Monday, February 18, 2019

Predictive analytics in Pittsburgh child welfare: No poverty, no profile?

Pittsburgh's predictive analytics algorithm labels parents - and children - with a
 "risk score" that amounts to an invisible "scarlet number" that may haunt them for life.

Pittsburgh is the home of the nation’s most advanced use of “predictive analytics” in child welfare.  In Pittsburgh, an algorithm is used to screen calls alleging child abuse and determine if a case is high risk.  The algorithm produces a “risk score” – a secret “scarlet number” between 1 and 20. The higher the number the greater the supposed risk.

So now let us consider a recent incident in Pittsburgh – and what the algorithm might do.

A man storms into an office.  His 12-year-old daughter is with him. The man appears intoxicated.   The man screams and yells and pounds his fists against a bulletin board. He demands to have his picture taken.

He forcefully grabs his daughter’s forearm, pulling her into the picture as she tries her best to pull away from him.  She screams “Please, please Daddy, no!” multiple times. And multiple times he yanks on her arm, trying to pull her to his side so a photo could be taken of both of them.  He yells at his daughter and repeatedly jabs his finger in her shoulder.

The daughter is crying hysterically and red-faced.  The father rips a cell phone out of her hand because he thought she was trying to call her mother.

As one eyewitness said:

I was extremely concerned for his daughter‘s safety, and I actually noticed that my heart was racing. …  Having to watch as [the father] terrorized his teenage daughter — with his hair disheveled and his face twisted — was something I’m never going to forget.

What would AFST do?


I don’t know if anyone called Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline to report the incident.  But if anyone did, and if the call were then referred to Allegheny County Children and Youth Services (CYS), the name of the father would be run through the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), the county’s vastly overhyped predictive analytics algorithm.  And the odds are that this father’s risk score would be very, very – low.

Why?  Because the father in this case is John Robinson Block, publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The alleged outburst occurred in the Post-Gazette newsroom.  The account above is taken directly from eyewitness accounts posted on the website of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.

Block Communications disputes these accounts. According to The New York Times:

In a statement on Thursday, Block Communications disputed the employees’ accounts, saying that Mr. Block had only “expressed his frustration” to employees “about several issues of concern to him.” The company said it provided a safe work environment. 
“We have conducted a review of all information available, and we disagree with the characterization of Saturday evening’s events as expressed by the Newspaper Guild,” the statement said. Mr. Block “expresses his sincere regrets over his conduct that evening and did not intend his actions to upset anyone,” it added.

But, of course, child protective services agencies urge people to report even their slightest suspicions that something they’ve seen might be child abuse or neglect. 

Were John Robinson Block reported, AFST would not cough up a message that says: “Hey, this guy’s a bigshot publisher, better leave him alone!” but as a practical matter, the algorithm may have a similar effect.


As Prof. Virginia Eubanks explains in her book Automating Inequality, 25 percent of the variables in AFST are direct measures of poverty. Another 25 percent measure interaction with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems themselves.

As Eubanks explains:

Because the model confuses parenting while poor with poor parenting, the AFST views parents who reach out to public programs as risks to their children.

Because these are public benefits, such as SNAP (formerly foodstamps), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and Medicaid, the data are collected automatically by the county.

But odds are John Robinson Block has never applied for any of these programs, so his risk score is likely to be lower.

And if John Robinson Block has ever had any personal problems that might bring him to the attention of, say, health professionals, he would have been able to get the best private care – so nothing is going to go into a public database that could be scoured by AFST and further raise the risk score. 

Eubanks calls AFST “poverty profiling.”  But is there a corollary: No poverty, no profile?

In her book, Eubanks documents impoverished families caught in the Allegheny County CYS net based on allegations far less serious than what those eyewitnesses say occurred in the Post-Gazette newsroom.

It’s possible that the whole incident wouldn’t be in Allegheny County’s jurisdiction anyway. I don’t know if Block even lives in the Pittsburgh area. The family media company is headquartered in Toledo, Ohio.

But if the allegations ever do reach screeners in Allegheny County, workers may be too busy checking out “high risk” families whose poverty has been confused with “neglect” to take them seriously.

