Thursday, July 25, 2024

Standard operating cruelty: When the family police steal more than Social Security checks

Photo by Alan Levine

When children are taken from their parents forever and those children are adopted by strangers, the parents often want to leave their children something to remember them by, perhaps a cherished keepsake or a family photo from happier times.  So they give these personal effects to the family police agency to pass on to the children.

But in Minnesota, they don’t pass them on.


 “If I would have had something from my mom ... just to know that my mom loved me, you know, or thought enough to send something with me to fight in this world. It would have made a huge difference.”

 -- Ann Haines Holy Eagle on what the Minnesota family police stole from her

 By now we’re all familiar with one odious practice of most family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies): They steal the Social Security benefits to which some foster children are entitled and keep the money for themselves.  Thanks to some excellent reporting from NPR and The Marshall Project some states and localities have been embarrassed into ending the theft.

But in at least one state, Minnesota, there’s another kind of theft from some foster youth that’s even worse and has gotten almost no attention:

They steal memories.

They steal hope.

They steal love.

It’s not calculated cruelty – it’s worse: It’s standard operating cruelty.  It’s been done for decades, probably without a moment’s thought.  This practice is one more illustration of something NCCPR’s President Prof. Martin Guggenheim said decades ago: “There’s a lot of hate masquerading as love in this system.” 

Because this practice gives away the extent to which, deep down, whether or not they even admit it to themselves, so many family police hate the overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families from whom they take children. It even makes me wonder if they consider the overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children to be fully human. 

The practice was discovered by accident by members of the group that is, proportionately, most affected: Native Americans – since in Minnesota Native children are torn from their families at fourteen times their rate in the general population. 

As this Minnesota Public Radio story explains it involves nothing more than keepsakes and photographs. 

When children have their right to ever live with their own parents taken from them (a more accurate way of looking at it than “termination of parental rights”) and those children are adopted by strangers, the parents often want to at least leave their children with something to remember them by; almost always the items are family photos or documents.  So they give these personal effects to the family police agency to pass on to the children. 

But in Minnesota, they don’t pass them on. 

Instead, in Minnesota, the keepsakes are just shoved into the children’s case files.  The children don’t get to see them until they’re adults – and then, only if they happen to know about them.  Because even then, the family police make no effort to notify them that these keepsakes exist.  (The MPR story implies that might be changing, but it’s unclear.) 

One adult adoptee, Ann Haines Holy Eagle, said: 

“If I would have had something from my mom ... just to know that my mom loved me, you know, or thought enough to send something with me to fight in this world. It would have made a huge difference.” 

But once you acknowledge that the parents whose children you’ve taken forever love those children and the children love them, it undermines the entire white, middle-class adult-centered false vision of “permanence” that has poisoned the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. 

In that vision, children are supposed to feel about their birth parents the way so many family police feel about them: that they are at worst evil and at best sick! Sick! Sick! So why would their children want to know them, remember them, or have anything to do with them? 

And letting children remember their birth parents and acknowledging the love between them may make things uncomfortable for the people for whom the system is designed: Overwhelmingly middle-class disproportionately white foster and adoptive parents.  As the Minnesota Public Radio story explained: 

Haines Holy Eagle says she believes it’s possible that [the Minnesota Department of Human Services] has held onto these personal effects because they prioritized the wishes of adoptive parents over those of adoptees.  “You want it to be respectful of the adoptive parents, you didn’t want to disrespect them because you want them to feel like this is my new start. This is my new family,” said Haines Holy Eagle. 

Exactly.  Like something out of Orwell’s 1984, children are expected to erase their parents from their memories.  They don’t exist.  They never existed.  And nothing is more important than the feelings of the people all those middle-class professionals find it easiest to identify with: middle-class adoptive parents. 

All this explains how the family policing establishment perverted one of the most noble concepts in “child welfare” – permanence.  In the name of giving children a permanent home, the system prioritizes paper permanence – a formal decree certifying adoption by strangers.  That’s permanence of, by, and for, the white middle class circa 1955. 

This paper permanence doesn’t just mean cutting off parents from their children’s lives.  Sometimes it means cutting off siblings.  Often it means cutting off grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, coaches and mentors. 

