Wednesday, December 4, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 3, 2019

The latest edition of Children’s Bureau Express, a monthly publication from the Department of Health and Human Services is devoted to the need to “Stop Confusing Poverty with Neglect.”  This time, those aren’t my words. They’re the words of the head of the Children’s Bureau, Associate Commissioner Jerome Milner, and his Special Assistant David Kelly. They write:

[A]s a field, we seem quite comfortable with very small, incremental improvements and minor tweaks to the way we operate—tweaks that often benefit the operators more than those living the experience; tweaks that may not result in noticeable improvements in the way children, youth, and parents experience the system at all; and tweaks that are not likely to mitigate the need to enter the system.  We have to be honest in examining why we allow this to be so.

They conclude:

Committing to a system that takes on poverty-related neglect in humane and effective ways … requires a willingness to rally around families that are vulnerable and struggling with poverty, rather than judging them, labeling that vulnerability as neglect, and pathologizing them.

● Last week’s round-up noted some excellent reporting from the online news site Carolina Public Press about the “hidden foster care” scandal in North Carolina. I’ve taken a closer look at the scandal, and its implications for the rest of the country in this blog post.

● There were two stories last week about how the child welfare system’s attempts to punish poor women hurt their children:

A Philadelphia Inquirer story is aptly summed up by the headline: “Silenced by fear:
Women of color are less likely to get treatment for postpartum depression because they fear they’ll be judged too quickly or harshly by child welfare services. Research shows those fears may be justified.”

And, from ABC News: “Pushed into the shadows: How punishing pregnant women for opioid use leads to more birth complications.”

● The online news site VT Digger reports on a second major lawsuit filed by parents whose children were wrongly taken:  “Larry Crist, executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, said the lawsuit mirrors ‘hundreds’ of other cases he’s seen where parents in Vermont are accused of abuse and their children are taken from them without any evidence.” More such suits are likely. 

● In an op-ed colum for The Hill Prof. Shanta Trivedi writes that

Family separation among migrants has been a front-and-center campaign issue for the Democratic candidates … Many of the candidates also are tackling criminal justice reform, recognizing that the criminal system also separates millions of children from their parents. But with the exception of Julian Castro, not a single Democratic contender has a plan for the other form of family separation that also impacts hundreds of thousands of American families every day — foster care.

● With the problem of false allegations against families by “child abuse pediatricians” much in the news, WFTS-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg looks at the problem in Florida.

● In an important analysis for the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, Heron Greensmith finds the through-line that leads from Indian boarding schools to orphan trains, to Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA): How Child Welfare Serves as a Tool of White Supremacy.

● The use of child welfare systems to try to destroy the culture of indigenous peoples is not unique to the United States.  But while in the U.S. the minimal protections afforded Native Americans through the Indian Child Welfare Act are under attack, in Canada the debate revolves around how much to pay First Nations in reparations.

● And finally, on this day after #GivingTuesday a reminder: There’s still time to support the small, all-volunteer organization that brings you this summary, and much more.  How much more? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away.  Or consider going directly here to donate online.

Thank you.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Lessons from the hidden foster care scandal in North Carolina

Cherokee County, NC Courthouse

Lesson #1: It’s probably happening in your community, and it should be a scandal there, too.

There is quite a scandal in the child welfare system in Cherokee County, North Carolina.  But where to begin?  How about with the first few paragraphs of this September 11, 2019 story by Kate Martin of the nonprofit news site, Carolina Public Press:

The State Bureau of Investigation is continuing to look into possible felonies at Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services, nearly a year and a half after its investigation began.
Current and former workers of Cherokee County’s DSS office, including former director Cindy Palmer, are under investigation related to removing children from parents without judicial oversight using a document called a custody and visitation agreement or CVA. Social workers at the office did so for more than a decade, according to testimony in court last year.
Whether the agents are now looking at related issues that have come to light in recent months remains unclear.
Although suspended as director in March 2018, Cherokee County DSS rehired Palmer as the office’s business officer in June 2018, and she continues in that role despite the ongoing criminal probe.