On one level that might be good for Block’s daughter.  As I noted in this column for Youth Today:

The algorithm visits the sins of the parents, real or imagined, upon the children. Eubanks cites a family that was victimized by repeated false reports. When the child the county supposedly was “protecting” grows up, if she herself becomes the target of a child abuse report she will bear a higher scarlet number — because her own parents supposedly were neglectful. So her children will be at greater risk of enduring the enormous harm of needless foster care.

In contrast, if the parent’s “scarlet number” is low, the child’s will be as well.

No this does not mean we should do more spying on rich people


I can hear America’s latter-day “child savers” now: “This just proves we need even more spying!” they’ll say.  “Make butlers and chauffeurs mandatory reporters of child abuse!” In fact, Erin Dalton, deputy director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, has already said something like that, telling Eubanks: “We really hope to get private insurance data. We’d love to have it.”  

As I’ve noted before, Dalton also is the one who sent an email talking about stamping a scarlet number on every child born in the county – at birth. She’s also gone out of her way to  minimize the harm of foster care.

The child savers also will look at a case such as this and say: “Just because we can’t find out nearly as much about rich people doesn’t mean we should let poor people get away with child abuse!”

That, of course, misses the point. The fact that, if the eyewitness accounts are correct, and if he were reported to Allegheny County CYS,  John Robinson Block probably would wind up with a low AFST risk score does more than illustrate what doesn’t get noticed. It also illustrates what does get noticed.  It illustrates that AFST doesn’t predict child abuse – it predicts poverty, and then confuses that poverty with neglect.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Child welfare in Oregon: An epidemic of willful ignorance


● The child welfare agency keeps children in an out-of-state institution even after learning about allegations of widespread abuse.

● The Oregon lawmaker who never misses an opportunity to grandstand about child welfare ignores real solutions.



Last year, Disability Rights Washington (as in Washington State) published a report, discussed here, alleging serious, widespread problems at Clarinda Academy, an Iowa institution to which Washington State regularly shipped foster children it didn’t know what to do with.

The Washington State child welfare agency responded by doing the bare minimum: They promised to get the children out of Clarinda by the end of last month (I have seen no news accounts checking to see if they succeeded).  But that didn’t necessarily mean things got better for the children; some were simply institutionalized elsewhere, sometimes even farther from home.

Could any state possibly respond with even less concern and less compassion?

Actually, yes. When it comes to child welfare failure, never underestimate Oregon.

Last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Oregon also has been shipping foster children to institutions all over the country – including Clarinda and others run by Sequel, the for-profit chain that owns Clarinda.  But even though Oregon authorities know all about the Disability Rights Washington report, they are leaving the children in Clarinda and the other Sequel institutions.  According to OPB:

After the allegations of abuse in Iowa surfaced, a spokesman from the Oregon Department of Human Services said in an email, a representative of Clarinda Academy and Sequel visited Oregon to respond.
Oregon staff also flew to Iowa to check on the children at Clarinda, according to a DHS spokesman. In addition, the state says, Oregon contracts with third-party professionals to monitor children at all out-of-state facilities. Based on those visits, Oregon officials determined foster children being sent elsewhere are safe.

Right. Because of course, before deciding which children to subject to alleged abuse or other ill-treatment, staff are always going to ask what state they’re from.

Of course the real reason neither Oregon nor Washington State will simply bring the children home is because they have no place to put them.  But the reason for that is because Oregon and Washington State both tear apart families at rates well above the national average – and that national average is, itself, too high.  Same thing with Rhode Island, which, as we documented in this report, (starting on page 25), also is an extreme outlier when it comes to taking away children, and also has had a chronic problem of shipping children out-of-state.  And it’s a perennial problem in West Virginia, which tears children from their families at one of the highest rates in America.

Lessons from Connecticut


Compare these states to Connecticut – which used to have the same problem, but doesn’t anymore.


Connecticut used to tear apart families at a rate above the national average.  It relied heavily on institutionalizing children – sending many to institutions out-of-state.  Every high-profile death of a child “known to the system” would set off a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden increase in children torn from everyone they know and love, and that would make everything worse.