But as Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan School of Law explains, what children need is relational permanence. Children need to be able to stay connected to everyone who loves them, whether they can care for them or not.  Why in the world would you want to deprive any child of as many loving connections as possible?  Unless the system that constantly postures about “children’s rights” and “the best interest of the child” isn’t really about either. 

One more advantage to relational permanence: It’s likely to be more permanent. Depend entirely for permanence on one stranger, or perhaps a stranger couple, and what happens when that cute little tyke becomes a rebellious teen and the strangers give up on her or him?  We don’t know how often this happens, because family policing systems almost never ask questions to which they don’t want to know the answers, but the data we do have are concerning.  In contrast, weave a web of relational permanence and the odds are far better that someone will always be there for that child. 

And what does it tell us when people in a system believe that children can do just fine pretending their parents never existed and having nothing about them to hold onto?  I think it suggests a system that dehumanizes not only impoverished, disproportionately nonwhite parents, but their children as well.  I think it suggests that, at least subconsciously, a lot of people in the system don’t see these children as quite as fully human as white middle-class children, so they don’t need love as much. 

Consider the comments of Penn State Prof. Sarah Font, who actually has suggested that “aging out” of foster care with no home at all is better for older foster youth than reunification or guardianship with a relative – because while family might offer love, aging out offers money. 

Or as Font put it: 

Although permanency is important for older youth as well, the implications are less clear given that reunification or guardianship or living with relatives (adoption is exceedingly rare for older youth) may deprive older youth of additional resources that are conditional on aging out. 

Notice also the one exception: In Font’s view, the only thing clearly better for older foster youth than aging out with no family at all is adoption.  What’s the difference between adoption and those other options?  Simple. Adoptive homes tend to be richer – and whiter. 

This attitude, and the notion that all those nonwhite children can do just fine without so much as a memento of their own families, suggesting that somehow love means less to them, reminds me of nothing so much as a notorious comment by Gen. William Westmoreland about Asians during the Vietnam War:  “'The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner,” Westmoreland said. “Life is cheap in the Orient."

So, Minnesota family police, you’ve shown us who you really are.  But what about the other 49 states?  What are their policies?  Do they have policies – or is it up to an individual office or an individual caseworker?

So far, we don’t know.  It’s reasonable to assume that not every place is like Minnesota.  All over the
country, there are adoptive parents who accept not only mementos for their adopted children but open adoptions. They work hard to keep children in touch with their birth parents.  There are foster parents who fight to reunite their foster children with their own families, sometimes over the objection of the family police agency.  And I’ll bet there are caseworkers who make damn sure that a treasured keepsake or photo makes it into the hands of a newly-adopted child.

But nearly 50 years of following these issues leads me to believe the Minnesota approach is more the rule than the exception.

So here’s what the policy should be:

When a parent gives a caseworker a keepsake to give to a child they may never see again: First, make several high-quality copies.  Then, take the original and Give. It. To. The Child.

When the child is too young, wait until the child is old enough and then: Give. It. To. The Child.

Why multiple copies?  Because children are often moved from home to home with nothing but a garbage bag to hold their belongings, so it’s easy for things to get lost.  And some children are institutionalized in places with staff that are abusive enough to destroy a cherished keepsake out of spite.

But this should be only the beginning.  

Systems that really gave a damn about these children wouldn’t take them needlessly in the first place.  And in the rare cases where separation is necessary and a child can’t live with her or his own parents, systems would emphasize relational permanence instead of rushing to terminate parental rights.

Shrounda Selivanoff, social service manager at the Washington State Office of Public Defense Parent Representation Program and Tara Urs special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense put it best in the new issue of Family Justice Journal:

A parent who is unable to regain custody of their child within the timeframes of the dependency system will still have irreplaceable stories, traditions, memories, and love to give their child. A child has a right to those stories, memories, traditions, and love. 

It is their birthright.

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 24, 2024

● A case in Upstate New York illustrates the horrifying double standards of family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) when it comes to abuse in foster care.  It’s a tragic illustration of why independent studies find vastly more such abuse than reported in official figures. 

