Thursday, August 11, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 9, 2022

Not a lot of stories this week, but two of them are blockbusters:

● In all the time I’ve followed child welfare – more than 45 years now – I’ve probably read hundreds of stories about foster children trapped in all sorts of hideous makeshift placements.  But here’s what sets last week’s stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer apart.  They got the solutions right.  One of the stories summed it up this way: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. [Emphasis added]. 

That summary is in what reporter Samantha Melamed herself called the “TL;DR version.”  But I hope you’ll resist the temptation and read the full story. 

● NCCPR has an op-ed in the Inquirer with more on how to fix the crisis. 

● The Inquirer’s own editorial about this is all over the map.  But its conclusion suggests that, in mainstream media, Prof. Dorothy Roberts has opened the “Overton Window”: 

Dorothy E. Roberts, a scholar on race and gender at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, has called for dismantling America’s child welfare system, arguing that it largely punishes Black families for being poor. Studies show Black children continue to be taken from their mothers at a higher rate than white children in similar circumstances. 

Roberts’ suggestion may seem extreme, but it’s understandable. Something must give when children are dying, being abused, and sleeping in government office buildings because there is no other place for them. Additional disruptions caused by the pandemic have exposed a child welfare system that too often does more harm than good. It is in desperate need of repair, and there’s no time to waste. [Emphasis added.] 

● Think you know everything about the Trump Administration’s ghastly exercise in calculated cruelty when thousands of children were torn from their families at the Mexican border?  Trust me, you don’t.  In a masterpiece of investigative journalism for The Atlantic, the result of an 18-month investigation, Caitlin Dickerson reveals that it was worse than we ever could have imagined.  I have a blog post on whether this story will help more Americans make the connection.  (It’s the connection Joyce McMillan of JMac for Families makes here:

 ● Alan Detlaff, dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston and co-founder of upEND, makes the connection on the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia How Is That Legal? Podcast.  He also tells a story about his own days as a “child protective services” investigator.  When his agency investigated cases jointly with the police, the cops would ask him to go in and question the parents first.  Why? Because police have to inform parents of their rights; but the family police don’t. 

● And speaking of Joyce McMillan, check out video of her testimony in Geneva before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Atlantic reminds us of the horrors of family separation – at the Mexican border. It was even worse than we thought.

Perhaps this extraordinary, vivid account will finally prompt more Americans to make the connection.  (Yes, this connection):

Joyce McMillan of JMac For Families has a reminder for us.

A word of advice to any journalist contemplating entering the National Magazine Awards competition in the Reporting category – and I say this with the utmost respect: If you’re not Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic, you probably shouldn’t bother.  Dickerson’s masterpiece of in-depth reporting on the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation at the Mexican border is that good. 

It took 18 months of reporting, more than 150 interviews, and a lawsuit to obtain relevant documents.  Yes, it’s nearly 30,000 words – the longest article The Atlantic has published in its 165-year history.  But it’s also, to use that awful word from blurbs about thrillers: unputdownable. 

You may think you know everything about that ghastly exercise in calculated cruelty. Trust me, you don’t.  Dickerson reveals that it was worse than we could have imagined.  “It’s been said of other Trump-era projects that the administration’s incompetence mitigated its malevolence,” Dickerson writes.  “Here, the opposite happened.” 

You may think you’ve heard so much about what happened that you no longer can be shocked or brought to tears. Perhaps.  But consider just one of the many “little picture” examples Dickerson cites as she tells the story of this exercise in mass child abuse: 

Remember the audio leaked to ProPublica of desperate children crying for their parents at a detention center?

Now consider this from Dickerson’s story, as she describes how, month after month, parents had no idea where their children were: 

One woman, Cindy Madrid, only located her 6-year-old daughter, Ximena, after recognizing Ximena’s voice in the audio released by ProPublica, which was played during a news broadcast shown in the South Texas detention center where Madrid was being detained. 

But even as this story rekindles feelings of despair over what was done to thousands of children in our name, and fury at those who did it, it also rekindles the frustration a lot of us felt at the time about the failure to make the connection.  Any regular reader of this Blog knows which connection. 

The very fact that this story reveals so much about the sadistic glee that some in the Trump Administration seemed to take in tearing apart families makes it harder to understand one simple fact:  People with only the best of intentions are doing the same thing to hundreds of thousands of children right now. 

