust jumps to the conclusion that there has been an increase in serious child abuse.

But there is a more likely explanation; one which is, in fact, good news and could point the way to remaking child welfare. ...

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 9, 2020

● What does it do to a family to be terrorized by an angry, abusive ex-spouse calling in false child abuse reports and hiding behind the ability to make the calls anonymously?  One mother tells her story in RiseAlso in Rise: Why survivors of domestic violence support legislation introduced in New York to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting. 

● Sometimes it’s the caseworkers themselves who do the terrorizing.  A case in point from Arizona, in this excellent article from Phoenix New Times. 

● Speaking of Arizona, I have a column in the Arizona Daily Star about how, like so many others, the head of the state’s child welfare agency is drawing all the wrong conclusios about the decline in child abuse reports due to COVID-19. 

● And speaking of COVID-19, Ideastream, from Cleveland’s public broadcasters, has a very good story on all the harm done to families by limits on in-person visits and by delays in reunification. To its credit, at least Cuyahoga County did not impose a knee-jerk ban on all such visits in order to pander to selfish foster parents as was done in Washington State.  But the curbs that were imposed still caused great harm. 

Indeed, the story is an apt illustration of the need for Rep. Gwen Moore’s #stoptheclock bill, which would suspend the requirement in the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act that states petition to terminate children’s rights to their parents if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months – even when that was due entirely to decisions by the child welfare system itself.  (Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has more information about the bill.  And the Shriver Center on Poverty Law has a call to action. Click here to see how you can support the #StopTheClock bill.) 

There’s something else notable about the story, though.  As you read about the family at the center of the story and the reasons their children were taken – and what they must now do to get them back – please ask yourselves: If the same circumstances had been discovered in a McMansion in Shaker Heights, would the children ever have been taken at all? 

● The annual Child Maltreatment reports issued by the federal government include a specific warning about trying to compare data on things like rates of child abuse among states.  That hasn’t stopped Kentucky media, especially the state’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier Journal, from being profoundly reckless about making such comparisons. I have a blog post about why this does so much harm to children.

Monday, September 7, 2020

KENTUCKY FRIED DATA: Nobody knows which state has the “most” child abuse. So please, Kentucky media, could you stop claiming it’s Kentucky?

It’s at least as likely that what Kentucky really leads in is confusing poverty with neglect.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2018

 [O]n Thursday, we shared the shameful story that Kentucky is the worst in America at protecting its children.  The U.S. Department for [sic] Health and Human Services has slapped this dubious title on our state: The rate of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky is the worst in the country.                                   – Richard Green, Editor, Louisville Courier-Journal, 2019.

 Kentucky still ranks No. 1 in the nation in rates of child abuse and neglect

                                                            Louisville Courier-Journal, 2020

Kentucky still has highest child abuse rate in U.S….Sentinel Echo, London KY

 Report: Kentucky, Indiana have highest child abuse rate in U.S. – WLKY-TV

 New AG vows to fight child abuse (Ky. ranks No. 1 in it)Kentucky Health News


            The first claim, about how a federal agency “slapped this dubious title” on Kentucky is simply false.  Some of the rest might be true. Then again, it might not – and neither the people who wrote the stories nor anyone else has the faintest idea. 

            In fact, the very report cited in all those stories specifically cautions against such comparisons.  So not only did the Department of Health and Human Services not slap any "dubious title" on anyone; Kentucky media have recklessly ignored HHS' warning about making any such comparison.

            It would be hard to read a story about child abuse in Kentucky that doesn’t include this claim – because it’s in the interest of so many people who write and promote the stories to make it.  Particularly in the state’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the claim often is paired with gruesome accounts of beatings torture and murder of children.  

That makes it easy for readers to jump to the mistaken conclusion that Kentucky is such a cesspool of depravity that the state is justified in tearing apart families a rate 70 percent above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.*   

And if they don’t jump to that conclusion on their own, the Courier-Journal is glad to help.  Here’s how one news story summed it all up: 

The Courier Journal reported last year that Kentucky led the nation in abuse and neglect with increasingly violent, sometimes fatal injuries to children so severe an outside panel classified some cases as torture.


Full details and sources are available here.

So it’s no wonder anyone reading the stories would be likely to conclude that the rate at which Kentucky tears apart families should be even higher.  And it’s no wonder neither readers nor the authors of such stories would want to listen to concerns about the enormous emotional trauma and terrible life outcomes often inflicted on children needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care, and the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  (When the Courier-Journal touches on these outcomes the premise is that foster care can be “even worse” than those awful birth parents, and it’s a shame more kids aren’t adopted.) 