News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley reports that in this case, children were taken because of the mother’s health and living conditions – which sure sounds like poverty confused with neglect.  Relatives were turned down in favor of a stranger.  One dedicated caseworker saw that the foster stranger was allegedly abusing the children and reported it repeatedly.  So, she says, the family police agency fired her.  I could tell you how this story ends, but you probably already know.  And see also this story from the Mid Hudson News.

● Bad as the rate of abuse is in family foster homes, it’s even worse in group homes and institutions. This week’s expose, as reported by the Associated Press, concerns shelters run by a nonprofit – repeat: nonprofit – housing unaccompanied migrant children.  But by now it should be clear: Whenever you institutionalize any population of children who have no families able to fight for them This. Will. Happen. 

● And that is true all over the world.  The Associated Press also has an in-depth story on a bombshell report from a Royal Commission inquiry in New Zealand.  According to the story: 

Of 650,000 children and vulnerable adults in state, foster, and church care between 1950 and 2019 — in a country that today has a population of just 5 million — nearly a third endured physical, sexual, verbal or psychological abuse. Many more were exploited or neglected, the report said. The figures were likely higher, though precise numbers would never be known because complaints were disregarded and records were lost or destroyed. ...

Children were removed arbitrarily and unfairly from their families, the report said, and the majority of New Zealand’s criminal gang members and prisoners are believed to have spent time in care. 

As in Australia and Canada, Indigenous children were targeted for placement in harsher facilities and subject to worse abuse. The majority of children in care were Māori, despite the group comprising less than 20% of New Zealand’s population during the period examined.

 And if you think America is different – well that’s what they thought in New Zealand, too:

“New Zealanders just don’t think this thing would happen, that abuse on this scale would ever happen in New Zealand,” the prime minister said. “We always thought that we were exceptional and different, and the reality is we’re not.”

● Ever notice how often the same so-called “child abuse pediatricians” come up in case after case where they allegedly got the diagnosis wrong?  It’s happened again.  Last week, I linked to this New York Times Magazine story in which even the district attorney’s office that won the conviction now believes child abuse pediatrician Suzanne Starling got it wrong.  Now, Dr. Sarling is back, in this story from WXIA-TV in Atlanta.  WXIA also has a story about first steps other states are taking to try to balance the scales of justice in these cases. 

● The good news: The Frontier reports that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that it is not illegal for women who have been legally prescribed medical marijuana to smoke it while pregnant.  The bad news: The judges urged the legislature to amend the law to make it illegal.  

● We all know, by now, about the odious practice of family police agencies swiping money that rightfully belongs to foster youth.  But what about when adoptive parents do it?  The Imprint reports on New York legislation that could curb that practice. 

● The New Hampshire Bulletin reports that the state is taking a step toward giving foster children back their own money.  But the state family police agency seems to be stalling. 

In other examples of how The Horror Stories Go in All Directions: 

The Enterprise in Patrick County, Va., reports that the family policing system in that small county is failing so horrendously that “It would be impossible for children to have not been hurt” in foster care – according to the county’s juvenile court judge. 

Fox13 Seattle reports that

The State of Washington has agreed to pay $15 million to three sisters who were sexually abused for years at a foster home in Centralia, according to attorneys representing them.  The three women allege the abuse spanned between 1990 and 2000, starting at ages four, five, and six, and lasted until they were teenagers. Two teenage sons of the foster parents are accused of carrying out the abuse. 

● The Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind., reports that 

The Liberty Township woman charged with reckless homicide in the death of her foster son after, according to court documents, she laid on him until he stopped breathing, has been released from Porter County Jail and is scheduled for a July 31 court date. 

Jennifer Lee Wilson, 48, of the 200 block of Falcon Way, is charged in the death of Dakota Levi Stevens, 10, who was placed with her as a foster child on April 5. … Wilson weighed 340 pounds and Dakota weighed 91 pounds, according to charging documents. … 

● And WTVF-TV Nashville reports that 

Law enforcement officials are investigating why a group of teenagers have repeatedly run away from the same foster home on Haskins Chapel Road in Bedford County.  During the past two years, at least four Hispanic teenage girls have disappeared from this location.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 16, 2024

● Last week I wrote about the self-proclaimed “child welfare scholar” who insists that the horrors inflicted on children by “residential treatment facilities” have nothing to do with the foster care system.  This week, PBS News Weekend spoke to some former foster youth who beg to differ. 

