Monday, April 12, 2021

Mutual aid vs. the family police: Guess which approach keeps kids safer

A new study debunks not only the “pandemic of child abuse” myth but myths about abolition as well. 

When COVID-19 forced New York City's family policing agency to step back, mutual aid organizations,
such as Bed-Stuy Srong in Brooklyn, stepped up - and child safety improved. 

It should have been obvious from the beginning: The pandemic of child abuse claims were bull--it.  It also should have been obvious that such claims are, uh, racist. 

So I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out the findings of a new study by Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law, looking at actual data from before, during and the transition-to-after COVID-19 in New York City.  And I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out that NCCPR’s own check of similar data in Florida produced similar results.  But let’s give it a try. 

The data show that none of the dire predictions of the fearmongers came to pass.  And the new study shows more: In New York City, when the family police agency – the city’s Administration for Children’s Services – was forced to step back, community-based, community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up.  That, plus direct cash payments to individuals included in federal stimulus bills, made children safer. 

The study has lessons not only when it comes to fearmongering about COVID-19 and child abuse, but also about the word that strikes terror in the heart of the “child welfare” establishment: abolition. 

The study is only the latest challenge to the “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19 that emerged as soon as the pandemic began.  You remember the claims (hard to forget, since they still haven’t stopped): As soon as mostly white middle-class mandated reporters – especially teachers and other school personnel – no longer had their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children due to COVID-19 school closings, the children’s parents would unleash upon them a pandemic of child abuse. 


So of course, the fearmongers claimed, there would be a huge surge in child abuse reports once the kids were back in school and their teachers could see what their parents had done to them. There even were calls to recruit more foster parents because, inevitably, so many more children would need to be taken away. 

But even after several national news organizations challenged the fearmongering, local reporters across the country accepted the myth as fact.  Even after that bastion of child welfare establishment scholarship, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, challenged the claims, the stories continued.  

That’s partly because of the racism that permeates all aspects of society – even if many in child welfare claim immunity.  But it’s also the result of 50 years of “health terrorism,” decade after decade of suggesting that extremely rare horror stories were common and there’s a child abuser under every bed. 

But the COVID-related claims are especially dangerous. In addition to the dangers of needlessly destroying families and overloading the system with false reports, giving workers less time to find children in real danger, the mythology risks increasing the spread of COVID-19 among families and caseworkers alike. 

These claims also fuel calls for premature full reopening of schools – in order to get those white middle-class eyes back on the kids - based on the idea that Black and Brown parents are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease.  That was always dangerously wrong – all the more so as we are learning how the more dangerous “UK variant” of COVID-19 is spread. 

Measuring safety 

In the paper, Prof. Arons offers several measures of safety, three of which stand out to me: 

Fewer alleged child abuse fatalities.  Like everything else in the family policing system, child welfare’s pandemic of fear has been driven by lurid stories of child abuse deaths.  The message has been: If you don’t peek inside the door when you’re supposedly helping a neighbor by dropping off food and report anything that your “gut feeling” or “intuition” says is wrong today, that child might be dead tomorrow. At least two recent stories have speculated that a child who died of abuse might have been saved had the schools been open.  They went on to draw sweeping conclusions about how such a case supposedly shows the need for what amounts to a massive child welfare surveillance state.  

But deaths also are the hardest form of child abuse to hide.  And when Prof. Arons compared reports alleging child abuse fatalities between February and June 2019 – before COVID -- to the same period in 2020, during the pandemic, Prof. Arons found that reports to New York’s child abuse hotline alleging fatal child abuse in New York City declined by 25 percent, from 63 such reports to 47.  

One always should be cautious in citing fatality data to as evidence for anything – for a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst form a tragedy, they also are extremely rare, so rare that they might rise or fall year-to-year due to random chance. 

But remember – the fearmongers told us to expect a big increase in such fatalities, and the fearmongers will use any one case they can find to “prove” that we desperately need that massive child welfare surveillance state. 

So, at a minimum, since the predicted surge in fatalities hasn’t happened it is at least as likely, and probably more likely, that forcing the family police to step back saved children’s lives, rather than contributing to children’s deaths.  I’ll discuss possible reasons for this below. 

No “rebound” in numbers or severity. Perhaps even more significant is what has happened as schools have reopened in New York City.  If the fearmongers were right, thousands of battered and bruised children would be limping back into their classrooms and shocked teachers, seeing the welts and scars would be rushing to call the hotline – a “rebound” in calls that supposedly was going to swamp child protective services and foster homes.  If the fearmongers were right, there would be far more such calls than in a typical fall (when reports always go up as children return to school) and the proportion alleging physical and sexual abuse would be higher. 

