Sunday, August 12, 2018

For the record: No, Los Angeles County does NOT have the nation’s largest child welfare system

No matter how many times the Fox News of Child Welfare says it does, it’s still not true.

I have previously noted the serious potential for harm caused by the slanted “journalism” practiced by the so-called Chronicle of Social Change – the Fox News of child welfare. Things like promoting a column using a vile racial stereotype to attack an impoverished birth mother, or the Chronicle’s cozying up to the group home industry. 

But there’s something else worth noting: A bizarre, if relatively harmless, obsession on the part of its publisher - and self-proclaimed "child welfare expert" -- Daniel Heimpel:  His demonstrably erroneous claim, repeated over and over, that Los Angeles County has the largest child welfare system in America.

It does not.

Even using Heimpel’s measure of choice, it does not. 

I have no idea why it matters so much to him. Sure, he lives in Los Angeles, but it’s not as if having a super-sized child welfare system is anything to be proud of. Yet Heimpel’s fervor about this runs so deep that less than a month after Chronicle’s editor John Kelly corrected the error, Heimpel repeated it, and seemed to double down on it. It’s been repeated in story after story ever since.  It’s reached the point where people in Los Angeles County child welfare are starting to believe it.

Does it really matter? Not nearly as much as the Chronicle’s other failings.  But if they can’t – or won’t – get something so basic correct, why should they be trusted on larger policy issues?

It’s big – but not biggest

The Los Angeles County child welfare system is very, very big. That makes sense given that Los Angeles County is very, very big. It’s likely that Los Angeles has the largest child welfare system run by a county or other unit of local government.  But in most of America, states, not individual counties, run child welfare. And it’s easy to forget that there are states that have many more children than Los Angeles County – so many more that it’s unlikely on its face that Los Angeles County would have a larger child welfare system.

TABLE #1: Sources are listed at the end of this post

So if you simply measure the system by the number of children it has the potential to be involved with, Florida and Texas (as well as Georgia and Illinois, by the way) all are bigger. (Other states with larger child populations are like California – individual counties run child welfare.)

Another approach is to use only measures that detail how often the child welfare agency actually intervenes in a family’s life.

This table offers several possible measures, including Heimpel’s choice, discussed below. Los Angeles comes out third in all of them:

TABLE #2: Definitions and sources are listed at the end of this post.

● Number of children who were subjected to child abuse investigations? Los Angeles is third,  behind Texas and Florida.

● Number of children in foster care? Los Angeles is third again, behind Texas and Florida.

But Heimpel offers an answer for this one, writing:

Los Angeles’ child welfare agency is the largest in the nation, serving more than 34,000 children, almost 21,000 of whom are placed in out-of-home foster care.

In other words, he simply combines the number of children in foster care and the number receiving “services” in their own homes.

There’s just one problem: Florida and Texas also provide in-home “services.”  And yes, they report doing it for a larger number of children than Los Angeles.

So in category after category after category – including Heimpel’s category of choice -- Los Angeles County, California is not the largest child welfare system in America.

Complicating things further: There is plenty of room for fudging some of these figures. For example, Texas coerces large numbers of children into kinship foster care placements without taking the family to court - and doesn’t count them in its statistics on the number of children in foster care.

And, of course, these figures say nothing about the rate at which these jurisdictions place children in foster care. One reason the Los Angeles system is so large is the simple fact that it takes away too many children.

The UN-correction

The Chronicle’s error actually used to be even bigger. A year ago, the Chronicle published this story which, in its original form, called the Los Angeles system the biggest in the whole world!  So I sent an email to Chronicle Editor John Kelly pointing out the problem. I’ve excerpted it here:

From: Richard Wexler 
Date: Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 5:10 PM
Subject: Errors in the Charity Chandler-Cole story
To: John Kelly

I know it’s difficult for Heimpel & Co. to grasp that Los Angeles is not the center of the universe, but there is one blatant factual error in this story, 

Los Angeles County does not have the largest child welfare system in the world, or even in the United States.  The state-run systems in Texas and Florida both are larger, whether measured by the number of children living in those states or the number of children trapped in foster care in those states.  If you measure only by child population, Illinois and Georgia also are larger. …

Kelly corrected the text of the story and, after I sent a second email, he corrected the headline.