Take almost any example from Dickerson’s story, and there is a comparable example from the American system of what is called “child welfare” – or as it should be called, family policing.  Whether the people tearing a child from the arms of a loving parent have an ID that says “Child Protective Services” or one that says “Border Patrol,” the anguish experienced by the children is  the same.  While Trump’s family separation policy was underway, we even prepared this handy chart comparing how the two systems work: 

But we wall ourselves off from that anguish in two ways: First by convincing ourselves it’s somehow different if the people taking the children mean well.  But also by demonizing the parents.  

More than 50 years of what’s been aptly called “health terrorism” persuaded many Americans that while the parents at the border are innocent victims, the parents who lose their children to CPS agencies all must be beating and torturing their children.  A very few of them are.  But most have far more in common with impoverished refugees than with those depicted in the horror stories that fuel health terrorism.  The Atlantic itself contributed to the demonization of families caught up in the traditional American family policing system in a 2018 story (to which I will not link). 

That’s why the same scenes that prompt us to draw back in horror when they play out at the Mexican border make too many of us cheer when they happen in our own backyards.  The family police revel in their middle-class rescue fantasies and celebrate – yes, celebrate – when these overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families are torn apart forever. 

But the children taken by the family police are shedding the same sorts of tears as those taken by the Border Patrol – for the same reasons. 

Dickerson’s story also reveals how little those who don’t encounter family policing every day know about how it really works. 

At one point, Dickerson cites one of the few people who comes off well in her story, a U.S. Attorney who tried to reunite the families: 

He was outraged. In no place in the American criminal-justice system, he reportedly testified, would it be considered either ethically or legally permissible to keep children from their parents for punitive purposes after their legal process is completed. “We wouldn’t do that to a murderer,” much less a parent facing misdemeanor charges …

Wanna bet? 

Technically, he’s partly right.  But only because family policing is part of the civil, not criminal legal system.  

Is it not “keeping children from their parents for punitive purposes” if children are held in foster care even after their parents jump through every hoop the family police agency imposes on them, just because they can’t afford to pay the ransom the agency has imposed?  (Agencies don’t use that term, of course, they call it “child support” to reimburse them for the cost of “caring” for the children.)  Since it doesn’t help the children and it doesn’t even help the agency – collection efforts cost more than what’s collected – how is this anything but punishment? 

And don’t forget all the victims of the “war on drugs” who were released from jail sentences they often never should have had to serve, only to find their children gone – forever – because under the odious Adoption and Safe Families Act, CPS agencies can seek termination of parental rights for no other reason than the passage of a specified amount of time. (This also applies to families detained and/or deported by immigration authorities.)

For more examples of just how much the American family policing system can get away with, see NCCPR's Due Process Agenda.

Similarly, in exposing the horror of the huge institutions in which children taken at the border were warehoused, the story states that: 

Large-scale institutions had long since been eliminated from the domestic child-welfare system because they were found to be traumatizing and unsafe. 

No, they haven’t. They’ve just rebranded as “residential treatment centers.” And they’ve been engulfed in  scandal after scandal, after scandal after scandal.   

The worst way to respond to the Atlantic story would be to say: At least an outraged public ultimately was able to put a stop to it.  Because the needless separation of families has never stopped.  It began long before Donald Trump – in fact, its roots are in slavery – and it continues to this day.  So as you read Caitlin Dickerson’s brilliant reporting, keep in mind the reminder from Joyce McMillan of JMac For Families that’s at the top of this post: They separate children at the border of Harlem, too.

Monday, August 8, 2022

NCCPR in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly doesn’t have too few foster homes. It has too many foster kids.

The city can make smarter choices that will reduce the number of kids placed in foster care, which will reduce strain on the system — and save kids from having to sleep in conference rooms. 

We’ve all heard the adage that goes: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” A classic example of that adage is Philadelphia’s approach to the welfare of its children. 

In 2016, Philadelphia closed its only juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility — Wordsworth — after a 17-year-old died in a fight with staff. The city opened another in 2020, but that facility soon lost its license due to “multiple child right violations,” according to the state. Now, the city is asking providers to bid for a contract to create another facility. 

So, the plan is to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution. Meanwhile, because Philadelphia still is taking too many children from their homes, there are not enough foster homes, so the children are held in conference rooms. 

There are better answers. … 

Read the full column in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Friday, August 5, 2022

At last! One news organization gets the makeshift placement story right!

Once touted as a model institution, the Glen Mills School was closed after
the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed widespread abuse.

The Philadelphia Inquirer zeros in on real solutions 

Here’s something I never thought I’d see in a story about children trapped in night-to-night placements because family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) had no place else to put them: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix.

But there it was, in one of two outstanding stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer Thursday.  It’s taken a long time. 

