Monday, October 22, 2018

Who ya gonna call? For child welfare’s “caucus of denial” there’s now a different kind of “hotline”

The New York Times published a satirical video on its opinion pages yesterday that, on the surface, has nothing at all to do with child welfare.

But actually, it has everything to do with child welfare.

The video offers a number people can call – 1-844-WYT-FEAR as an alternative to calling 911 when African-Americans are simply going about their daily lives doing things that are nobody else’s damn business:

The Times supplements the video with links to “39 known instances just this year when someone called the police to complain about black people doing everyday activities.”

Parenting is also an everyday activity.  And the data are clear: You are more likely to be falsely accused of child abuse if you are Parenting While Black.  It’s especially true if you’re also poor, as documented by the Times in its story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.” But you don’t have to be poor to be accused of child abuse for Parenting While Black. Just ask Shaun King.

But here’s what makes the cancer of racial bias even more malignant in child welfare than in other fields.  In most of those other fields almost everyone at least admits there’s a problem – at a minimum, those calling themselves liberals will admit there’s a problem.

But in child welfare, there’s an entire “caucus of denial” – mostly self-proclaimed liberals, who insist that they are simply so much better than their counterparts in any other line of work that there is no racial bias in child welfare.

How pervasive is this liberal blindspot? Consider:

● In what other field could a white man tell a Congressional committee that the places that are most successful are those that have “smaller, whiter populations” and still be an influential figure in the debate? 

● In what other field would it be acceptable to hold a fundraiser featuring a blackface act?

● In what other field could a  self-proclaimed “expert” dismiss the very idea of a serious racial bias problem as a “panic” but still be considered part of the mainstream?

Now consider how all that denial stacks up against common sense.  The Times just documented 39 separate elements of day-to-day life in which people of color are victims of racism.  But somehow, in some way, the denial caucus says, child welfare is the magic exception!

Excuses at the ready

Sure, the denial caucus says, people of color – especially African-Americans and Native Americans -- are more likely than white people to be called in to child abuse hotlines, more likely to have the calls accepted for investigation, more likely to have the allegations “substantiated” (which can mean only that a caseworker guesses it’s slightly more likely than not that the allegation is true) – and, of course, more likely to have their children consigned to the chaos of foster care.

But the denial caucus has excuses at the ready. Their favorite is: It’s not race, it’s poverty!  I actually rather like that one.  For decades the child welfare establishment denied taking away children because of poverty.  But they’ll actually cop to class bias to avoid facing up to racial bias.

In fact, it’s both.  There is indeed rampant class bias in child welfare and that results in the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect.  But there also is racial bias over and above the class bias – as is documented by study after study.

The uglier claim is that, well, yes, there used to be racism in America -- and that made African- Americans and Native Americans bad parents.  So we’re really, truly sorry about all that past racism, but we’re just going to have to take away huge numbers of children of color.

But here again, the research shows otherwise.  Give caseworkers identical hypotheticals except for the race of the family and they will rate the child at higher risk if s/he is Black.  Or look what happened when the child welfare agency in Nassau County, New York, required workers to present cases of children they wanted to remove but leave out information that identified the race of the family and the neighborhood where the family lived: Removals of Black children declined substantially.

Help is on the way!

There is no cure for child welfare’s deep denial, but now at least there is help:

Next time you see a Black child whose family is living in makeshift housing, or who wandered out of the house without her mother knowing about it, or who is eight-years-old and selling water in front of her own apartment building (an actual example on the Times’ list) or a Black mother who is smoking marijuana to keep food down so she can gain weight during pregnancy, or a Black man babysitting white children (another actual case on the Times list) don’t call the child abuse hotline or the police.  Instead, call 1-844-WYT-FEAR!

And hey, all you white “journalists” over at the so-called “Chronicle of Social Change” – the Fox News of Child Welfare – next time you’re tempted to dismiss the idea of a serious racial bias problem in child welfare as a “panic” – as your publisher, self-proclaimed “child welfare expert” Daniel Heimpel has done – take a deep breath, pick up the phone and call 1-844-WYT- FEAR.  And the next time you’re tempted to publish a column that bullies an impoverished African-American mother and dredges up an ugly racial stereotype, stop, think – and dial 1-844-WYT-FEAR.

Monday, October 15, 2018

That screaming you hear is the sound of foster-care panic

“Just like he screamed when he was taken from me, he screams like that now, when I even leave the room.”
                   --Amanda Weber, whose 14-month-old son was taken needlessly and held in foster care for three months.