            Kentucky’s take-the-child-and-run approach is one of the reasons the child welfare system is overwhelmed.  It is that overwhelming of the system with false reports, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that almost always is the real reason children in real danger of brutality, torture and death - cases that are as rare as they are horrific -- sometimes are overlooked. 

            That’s because though each is the worst form of tragedy child abuse deaths and near deaths are needles in a very large haystack. 

            In 2017, using the larger of two different figures in Courier-Journal stories, we estimate there were between 29 and 58 child abuse deaths or near deaths in Kentucky.  (The graphic above assumes 58.) That year, Kentucky’s child abuse hotline received calls involving roughly 165,000 children.**  Clearly, making the haystack even larger by overloading workers with even more false reports, trivial cases, poverty cases and needless foster care, is only going to make it even harder to find the needles. 

            All this is why the misreading of key data by Kentucky media and advocates makes all Kentucky children less safe.

 Actually we DO need to “quibble about numbers.”

            Before I even start the process of analyzing the claim about child abuse in Kentucky, I need to repeat something I wrote recently about child abuse in Oregon when a data issue arose there:

When those pushing for more policing of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite families, more massive surveillance and more removal of children to foster care get caught hyping the numbers, they have a standard response. Usually it’s some variation of: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Children are dying!  Even one case is too many!”


 The second two sentences are, of course, correct.  But precisely because we’ve been suckered by fearmongering, hype and hysteria for decades (at least one organization responsible for it 
effectively admitted as much) we’ve spent those decades embracing “solutions” that only make things worse.

As I noted above, the horror stories represent a tiny fraction of the cases seen by workers for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.  To get that tiny fraction down to zero requires a vastly different approach than an ever-expanding child welfare surveillance state, and doing what Kentucky keeps doing - tearing apart families, and traumatizing children with needless foster care, at an obscene rate.

            The related hyper-defensive response from some journalists to any attempt to provide context is some variation of: “Oh, so you don’t want us to report on children dying!”

Bullshit. What those of us who have been working for decades to reduce child abuse in all forms to zero want is better reporting on child abuse deaths – and every other aspect of the child welfare system (Why, for example, has the Courier-Journal never, as far as I know, run a story such as this such as this?) because the problem of massive, needless removal of children and the problem of child welfare systems overlooking children in real danger are directly related. 

            We damn well do need to “quibble about numbers.” So let’s start quibbling:

The table that launched those hype-filled headlines

            Where does that “worst-in-the-nation” claim come from?  Well, contrary to what the editor of the Courier Journal implied, it does not come from any statement from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. There is no press release or other document that declares “Kentucky is number one in child abuse.”  There isn’t even a ranking.

             What there is is a single data point on a single table in on page 30 of a 274-page federal report.  That same report (right upfront on page 5) comes with a crucial warning:

[R]eaders should exercise caution in making state-to-state comparisons. Each state defines child abuse and neglect in its own statutes and policies and the child welfare agencies determine the appropriate response for the alleged maltreatment based on those statutes and policies.

             Here's why:

            What that table actually measures is the percentage of the child population for whom  child protective services workers check a box on a form saying they think it’s at least slightly more likely than not that a parent or caretaker abused or neglected a child.  This can be little more than a caseworker’s guess.  In Kentucky workers check the box for a higher proportion of the total child population than any other state. 

            Now, let’s unpack this. 

            For starters, all those stories that claim even the data table said Kentucky leads America in “child abuse” are false – the figure is for alleged abuse and alleged neglect combined.            

            And there are indications that, in Kentucky, we are talking almost entirely about so-called “neglect.” Another table in the same publication, on page 41, shows that, on average 60.8 percent of so-called substantiated reports are for “neglect only.” But in Kentucky it’s 88.1 percent – the second highest such proportion in America.  In contrast, physical abuse and sexual abuse combined account for, at most 11.2 percent.  That compares to a national average of 32 percent. 

            Of course some in Kentucky might say: Well, of course we have a higher proportion of neglect cases, we’re a poor state!  There are two problems with this: First, child welfare agencies say they never confuse poverty with neglect – so that should be largely irrelevant.  Second, there are seven states where the rate of child poverty is as high or higher than Kentucky.  In all of those states, the percentage of cases involving alleged neglect is lower than Kentucky. 