The reason we all should be paying attention is simple: Some of the things exposed in Cherokee County first by investigative reporters for the Associated Press and now by Carolina Public Press are highly unusual – at least I hope they are.  But at the heart of the scandal is a practice that goes on all over America.  And the real scandal is that only in North Carolina is it being treated as a scandal. 

  There are many names for the practice in question: shadow foster care, the foster care Twilight Zone, blackmail placements, and hidden foster care.  Whatever you call it, it is a system that rivals in size and scope the open, relatively above-board foster care system – but with even less due process and less accountability.  I’ve written about it in general and I wrote about the North Carolina scandal when it first broke well over a year ago.  But much has happened since.

How hidden foster care works

            It works like this: A parent is told at a minimum:  We’re going to take your children away and place them in foster care with strangers. In some cases they’re told: We’ll also separate them from each other and place them far, far away. You can go to court and try to get them back but, well, good luck with that. Good luck even visiting them.  Then they offer the alternative: Just sign this little piece of paper in which you “voluntarily” agree to have us place the children with someone nearby – usually a relative.

            Of course no lawyer for the family ever looks at that piece of paper first, or explains to the family their rights.  The parents’ only explanation of what the piece of paper means is what the caseworker tells them it means. And while many of these placements are theoretically short-term, in some of the North Carolina cases these agreements effectively involve signing away rights to a child forever.

            As I said, it happens all over the country. But only one state child welfare agency has aid the whole thing is illegal: North Carolina. (North Carolina is one of the states in which counties run child welfare and the state social services agency has some oversight.)  Even in North Carolina, it’s not clear if the state would have acted had the practice not been exposed in a major national news story by Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr. Since then, Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press (CPP) has been following up aggressively. 

The timeline

            Here’s what happened and when, based on news accounts:

            October, 2017: A state Department of Health and Human Services team conducting a routine review discovers that plenty is rotten in the County of Cherokee Department of Social Services.  A memo obtained by Carolina Public Press nearly two years later reveals what the state examiners believed to be widespread falsification of records involving contact between child welfare caseworkers, birth parents and foster children.

            The memo also states that terminations of parental rights “are pursued very quickly with little or no engagement with parents.  It is hard to believe with the lack of engagement and documentation that TPRs are even granted.”

            There is no indication that they also discovered the use of hidden foster care at this time.  But, it appears the state did very little about what it did discover.  The Cherokee County district attorney told Carolina Public Press she was “flabbergasted” she was not notified at the time about what might be criminal activity.

As CPP put it: 

Although the DHHS memo expressed concern about records falsified by duplicating other records, it focused not on potential criminal fraud or violation of families’ rights, but on DSS funding and destabilizing DSS child placement actions: “These records are tied into funding. A parent’s attorney could get ahold of these records and make an argument to have the kids returned home.”

            December, 2017: A local attorney, Melissa Jackson, discovers the use of hidden foster care in Cherokee County while representing a father coerced into “voluntarily” signing a so-called “custody and visitation agreement.”  As the Associated Press would later report:

Soon after Jackson exposed the practice, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services sent an “urgent” letter to county agencies on Dec. 20, 2017, warning that “facilitating the completion of private custody agreements” without court oversight “falls outside of both law and policy.”

            If the state did anything else at that point, there is no public indication of such action.

            December, 2017: Jackson and attorney David Wijewickrama sue Cherokee County on  behalf of parents whose children were taken using CVAs.  They are seeking class-action status.

            Early March, 2018: The state asks Cherokee County for a “corrective action plan.”

            March 14, 2018: With Jackson’s client prominently featured, the AP story exposing Cherokee County’s system of  hidden foster care is published.  The story reveals that the practice dates back at least to 2007 and may involve hundreds of families.  Exactly how many is unclear because former Cherokee County DSS attorney Scott Lindsay said at court hearings that many “files are missing.”