Instead, from September through November 2020, the rate of increase in hotline calls from New York City was about the same as the previous (pre-COVID) year.  And the proportion of such reports alleging anything like the stuff of horror stories remained unchanged. Both years, the proportion of reports alleging only neglect – which usually means poverty – was the same, about 75 percent. 

This is all-the-more remarkable given the power of suggestion: From March 2020, when schools shut down, until their reopening in September, New York City teachers, administrators and other school personnel heard the same messages as the rest of us: Just wait until the kids come back!  You’ll see how horrible those parents were!  But even though they were primed to see a surge in physical and sexual abuse that supposedly had gone undetected, they didn’t.  Because it wasn’t there. 

Different state, similar results 

Of course, desperate apologists for the family police might try to claim that the New York results are because not enough children are learning in person yet.  But data also are available for one of the states that has been most fanatical about trying to force children back to in-person education – a state where the governor has been among the most demagogic about pressuring schools to reopen by exploiting the false narrative of a pandemic of child abuse: Florida (of course). 

From September through November 2019, before COVID, Florida’s child abuse hotline received 84,985 calls.  During the same period in 2020, after Gov. Ron DeSantis was pushing all schools to reopen, the number was 81,688, a difference of 3,297 in a state with more than 4.2 million children.  Each year, the proportion of calls “screened in” for investigation was nearly identical. 

When Florida breaks down reports by type of abuse alleged, it reports the data for the month an investigation was closed, not when it was opened, so that makes comparisons more difficult, but it’s clear that even with all those kids pushed back into in-person instruction there was no surge in reports alleging abuse as opposed to neglect – even though, again, the governor himself was issuing dire warnings. 

Back in November, Prof. Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami (and probably child welfare’s foremost data nerd) wrote this: 

I wrote last month that if there wasn’t a big jump in the number of kids being removed by October (the typical high-point in Fall removals) then I was going to call the COVID prophecies bunk. And here we are with the October data and…nothing. The October removal numbers came in lower than expected. 

What went right? 

Prof. Arons cites two factors: The first was the emergence of a network of more than 60 mutual aid organizations throughout New York City. 

Mutual aid projects mobilized to provide an extraordinary array of services to community members who requested aid. Nearly every group organized grocery deliveries and provision of essential items like diapers, but others focused on more specialized services, like childcare for workers or mental health care and support groups. Rather than the exacting intake procedures required by charities and government social services, groups kept their barriers for entry low, requiring only that community members complete online request forms or call intake lines, and removing eligibility requirements that judged moral worthiness. 

Families stayed safely together not because of the family regulation system but because of its absence. Even in the midst of the nonstop trauma of 2020, community members worked for and with each other, providing their neighbors food, diapers, childcare, mental health services, and redistributing government wealth. [Emphasis in original]. 

Mutual aid projects had one other crucial feature: The people running them are not “mandatory reporters” of alleged child abuse or neglect – so no one had to be afraid to go to them for help. 


Families had a safe way to ameliorate the poverty that is so often confused with neglect. They had a community-based support system to ease the stress that, in rare cases, might have prompted a parent to lash out and abuse their child.  At the same time, as Prof. Jane Spinak of Columbia University Law School predicted at the start of the pandemic, the reduction in calls may have given workers more opportunity to find the very few children in real danger in time – which might have contributed to the decline in reports alleging fatal child abuse. 

So even as family policing apologists run around yelling about how the sky will fall if we abolish the child welfare surveillance state, something very much like it happened in New York City – and children wound up better off.  Prof. Arons calls her study, “An Unintended Abolition.” 

But what about Florida? I know of only one mutual aid group in that state, though of course there may be many more.  But if, in fact, mutual aid wasn’t as much of a factor in Florida, what was? 

For starters, there is the simple fact that the kind of child abuse we think of when we hear those words – the beatings, torture and murder that the fearmongers revel in – is, in fact, extremely rare, but we’ve been conditioned by health terrorism to think otherwise.  Overwhelmingly, families love their children and cope with whatever stress the world dishes out.  

But there also was a second factor in Prof. Arons’ analysis, one which applies nationwide: 

Money. 

As Prof. Arons writes: 

Together with the increase in mutual aid came a rare influx of government aid with few strings attached. The CARES Act, passed in early April 2020, provided a one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 per adult for individuals earning less than $75,000 annually, with an additional $500 payment for each child under the age of 17, and an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits, through the end of July 2020. Together, these measures represented a transfer of funds from the government to the people larger than all other non-retirement programs combined. 

This real-world experience adds to the wealth of studies showing that even small additional amounts of cash dramatically reduce what family policing agencies call “child neglect.” This additional cash, and the help of mutual aid organizations to which families can turn without fear also prevent problems from escalating, reducing the already low probability that families will lash out at their children. 