But while the Chronicle has never again called the L.A. system the largest in the world, in story after story the Fox News of Child Welfare has insisted it’s the largest in the United States.  The story citing the combined in-home and foster care numbers – published only a month after the Chronicle corrected the earlier story - seemed to be Heimpel’s way of doubling down.

That only made him doubly wrong.

It may not be true that everything’s bigger in Texas, but the child welfare system is.

Table #1: Sources:
Texas and Florida: Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, 2016: (Impoverished child data average the figures for 2014, 2015 and 2016); Los Angeles: Bureau of the Census, Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 2016:

Table #2 Definitions and sources:
 CPS investigations are for the most recent 12 month period for which data are available; the other categories are snapshots of the number of children receiving services on the indicated date. 

Definition of in-home services: Texas: Children receiving Family Preservation Services, August 31, 2017; Florida: Children receiving in-home services and family support services, April 30, 2018; Los Angeles: Defined as “In-home Services” mostly “Family Maintenance Services,” August 31, 2017  Dates are the same for number of children in foster care.

Florida: Florida Department of Children and Families, Out of Home care and In-home services, DCF dashboard: Children in CPS investigations: Office Of Child Welfare, 2017 Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Year 2016-2017; Texas: Department of Family and Protective Services, DFPS Data Book:; Los Angeles County: Department of Children and Family Services, Out of Home care and In-home services: Child Welfare Services Data Monthly Fact Sheet, August – 2017 CPS investigations: California Child Welfare Indicators Project   

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The story New Hampshire CASA really, really REALLY doesn’t want you to read

I’m going to provide a link to a story about a horrific case of abuse in foster care in New Hampshire and a lawsuit filed in connection with that case. But as you consider whether or not to click on it, please remember: The New Hampshire Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program would rather you didn’t.

In fact, it’s important to them that you not read the story. Really important to them. So important to them that they actually went to court to try to prevent the New Hampshire Union Leader (known as the New Hampshire Sunday News on Sunday) from publishing the story – even though CASA had been dismissed from the lawsuit in question.

So if you want to make CASA feel better, whatever you do DON’T CLICK THIS LINK.

And you probably also shouldn’t read the next two paragraphs, from another Union-Leader story that summarize the case.

The New Hampshire Sunday News story details how DCYF and the Spaulding Center ignored red flags and rushed through the licensing of a Northfield foster home when they were faced with an emergency placement.
Six months later, the toddler suffered traumatic brain injury; today he struggles with medical and developmental issues. The foster mother, Noreen Stohrer, eventually pleaded guilty to child endangerment. She had a troubled history, including the death of a foster child under her care in New York state, the reports said.

My guess is they also might prefer it if you don’t read my op-ed column for the Union Leader on learning the right lessons from the tragedy.

The reason it was even possible to ask a judge to suppress the story is because it was based on material that was placed in a public court file by accident.  But the judge agreed that since the newspaper did nothing illegal, it had a First Amendment right to publish the story.

New Hampshire CASA was not the only organization to go to court to try to suppress the story.  So did the state Division of Children Youth and Families and the Spaulding Center, the private foster care agency involved in the case. 

But CASA’s position is particularly odd.  After all, unlike the other parties, as noted above, CASA actually had been dismissed form the suit (though the lawyer suing these agencies says he may try to change that).  And CASA programs always insist that they are the only ones who have absolutely no interest other than what’s best for children.  So surely they’d want the public to know about what this child had endured and what might be learned from it – wouldn’t they?

Why, then, did CASA want the story suppressed? According to the Union Leader, CASA was willing to see the public left in the dark because “CASA lawyer Dan Deane said he didn’t want CASA to suffer from the publicity and guilt by association.” 

That attitude may come as a surprise to those whose only knowledge of CASA comes from the gushy news stories about the program that appear all over the country.  But it is less surprising considering the actual track record of the National CASA Association and some CASA chapters across the country.

● There’s the study, commissioned by National CASA itself, that found the program prolongs foster care and reduces the likelihood that children will be placed with strangers instead of relatives – with no evidence that it improves child safety.