At about the same time, District Judge Tessa Sellers rules that CVAs violate state law, the state constitution and the United States Constitution.   According to the ruling:

The CVA is the product of both actual and constructive fraud on behalf of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, it’s agents and Attorney Scott Lindsay and director Cindy Palmer.

            March 16, 2018: Now the state is really interested, and, apparently, concludes that a “corrective action plan” is not enuogh. After the scandal makes national news, the state announces it will temporarily take over the child welfare functions of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services.  The takeover begins three days later.

            At about the same time the county district attorney – who only learned of the scandal by reading the AP story – asks the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing.

            March through June 2018: Though the state is taking over the child welfare functions, the county DSS still is overseen by a local Board of Social Services.  The Board holds what is apparently an unusually large number of special meetings. But we don’t know exactly what happened at all of them – because, Carolina Public Press reveals, the minutes are missing.  We do know, however, that Lindsay’s replacement as DSS attorney, David Moore, said Palmer may have lied under oath.

April 2018: The Board of Social Services suspends Palmer, with pay.  She is replaced with an acting director.  Moore tells the board Palmer should not be allowed to return.

May, 2018: The position of business officer for Cherokee County DSS becomes vacant. Palmer had held that job before she was named director. 

            June 11, 2018: Palmer resigns as DSS director.

            June 11, 2018: Palmer’s interim replacement hires Palmer to be the DSS business officer – the job Palmer held before she became DSS director.

            June 12, 2018: DSS attorney David Moore resigns.

            July, 2018: Cherokee County DSS receives a bill of $3,311.87 for document shredding services covering the period mid-June to mid-July, 2018.  The highest previous monthly total since November 2017 was $367.76, in May.  In November and December, 2017, the bills were $90.17 per month. 

            Or, as Carolina Public Press put it:

The DSS agency in early 2018 also started a curiously timed massive shredding campaign, which went into high gear after Palmer returned to the agency in June 2018. The effort was supposedly designed to create urgently needed space and did not touch child welfare documents, which DSS had been ordered not to destroy. But a year later, the space remains unused. Whether any additional child welfare documents went missing remains uncertain.

            October, 2018: The state Deparemtent of Health and Human Services ends its direct control over child welfare in Cherokee County.

            November, 2019: The State Bureau of Investigation’s findings concerning CVAs, and possibly other issues, are now in the hands of the state Attorney General’s office.  CPP reports that “Palmer, and possibly others, remain under criminal investigation…” by that office.

            And a new problem has been discovered: The county and the state have had to repay the federal government more than $247,000 in federal foster care funds to which they were not entitled “after mistakes by social workers and their supervisors.”

Monday, December 2, 2019

On Giving Tuesday: Want to know how effective NCCPR is? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away!

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Giving Tuesday in 2018.

Of all the journalists who have covered child welfare, few are more keen on pushing a take-the-child-and-run approach than former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf.  The issues with Therolf’s work at the Times were so serious that even someone who used to be an ideological soulmate  found serious problems in story after story.  The crescendo of criticism was such that LA Observed, a Los Angeles news site that closely tracks area media, took notice.

Then, just as he was leaving the Times, Therolf demeaned the work of Black scholars while cheerleading for those who insist that child welfare is magically immune from racial bias.

So, on this Giving Tuesday, who better to turn to for a testament to the power and influence of NCCPR – right?

Not that he offered such a testament on purpose, of course.  I’m sure he didn’t even realize it.

In November, 2018, Therolf was able to get a sugar-coated version of his L.A. Times-style reporting into a national magazine. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can use the quote below to Google it if you are so inclined.)  After noting how horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system” can drive increases in foster care, he discusses one of the very few cases in which it worked in reverse:

Logan Marr, a 5-year-old girl from Maine [had] been removed from her home by the state’s grossly interventionist child-protective-services agency. In a gruesome twist, Logan was placed in the custody of a former caseworker, who disciplined her by gagging her with duct tape and leaving her in the basement, where she died.