The new danger in believing the fearmongers 

All of this takes on even greater significance as our knowledge of COVID-19 and its variants grows.  At least as early as March 19, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, a member of the Biden Transition Team’s COVID task force was explaining why he’d changed his mind about the safety of a full reopening of schools.  Here’s what Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told a Boston television station

“I, for one, was a strong supporter of opening schools, particularly K through 8, saying the epidemiology here is compelling, that there’s just very little transmission -- to kids, from kids, by kids and that we could open schools,” Osterholm said. “Well, B.1.1.7 [The U.K. variant] has totally turned that on its head.” 

“I think school openings today are going to greatly enhance transmission of B.1.1.7 in our communities,” Osterholm said. “And I predict that within weeks we will be revisiting this issue -- unfortunately, after we’ve had substantial transmission.” 

Yet the fearmongering stories remain a staple of local news. 

Three days after Dr. Osterholm spoke, a newspaper published a story (no, I won’t link to it) in which Dr. Rachel Berger, one of the foremost proponents of a massive child welfare surveillance state, someone who's gone out of her way to minimize the harm of tearing apart families said this: 

“I can’t emphasize enough the need to get back in school. …  At least, get them into a classroom. Get a teacher seeing these kids. … At this point, we know you can open schools as long as you do it well.” 

The same story includes a similarly panicky quote from a local district attorney – and, again, all of this was published three days after Dr. Osterholm’s warning.

The fearmongers’ false, dangerous message, is unmistakable: Poor parents, especially poor parents of color are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease. 

Time for an intended abolition? 


What really endangers children, of course, is the extent to which America’s family policing establishment has dehumanized the Black and Brown families it professes to want to help.  The family policing establishment finds it inconceivable that families who always have had to cope with far more than their white middle-class counterparts also can cope with the stress of a pandemic without taking it out on their kids.  They find it unimaginable that these parents love their children – just like white people do! They find it incomprehensible that the children and families will do better without the “counseling,” “parent education” and, worst of all, foster care, they seek to inflict. 

But now we’ve seen it happen.  We don’t have to ask what abolition would do – we’ve seen an unintended abolition make families safer. 

So imagine how well an intended abolition could work.  Imagine how much the safety and well-being of America’s impoverished children would improve were there a phased transition from agency-inflicted “preventive services” and foster care to a system that emphasized concrete help provided by community-based agencies.  Imagine if we phased out mandatory reporting laws, so no one ever need fear asking for such help.  Imagine if we drastically scaled back the family police. 

COVID-19 didn’t teach us exactly what that would look like.  But it taught us it would look a hell of a lot better than what we have now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

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

● What does it mean to destroy a family after confusing that family’s poverty with neglect? Two stories, one from Kansas City Star editorial writer Toriano Porter the other from Larua Ziegler of KCUR Public Radio examine one such case in Missouri.  I have a blog post about the many lessons from this case, with links to both stories. 

The Imprint takes a new look at Blind Removal Meetings as a way to curb racial bias.  On the one hand, new data suggest the decline in the proportion of Black children torn from their homes in Nassau County, New York, was neither as great nor as steady as originally reported.  On the other hand, Blind Removal Meetings also eliminate data suggesting family income – and that may help explain a dramatic decline in removals of children of all races.  (As you read the story, I think it’s most important to stay focused on all of the numbers, and not on the snide, sneering comments from a take-the-child-and-run extremist who essentially gloats about some of them.) 

● Both the Imprint story and the Missouri stories are built around cases that involve the widespread problem of taking children from victims of domestic violence – even though that was not the primary focus of any of them.  That’s one more indication of how widespread this particular horror, exposed so well by USA Today Network reporters in Florida, is across the country.  And NCCPR has some context on how this widespread practice hurts children. 

● The director of one of those awful parking place “shelters,” this one in Nebraska, claims he hears the cries of foster children.  But Melanie Williams Smotherman of the Family Advocacy Movement and I don’t think he really understands what they’re saying. We have an op-ed column about it in the Lincoln Journal Star. 

● Several state legislatures around the country are considering what can best be called “right to childhood” laws.  One of them is Oklahoma, where the Enid News & Eagle ties the legislation to a larger issue: As the editorial puts it: Poverty does not equal neglect

● The time when the perspective of organizations such as NCCPR is most needed is the time when it is hardest for a reader, or a reporter, to hear that perspective: after learning all about the worst child abuse some monsters -- and in this case that’s the right word -- inflict on children. So I’m grateful to Kim Strong and her colleagues at the York Daily Record for including NCCPR’s perspective in this story. (It's behind a paywall but they've got some good deals.) 

In an interview with NPR Julie Lurie of Mother Jones discusses her story about the real effects of COVID-19 on child welfare: prolonged delays in reunifying families and an ongoing mad rush to terminate parental rights. 