For as long as I’ve been following family policing – and that’s more than 45 years now - I’ve been reading stories exposing the horrors inflicted on children forced to endure days, sometimes months in makeshift placements such as family policing agency offices, hotels, hospital wards, jails – even parked cars. 

As I recall, every one of those stories got the solutions wrong.  Oh, there might be a token paragraph somewhere about how “prevention” is a really good thing.  But that part about “not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix”?  Never! 

Instead, the reporters would accept as gospel the party line from the “residential treatment” industry. It’s always some version of: “See, we need to build more places to institutionalize kids!” Or, “See? We told you you shouldn’t have shut down our hellholes sorry, therapeutic communities!”  

It would have been easy for The Philadelphia Inquirer to fall into the same trap.  After all, Philadelphia has made significant progress in reducing the number of children torn from their families.  But Philadelphia now has a serious problem with children staying night-to-night in family police agency conference rooms, among other awful places.  Workers sum up the conditions there as “chaos.”  And Philadelphia either shut down or pulled kids out of several institutions in recent years – because the institutions themselves were so abusive. 

But perhaps because colleagues of reporter Samantha Melamed exposed horrific abuse in some of those institutions, such as Glen Mills (which is now closed) and Devereux, she wasn’t ready to accept the idea that the answer is to reopen them, or build new ones. 

Yes, the story includes the usual claim from a residential treatment trade association representative, whining that, now that the city has “reduced capacity” (by refusing to warehouse all those children in hellholes) it’s “destabilized the industry” making it hard to find placements for children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs.” 

But instead of simply accepting this claim at face value, Melamed broadened her source base.  For starters, she explained Philadelphia’s longstanding dismal status as a child removal outlier: 

For years, Philadelphia DHS removed children from their homes at one of the highest rates in the nation. It was an agency shaped, in many ways, by its response to abuse scandals including the 2006 starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly while under DHS supervision. 

Now, the city is part of a national and statewide push to stop institutionalizing kids, spurred on by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. That shift comes amid a widespread recognition that abuses happen in those institutional settings, too — and with startling frequency. It’s also an acknowledgment of racial disparities: Black children account for 13% of Pennsylvania youth, but 35% of those in foster care and two-thirds of those in state juvenile-justice placements … 

But the story goes on to explain that, even with the improvements, Philadelphia still is an outlier when it comes to tearing apart families.  That means there still is plenty of opportunity to free up “capacity” by not filling family foster homes with children who don’t need to be there. 

From the story: 

In the child-welfare system, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s Kathleen Creamer said the city needs to double down on preventing family separations. 

Already, she noted, Philadelphia DHS has reformed its process for screening and investigating abuse allegations, and increased funding for legal aid for families. It also begun holding rapid-response meetings to enlist extended families to help kids in danger of being removed. She said that work now needs to go even further, reallocating some of the millions that would be spent on group homes or foster care to properly fund the supportive services that can help families working to stay together. 

“The question is, what’s the policy solution for this?” she said. “The policy solution is to stop separating so many families. We don’t have good placements for them, so let’s actually try to work with the family.” 

Indeed, in a sidebar serving as what Malamed herself tweeted is “the tl;dr version” of the story she includes that paragraph I quoted at the top: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. 

The residential treatment typically responds by saying something like: Even if you have enough families, what about all those children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs”?  

But even when residential treatment centers are not hellholes, there is no evidence that they can meet “really complex or sophisticated behavioral needs.”  On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure. 

In contrast, Wraparound services, in which anything a child needs is brought right into the child’s own home, or, when placement is genuinely necessary, a family foster home, do work.  There is nothing residential treatment does that Wraparound doesn’t do better and at less cost. 

How does it work? differently for every child – that’s the point.  So the best way to understand Wraparound is to let one of its pioneers, Karl Dennis, give you an example: 

But perhaps the best indication of why building more institutions won’t work comes in this part of the Inquirer story, the ultimate example of the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result: 

Wordsworth, Philadelphia’s lone juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility, was shut down by the state in 2016 after 17-year-old David Hess died in a fight with staff. A replacement opened in 2020 — then quickly lost its license, too, due to what the state said were “multiple child right violations.” (The city last year invited two new providers to negotiate contracts for yet another replacement, but it’s not clear when such a facility may open.) 

So what if, instead of trying to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution, Philadelphia invested those funds in Wraparound programs and other supports for families? 

What if, at the same time, Philadelphia built on its progress to date and reduced its rate of removal to, say, that of New York City?  That would be well under half the Philadelphia rate.  What if Philadelphia then said to the foster parents in those now-empty homes: Take in the relatively few children who really need placement – and we will bring into your home whatever help the children – and you – need to cope with those “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs” and make the placement work? 