Amanda Weber’s son, Zayvion, was ten months old when he was taken from his mother because of a false allegation of “medical neglect” after the boy became sick.

As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:

After three months of separation, Morrison County Judge Leonard A. Weiler ruled in August that … there was no evidence that the boy’s mother had medically neglected the child as the county alleged.

said that [a] nurse provided "disinformation" about the boy's condition to a Morrison County child protection worker who filed the petition which led to an emergency intervention and taking of the child.

What happened to Zayvion is close to the minimum amount of harm a child will endure when wrongfully torn from his parents.  He was not abused in foster care, but after spending nearly one fifth of his life so far without his mother he still bears the emotional scars – you can hear it when he screams.

This could have happened anywhere at any time.  But it is more likely to happen in Minnesota than in most states – and more likely to happen now in Minnesota than in even the recent past.

As I wrote for the online news site MinnPost earlier this year:

In 2016, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Minnesota took away children at the sixth highest rate in the country, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. Minnesota took away children at a rate more than double the national average. It took away children at more than triple the rate of states that have been cited repeatedly as national models for keeping children safe.
No, this is not because of opioids or any other drug plague. Minnesota has been an outlier since at least 1999 and probably far longer.

Minnesota also has a particularly appalling record when it comes to racial bias.  Native American children represent less than two percent of the state’s children – but one-quarter of the state’s foster children, the worst such record in America.

What could make all of this worse?  A foster-care panic, of course.  And that’s just what Minnesota got starting in 2014 thanks in part to the Star Tribune.

Last month, in a long post to this blog I described how the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida, undermined reforms and plunged the entire system into chaos – leaving all children less safe. 

In 2014 a Star Tribune reporter said he wanted to write stories like the Herald stories. So he did – built around the death of Eric Dean, a child “known to the system.” And his work produced exactly the same results – a foster-care panic that has made all children less safe.  In fact, you could just read the Florida post, substitute “Star Tribune” for Miami Herald and you’d have an excellent idea of what’s happened in Minnesota.

Or as I wrote in MinnPost, after the Star Tribune stories

The governor promptly named the obligatory task force. Incredibly, the task force concluded that a state which for nearly two decades was among the most extreme in tearing apart families was not extreme enough. The result was predictable: foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden spike in children torn from their homes.

If anything, the effects are worse in Minnesota than in Florida because Minnesota started out with such a high rate of removal in the first place.

And Minnesota illustrates that no, the problem isn’t lack of funding.  As of 2014, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Minnesota spent on child welfare at a rate above the national average – far above when rates of child poverty are factored in.

As happens whenever there is a foster care panic, the system now is even more overloaded than it was before, so workers have even less time to find children in real danger.  And many more children are screaming for the parents who were taken away from them.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Another major failure of Iowa foster care

Among the many tragedies that await many children once they are torn from everyone they know and love and forced into foster care is the prospect of being needlessly doped up on potent, sometimes dangerous psychiatric medications.

It is a frequent topic of newspaper exposes, including this one from reporter Karen de Sa when she was at the San Jose Mercury News.  Indeed, when the Trump Administration started tearing apart families at the Mexican border, it was among the first of many abuses to be exposed.

That’s because it’s inevitable.  Most of the people who control these children’s lives have no real stake in them. Many are well meaning and genuinely want to help the children. But they don’t love those children.  So it’s a lot easier to deal with their trauma by rushing to the prescription pad.

It should be no surprise that one of the states that is most callous in its use of foster care to destroy families now is revealed as among those most likely to misuse and overuse psychiatric medication on the children they tear from their homes.

And it should be no surprise that this same state does a horrible job of policing how it dispenses these meds.

That state is Iowa.

Iowa has a long ugly history of child welfare failure. Year after year Iowa is one of the states most likely to resort to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. 

And now, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General shows that Iowa is among the five states most likely to use psychiatric medication on foster children.

Using a random sample of cases involving children in foster care during the six months ending March 31, 2015, the report examined the five states at the top of this dismal list. It looked at how their regulations for dispensing these medications compared with national model standards and how each state complied with its own regulations.

The other states examined are Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Virginia.

The report found that none of the states has controls on the use of these medications that meets national model standards.  And none of the states does well at living up to the minimal standards it does have.

But the Iowa results are particularly dismal.  Among them:

● In 72 percent of the cases examined, there was nothing in the case file to indicate the caseworker had documented whether the medication was meeting the child’s needs.

● In 83 percent of the cases examined, there was no evidence that caseworkers even asked the foster parents if the medications were working.