● What happens when a child has an illness and doctors don’t know what to do about it? Accuse the parents of child abuse, of course!  The San Diego Union-Tribune has a story about a lawsuit brought by a family alleging exactly that happened to them.  And Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News, along with Keri Blakinger and Cayla Harris have a story on a bill that would make it a little harder to do this to families in Texas.  Hixenbaugh and Blakinger have done an extensive series of stories on these issues. 

● And finally, our annual reminder: If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

"Child welfare" in Missouri has a dubious distinction

In Missouri, everyone caught up in the child welfare system gets to be harassed by two agencies.  Here’s how that helped tear apart a Black family.

Missouri child welfare perfectly illustrates what goes wrong
when a fifth wheel is allowed to drive the entire vehicle

Samantha Mungai, an immigrant from Kenya – a dreamer, brought here as a child herself - was terrified of losing her job and winding up homeless.  So one night, while she worked, she left her four-year-old home alone in her Kansas City, Missouri apartment.  As a result, the child has lost the right ever to see her mother again during her childhood.  Her rights to her mother were terminated – a more accurate term than termination of parental rights. 

The state child welfare agency, known as the Children’s Division, and the courts not only took the child needlessly and then refused to give her back, they refused even to allow extended family to adopt the child.  Now the child lives with the white foster parents who adopted her.  All of which prompted first Kansas City Star Editorial Writer Toriano Porter and then Laura Ziegler of KCUR public radio to take an in-depth look at, as KCUR’s headline puts it, “What The Adoption of One Kansas City Mother’s Child Says About Race in the Child Welfare System.” 

It says exactly what you think it says.  

Confusing poverty with neglect 

Were Ms. Mungai white and middle class, the issue wouldn’t have arisen.  She wouldn’t have had to work at night as a dancer (and you can bet that the job, in itself, counted against her).  Whenever and wherever she worked, were she middle class, she could have afforded childcare.  And if you have any doubt about how much more leeway middle-class white families get in situations like this, check out this outstanding 2003 New York Times story that examined exactly that. 

This is a classic example of confusing poverty with neglect.  The problem that started all this could have been solved with basic concrete help.  Indeed, in the same city a police officer, A.J. Henry showed exactly that kind of common decency in what is, in some ways, a strikingly similar case.  


Instead, the Missouri Children’s Division took the child and ran – something they do at a rate 50% above the national average.  Then they poked through Ms. Mungai’s life looking for issues they could raise to hang onto the child and make her jump through ever more hopes.  At one point, a traffic violation was held against her.  At another point, the Star reports, she even was dinged for not being able to pay the cost of the hoops through which she was required to jump.  Even her first caseworker is, as the KCUR story puts it …
 

…still haunted by the many obstacles she feels made it almost impossible for Mungai to be reunited with her daughter. 

"She jumped through so many hoops," the caseworker said. "She had a red flag because she was Black, she was lower income, an immigrant, and a stripper, a line of work people judge. We failed her, the system failed her." 

Worse, they failed her child, who, both stories indicate, has suffered emotionally from her removal from her mother and placement with white strangers.  Even before adopting the child, the foster parents cut her off from visits with extended family after the Star published its story. 

Harming children of battered mothers 

One of the issues the Children’s Division found illustrates another common nationwide problem: Needlessly taking children from victims of domestic violence, the same issue exposed so well last year by USA Today Network reporters in Florida.  As this Blog has noted often, taking children from domestic violence victims does the children so much harm that in one state, New York, it’s actually illegal.  

Missouri’s fifth wheel 

But there also was a third factor in this case that is unique to Missouri.  As the public radio story explains: 

Documents obtained by KCUR indicate that Mungai was making progress toward meeting the requirements to achieve the goal all had agreed on: reunification. A handwritten case report dated July 11, 2018 — a year after the child was removed from the home — noted, “(Mom) moved into apartment… (is) adjusting well…(she is) working…visits (with her daughter) goes well….approved for Food Stamps.” 

Four months later, Mungai called in from work for her regular team meeting and was shocked to hear Juvenile Officer Heather Kindle announce she was changing the goal from reunification to TPR — Termination of Parental Rights. 

That might reasonably prompt people in 49 states to ask: What in the world is a “juvenile officer” and why does she have so much power? 

The Juvenile Office is a bizarre “fifth wheel” in the Missouri child welfare system.  It is, in effect, a second, parallel child protective services agency run directly by the courts, that is even more powerful than the one run by the executive branch.  I’ll describe how it works in detail below, but first, consider the arrogance – and possible disregard for law – displayed by the office not only in this case but in others, as seen in these comments to KCUR from Clay County supervising juvenile officer Janet Rogers: 

“The law, as far as juvenile cases, is not clear cut.  They’re not like criminal cases where you can say, 'Well, you’ve proved it, here’s the sentence, off to the department of corrections.' (These cases ) are very subjective, we put recommendations in front of the judge, sometimes she takes them, sometimes she doesn’t." 