            Perhaps most notable among these is Alabama, a state which became, relatively speaking, a national leader in child welfare when a lawsuit settlement required the state to rebuild its system to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families.  (A member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that lawsuit.)  So it's worth repeating the graphic at the top of this post:

Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2018

There’s been some backsliding in recent years, but Alabama still takes away children at half the rate of Kentucky – and independent monitors found that child safety improved.  Alabama did this in part by dramatically reducing the confusion of poverty with neglect.  In Alabama of all “substantiated” cases only 31.3 percent involved “neglect only.”

             So if you were to disaggregate the data and actually look only at abuse, it’s quite possible that, even by this grossly flawed measure, Kentucky is not number one. 

Defining “neglect.” 

            That leaves the Courier-Journal, which, for all its other failings, at least says the figure is for “abuse and neglect.”

            So now let’s consider how states define neglect.  Most states have extremely broad, vague definitions that invite the confusion of poverty with neglect.  Kentucky’s is among the worst. Its definition includes a parent who 

“Does not provide the child with adequate care, supervision, food, clothing, shelter, education, or medical care necessary for the child's well-being.” 

            There is hardly a poor child in Kentucky who could not be deemed neglected at some point if a caseworker chose to do so.  That alone may well explain the so-called “worst in the nation” claim.  

But it’s not just the vagueness of the definition.  Different state and local child welfare agencies have different cultures.  As noted above in the discussion of Alabama, there are a few agencies that take seriously trying to avoid confusing poverty with neglect.  But Kentucky does not appear to be one of them. 

On the contrary, Kentucky child welfare’s contempt for families was the subject of a scathing report by the child welfare agency’s own inspector general in 2007. At about the same time the state made national headlines over rushing children needlessly to termination of parental rights.  Recent Kentucky court decisions suggest attitudes haven’t changed.  The Lexington Herald-Leader has covered all this extensively – it is they only news organization in the state I know of that has offered a measure of nuance in its child welfare coverage. 

Defining “substantiation”

             The federal report upon which Kentucky media rely does not, in fact, measure child abuse or neglect. Rather it counts the number of times caseworkers allege abuse or neglect.

             The allegation does not mean there was a comprehensive investigation followed by a decision from a neutral arbiter.  Rather it means only that an often overwhelmed, underprepared caseworker checked a box on a form.  In Kentucky, as in 37 other jurisdictions, workers check the box when they deem it at least slightly more likely than not that what the state defines as abuse or “neglect” occurred.  Seven jurisdictions have a higher standard, seven have a lower standard (D.C. and Puerto Rico bring the total to 52) – still another reason states can’t be compared. 

            We do know that, as of 2017, in Kentucky, in the cases where families manage to make their way through an appeals process, with the appeal decided by the same agency that made the initial determination, well over half the time the decision to “substantiate” the allegation is overturned. 

Other unknowns

             How deep in the weeds do you want to go? The rate at which people call child abuse hotlines and the proportion of those calls that are accepted for investigation also vary widely from state to state.  Both of these affect how many children caseworkers actually see, which may affect the proportion of the child population alleged by caseworkers to be abused or neglected.  (Depending on how you choose to interpret these data they can be used to bolster either side of the “worst-in-the-nation” argument.)

             So, does Kentucky have the more “child abuse” than any other state, or does Kentucky simply confuse poverty with neglect at one of the highest rates in America?

             Obviously, I think it’s more likely the latter.  But I don’t know that.  And, Kentucky journalists and advocates: Neither do you.


*- Normally, when I use that “cesspool of depravity” phrase I’m being sarcastic, but in Kentucky, one of the Courier Journal’s favorite sources for fearmongering quotes – a child abuse pediatrician – actually said "I think Kentucky continues in some areas to have a fairly significant culture of violence."  In fact, this is someone who, however well-intended, has no qualifications I know of to measure the culture of an entire state.  Rather, her job requires her to focus almost entirely on the worst of the worst – which may distort her perspective.  Problems with the perspective of some child abuse pediatricians, have been well documented in The Atlantic and The Marshall Project, and by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle .

            ** Courier Journal stories give two different figures (from different state agencies) for child abuse deaths and one for near deaths.  Using the larger figures, the total is 107. Nationwide, 27.3 percent of child abuse deaths involve children in some way “known to the system” – which can mean no more than that at one time there was a call to the child abuse hotline.  That would mean there were 29 such deaths or near deaths in Kentucky. But just for the sake of argument, I’ve doubled the number in the graphic. 

           State data in the annual Child Maltreatment reports count the number of calls hotlines receive, but not the number of children per call. Other data in the report suggest that calls to Kentucky’s hotline probably involve an average of 1.5 children per call.