● There’s the second study, done by a CASA, that also found CASA didn’t work.

● There’s the scandal surrounding the CASA program in Snohomish County Washington where a judge found “pervasive and egregious misconduct.”

● There’s the matter of the former CASA for that same program whose diatribe about the overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite parents the program sees would make Donald Trump blush.

● There’s the CASA program in Kansas that held a fundraiser that featured a blackface act.

● There’s the CASA program in California that fell apart over a simple request that volunteers be more diverse.

● There’s the law review article which argues that CASA is “an exercise of white supremacy.”

As for the current case, according to the story that CASA doesn’t want you to read, the mother’s lawyer, Peter Hutchins, says:

state procedures allow him to appeal the decision to drop CASA once the underlying case is resolved. “I’m not letting CASA off the hook on this,” he said. “I’m committed to appealing it. They’re a corporate entity.”

So eventually, there may be more stories from New Hampshire that CASA doesn’t want you to read. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: After anonymous child abuse reporting Is “weaponized” to attack family of #BlackLivesMatter activist, congressional candidate asks “What’s going on?” Here’s the answer.

When she first learned that journalist and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King and his family were being harassed by a troll who had called in a false report of child abuse, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was outraged. She is the activist and champion of the poor and working class who was catapulted to national prominence when she won an upset victory in a Democratic congressional primary in New York City.
But even with all her experience as a progressive organizer and activist, she was shocked by how child protective services agencies work.
“This is wrong,” she tweeted. “Shaun is an activist that has been targeted in the past. Anonymous claims should be thoroughly vetted before exposing his children + family to a potentially damaging experience.”
And then she added a question: “What’s going on here?”
What’s going on here? Business as usual, that’s what’s going on here. The only part that’s unusual is that this is one of those rare occasions when child protective services targeted a family with the resources to fight back (not to mention more than one million followers on Twitter).

Friday, August 3, 2018

Elizabeth Vorenberg, 1931 - 2018

            A few months after my book, Wounded Innocents, was published in 1990, I received a handwritten letter from Betty Vorenberg.  I’d known Betty when I was a reporter in Massachusetts in 1980 and ’81 and she was Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. 

            In her letter, Betty asked if I had any interest in trying to form an organization around the principles in my book.  I said yes.  Betty did the rest.

            So all of us were deeply saddened to learn of her death at the age of 87.

            As NCCPR President Martin Guggenheim said:

There wouldn’t have been NCCPR without Betty. She organized the first gathering of about six people in her home in Cambridge in 1990 and helped us talk through the importance of trying to influence the public through the media. We’ve been trying ever since.

            After that initial meeting in her home came a larger, formal conference at Harvard Law School.  Then she used her contacts and her reputation as one of the nation’s foremost child advocates to do the seemingly impossible: persuade a foundation interested in civil liberties to take an interest in child welfare, and a foundation interested in child welfare to take an interest in civil liberties.

            Betty was NCCPR’s first president and always our guiding spirit.  As Prof. Guggenheim said:

Betty was a genuine champion of our cause. We will miss her dearly. She believed in NCCPR with all her heart.

            NCCPR is only a small part of Betty Vorenberg’s legacy. She served as an Assistant Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare during the Dukakis administration.  She was a member of the National Board of the ACLU, and President of the ACLU of Massachusetts.  You can read more about her here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

UPDATE, AUG 2, 2018: ACS: We DO disclose total number of removals; but we don’t say how often judges overrule us at the first hearing.

Previously, we reported that New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, omits from its “Flash Monthly Indicator”  reports to the press and the public an entire category of children taken from their parents. ACS now says those removals ARE included in grand totals, but not broken out so the public can see how often these types of removals occur.

The category involves those cases where the child is removed with no prior approval by a judge.  Then, at the first court hearing, either ACS decides the removal was unnecessary or a judge refuses to approve it.

So the child endured the trauma of foster care needlessly.

When we queried ACS about this, their initial reply, included in full here, left us with the impression that these removals were not included anywhere in its public reports.  Indeed, the ACS response specifically states "As you noted, the FLASH report does not include cases where a remand was not approved at the first hearing, or a decision was postponed to a later hearing." Emphasis in original.  Since the total number of entries in other documents is almost exactly the same as the total in the FLASH reports, it appeared that this category of removal was not included in those reports either.