● It’s official: Minnesota has a law that will phase in enhanced protections for children facing family police investigations and the risk that they will be placed in foster care.  Though some Native Americans have expressed concerns that such laws could dilute the impact of the Indian Child Welfare Act, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Nation, doesn’t see it that way. 

As The Imprint reports

“Other states should follow our lead,” Flanagan said. “As a Native woman, this bill hit home. So I’m incredibly grateful for all of the folks behind me who helped us get here today.”
● Of course, if the federal government and the states were serious about, at long last, compensating Native Americans for what family policing has done to them – and continues to do to them – they could follow Canada’s example

● Amid concern over child abuse fatalities in Tennessee, I have a column in Tennessee Lookout about the best way to curb such fatalities.  (It’s what you think.) 

● Two cases involving the dubious diagnosis of “shaken baby syndrome” are in the news this week. In one case, The New York Times Magazine says: “Flawed science helped convict Russell Maze more than 20 years ago. The D.A.’s office now says it got it wrong. Why is he still behind bars?”  In the other, despite strong evidence that the shaken baby diagnosis was wrong, the father is not only in jail, a date has been set for his execution.  That case is in Texas – but you probably guessed that. 

In this week’s edition of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions: 

NewsNation reports that 

A northwest Indiana woman accused in the death of her 10-year-old foster child has been taken into custody in Michigan following a days-long search. … [Jennifer] Wilson has been charged with reckless homicide in connection with the death of 10-year-old Dakota Levi Stevens in late April.

Monday, July 15, 2024

NCCPR in Tennessee Lookout: The best way to reduce child abuse fatalities is to reduce poverty

The only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities is zero.  But how do we come closest to achieving that goal? 

Some have suggested that because child abuse deaths may have increased by 30% in 2023, Tennessee is doing too much to keep families together so we should tear apart even more families.  That would only make everything worse. 

For starters, there is no evidence for the claim that Tennessee is bending over backwards to keep families together. On the contrary, even when rates of child poverty are factored in, Tennessee takes children from their families at a rate nearly 50% above the national average. ...

Read the full commentary in Tennessee Lookout

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 9, 2024

This week we begin with two new resources: 

● The National Center for Youth Law has published a superb guide for families so they’ll know their rights when they have to face the state family police agency.  It’s a great model for advocates in other states as well. 

● While others try to exploit child abuse deaths, NCCPR works to help people understand them – and find real solutions.  Check out our new Issue Paper on this topic. 

● Among those most adept at exploiting such tragedies is right-wing extremist Naomi Schaefer Riley.  At the online news site WitnessLA, I respond to her latest attempt. 

● I also have a commentary in The Imprint on the biggest failing in that U.S. Senate committee report on the horrors of “residential treatment.”  What’s the failing? Here’s a hint: the commentary is called “Don’t Forget: Nonprofit Residential Treatment Also Stinks 

● The report was followed by a hearing that included testimony from Paris Hilton.  That was more than one self-proclaimed “child welfare scholar” could handle.  I have a blog post about it. 

In this week’s edition of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions: 

● Some of the strongest backers of tearing apart even more families point to West Virginia as a model – because that state has what they see as an exemplary record of rushing to terminate children’s rights to their parents and dump them into adoptive homes.  NBC News has a story about how that worked out in one recent case. 

KRQE-TV in Albuquerque reports: 

A civil lawsuit against the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department involving a developmentally and intellectually delayed teen girl getting raped by her foster parents has been settled. The lawsuit claimed they put the girl with a known sexual predator. 

Clarence Garcia pled guilty to seven sexual abuse charges as part of a plea deal in January 2023. One of his victims included a vulnerable teen girl. “Beginning when she was 14 J.H., an intellectually and mentally delayed young woman, was continuously raped by Clarence Garcia for 16 months while in his supposed care,” said the victim’s attorney Kate Ferlic.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Who’s afraid of Paris Hilton?