The case became the subject of a PBS documentary, and media attention made Logan a symbol of child-protective services’ overreach. The pendulum swung, and the United States saw a nearly 25 percent drop in the number of children in foster care from 2002 to 2012. [Emphasis added.]

Therolf never mentions which organization drew all that media attention to the case of Logan Marr. He probably doesn’t know.  It was, of course, NCCPR.  We’re the ones who told producers for Frontline about the case. That's one reason why you’ll find an NCCPR op-ed on Frontline’s website for the programs. 

It was NCCPR that focused the discussion of this case, in Maine and nationally, on the fact that Logan was taken because her family poverty was confused with neglect.  And it was NCCPR that shifted the focus from the usual calls for tougher licensing standards and more visits to foster homes to the real issue: Maine was taking away far too many children.  There’s a detailed discussion of what we did and how we did it here.

Some caveats: We didn’t do it alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without activists in Maine led by a fed-up foster parent.  Although one probably shouldn’t say this in a fundraising pitch, the attention we drew to the case of Logan Marr was not solely responsible for that big drop in foster care.  But it helped.  Something else we probably shouldn't say in a fundraising pitch: It's also true that, now that NCCPR has more limited resources, there's been backsliding in Maine child welfare.  But even now, it's a better system than it would have been had there been no NCCPR.

NCCPR has changed the very language of the child welfare debate.  We put the phrase foster-care panic, into the child welfare lexicon. And as the family preservation movement has grown, and as more and more advocates have realized the importance of changing child welfare systems by changing public perceptions, NCCPR has become a key resource for other advocates, providing the data and studies to back up what they see every day on the frontlines.

We never charge for this technical assistance - because the organizations fighting this fight at the grassroots level need every penny they have to keep up that fight.  But that, of course, is why we need donations from those who can afford to give.

There’s more about  our successes across the country here – including testimonials from child welfare leaders and journalists who actually like our work.

And best of all, we do it on a shoestring.  Now that the entire staff (that’s me) is volunteer, all we need is a few thousand dollars a year for things like the phone bill, office supplies, purchasing overpriced studies (like the one that led to this) from scholarly journals, and – ideally – some travel to meet with journalists and local advocates.  But the very fact that we need so little makes it easy for people to assume someone else will do it.  Unfortunately, if everyone thinks someone else will make those few donations ...

There are a lot of places well worth your support on this Giving Tuesday – but very few where a small donation can get so much done.

Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 26, 2019

● Have you heard about the judge in child welfare cases who actually follows the law? The child welfare establishment is throwing a fit.  The Washington Post wrote about the judge. I have a blog post about her, with a link to the Post story.

● I’ve written before about hidden foster care – a massive, parallel system of child removal in which parents are coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their children to relatives with no court hearings or due process protection of any kind. (The threat: Do this “voluntarily” or we’ll throw the children into foster care with strangers.)  In many places, this is standard operating procedure and no one in “the system” bats an eye.  But things have been different in North Carolina.  After the Associated Press exposed the practice in one county, the state took over the system in that county.  Days after the AP report, a judge found the practice unconstitutional. She also found that the coerced “voluntary” agreements were “the product of both actual and constructive fraud …”  Now there’s a civil lawsuit, and the possibility of criminal charges against county child welfare officials.

We know all this because of some outstanding reporting by Kate Martin of the nonprofit news site Carolina Public Press.  This story outlines the scope of the problem. Then came stories about missing meeting minutes, massive document shredding, an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, delays in state action, allegations of falsification of records, allegations of lying under oath, and on and on.  You can find those stories here and here.

But they leave one question unanswered: Why haven’t the abuses of hidden foster care prompted the same aggressive response anywhere else?