In response to a follow-up query, ACS now says that impression was wrong. ACS now says that the statement about these removals not being in the FLASH report applied only to one part of the FLASH report.  ACS now says the total number of entries into care are reported elsewhere in the Flash Monthly Indicators report and in the Mayor’s Management Report do include cases in which the child was returned home at or before the first court hearing.

But what we still don’t know is how often ACS resorts to the most drastic form of removal – taking a child on-the-spot – only to have a court say the agency was wrong.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Trump Administration’s excuse for failure to reunite families torn apart at the border: We’re just erring on the side of the child!

In previous posts, such as this one, I’ve discussed how the Trump Administration’s excuses for tearing apart families use the same kinds of fear tactics as those used by child protective services agencies.  Trump would cite extremely rare horror stories about people killed by illegal immigrants in the same way advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to American child welfare cite extremely rare horror stories of children killed by their parents.

But, I noted, the Trump Administration still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it.  As I wrote at the time:

If you really want people to support tearing apart families you have to be sure to call it “erring on the side of safety.”

Well, the Trump Administration is unspeakably cruel, but never let it be said they’re not quick studies.

On Wednesday, I was a guest on Margaret Prescod’s Pacifica Radio program Sojourner Truth.  She played a clip from an interview I’d overlooked when it first aired on July 10. It’s  this clip from a CNN interview with Department of Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar

The interview concerns why the federal government has been so slow to reunite the families, as it’s been ordered to do by a federal court.  In the clip, Azar shows he’s mastered child welfare establishment rhetoric almost word-for-word.  Says Azar:

We could put children back with individuals who are murderers, kidnappers, rapists or not their parents. But we've worked with the court to ensure that we do our duty, which is to protect child welfare and ensure that they are, in fact, that. … I don't think a kidnapper, or a child abuser, or a child trafficker ought to be able to take a kid out of country or be reunited in ICE facilities. … And if we hadn't done this work these children would have been reunited in exceedingly dangerous situations.

See? They’re just erring on the side of the child!  They’re putting child safety ahead of family reunification!  Who could be against that?

And then came the part that could have been lifted straight out of a press release from almost any child protective services agency in America:

I'm proud of the work that we do. I believe we are saving kids' lives here, by the work we are doing before.

So you see, if you don’t want families separated needlessly, and if you insist that such families should be reunified, clearly you don’t care if children die.

The only difference is this: When the topic is the children separated at the border, we know it’s BS.  The day America realizes that it’s also BS when U.S. child protective services agencies say the same thing is the day U.S. child welfare really starts to change.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Want to hide a foster-care panic? It’s easy! Just file lots and lots of court petitions!

In every way, at every point in the process, a foster-care panic hurts children. And so far, nearly a year-and-a-half after getting the job, New York City Administration for Children's Services Commissioner David Hansell has done nothing about it.

Buried on page 4 of a report from New York City’s Independent Budget Office is an alarming statistic: During City Fiscal Year 2017, the number of children thrown into foster care at one stage of the process soared 30 percent over the previous year.  And in CFY 2018, which ended June 30, removals stayed at nearly that same, much higher, level.

This jibes with what a report from the Center of New York City Affairs found. Their recent report, discussed in this previous post to this Blog, covered a slightly different time frame, but found almost exactly the same rate of increase for so-called “emergency” removals – in which the city’s Administration for Children’s Services takes the child on-the-spot and then goes to court to try to get a judge’s approval after-the-fact.

While depressing, the figure is not surprising. It’s a classic foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in removals of children from their homes following the death of a child “known to the system” that gets enormous media attention. 

The ACS Excuse-of-the-Month club

But apparently, ACS has a new excuse to try to pretend this foster-care panic doesn’t exist, and, it seems, the budget office bought it.

As you may recall, Excuse #1 was that removals hadn’t increased at all.  That wasn’t true.  Then cane Excuse #2: Well, o.k., we admit the number of children torn from their families increased but only at the same rate as the increase in child abuse investigations.  That wasn’t true either.  So now, behold Excuse #3: Supposedly, there is no foster-care panic because the proportion of petitions dragging families into court that result in foster care has declined a little.