Behold!  An officer of the law almost literally saying the system is lawless.  In fact, the
system is supposed to be like the criminal system, particularly when it comes to permanently severing a child’s right to her or his parents.  You are supposed to prove a parent is unfit before even reaching the issue of “best interests.”  And you’re supposed to do it with clear and convincing evidence.  Says who?  Says the United States Supreme Court.
 

So what are they doing at the Juvenile Office?  Do they just make it up as they go along? Do they recommend destroying a family forever whenever they feel like it for whatever “very subjective” reason suits them?  Surely by now we’ve figured out that subjectivity is just another word for bias.  

As for Rogers’ statement that “we put recommendations in front of the judge, sometimes she takes them, sometimes she doesn’t" I hope someone checks to see how often she “does” and how often she “doesn’t.” 

For more on how this bizarre fifth wheel drives the entire vehicle of child welfare in Missouri, and why that’s so harmful for children, here’s an excerpt from NCCPR’s 2003 report on Missouri child welfare.  Some of what you’ll read presaged what happened in this case:            

Missouri may be the only child protection system in America with two front doors. 

            As in all states, citizens are encouraged to call the child welfare agency if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” maltreatment, and some professionals are required to report.

            But in Missouri, citizens can simply call their county juvenile office instead – or as well.  (Mandated reporters must call DFS [The Department of Family Services; this report predates creation of the Children’s Division], but they also can call the juvenile office). 

            Thus, while it is not clear how often it happens, it is possible for DFS and the juvenile office to wind up doing duplicate investigations of the same case.  And even if the DFS worker does not think the child needs to be removed, if the juvenile officer disagrees, the juvenile officer can take the child on the spot. 

            Even when both organizations agree on removal, parents may wind up whipsawed between conflicting requirements.  They may do everything DFS asks, only to go to court and find that the juvenile office isn’t satisfied – or vice versa. 

            And the fact that two entities that apparently don’t always get along must sign off on plans developed through Team Decisionmaking before they can take effect, is likely to further impede the Team Decisionmaking process. 

            And it is the juvenile office, not DFS, that actually performs the role equivalent to a prosecutor in a criminal trial.  Thus, if DFS thinks a child should return home and the juvenile office doesn’t, (or vice versa) DFS sometimes may finally have something in common with the parents: The agency may not be adequately represented in court.  DFS does have its own lawyers and they do appear in some, but reportedly not all, cases. 

            In addition … the juvenile office is a part of the court system, which means that in any conflict between the juvenile office and an agency of another branch of government, the judge might be tempted to favor the “home team.”… 

            The fact that no other state has a “Juvenile Office” does not, in itself, make Missouri wrong.  If Missouri had the best child welfare system in America, then there might be reason for other states to follow its lead.  But, of course, it doesn’t.  Missouri has a typically wretched “child welfare” system that, as noted above, tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average.  Clearly the juvenile office isn’t the only reason for this – other states are even worse – but it sure isn’t helping. 

            Missouri could help children in impoverished families by abolishing the juvenile office – and plowing the savings into things like, say, childcare for those families. 

            And the next time a neighbor in Kansas City feels they must call someone because a young child is home alone, I hope they’ll try calling Sgt. Henry first.          

Thursday, April 1, 2021

NCCPR in Youth Today: ASFA’s timelines are horrible for children but another part of the law is even worse

America’s most recent attempt to reckon with racism, a reckoning that began with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and shifted into high gear with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, has forced the nation to come to grips with two of the three major racist laws passed by Congress in the 1990s. 

Ugly, racist stereotypes about Black youth would lead to passage of draconian anti-crime legislation in 1994. The First Step Act took a first step back from that approach. 

Ugly racist stereotypes about “welfare queens” would lead to draconian cuts in welfare benefits in 1996. The expanded child tax credits in the COVID relief bill represent a welcome change in course. 

But when it comes to fighting racism, child welfare always lags behind. After all, what other field has an entire “caucus of denial” running around claiming that it is immune from the racism that infects every other aspect of American life? 

Read the full column in Youth Today

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month

 I've reprinted this post almost every year since 2010.  But for the past two years it's been especially relevant. You can be sure that this year, like last year, the Astroturf fill-in-the-blanks op-eds that various advocacy groups send to their local chapters will be filled with references to an "epidemic" or a "pandemic" of child abuse - as though the moment white middle-class professionals can't have their "eyes" on poor children of color, their parents will rush to torture them.  This myth persists even though several national news organizations have challenged it.  NCCPR has details here.