● On the Rethinking Foster Care blog, Georgia attorney Emma Brown-Bernstein writes about a case in which a homeless mother made the terrible mistake of asking the state child protective services agency for help to find housing.  Instead, Brown-Bernstein writes, the child was removed “because his family was homeless and no one could help the family obtain housing. That’s it.”  A trial court rubber-stamped the removal, but the state Court of Appeals unanimously overturned it. “This choice cannot be the only one we have,” Brown-Bernstein writes. “Sending children to foster care because their parents cannot find a house not only undermines families but, as the Court of Appeals reminded us … also runs afoul of the law.”

As you read about this one case, it’s also worth remembering: Multiple studies find that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the families had decent housing.

● Two stories have nothing to do with child welfare – and everything to do with child welfare: WNYC Public Radio’s On The Media, has an excellent interview with Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction – about how, in field after field, supposedly objective algorithms turn out to be biased.  Guess who’s on the losing end every time.  And it’s hard to imagine anything that could be easier to keep free of bias than determining creditworthiness.  It should be a matter of pretty basic math. Yet somehow, the algorithm Apple and Goldman Sachs came up with to set credit limits on their fancy new credit card wound up allegedly discriminating against women.

All of which is all the more reason to be worried when a child welfare agency starts trying to use predictive analytics algorithms to figure out things that are vastly more complicated – such as predicting who supposedly is likely to abuse a child.  In Allegheny County, Pa., they’re about to start trying to slap risk scores on every baby at birth.  In Talk Poverty, Elizabeth Brico has a story about how they’re doing it.  And I have a blog post about it here.

● In New York State, both the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state agency that oversees it were doing their usual song and dance before a state legislative committee: Of course we want fewer children in foster care, they say, just give us more money to inflict more “counseling” and “parent education” on families as we keep them under our thumb and everything will be fine.  But, as this story in the Chronicle of Social Change makes clear, there are signs lawmakers aren’t buying it anymore. They understand the real solution is giving families the tools to fight back from the moment agencies such as ACS enter their lives.

As Emma Ketteringham of The Bronx Defenders told legislators:

When you’re hungry, and you don’t know where you are going to sleep, and your children were taken in the middle of the night — therapy’s not going to fix the situation … We have to back up and really explore how we respond to families that struggle … because of poverty and because of structural racism.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A judge in child welfare cases is actually following the law. The foster care establishment is throwing a fit.

Judge Ernestine Gray

The full Washington Post story discussed in this post is available here.

            Imagine if the presumption of innocence that is, at least in theory, at the heart of the criminal justice system were turned upside down.  Suppose everyone hauled into court was presumed guilty – and had to prove their innocence.

            As a practical matter that upside-down burden of proof is how the child welfare system works.  Only instead of calling it “guilty until proven innocent” it’s sanitized behind phrases like “err on the side of caution.”  But there is nothing cautious about tearing apart a family. When done needlessly, it is a profoundly reckless act that endangers not just the mental health of children but often their physical safety as well.

            One judge in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ernestine Gray, understands this. So she has decided to actually apply the law.  She’s demanding that the state child protective services agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, actually show evidence that a child would be unsafe in her or his own home.  The judge also is putting into practice the stated values of the child welfare system itself.  After all, how many times have we heard people in that system say: “We never take away children because their families are poor” or “We only use foster care as an absolute last resort.”

Because Judge Gray is practicing what the system only preaches, between 2011 and 2017 the number of children in foster care in metropolitan New Orleans fell by 89 percent.  There is no evidence this has compromised safety – and a key child safety measure has improved.

            Since this is exactly the way they say it’s supposed to work, the child welfare establishment in New Orleans is thrilled with Judge Gray, right?

            Of course not!  The child welfare establishment is throwing a collective fit – appalled that families no longer have to prove their innocence.

            I learned all this thanks to a very good  in-depth story in The Washington Post by  Richard A. Webster.  Though I take issue with some of Webster’s premises, the story was a thorough, open-minded account by a reporter who took pains to reach out to all sides.  While that should be the norm, in the journalism of child welfare, it’s still more of an exception.  So my concerns notwithstanding, first I want to thank Webster for trying to uphold the highest standards of journalism.