That, of course, is not because the number of children removed as declined. Rather it’s because the number of petitions, many of them unnecessary, has skyrocketed at a rate even faster than removals.

Why has that happened? Not because there actually are vastly more cases that need to be dragged into the court.  An ACS caseworker explained the real reason to the Center for New York City Affairs:

“At this point everybody’s so afraid, they’d rather cover their ass.  Take the case to court and let the judge say no. Then we can document we tried. Nobody wants to end up with their face in the Daily News. They don’t want to face criminal charges.”

So the fact that foster care is rising proportionately more slowly than petitions does not mean there’s no foster-care panic. Rather, it means that when there is a foster-care panic, that panic infects every stage of the process.

After a high-profile case makes headlines:

● Professionals who are required to report alleged child abuse panic. The law in New York says they should report when they have “reasonable cause to suspect” abuse or neglect. But now they’re terrified of being fired, suspended, demoted, pilloried on the front page - or worse.  So they are more likely to report anything and everything no matter how absurd.  So reports and investigations go up because of a foster-care panic.

● In some cases, ACS workers are terrified of those same consequences if they say a report is unfounded and then something goes wrong. So they label a greater proportion of reports as “indicated” (New York’s term for what most states call “substantiated”).  In New York, it means only that the caseworker thinks there is “some credible evidence” of abuse or neglect – even if there’s more evidence of innocence.  So the rate of substantiation increases because of a foster-care panic.

● In other cases, those same workers are terrified of those same consequences if they decide that,   So they file vastly more court petitions and drag far more families into court because of a foster care panic.
even though there’s a problem, it can be handled without dragging the family into court.

● In still other cases, those same workers are terrified of those same consequences if they decide only to drag the family into court. So they remove the child on the spot. So the number of children thrown into foster care increases because of a foster-care panic.

In short, the whole point of a foster-care panic is that it lowers the threshold for interfering in a family at every stage of the process.

And while ACS seeks to portray its approach as more benevolent – see, we’re only seeking court supervision, not foster care – that also is probably misleading. 

New York City is unusual in the extent to which high quality defense counsel is available to indigent families caught in the ACS net.  With their own support staff, they can craft alternatives to the usual “cookie cutter” service plans offered by ACS, and show judges that there are ways to keep children safe in their own homes even when ACS would prefer to remove the children.

That means both that judges are less likely to rubber-stamp ACS foster care recommendations and ACS, knowing it will face real opposition, is less likely to recommend foster care where it’s not necessary.

Past ACS administrations do deserve credit for supporting this approach to family defense, even as other places in New York State reject it.

Why did the IBO seem to buy it?

I don’t know why the Independent Budget Office seems to have bought into the latest installment from the ACS Excuse of the Month Club. But it might be because they’ve also bought into the Big Lie of American child welfare.  Repeatedly, the report claims that there is a “natural tension” between the goals of keeping children safe and keeping families together.

In other words, IBO appears to accept the false assumption that family preservation is inherently risky but if you tear apart the family you might traumatize the child terribly but at least she or he will be physically safe.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care, it’s safer than foster care.   There is a tension, alright, but there is nothing natural about it.  It is artificial, created by those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, and politicians seeking their 15 minutes of fame at children’s expense. 

In fact, the problem with foster-care panics, at every stage in the process, is that they harm children.

Children are harmed when they are victimized by traumatic investigations and stripsearches.  Children are harmed when cases are wrongly substantiated and their parents wind up barred from jobs working with children because they’re listed in a central registry of alleged child abusers with little or no way out.  Children are harmed when families are forced to jump through all sorts of meaningless hoops while under court supervision. Here’s a case in point.  Children are, of course, harmed by needless foster care.

And children are harmed when all those extra investigations, all that extra court-ordered supervision and all that needless foster care steals the time of workers from finding children in real danger who really do need to be taken from their homes.

In every way, at every point in the process, a foster-care panic hurts children. And so far, nearly a year-and-a-half after getting the job, ACS Commissioner David Hansell has done nothing about it. Instead, he's cranked up the ACS excuse machine to try to persuade us that what's right before our eyes isn't happening.