● In 84 percent there was no documentation of why the child was being medicated (which may help explain the other two findings).

The report suggests various bureaucratic solutions – all of which miss the point.  As the report itself pointed out:

Unlike children from intact families children in foster care often do not have a consistent interested party to coordinate treatment planning or to provide continuous oversight of their mental health treatment.

That’s bureaucratese for: Foster children don’t have someone who loves them watching out for them – because often, those are the very people from whom they’ve been taken.

This is a lesson we should have learned by now from Florida which, when the late George Sheldon was running the child welfare agency, was particularly aggressive in trying to reduce the overuse of meds. As they dove deep into the data they found something fascinating: When children were placed in kinship foster care, that is, with their own relatives, they were far less likely to be placed on psychiatric meds than they were when placed with strangers or in institutions.

Drugging is one more way foster care endangers large numbers of children it is intended to help – and it is one more example of why the only way to “fix” foster care is to have less of it – especially in states like Iowa.

Monday, September 17, 2018

An open letter to two Florida columnists

Their anguish over the death of another child “known to the system” is genuine.  I think they’ll also be open to some new ideas.

A little over a week ago, two columnists for the Tampa Bay Times, Sue Carlton and John Romano, wrote about still another death of a child “known to the system” in Florida.  Often, when that happens, I reach out to the journalists in a letter.  This time, I’m sharing that letter with everyone.
Dear Ms. Carlton and Mr. Romano:

            I am writing to you because you’ve both written columns about the tragic death of Jordan Belliveau, another child “known to the system” in Florida – apparently on the same day.  More particularly, I am writing because your columns were not the usual quick-and-dirty “Boy do I hate child abuse!” rants – the kind of column that is filled with scapegoating; the kind that’s really just a cheap and easy way to meet a deadline.  On the contrary, the anguish in your columns is real and you both seem seriously interested in answers.

            Indeed, I first got in touch with you, Ms. Carlton, after you wrote a brave, counterintuitive column on some of these very issues. That was in 2010, a time when Florida child welfare finally was starting to improve.  As you may recall, when I wrote to you then, I predicted a backlash against reform.  Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.  I did not predict that it would be led by the Miami Herald – and the editorial board at the Tampa Bay Times.  But that’s also exactly what happened.  So the need for bold, counterintuitive thinking is even greater now.

            I am using the open letter approach because you’re certainly not alone in agonizing over how to fix child welfare in Florida.  And I am hoping that your interest in answers includes a willingness to look past the usual failed solutions – just as you did, Ms. Carlton, in 2010. Because those “solutions,” and the false premises that underlie them, are a large part of what has gotten Florida, and much of the country, into this mess in the first place.

            Among those false premises is one that both of you mention in your columns.  That’s understandable, since it is probably the most common misconception in all of child welfare: The idea that family preservation and child safety are inherently at odds – competing interests that somehow have to be “balanced.” The implication, of course, is that if you leave a child in or return a child to a home where abuse or neglect has been alleged, that’s inherently risky. Keep the child in foster care and it may ruin his psyche, but at least he’s physically safe.

            That is not true. 

What I will argue in this long letter is that in the overwhelming majority of cases family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care, it’s safer than foster care.  And the real reason for horrors such as the death of Jordan Belliveau has nothing to do with any supposed “policy of reunifying families at all costs” at Gay Courter, a volunteer “guardian ad litem (what most states call a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)) claims in a Times op-ed column.

On the contrary, it’s almost always because of caseworkers so horribly overloaded with cases of children who don’t need to be in the system that they lack the time to properly investigate any case.  As a result, they make terrible mistakes in all directions.  Even as they take many children needlessly they leave others in, or return them to, dangerous homes.

            Those false premises are laid out most clearly in Ms. Courter’s op-ed.  Since I’ve followed Florida child welfare for about 30 years now, and NCCPR has issued reports on child welfare dating back to 2000, I am familiar with Ms. Courter’s work. I know that, like most people in child welfare, she has only the best of intentions. I also know that at least one of you has written admiringly about her in the past.  I, on the other hand, am that guy who keeps saying those terrible things about the whole approach to child welfare taken by the Times and the Miami Herald. I make no apology for that. When children’s lives are at stake - literally – good intentions aren’t enough.

The Times and the Herald didn’t make a good child welfare system bad. But they helped make a bad child welfare system worse – and they helped to halt and reverse what had been the first real improvement in that system in decades.  You are in a position to do better.  And if you are willing to reconsider old assumptions then you can help break the cycle of tragedy-investigate-repeat that Ms. Carlton aptly described in her column.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A lawyer on what standing up for “children’s rights” is really all about.