So, of course, when confronted about its use of out-of-state institutions, Connecticut officials would use the same excuses heard now in Washington State and Oregon and West Virginia: Oh, we really hate to do this, but we have this terrible “shortage” of foster parents, so we have no place to put all these children

Then, in 2011, Joette Katz was named Commissioner of the state’s Department of Children and Families.  She refused to tolerate foster-care panics. She focused on safe, proven alternatives to taking away children.  She increased the use of kinship foster care – placement of children with relatives instead of strangers. And she pioneered an innovative in-home drug treatment program for cases in which substance abuse was an issue.

By curbing needless removal and increasing the use of kinship care, space opened up for all those children institutionalized out of state – and almost all of them were brought home.

New Jersey embarked on similar reforms, prompted by a class-action lawsuit consent decree.  New Jersey also benefitted from bold leadership in the immediate aftermath of that decree. Now New Jersey also takes children at a rate well below the national average – and New Jersey also has drastically reduced institutionalization in all forms, including out-of-state placements.

How one Oregon legislator makes everything worse


Oregon State Sen. Sara Gelser
Though I’m glad Oregon Public Broadcasting exposed the fact that Oregon is refusing to remove children from Sequel’s institutions, one part of the story was frustrating.  OPB did what Oregon media always have done in recent years – they turned for the obligatory expression of shock and outrage to someone who has unintentionally made all of the state’s child welfare problems worse: State Sen. Sara Gelser.

It’s not that Oregon child welfare was wonderful before Gelser came on the scene; in fact it’s been awful for decades.  And it’s not that Gelser wants it to get worse.

But Gelser has poured gasoline on the fire – using every opportunity to push an agenda that can be boiled down to “take the child and run.”  She first came to prominence taking data out of context to claim that Oregon wasn’t subjecting enough children to traumatic child abuse investigations. Then she engaged in grandstanding when state child welfare leaders admitted the obvious: they can’t guarantee that all children in foster care are safe.  Then she helped to effectively kill one of the very few efforts Oregon has undertaken to try to curb needless removal, a differential response initiative. 

All that is certainly not the only reason the number of Oregon foster children shipped out-of-state has doubled since 2017; it’s probably not even the main reason. But she sure isn’t helping. (And neither are other Oregon politicians, by the way.)

And now, Gelser has the nerve to say she doesn’t know how to solve the problem, telling OPB:

“I don’t know the answer. If we bring them home, where do they go?” she said. “… We have kids with significant needs, and we don’t have what they need to help them and those kids don’t have time to wait for us to figure it out.”

Of course Gelser doesn't want children to be hurt.  I'm sure she believes her agenda will help them. But the problem with her agenda is that it's not really a children first agenda. Over and over, Sen. Gelser has failed to put the needs of children first.  

A children first agenda means learning from other states. A children first agenda means understanding that child removal does not equal child safety. A children first agenda means curbing Oregon’s obscene rate of removal. A children first agenda means embracing Wraparound programs, which do anything an institution can do, and do it far better, instead of building more institutions.  A children first agenda means bringing the children home, and keeping more of them in their own homes.

If Sen. Gelser doesn’t know the answer, then she is willfully ignorant. Other states have found answers, but Sen. Gelser doesn't seem to want to look. 

So here’s how Oregon can find the answer. Check out what Connecticut did.  Check out other states that have safely reduced the number of children trapped in foster care.  And stop paying attention to a grandstanding politician who doesn’t know the answer because she doesn’t want to see it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Child Welfare in Philadelphia: Disingenuous dissembling from DHS


We're not the only ones who have noticed that, when it comes to foster care,
Philadelphia is an extreme outlier.

The word is out.  Story after story about Tuesday’s hearing before the Philadelphia City Council about the child welfare system in that city noted that Philadelphia takes children from their families at the highest rate among America’s big cities.

So the city’s Department of Human Services is getting desperate.  In an attempt to counter that fundamental fact, they’ve resorted to a remarkable exercise in disingenuous dissembling.

Toward the end of this post, I examine DHS’ misleading claim, word by word. (Those who don’t need a recap of the actual data can skip down to the section at the end called “DHS’ statistical stunt.”)  But I’d like to begin by reviewing the facts and explaining the sources and methodology in some detail.

First, DHS’ fanatical rush to foster care has not been documented only by us.  Consultants hired by DHS itself said it too.  In this report they write that:

other large urban child welfare systems also have high rates of children in poverty, but do not experience out-of-home care rates even approaching those of Philadelphia.