It turns out, Paris Hilton knows more about "residential
treatment facilities" than at least one self-proclaimed
"child welfare scholar." (Photto by Peter Schäfermeier,
via Wikimedia Commons)

In a previous post, I noted the increasing desperation of Richard Barth.  The former Dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and self-proclaimed “child welfare scholar” seeks to run from the fact that the system he’s done so much to build and maintain – the family policing system – has failed. 

Among other things, I discussed in that post how he couldn’t cope with the rigorous scholarship of Prof. Kelley Fong, author of the landmark study Investigating Families. 

But now it turns out, Barth also can’t cope with Paris Hilton. 

Late last month, Hilton testified at a Congressional hearing. The topics included the horrors inflicted on thousands of young people, herself included, by “residential treatment facilities” (RTFs).  The hearing followed the release of a scathing report from a United States Senate committee on those horrors and the entire residential treatment industry.  

So how did Barth respond?  By pretending that this industry has nothing to do with his sacred, beloved “child welfare” system.  It’s not a matter of ill-motivation. Barth has always genuinely wanted to help vulnerable children.  This issue is his failure to face the reality that his approach has backfired. 

So in a post on his increasingly shrill feed on the site formerly known as Twitter, he tells us that Hilton: 

has very reasonable grievances but, just to be clear, she was not in the "child welfare system".  Her treatment was privately arranged by her family.  

In another tweet, he tells us: 

@ParisHilton story is about private residential treatment--another, distinct, service ‘system.’" 

And then he throws in a story about saintly foster parents in order to distract us from what the system – and it is one system – is really like. 

So, time for a fact check. 

For starters, to characterize what Hilton and so many others have been forced to endure in these hellholes as merely “very reasonable grievances” is a disturbing understatement.  

But more to the point: Residential treatment facilities collect their victims from two sources.  Yes, sometimes desperate parents are fooled into sending their children there voluntarily.  But a large source of victims – and revenue – for these places is foster children. They’re dumped into institutions by family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) when they run out of foster homes because they take so many children needlessly. 

Professor Barth may not understand this.  But Paris Hilton does.  As she testified: 

“For children who do end up in foster care, we cannot allow them to grow up in cold facilities that act like kid prisons.” 

Another speaker at the same hearing, not a celebrity but a former foster youth, Tori Hope Petersen, made the same point. 

But if that’s not enough for Barth, the Senate committee report itself singled out the warehousing of foster youth in such places as a particular problem.  According to the report: 

[A] significant portion of foster children placed at RTFs have no demonstrated behavioral health needs, so family court judges should be dissuaded from placing children in RTFs … 

The report goes on to note that at least two states are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, in one case by placing disabled foster children in substandard facilities, in the other by dumping them in RTFs when they didn’t need to be placed in such places at all. 

Citing an excellent report from the group Think of Us, the Senate report notes that “a child described being mocked by a staff member who said, “[t]hat’s why your mom didn’t want to keep you. That’s why you’re in foster care.” 

And it’s those family police agencies, so beloved by Barth, who are responsible for investigating abuses in these horrible institutions – and repeatedly turning a blind eye. 

Pretty much everyone knows it's all part of one “child welfare” system – except apparently Richard Barth, who’s made this same claim before.  As we noted in that previous post:

For some reason, the federal database known as the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System has a whole category for “institutions” Similarly, this excellent database from ChildTrends includes “Group Home or Institution” under “Placement settings and stability for children in foster care.” [Emphasis added.]  

And apparently [if Barth is right] the entire federal government got its regulations wrong, too.  Because federal regulations define foster care as 

“24-hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility.”  

Barth also seems to think it’s significant that RTFs are mostly privately run; as if this somehow makes them separate from his precious foster care system.  But most group home and institutional care has always been privately run – with all of us taxpayers providing most of the money.  In many states family foster care also is overseen by private agencies. 

And no, it doesn’t matter that a lot of the RTFs are run by for-profit corporations – nonprofits also have a hideous track record. 

So no, Prof. Barth.  Residential treatment is not some separate system that appeared out of nowhere and has nothing to do with foster care.  It’s an integral part of the “child welfare” system you helped to build and you continue to defend.