Would that mean that no Philadelphia child ever again would have to spend even one night in an office or some other awful makeshift placement?  Probably not.  But it would happen to a hell of a lot fewer children than endure it now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 2, 2022

Just two items of interest this week, one of which I’d missed when it was published in May:

● A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, alleging that UPMC drug tests pregnant women and their newborns without consent, reports the results to the family policing agency and, even if it’s no more than a false positive result for marijuana, the agency automatically investigates. 

As The Legal Intelligencer reported, the judge wrote that:

“Averments set form in the amended complaint allege that [Allegheny County Children Youth and Families] used UPMC as a form of ‘cat’s paw’ to undertake inquiries and to administer drug tests on UPMC’s labor and delivery patients without their consent, and then to use reports of those ostensibly private and confidential medical inquiries and ‘provision and uncertain’ test results as a predicate to launch unwarranted and unconstitutional child abuse investigations.” 

This case has significant implications well beyond Pittsburgh.  And it touches on multiple vital issues in family policing, including the harm of the so-called Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the dangers of “predictive analytics” algorithms in “child welfare.”  I’ve updated our in-depth examination of the case on this blog

● On the matter of algorithms, we have a full update of our report on predictive analytics, Big Data is Watching You.

Bloomberg CityLab reports that: 

Four major corporate landlords filed thousands of evictions while federal moratorium orders were still standing, using aggressive tactics to force out tenants at the height of the pandemic, according to a new investigation by a House subcommittee. … 

An email from an executive at [one major Texas landlord], for example, advised a property manager and regional manager in San Antonio to harass a tenant by towing her car, replacing her air conditioning unit with a nonworking unit, knocking on her door “at least twice a night” and even calling child protective services on the tenant if any children were present. (The committee referred its findings to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.) [Emphasis added.] 

The referral will do no good, of course, because, though false reports are illegal in Texas, anyone can evade the law by making the call anonymously, something that won’t change until anonymous reporting is replaced with confidential reporting.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 26, 2022

● The Columbia Journal of Race and Law is out with a second set of papers from the Strengthened Bonds symposium.  I’ve only begun reading them, but I particularly want to call attention to this groundbreaking paper by Ashley Albert and Amy Mulzer.  But read it only if you are ready to reconsider everything you think you know about adoption. 

● NPR and The Marshall Project have a follow-up to their groundbreaking stories about family policing agencies swiping foster youth’s Social Security benefits.  And Cal Matters reports on California counties that continue this odious practice. 

● A doctor and a lawyer have some advice for people who may face a false allegation of child abuse.  But, as I explain in this blog post, it should have been called “The middle-class white person’s guide to dealing with a child abuse allegation.”

● Even when it works right, the vastly overhyped Family First Act won’t do much good.  But, as Mississippi Today reports, that state is managing to screw up what little opportunity there is. 

● In Arizona, KJZZ Public Radio reports on a lawsuit demanding the standard of proof be raised before someone is blacklisted in that state’s central registry of alleged child abusers. 

● Last week’s round-up reported on an innovative plan in some Wisconsin counties designed to help families with the housing they need to reunify with their children.  One of the counties voted it down

NBC News reports that two senators are launching an investigation of some of America’s largest residential McTreatment chains.  The good news: They’ve included one scandal-plagued nonprofit chain, Devereux. That’s important because too often reporters assume that if we could just get rid of the for-profit players everything would be fine.  The bad news: The investigation appears based on the implicit premise that, with enough regulation, residential treatment can be fixed.  But it can’t. 

● And finally: Pope Francis set an example for the entire North American family policing establishment this week by apologizing for one of that establishment’s worst sins.  Every one of the big, mainstream “child welfare” groups has so much to apologize for, not just in terms of what was done decades ago, but what they continue to do today.  But don’t expect them to follow the Pope’s example anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The middle-class white person’s guide to dealing with a child abuse allegation

The doctor will report you now.

That’s not what the recent article in the online publication Parent Map is called, of course. The actual title is “What do Do If You Are Mistakenly Accused of Child Abuse in a Hospital Emergency Room.”  But the authors should have made clear the advice only applies if the “You” in that headline is a white, middle-class person. 