The response from DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa was a bit bizarre. In a tweet, she admitted that DHS is an extreme outlier when it comes to the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, but noted that this is not the same as the number of entries into care over the course of the year.

But that still leaves a lot out.

While it is possible to be an extreme outlier in placement and not removals, it is very rare. For example, when comparing statewide rates of removal, of the ten states with the highest rates of placement eight of them also are among the top ten in rates of removal.

But of course that isn’t enough.  You do, indeed, have to look at the actual data for entries into care to determine rates of removal.  And to make the comparison fair, it’s necessary to compare big cities to big cities and to factor in rates of child poverty.  That’s exactly what NCCPR did.

How we found the data for entries:

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children publishes a report each year with comprehensive data for every county.  They use data that states are legally required to report to a federal database.

For the report on Philadelphia, take a look at the table toward the bottom of page 2. It’s labeled “Children Entering Foster Care, All Entries into Foster Care During the Year.”  This screenshot shows an excerpt:


 Though it's a big hard to read in the screenshot, the figure for 2017, the most recent year available in the federal database is 2,888.  In other words, during 2017, children were taken from their families in Philadelphia 2,888 times.  That’s not an estimate.  That’s not a percentage.  That is the actual number the State of Pennsylvania gave to the federal government – presumably after getting it from DHS.  

The data for the number of impoverished children living in Philadelphia come from the census bureau.  Here’s a link to those data, and a screenshot excerpting the numbers for Philadelphia:




Divide the number of children removed by the number of impoverished children and you get 26.7 removals per thousand impoverished children in Philadelphia.  Here’s how that compares to some other major cities:

For full details, results for other cities, and sources, see the
NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index.

Some have argued that removals should be divided by total child population.  We disagree. But, for the record, when you use that measure, Philadelphia looks even worse.

You can see exactly how Philadelphia compares, and the sources for all data here.

DHS’ statistical stunt


So here’s what DHS is claiming, according to a tweet from the agency: “Last year of 19,325 families reported, 3.8% had children removed due to safety.”  In a tweet of her own, Figueroa claimed that “Philadelphia’s removal rate is inline with the National average and other big cities.”

To understand the statistical stunt DHS pulled, you have to parse this word by word.

If 3.8 percent of families reported had children removed, that means children were removed from 734 families.  But unless every family reported to DHS has only one child, that’s NOT the same thing as saying only 734 children were removed.  So ask yourself: Why won’t DHS even give a figure for the actual number of children?

But even at an average of two children removed per family that wouldn’t equal 2,888. 

I have some theories about how DHS may have further fudged the figures to leave out certain categories of entries into care.  I’m not going to include them here now, because at this point they are only theories.  But I would be glad to discuss them with any journalist who would like to try to get straight answers from DHS.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick to the part that involves no speculation. This is fact: The actual number of removals is at least 2,888.  When compared to the number of children living in poverty that gives Philadelphia has the highest rate of removal among America’s largest cities.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

UPDATED WITH VIDEO: Child welfare in Philadelphia: DHS: An Agency Gone Rogue

NCCPR’s full written statement to the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services is available here.

Video of NCCPR's spoken testimony, followed by a statement from DHS-Give Us Back Our Children is here:




If all goes well, at just about the time this post goes live, I will be among those testifying before a committee of the Philadelphia City Council.  The topic will be what it usually is in Philadelphia: that city’s dismal outlier status when it comes to tearing apart families.  It has the worst record among America’s big cities, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

After reading a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday, it’s not hard to see why this is still the case.

Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh
The story is about the councilman whose legislation prompted the hearing, Councilman David Oh.  He had his own run-in with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

Every Sunday, Oh teaches martial arts to his children. One morning, his 8-year-old son was injured. Councilman Oh and his wife rushed the boy to the hospital.

Yes, this is going exactly where you think it’s going. From the Inquirer story:

A social worker arrived and asked Oh and his wife to leave the room so she could speak to their son alone. After doing so, she told the Ohs she was filing a report of suspected child abuse …
Oh said he tried to show the social worker cell phone photos of him doing martial arts with his kids, to show how common the activity is for the family. …
He said he was bothered that the social worker could not articulate why she thought the incident was more than an accident. He said she told him she typically reports injuries children suffer in all sports.  "She insinuated that [a report] was no big deal, it was routine," Oh said. "And when I pressed her for a reason, she made a comment: 'You're a grown man, you shouldn't be teaching your son judo. He's 8.'"