Crystal Baker-Burr is a lawyer for the Bronx Defenders. But before that, she worked for the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Project representing children in child welfare cases.  

In a post for an outstanding blog called Rethinking Foster Care, she writes about some of the cases she’s seen – particularly cases involving when New York City's Administration for Children's Services abuses its “emergency" removal power. 

Here's how her column begins:

"Can I have that quarter?" Anita asked me, pointing to the change she found in the chair in the courthouse interview room. I asked her what she needed it for. "I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me,” she said. “If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

(And while you're there, you can click on the icon in the upper left corner to subscribe to get posts from Rethinking Foster Care by email.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Want to know how what Trump did to families at the border compares to how the foster care system works? Use this handy chart!

The Trump Administration policy of tearing apart families at the Mexican border brought home to many Americans the enormous harm done to children when they are taken from everyone they know and live.  It wasn’t long before people started to wonder: How different is that from what U.S. child protective services agencies – the agencies that investigate allegations of child abuse and put children in foster care – do every day?

We discuss the similarities, and the differences, in detail in this previous post.  But now we’ve added something else: This handy chart for easy comparison:

Monday, September 10, 2018

More evidence of racial bias in child welfare – and an ingenious new way to curb it

When writing about the racial bias that permeates child welfare, I often mention a study in which caseworkers were given hypothetical cases. Everything was identical except the race of the family.  The result: Children were assessed as being at greater risk when the family was identified as African-American.

That suggests one obvious way to curb racial bias.  Or maybe not so obvious.  Because it didn’t even occur to me until I saw this video, a TED Talk by Prof. Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child welfare at Florida State University:

She discusses an approach that stands the hypothetical on its head, and applies it to real cases: If caseworkers are biased when they know the race of the family, what would happen if they didn’t know?

The county-run child welfare system in Nassau County, on Long Island, New York, decided to try to find out.  As one top administrator told Prof. Pryce:

Child welfare is very subjective, because it's an emotional field. There's no one who doesn't have emotions around this work. And it's very hard to leave all of your stuff at the door when you do this work. So let's take the subjectivity of race and neighborhood out of it, and you might get different outcomes.

And another worker in the agency acknowledged that
 Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community. And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, “Oh my God.” So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.

So Maria Lauria, Diretor of Children's Services in Nassau County came up with a practice known as Blind Removal Meetings.  It works like this: When caseworkers want to remove a child from the home, they first must go before a committee. 

But, as Prof. Pryce explains:

When they present to the committee, they delete names, ethnicity, neighborhood, race, all identifiable information. They focus on what happened, family strength, relevant history and the parents' ability to protect the child. With that information, the committee makes a recommendation, never knowing the race of the family.

Now, of course, there is an entire group within child welfare that insists that there is no racial bias in child welfare.  If that’s true, then, of course, Blind Removal Meetings should have no effect on removal decisions at all.  On the other hand, if there is racial bias then Blind Removal Meetings should lead to fewer removals of Black children.

Prof. Pryce has the results:

In 2011, 57 percent of the kids going into foster care were black. But after five years of blind removals, that is down to 21 percent.

So add Blind Removal Meetings to the huge pile of evidence that yes, there is a serious and real problem of racial bias in child welfare.

Limits of Blind Removal Meetings

There are some limits to this approach.

● In many big cities, almost every child removed is nonwhite, so, presumably, there’s no way reviewers won’t know that much about the family.

● The CPS agency has to be willing to get serious about workers not declaring cases to be phony “emergencies” and needlessly removing children on the spot – before anyone has a chance to review them at all.  In New York City, for example, that probably happens in nearly half of cases, and maybe more.

● Blind Removal Meetings curb bias at one stage of the process – the decision to remove a child from the home. They can’t curb bias in who gets called in to child abuse “hotlines” in the first place.

● Blind Removal Meetings can curb racial bias, but not class bias.  In the case example Prof. Pryce uses at the start of her talk, we don’t know the race of the family, but we know the family is poor.

But in places such as Nassau County, Blind Removal Meetings are one way to curb the needless removal of African-American children.  And there are plenty of places across the country like Nassau County.

Unfortunately, Prof. Pryce leaves one question unanswered: Who was it in Nassau County who first thought up this idea that now seems so obvious – but obviously wasn’t?  Someone really ought to thank her or him.  UPDATE: Prof. Pryce got in touch with me to let me know that, as is now noted above the idea originated with Maria Lauria, the county director of children's services. So, thank you Ms. Lauria.