I hope that before pushing the send button on these generic submissions, people will at least have the decency to pause and think long and hard about just how racist that framing is. Precedent suggests, however, that they won’t.

In fact, given that the child welfare establishment has no shame, expect the usual op-eds to have token boilerplate statements about racial justice – even as they propose making a profoundly racist family policing system even bigger and more powerful.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 1, 2010 , UPDATED APRIL 1, 2018, MARCH 31, 2020, AND MARCH 31, 2021.

Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired. 

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote: 

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. 

In 2020, PCAA went further. They actually branded what they had done “health terrorism” – but refused to apologize for it. 

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day. 

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 1, 2010:

Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse. 

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fool’s Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula: 

1.  1. Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.

2.   2. Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story. Rather, they often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…

3.   3.  Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.

4.   4. Pile hype onto hype by reasserting the racist, discredited COVID-19 “pandemic of child abuse” myth.

5.    5. Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.

6.     6. Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."  

      7. Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity. 

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind, for example an egregiously-misleading report published by the group that calls itself Every Child Matters – the mentality that says: What's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause? 

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children.  

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.  And at this moment this year, it still. risks spreading a deadly virus. 

Reality check 

NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions: 

·        -- Issue papers on Understanding Child Abuse Numbers and False Allegations: What the Data Really Show

·        -- Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.

·        -- Our presentation on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that study after study shows even small increases in income significantly reduce what child welfare systems call "neglect."

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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

● We begin with some very good reporting about some very bad ideas.  In Massachusetts, a state that already takes away children at a rate more than 60% above the national average, and despite the mass of evidence that mandatory reporting is a failure, a special commission is proposing to double down on that failure. 

Not only do they want to vastly expand who is a mandated reporter they want to make it easier to confuse poverty with neglect.  But CommonWealth Magazine didn’t do the usual story – find the worst “unreported” horror story and use it to cheer on the changes.  Instead, this story from reporter Shira Schoenberg looks at all sides – including all the reasons the plan could backfire. 

● Speaking of laws that backfire, America’s racial justice reckoning has led to calls to repeal the federal government’s worst child welfare law, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  Those calls have focused largely on one abominable feature of the law – timelines.  But in this column for Youth Today I discuss another part of the law that’s even worse. 

● ASFA and mandatory reporting both illustrate that in child welfare nothing succeeds like failure.  I have a column in the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call about the pernicious practice of predictive analytics spreading to another Pennsylvania county. 

● At last! Voices that have been effectively silenced by most Washington State media for decades are heard in this excellent story by Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Times. The story focuses on the confusion of poverty with neglect, and several initiatives aimed at curbing needless removal. 

One notable statistic from the story: 

“Poverty is the greatest predictor of whether you’re going to have a dependency case,” said Tara Urs, special counsel for civil police and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense. Of 962 cases filed in the county during 2019 and 2020 seeking to make a child a dependent of the state and possibly a placement in foster care, just five families were not entitled to a public defender because of indigency, according to her department’s records.

● In Reason, Lenore Skenazy wrote about a family turned-in to child protective services because a parent was seven minutes late picking up her son.  Her work led me to revisit a similar situation in Washington, D.C., where it is standard operating procedure to report some parents if they’re late picking up kids from afterschool programs. 

● In a system permeated with racial bias, what about the means used to decide what is, and isn’t, “evidence-based”? In The Imprint, three child welfare consultants write that the clearinghouse that has to give its seal of approval before a program can be funded under the Family First Act  

…does not apply or require a racial equity lens for approval. As a result, they are too often implemented through white normative standards, and rarely evaluated for efficacy in non-white populations. 

● And in Washington State, KING-TV and NBC News report that some prosecutors are having second thoughts about the “expert” they used in some child abuse cases, From the story

This winter, [Dr. Elizabeth] Woods left her position as the director of the child abuse intervention program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, and last month she was removed from the small roster of doctors who provide expert medical reports to the state’s child welfare agency, hospital and state officials confirmed. Some area prosecutors have also been sending letters to defense lawyers disclosing that Woods’ credibility as an expert witness has been called into question. 

These changes follow a KING 5 and NBC News investigation from one year ago that revealed that Woods, 39, provided false information while testifying under oath about why she never received key training to become certified as a child abuse medical expert. The investigation also examined four cases in which child welfare workers took children from parents based on Woods’ reports — including some in which Woods misstated key facts, according to a review of records — despite contradictory opinions from other medical experts who said they saw no evidence of abuse.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Child welfare in Washington, D.C.: An “offer” families can’t refuse

Remember when the D.C. family police denied they take children if their parents are late to pick them up after school?  A policy manual from the D.C. schools reveals that it’s more complicated.