(Just for the record, a quick Google search suggests there is nothing unusual about 8-year-olds learning judo – and I would think the best teacher would indeed be “a grown man” or woman.)

DHS followed up and ultimately decided the report was “unfounded.” But even unfounded reports are maintained in the state’s central registry of alleged child abusers for anywhere from one year to about a year and four months.

What DHS should have said


This would be the place for a good child welfare agency leader to step in and calm things down. 

A good leader might say something like: “We understand the hospital’s concern over keeping children safe, but state law requires reports when mandated reporters have “reasonable cause to suspect” abuse. Clearly every sports injury does not qualify. Nor is there anything unusual about learning judo at age 8. So please don’t do this to families, and don’t waste the time our workers need to find children in real danger on cases like this.”

Philadelphia DHS Commissioner
Cynthia Figueroa
Instead, the Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, Cynthia Figueroa, seems to have made everything worse.

Not only did she justify the intrusion into Oh’s family, she reportedly revealed that she encourages such intrusion – indeed, she reportedly encourages turning in families based on no real evidence at all.  Again, from the story:

Oh said Figueroa “defended the social worker's actions as in line with her directivefor workers to follow their intuition.” [Emphasis added.]
Unfortunately, this is not unusual. Frontline caseworkers sometimes say their decisions come down to "a gut feeling."  But this is the first time I've seen anything like that attributed to the head of a child protective services agency.

Whatever happened to laws, and regulations and, you know, evidence


Would anyone tolerate a jury saying “We didn’t think there was actual evidence of guilt but our intuition told us he did it, so we found him guilty!” (Sadly, I’m sure juries have done that, but I doubt judges have actually encouraged it.)

Or what about police? Should they arrest people based on “intuition”? 

The stop-and-frisk standard


Actually, there is a place where something similar happens in police work – and it’s caused outrage across the country.  Follow your intuition is the standard behind “stop-and-frisk” policing.  If anything, it’s even worse in child welfare.  Bad as it is to be stopped and thrown against a wall for no reason, at least afterwards you usually get to go home.  When child welfare agencies use their “intuition,” the children may be forced into foster care.

But if, indeed, DHS wants people to report alleged child abuse or neglect by following their "intuition," and if they want their own caseworkers to base their decisions on "intuition," then here's what happens under what might be called the Figueroa Doctrine:  Overwhelmingly middle class, often white professionals are supposed to use their “intuition” to pass judgment on whether parents who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite have abused or neglected their children.  Much as we might like to call it “intuition,” that’s just a code word for bias. 

This is illustrated by what happened when Nassau County, near New York City, instituted a process known as "blind removal meetings."  As soon as those making the decision on whether to remove a child were denied information about the family's race and neighborhood, their "intuition" changed, and removals of African-American children declined significantly.

One of the main reasons we have a government of laws is to stop powerful agents of government or other big institutions from doing terrible things to people who are powerless based on their own arbitrary and capricious judgments – otherwise known as “intuition.”

Given all that it’s no wonder Councilman Oh has suggested that Philadelphia begin exploring ways to make the whole process more rational. 

Figueroa responded the way child welfare agencies usually respond when their failings are exposed: with scare tactics. 

According to the Inquirer:

Figueroa  said she has met with Oh twice and told him that she believed changing the reporting requirements would violate state law and could jeopardize the agency's license.

But while there are many issues with the whole mandatory reporting process and the laws surrounding it, the real issue in cases such as this is following the law as it already exists. Again, that law sets a standard of "reasonable cause to suspect." I suggested above what Figueroa should have said in that regard. 

Instead, Figueroa dialed up the fear machine:

"It would also be incredibly chaotic in terms of an enforcement standpoint if each county decided to go rogue in how to adhere to the child protective services law.”

In fact, chaos is an apt term for Philadelphia child welfare as it exists right now. And there is already wide variation among Pennsylvania counties.