What the story reveals

            So much is revealed by this story, often unintentionally, that it’s worth examining in detail. I’ll begin with how Webster frames what the judge is doing:

While many judges often err on the side of caution, placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out, [Judge Gray] moved in the opposite direction.

            In fact, as I noted above there is nothing cautious about what those other judges are doing. Because of everything we know about foster care, and the extensive research comparing outcomes for children placed in foster care to children left in their own homes in typical cases, (discussed in more detail below), we know that “placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out” is a profoundly reckless act, deeply harmful to children.  (It is, however, the most cautious approach judges can take to protect themselves.)

Now let’s turn to the heart of the criticism of Judge Gray’s decision to follow the law. Webster writes:

In New Orleans, however, child advocates reacted cautiously. In the collective fervor to remedy the system, they fear the lives of hundreds of boys and girls are being endangered by returning them to families in chaos.
Virtually no data are available to allay their concerns.

            Whenever I read something like that, I am reminded of what I was told by the head of an adoption agency – yes, you read that right – when I was a reporter 40 years ago: “The burden of proof should always rest with those who think children don’t belong with their families.”

            So what is crucial here is that there is absolutely no evidence to support these so-called “child advocates’” concerns. They are just standard child welfare establishment fear-mongering. 

            The only data available suggest that child safety has improved.  Webster writes:

Championing New Orleans’s low numbers is problematic. … The only available metric is whether a child reenters the system at some point.
By that standard, Gray’s strategy is working. The city’s reentry rate of 7 percent is slightly lower than the statewide average, according to DCFS. But everyone, including Gray, concedes that is an imperfect data point for measuring success. It requires a child to be re-victimized and for someone to notice the abuse or neglect and again contact protective services.[Emphasis added.]

First, championing New Orleans’s low numbers is only problematic in the world of guilty-until-proven-innocent.  What cannot be legitimately championed is high numbers of removals, since there is no evidence that this improves child safety.

The measure of foster-care recidivism – the term for the data the story cites – can be problematic, but not in a way that invalidates its use to compare jurisdictions.

That’s because while it is true that no jurisdiction will discover every case of reabuse, there is no reason to think that the same statewide agency that trains workers the same way will detect a lower proportion of reabuse in New Orleans than elsewhere. So as a method of comparison within a single state agency, it is valid.  And it is one data point more than those who prefer a take-the-child-and-run approach have got.

The harm of foster care

Webster does better than most reporters in pointing out something else: the mass of data we have on the harm of foster care. But he adds some premises that should be questioned:

Few disagree that the system is severely broken nationwide because of decades of mismanagement and inadequate funding. Instead of protecting children, it often traumatizes them further. They have poorer outcomes in education, employment, housing and early pregnancy, studies show. By 17, more than half will have been arrested, jailed or convicted, according to a University of Chicago study.

He’s right about the data, but the implication is that if only the system got more money and were better managed then these outcomes would change.  They would – but not by much.  One study, which found that in later life only one in five former foster children was doing well, also tried to calculate what would happen if the foster care system were made perfect.  Their conclusion: Outcomes would improve – by 22.2 percent. 

So instead of churning out walking wounded four times out of five a “perfect” foster care system would churn out walking wounded three times out of five.

Notice also the phrase “traumatizes them further.”  That assumes all foster children were traumatized in their own homes.  What Judge Gray understands is that sometimes the children are not traumatized until they are placed in foster care.

But the most damning evidence isn’t included in the story (not on purpose, I’m sure Webster just didn’t know about it).  That evidence comes in the form of  the many studies, including two that are massive in size and scope, that directly compare the outcomes in typical cases for children placed in foster care and comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.  Over and over these studies find that the children left in their own homes typically do better.

So, in fact, there isn’t just one data point – there’s a mass of comprehensive research showing that Judge Gray’s approach is better for children.