If you’re a parent living in poverty, you may need a lot of help.  But no matter where you turn for help you risk being turned in to the family police (a more accurate term than child protective services).  In Washington, D.C. that even applies if you’re late picking up your child from an afterschool program.  Turns out, it’s right in the D.C. Public Schools’ handbook for such programs.   

But that’s not the way the D.C. family police agency has been spinning the story.  

Back in late August 2019, a Washington, D.C. television station revealed that a local public elementary school was threatening to call the family police, known in D.C. as the Child and Family Services Agency, if parents were late picking up their kids from school. CFSA then would take the children to their central office.  

About eight months later, the head of the agency flatly denied this in a way that made it easy for listeners to infer the story was wrong. 

But the story was right. Only after the policy was exposed was it changed.  

And it gets worse.  No one at CFSA bothered to mention that handbook, the one that includes  a very similar policy – citywide – for some of the children in afterschool programs.

This is the story of what CFSA said, what CFSA did, and what CFSA still does. 


August, 2019: WUSA-TV breaks the story 

To understand the context, we need to go back to August 2019, when WUSA-TV, Channel 9 broke the story.  They reported on a memo sent to parents at one school at the start of the school year – and lest there be any doubt – displayed the memo, which said: 

If you choose not to have your child remain in the Afterschool Program, then he/she MUST be picked up promptly at 3:15 p.m. For those students that are not picked up on time (3:15pm) the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) will be contacted, and parents will be required to pick their child up from their office." [Emphasis most definitely in the original] 

Here’s the full story:

Channel 9 got comment from a CFSA deputy director, Robert Matthews, and D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee. At no point did either of them deny that the memo was real. At no point did they say the school was wrong to have issued it. At no point does Matthews say CFSA would not cooperate with demands to come and get children under these circumstances.  That’s worth keeping in mind in light of how the agency is spinning the whole thing now. 

I discussed the harm of this policy in a follow-up story on Channel 9.  At that time CFSA still did not make the claims it would make now, a year-and-a-half-later, as we’ll see below.

 

May, 2020: The CFSA Director on the radio 

Fast forward to May 2020. By then we were well into the pandemic.  CFSA Director Brenda Donald appeared on a prestigious local radio program, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, on public radio station WAMU. She touted the false master narrative that, in the absence of “mandated reporters” constantly keeping their eyes on children, they were at grave risk of child abuse.  Donald even urged the very people to whom families were most likely to turn to for help to become spies – though, of course, she didn’t use that word. Here’s what she said: 

So our big concern now is really not so much our children, who are in foster care because they are well cared for. They're in foster homes. … But it's the children we don't see who may be suffering that we are concerned about. … 

But now what we've asked our community partners to do who are out about in the community. They're providing meals to families. They're connecting with families in other ways to really step up and be more vigilant. If they see that, you know, perhaps they haven't seen a child when they've delivered meals to the family or they may observe some other signs where they note that something is not quite right. 

So now every D.C. parent with a hungry child has to worry about whether to accept a meal just when they may need it most.  

I called in to the program to raise that concern.  To which Donald replied: 

We’re not as – certainly when someone calls our hotline we have experts, who are trained to ask certain questions to really understand if someone is making a report that really doesn’t go to true abuse or neglect. We’re not going to respond to a frivolous call. 

Since Donald said they don’t respond to frivolous calls, that seemed like a good time to bring up the WUSA-TV story. This exchange followed: 

RICHARD: Last year Channel 9 reported that if you're simply a few minutes late to pick up your child from a D.C. public school those school teachers who are ever on the alert will call CFSA. CFSA caseworkers would be there and haul them off to Brenda Donald's office, a terribly traumatic experience for a child. 

NNAMDI: Brenda Donald. 

DONALD: Clearly bad information that was false that was corrected. Someone -- we don't know where that came from, but that absolutely does not happen and is not encouraged. 

 

Where things stand now 

All of which brings us to last week, when a similar situation arose in Chicago.  Lenore Skenazy wrote about that case for Reason.  And she discovered that the D.C. approach went way beyond one school.  She links to an old edition of something called the “District of Columbia Public Schools Afterschool Program Parent/Guardian Handbook.”  That prompted me to look further.  I found the handbook for the 2019-2020 school year – the school year in progress at the same time Brenda Donald was on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.  

Of course, the original WUSA9 story dealt with what a school did with children who were not in an afterschool program.  The passages below deal with what happens to students who are somehow involved with such a program – and sure enough, as you’ll see below, CFSA ultimately would split this very hair.  But either way, it doesn’t exactly sound like this “absolutely does not happen…”  Let’s take a look at Page 7: 

1. If a student is not picked up by the end of the program day (6:00 p.m.), afterschool staff will call the phone numbers listed in the child(ren)’s enrollment application to locate an adult who can pick up the student. 