Between them the co-authors, a doctor and a lawyer, have five sets of  “look-at-all-my advanced -degrees!” initials after their names.  It begins with what happened to one of the authors,  Katheryn Goldman, DMD, MPH, ABD: 

My 9-year-old daughter was jumping on her bed. She bounced off, and I wound up taking her to the emergency room. She got two small stitches under her eye. Just a week later, two of our sons were engaged in some rough horseplay. Oops! Off to the emergency room I went again. Thankfully, no stitches were needed on the 4-year-old’s head. Both times, we were treated by the same nurse in the same examining room! I could sense that she looked at me with a tad of justifiable suspicion. That’s why I made sure that in both instances the children told the nurse what had happened. I did not want to give the impression that the kids were being coached in any way. 

Oops?  Just – oops?  Would she call the suspicion “justifiable” were she, at this very moment, making sure the house was spotless in case of a surprise inspection from CPS – in between her mandatory “counseling” and “parent education” classes?  Would she feel that way were she fighting to get her child out of foster care?  Two trips to the E.R. in a week, and one required a child to get stitches?  How many impoverished Black parents could have that happen to their children without so much as a call to the family police? 

This article is not the worst of its kind.  One pediatrician / author has practically made a career out of writing this sort of essay. 

But at no point do Dr. Godman and her lawyer co-author, Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, so much as acknowledge that the kid gloves, anyone-can-have-an-oops treatment is reserved for the white middle class. 

Then comes a claim that, for some hospitals, is demonstrably false.  They write: 

Simply because a child gets injured and is treated at an emergency room does not mean that Child Protection Services (CPS) will become involved. The hospital contacts CPS only when staff suspect maltreatment. 

But just two days after the Parent Map story was published, KFMB-TV in San Diego reported this story: 

A Marine Corps pilot and his wife are suing the County of San Diego after Child Welfare Services took their seven-month-old son from their home for more than a month after the boy head-butted his mother as he played after breastfeeding.  

According to the story, the hospital apparently didn’t believe the infant was abused but

submitted a hotline referral to the county as required when an infant is injured and admitted to the hospital.

California law does not require this - it's simply a hospital policy that makes every parent who brings in an infant with an injury automatically suspect.

Similarly, when Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported City Councilmember David Oh as a potential child abuser after one of his children was injured as he taught the child martial arts, Oh says the hospital social worker explained that she “typically reports injuries children suffer in all sports.”

By the way, Councilmember Oh’s child was interviewed separately and told the social worker what happened – just like Dr. Goldman’s children.  But somehow, the result was different. 

And these are just the hospitals that will say it out loud. 

Remember, no doctor, nurse, or other mandated reporter will get in trouble for making a report that turns out to be false.  They can face huge penalties for failure to report if, later, it turns out there really was abuse.  So even in the absence of a formal policy that creates a huge incentive to report any injury, especially to the youngest children.

But not only does the Parent Map article mislead on this point, at no point does it mention the slew of studies showing that, where a report isn’t automatic, medical personnel are far more likely to call the family police if the family is not white.

Indeed, though the article claims that “Making a decision to contact child protective services is a difficult call for the vast majority of health-care providers” in fact, we’ve created incentives that make it way too easy – especially if the parent is not white and middle-class.

Now let’s consider some advice the authors offer concerning lawyers:

Even though things are happening fast in the ER, depending on the allegations, you may want to have an attorney present with you during any interviews with a CPS investigator.  Under many circumstances — but not all — you may be inclined to proactively grant CPS access to your child. While you may have the authority to deny that access in some states, such a denial may cast you in a negative light. This is a judgment call to quickly consult an attorney about. [Emphasis added.]

Is it really necessary to point out the problem with this advice?  Poor people generally don’t have a lawyer on speed dial.  And with extremely rare exceptions, the government isn’t going to provide one, either.  In some states, impoverished families have no right to a lawyer at all.  In the rest, except for a few pilot programs, they’re only guaranteed a lawyer after the family police have decided to haul the family into court.

Even then, it’s not the kind of lawyering the authors of the Parent Map article have in mind.

Scholars who worked on studies of more than 20 different family policing systems found that

attorneys  who  represent parents or children have very high caseloads, in some jurisdictions, as high as 300 cases per attorney. Parents and youth consistently reported quick interactions with their  attorneys, and many reported not knowing the name of their attorneys. Parents are routinely told  to plead and accept case plans as the quickest way to get children back home and end system involvement.

So let’s not kid ourselves.  Poor, nonwhite parents, the very parents most likely to be viewed with unwarranted suspicion in the ER, are also those least likely to be able to follow that nice advice about lawyers.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with giving advice that applies only to white middle-class families – provided it comes with a warning label.  The very fact that the authors saw no need to place such a label on their story, or even acknowledge that racial and class bias exist in the family policing system, is part of the reason we have such a system in the first place.