In contrast, Judge Gray’s critics have no evidence that her approach (also known as following the law) is dangerous for children. In fact, it seems, they don’t even have a horror story! (If they did, I’m sure they wouldn’t have kept it secret.)  They don’t have one yet, that is.  Sooner or later there is a horror story in every system. And if Judge Gray is still on the bench (she’ll reach mandatory retirement age in a year) you may be sure she’ll be scapegoated, notwithstanding the fact that jurisdictions that tear apart vastly more children have the same sorts of horror stories.

Gray understands all this. As the story notes:

The greatest threat of harm for most of the children who appear before her, [Gray] stresses, is being unnecessarily removed from their families.
“Foster care is put up as this thing that is going to save kids, but kids die in foster care, kids get sick in foster care,” she said. “So we ought to be trying to figure out how to use that as little as possible. ...”

Here again, Judge Gray has the data on her side. Study after study reveals rates of abuse in foster care far higher than shown in official figures, which involve agencies investigating themselves. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

As the ironies pile up …

But now, back to Judge Gray’s critics:

Chabre Johnson remembers the “revolving door” she saw while a DCFS child welfare specialist. She and colleagues would respond to calls, discover evidence of either abuse or neglect, and remove children, only to take them home a few days later because Gray decided the case they’d built didn’t pass muster.

            The ironies abound here.  First, recall how in almost every story that even slightly criticizes child welfare decision-making someone will say: “We can’t remove children on our own, a judge has to approve everything we do.”  Too often, reporters believe it.

            Well, now the cat is out of the bag. Johnson admits that she and her fellow DCFS workers routinely removed children on their own authority – traumatizing them with a foster care placement that Judge Gray realized – days later - was unnecessary.  (This is not unique to New Orleans, of course.)

            But wait, it gets better. 

In most jurisdictions, judges routinely approve child protective services agency decisions. Then the agencies say they must be right because those wise, independent judges are constantly approving what they do.  But behold what happens when one judge starts wielding a gavel instead of a rubber stamp.  Suddenly judges don’t really know anything!  Or as Johnson put it:

 “A lot of times it was infants and babies being returned to the home. It got frustrating …The people making the decisions are not the ones going into these homes putting their lives in danger. They’re not the ones sitting outside of these homes waiting for police officers.”

            And then there’s this, a constant theme among Judge Gray’s critics:

Child advocates say the drastic reduction in foster care would make more sense if it came with greater resources to support struggling families — for mental health care, substance abuse treatment, case management or housing assistance — but that’s not the case.  
Paulette Carter, president of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, said it takes at least a month for the organization to line up services. And the answer isn’t just a couple of parenting classes. In the vast majority of cases, the issues that led to a child being removed from a home take months, if not years, to resolve.

            This is a classic example of a provider pathologizing families because that bolsters the provider’s prestige and self-image.  This was perfectly explained decades ago by Malcolm Bush in his book, Families in Distress:

The recognition that the troubled family inhabits a context that is relevant to its problems suggests the possibility that the solution involves some humble tasks … This possibility is at odds with professional status. Professional status is not necessary for humble tasks … Changing the psyche was a grand task, and while the elaboration of theories past their practical benefit would not help families in trouble, it would allow social workers to hold up their heads in the professional meeting or the academic seminar.

What makes Judge Gray such a threat to the child welfare establishment is the fact that she understands this.  Again, from the story:

In cases of abuse, she said she does not hesitate to remove children, but that is not the norm. More than 85 percent of foster children in Louisiana are removed from their homes due to neglect, which is defined as a parent’s failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, supervision or medical care, to the point where the child’s safety is at risk. In many cases, Gray thinks, DCFS investigators mistake poverty for neglect.
“No food in the house? Send them to the food bank rather than taking [their children] into care,” she said.

            Once again, Judge Gray has the evidence on her side, including the numerous studies documenting the transformative power of cash.

            But even in those cases when more than a little cash really is needed, the very fact that there is a readily available dumping ground for children – foster care – means there will never be any pressure to actually provide those additional services. Those who say: “Wait for the ‘services’ before we curb needless foster care” are really saying: “Wait forever and never curb needless foster care.”