As the data on Philadelphia’s obscene rate of child removal make clear, it is DHS that has gone rogue. DHS has been a rogue agency for decades and it’s time, finally, to bring it under control.

Friday, February 8, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today on child welfare's "mouse that may roar"

It’s been hyped as “revolutionary,” a “landmark” and a law that “blows up the nation’s troubled foster care system.” But the so-called Family First Preservation Services Act is none of those things. Yes, the law allows some federal money formerly limited to foster care to be shifted into better alternatives. But the limits on what can be funded are so severe that the Congressional Budget Office  estimates that, out of the billions of federal dollars lavished on foster care, only $130 million per year will be moved into better options. ...
But while everybody was paying attention to Family First, the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) made a policy change that has the potential to do vastly more to help children and families. Indeed, if Family First is the lion that squeaked, this policy change is the mouse that may roar

Monday, February 4, 2019

Child welfare in Pennsylvania: A state official’s bizarre rant

The state’s “Auditor General," Eugene DePasquale, attacks an agency called the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals – for holding hearings and ruling on appeals.  He even suggests there's something nefarious in the agency's choice of name.



It’s always risky to say that a particular politician’s claims about child welfare set a record for foolishness, but a bizarre rant by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale about a division of the state Department of Human Services (DHS) is a contender.  It isn’t just that DePasquale’s statements are weird. Worse, those statements endanger the children I’m sure he genuinely wants to protect.

DePasquale spoke last week at a news conference announcing an investigation of a division of DHS known as the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (BHS). But he’s not waiting to actually investigate to draw conclusions. He’s already decided that “If that sounds like something out of bureaucracy purgatory, that’s exactly what this is” and branded it a “shadow justice system.” 

It isn’t.  And DePasquale’s ill-informed fear-mongering only adds to the climate of hysteria that surrounds child welfare in Pennsylvania. That leads to overloading the system with false reports, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.  And that overloads workers so they have less time to find children in real danger.

Anyone who wants to know what the BHA is and what it does can find it on the internet, right here. And if you search for “Bureau of Hearings and Appeals” you’ll also find lots and lots of similar divisions of government agencies all over the country. Administrative tribunals are a routine part of American law – not some nefarious secret creation of one agency in Pennsylvania.

First page of results when I typed "Bureau of
Hearings and Appeals" into a search engine.
(I used DuckDuckGo instead of Google, because
it produces the same results for everyone )
In the case of that one agency in Pennsylvania, however, the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals holds hearings and rules on appeals involving many situations, including a narrow subset of decisions by caseworkers for county child protective services agencies, usually known in Pennsylvania as Children and Youth Services (CYS) agencies.  But BHA has no jurisdiction over the decisions DePasquale seems to think they have jurisdiction over.

DePasquale further claims that in hearing appeals, BHA upholds CYS caseworker findings only four percent of the time.  As a result, he claims, “the system is potentially sending hundreds of children back into the homes where CYS caseworkers found they were being abused.”  Then he ratchets up the fear rhetoric with this:  “No child should ever have to go back into an abusive situation because bureaucrats have their heads buried in the sand.”

There are two problems with this: The four percent figure is contradicted by readily available data, and BHA decisions have no bearing on whether children are removed from or returned to their homes.

What BHA does NOT do:


Here’s how the system really works:

Caseworkers for CYS agencies investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and then make a series of decisions including whether the family should be put under some kind of agency supervision and whether children should be taken from their parents. 

DePasquale seems to think these decisions can be appealed to the BHA.  They can’t. He seems to think BHA can overturn these decisions and return children to their homes.  It can’t.  BHA has no role whatsoever in these decisions.

Yet DePasquale makes this bizarre claim:

Most people believe that once CYS has determined that someone abused a child, criminal charges automatically follow. In reality, only a small percentage of those cases result in criminal charges.

Most of the time, this administrative court is as far as it gets.

No; it’s not.

If CYS decides either to remove a child or place a child under in-home supervision it does indeed go to court – a court of which DePasquale appears blissfully unaware: Juvenile Court (sometimes called Family Court). These courts, not BHA, decide whether or not CYS should be allowed to take away a child (or if caseworkers already have done it on their own authority, whether to continue placement).  These courts, not BHA, decide whether the child will ever go home again. 