2. If, after multiple attempts, the student(s)’ parent, guardian, or emergency contact(s) cannot be reached, the school will call the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) at 202-671-7233. [Emphasis added.] 

3. If the parent, guardian, or another approved adult arrives prior to the CFSA representative, CFSA receives another call and a reported update. 

4. The student may not return to the afterschool program until the AA/full-time coordinator and/or the principal has spoken with the parent, guardian, or caseworker and has agreed to a plan by which the student will be picked up on time. [Emphasis added]. 

Now let’s turn to page 8, regarding students who are kicked out of an after-school program: 

DCPS implements the following steps in the event that the student (who has been previously removed from the afterschool program) is left after school dismissal: 

--The student will be held in the main office once school is dismissed (beginning at 3:15 p.m.). 

-- School staff will call the parent/guardian after dismissal to request immediate pick-up from school (at 3:30 p.m.). 

-- If the parent/guardian does not pick up the student within 30 minutes, a second call will be made to the parent/guardian and emergency contacts on the student’s afterschool enrollment form (at 4:00 p.m.). 

-- If the parent/guardian does not pick up a student within an hour of the first call, CFSA will be contacted and asked to take custody of the student (at 4:30 p.m.). [Emphasis added]. 

Yes, there is a slight difference between this district-wide policy involving certain students involved with afterschool programs and what happened at that one school that was the subject of the Channel 9 story:  The district-wide policy sometimes allows an hour’s grace period before turning over the situation to the family police.

 

What CFSA says

On Friday I reached out to CFSA Communications Director Kera Tyler for the agency’s response.  I asked her why Donald referred to what WUSA9 reported as “Clearly bad information that was false that was corrected. Someone -- we don't know where that came from, but that absolutely does not happen and is not encouraged.”  In an email, Tyler acknowledged the memo from the school was real but claimed the school was the one that got it wrong. Says Tyler: 

In addition to responding to your hyperbolic language re: caseworkers hauling children to her office, Director Donald was referring to the misinformation in the principal’s communication to parents. Teachers are not directed to contact the DC Child and Family Services Agency when families are “simply a few minutes” late picking up their children by the 3:15 p.m. elementary school dismissal. Shortly after this news story ran, Principal Thomas and DC Public Schools (DCPS) corrected the misinformation, children who are not picked up on time at the end of the regular school day are enveloped into available afterschool programming while staff members work to contact family members and emergency contacts. The DCPS Parent Handbook you’ve linked and referenced is regarding afterschool programming. 

So WUSA9 got it right – that was the school’s policy and only after Channel 9 broke the story, were things “corrected.” 

But notice that the response says nothing about why a very similar policy exists, districtwide, for afterschool programming.  (I’ll get to how CFSA spins that, below.) 

Tyler went on to deny that Donald was misleading listeners on the radio program.  There just wasn’t time to go into detail about it, Tyler said, because “The purpose of her appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show last spring was to address concerns regarding child welfare during the public health emergency.”  Translation: Donald was too busy scaring people into rushing to report any vague suspicion of child abuse and urging them to usie meal drop-offs for spying. 

But even if we accept this at face value, it doesn’t explain why CFSA didn’t say anything like this when the agency’s deputy director commented in the original WUSA9 story.  (Neither did the D.C. Schools Chancellor.) 

As for the policy that CFSA at no point denies, the one about afterschool cases, Tyler explains that’s just CFSA being kindly, benevolent helpers!  Writes Tyler: 

During emergency incidents where families and emergency contacts can’t be reached, CFSA offers schools and families respite. 

Let’s stop right there.  “Offer” implies the families can say no. But this is an “offer” they can’t refuse. 

Tyler continues: 

By and large, these incidents are not abuse or neglect, and a child requiring temporary safe supervision until their family can be reached is not a removal. 

But does it feel like it’s not removal to the child?  

Tyler continues: 

CFSA social workers are trained professionals who team with educators to support families during these incidents by helping to identify additional familial contacts and providing that safe supervision if necessary. 

But recall that the actual policy manual puts it differently: 

If the parent/guardian does not pick up a student within an hour of the first call, CFSA will be contacted and asked to take custody of the student (at 4:30 p.m.). 

In 2019, CFSA told Channel 9 they didn’t track how often this happens.  They still don’t. But Tyler says there have been only a handful of cases in the past two years during which CFSA had to take custody – oh, sorry, I mean provide safe supervision -- under these circumstances. 

Tyler did offer schools help with p.r. -- declaring that “we’re happy to work with them to help soften the tone of any language that comes across punitively.” 

Because how could children possibly feel punished by having strangers come to the school and, yes, haul them off to the downtown office of the family police?