            And finally:
 [Judge Gray] won’t speculate on whether her approach could serve as a model nationally.

            Then allow me: YES!!!!

One key factor, she offered with a laugh, is having officials who are not afraid of negative publicity or losing elections.

            She’s right again.  One reason New York City now has a model system of high-quality family defense is because, nearly 20 years ago, judges actually admitted rubber-stamping removals even when they didn’t think the city’s child protective services agency had made a good enough case – because they were afraid of landing on the front page of a newspaper if they sent a child home and something went wrong. 

            In New York City, these judges are appointed by the mayor.  And at roughly the same time, when two judges tried to do what Judge Gray is doing, the mayor at the time refused to reappoint them.

            What was that mayor’s name again?

            Oh, yeah. Rudy Giuliani.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2019

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    Often, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. 

Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. 

The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

Everybody knows the drill

How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations on Saturday. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. 

And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times (Now Tampa Bay Times) in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

(As for how the Tampa Bay Times regards birth parents – see this post from 2017.)

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. 

Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008 -- a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother – who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.

The dangers of Adoption Day

    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. 

The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain the sharp increase in the number of children who "aged out" of foster care over the past 20 years. 

We estimate that the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has contributed to creating more than 100,000 additional children who age out with no permanent home.  And data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that of all the children who leave the foster care system at age 16 or older, half have no permanent home.  It's even worse for nonwhite foster children.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. 

And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death. In 2017, in Iowa alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving children adopted from foster care.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.

Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 19, 2019

Philadelphia Weekly is two-thirds of the way through a three-part series on “the great mindf--k that is Philadelphia's child welfare system.”  Those aren’t my words – they come from a column about the series from Philadelphia Weekly’s editor.  He seemed particularly struck by what happened when their reporter sought comment from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. I have a blog post about the series, with links to all of the stories.

● The Houston Chronicle and NBC News have a follow-up to their series on the harm inflicted on children when so-called “child abuse pediatricians” jump to conclusions. The full series is available here. 

● Those stories have had an impact beyond Texas.  In Washington State, a pediatrician writes about the trauma endured by a family whose child she treated. A “child abuse pediatrician” who had never actually seen the child contradicted the author – and a police detective - and made a determination of suspected abuse based only on looking at photos. (The family pediatrician had better be careful though. She may wind up accused of doing too much thinking.)

● In Santa Clara County, California, they’re moving to close the shelter that replaced the shelter they closed about ten years ago. As San Jose Spotlight reports:

To Supervisor Dave Cortese, there’s a bitter irony in what has become of the center. Cortese said the county opened the [Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center] RAIC in 2009 because the county’s childrens shelter had become dangerous and was ultimately shuttered.
“The RAIC has sort of morphed into the old shelter system,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “We slipped right back into the same pattern. It’s history repeating itself and it is so unfortunate.”

The “receiving center” was never meant to be a shelter. But as long as you build a place where kids can be discarded, they will be stuck there. If you build it, they will come. If you keep it open, they will stay.  That’s why it will never work to wait around for every i to be dotted and t to be crossed on some other way to deal with these children.  The only way to put on enough pressure to find alternatives to shelters is to close the shelters.

● Huffpost has a pretty good video primer on the Indian Child Welfare Act.

● Last week, I noted that a Kansas news organization had reported on a protest by parents whose children had been harmed by the state child welfare system, treating the parents with dignity and respect.  In this blog post,I have some context on Kansas child welfare.

● I had missed this excellent story from The Appeal when it first came out in September.  It concerns the harm done to children when marijuana use becomes an excuse to put poor families of color under surveillance – and take away children. (It rarely happens to middle-class white families.)  One startling finding: In Colorado the problem actually got worse after marijuana was legalized.

● I found out about the story in The Appeal thanks to this excellent column in The Daily Targum, the student newspaper at Rutgers University.  I hope the author considers a career in child welfare law.