The real problem with these courts, all over the country, is their tendency to rubber-stamp child protective services agency decisions, not overturn them.  As a practical matter, the decision almost always rests with the CYS agency.

Few cases also go to criminal court because typical cases are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.  And the fact that these juvenile court cases are handled as civil, not criminal matters, actually gives more power to CYS agencies. That’s because in these courts the protections for the accused in criminal cases don’t apply. 

In criminal court, for example, the accused must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  But in juvenile court a child can be torn from her or his family and consigned to the chaos of foster care if CYS shows only that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred.  If DePasquale really wants to apply criminal court standards of proof to all these cases, that’s fine with me. The number of children torn from their homes would plummet.

What BHA actually does:


As for BHA, it’s much more limited role involves only one, separate decision made by CYS workers: whether to check a box on the form declaring the allegation “indicated” or “unfounded.”   This is something CYS workers and supervisors do on their own authority, with no chance for the family to defend itself in front of a neutral arbiter beforehand.

The consequences of checking the “indicated” box are severe. The accused is listed in a statewide blacklist and, as a practical matter, barred from professions that involve working with children. Often it then becomes that much harder for impoverished Pennsylvanians to earn a living, increasing the poverty that may have been confused with “neglect” in the first place.  (And, if the family happens to live in Allegheny County, the consequences can be worse.)  This is why federal law requires all states to have some sort of process to appeal these findings.

This is the one and only place where BHA gets involved in child welfare. They can overturn the decision to check the “substantiated” box.  But a majority of the time, they don’t.

I have no idea where DePasquale got his four percent figure – and apparently neither does the Department of Human Services, which tactfully declared that it "looks forward to better understanding the data referenced.”  As DHS points out, state data, presented in easy-to-read graphics on page 20 of this report, show that caseworker decisions are upheld in the majority of cases.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has an easy-to-follow
guide to what the BHA is and the results of its decisions on Page 20 of this report.

But though caseworker decisions are not overturned 96 percent of the time, as DePasquale suggests, they are overturned about 46 percent of the time.  That is, indeed, alarming – but not in the way DePasquale thinks.  The fact that as soon as families get even a minimal opportunity to make their case before a neutral arbiter, the arbiter so often finds CYS is wrong shows the extent to which CYS decisions are arbitrary, capricious and cruel.

That should come as no surprise to DePasquale. He has himself expressed alarm at the inexperience, overload, and high turnover among CYS caseworkers. Since these are precisely the conditions most likely to lead to errors in all directions, DePasquale should be leading the charge for a strong appeals process.  But he’s not.

Instead, at one point DePasquale even suggests something that sounds vaguely like a conspiracy theory. He suggests there is something nefarious in the agency’s choice of name. Says DePasquale:

“You come up with that name when nobody cares about it. Because if it was actually about protecting children, they would call it the something-dealing-with-protection-of-children.  That’s just someone that threw in the towel and came up with a bureaucratic name hoping nobody would pay attention to it.”

I suppose that’s one possibility. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s called the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals because it holds hearings and decides appeals.

As for calling it the “something-dealing-with-protection-of-children” that might be a little confusing.  That’s because in addition to hearing appeals of listings on the state’s blacklist it also deals with disputes in nearly 279 other areas of state government including

the denial, suspension, termination, or reduction of any DHS-issued benefit (Cash Assistance; Medical Assistance; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps; social services; durable equipment; etc.).

Calling it the “something-dealing-with-protection-of-children” might be particularly confusing for
those appealing decisions by the state Department of Aging – BHA handles those, too.

Of course, if DePasquale would prefer a system in which the accused are not put on a blacklist of alleged child abusers without an actual court conviction first, I would be glad to support such an approach.  Indeed, some Pennsylvania appellate judges have expressed qualms about Pennsylvania’s blacklist-first-ask-questions-later approach.

I also have a more modest proposal: Next time, Mr. DePasquale, try doing the investigating first and then holding the news conference.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Philadelphia is #1 again – and it’s nothing to be proud of


For several years, two of America’s top ten big cities have been extreme outliers when it came to tearing children from their families.  When entries into care were compared to the number of children living in poverty Phoenix had the worst rate of removal among big cities; Philadelphia was second.  Well, now that's changed.