Tuesday, October 8, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Oct. 8, 2019

● There was a problem in this family. Then the child’s charter school, which had refused repeated pleas for help, instead called the child protective services agency – which made everything far worse. It’s another excellent story from Rise, the New York City-based magazine written by parents who have lost children to foster care.

● Rise is one example of the impressive network of family advocacy that has dramatically lessened the harm of the child welfare system in New York City.  In the British journal apolitical, a key figure in creating that infrastructure, David Tobis, writes about how parent advocacy is spreading around the world.

● Now the bad news: The child protective services agency in Pittsburgh is ramping up the child welfare surveillance state: Starting next year, they’ll try to slap a predictive analytics "scarlet number" child abuse “risk score” on every child at birth. Consent will be assumed unless families opt out – and they’ll pay a price for that, too.  I have a post about it on this blog.

● Pittsburgh is doing it in the name of “prevention.” But there’s no need for an Orwellian algorithm to target prevention.  There are many better ways. As it happens, this week the American Bar Association published an article about one of them in Washington State.

● New Mexico also is looking at improving legal representation for families in child welfare cases.

● Here’s the first rule of heroism: Real heroes don’t go around proclaiming themselves “heroes.” Here’s the second rule: People who are truly dedicated to helping children don’t expect worshipful treatment just for showing up. In Youth Today I write that The Foster Care System Needs to Get its Heroes Straight – and I list a few of my own child welfare heroes.

● In last week’s round-up, I wrote that whenever you think the child welfare system can’t get any uglier, someone turns over another rock and a whole new batch of ugly turns up. Looks like it happened again.  It has to do with one of the myriad ways of funding foster care that tends to get little attention: Medicaid. The Chronicle of Social Change reports (subscription required) that states have been using Medicaid funds to help pay to institutionalize children in residential treatment centers.  In many cases that may be illegal.  The federal agency that is supposed to police this says it has no way to track it.  This all came to light indirectly, thanks to the Family First Act.  It’s a very complicated story, but it’s well worth the trip into the weeds.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pittsburgh’s child welfare agency goes full Orwell

Starting in 2020, Allegheny County, Pa. will attempt to, in effect, stamp EVERY
child born in the county with a "scarlet number" risk score that could haunt
the child and her or his family for life.


● They’re moving ahead with plans to try to label EVERY child born in the county with a predictive analytics risk score that could haunt the child for life.

● To avoid the stigma, parents have to affirmatively opt out. If they opt out, they lose out on help for their newborns. But there may be even bigger risks if they stay in.

● The county’s first “ethics review” found that its use of algorithms was ethical in part because it wouldn’t be applied to all children at birth.  The county solved this little problem by commissioning another ethics review.

● County officials promise this label-every-child-at-birth algorithm will be used only to target prevention. That’s absolutely true – until it isn’t.  Because this promise relies exclusively on self-policing by the same county officials who created this nightmare in the first place.

● And an algorithm isn’t needed to target prevention programs.

It is perhaps the ultimate Orwellian nightmare: From the moment your child is born, the child and family are labeled with a “risk score” – a number that supposedly tells authorities how likely you are to abuse your newborn.  The big government agency that slaps this invisible scarlet number on you and your newborn promises it will be used only to decide if you need extra help to raise your child, and the help will be voluntary. 

But once you’re in the database, that score stays there forever. And if, someday, the same big government agency wants to use the score to help decide you’re too much of a risk to be allowed to keep your child, there is nothing to stop them.  The scarlet number may haunt your family for generations. The fact that your child was supposedly born into a “high risk” family may be used against the child when s/he has children.

Welcome to the dystopian future of child welfare – and childbirth – in metropolitan Pittsburgh, Pa.

For a couple of years now, Allegheny County,  which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs, has been using something called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), a predictive analytics algorithm, to help decide which families should be investigated as alleged child abusers.

Back when Facebook was fined, we pointed out the similarities
to how Allegheny County's child protective services agency
uses data.
The algorithm coughs up a “risk score” – an invisible scarlet number. The higher the number the greater the supposed risk.  It’s all made possible by a massive trove of data on families that Allegheny County has gathered in a way reminiscent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Though Allegheny County’s behavior is perfectly legal, it has amassed the without the informed consent of the poor people in the database to have the data turned against them.

The algorithm is weighted heavily toward punishing parents for being poor. In her brilliant book, Automating Inequality, Prof. Virginia Eubanks calls it “poverty profiling.”   In her review of Automating Inequality, Prof. Dorothy Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) extends the analysis to show how predictive analytics reinforces racial bias.

To justify all this, the county submitted its plans to a couple of scholars for an “ethics review.”  But one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague and co-author of papers with one of the creators of the algorithm.  Even this ethically-challenged ethics review gave a seal of approval to AFST in part based on the premise that it would not be applied to every child at birth.

But getting the chance to slap a scarlet number on every child at birth is the Holy Grail for some predictive analytics proponents.  And now it appears that was the goal of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services all along. 

The birth of “Hello Baby”

In her book, Eubanks reports that the county was, at a minimum, considering introducing “‘a second predictive model … [that] would be run on a daily or weekly basis on all babies born in Allegheny County the prior day or week,’ according to a September 2017 email” from a deputy director of Allegheny County DHS, Erin Dalton.  (Dalton is also disturbingly sanguine about the harm of foster care.) As I noted in a 2018 column for Youth Today, such a model already exists — indeed it’s one of the models the designers of AFST proposed to the county in the first place.

The county apparently turned it down initially because they didn’t think they could sell it politically.  But clearly, with a couple of tweaks to the algorithm, now they think they can – and, sadly, they may be right.

And so, starting in January, 2020, the county plans to phase in a “prevention” program it calls “Hello Baby.”

Here’s how the county says it will work.

During some of the most chaotic hours of a family’s life, those hours in the hospital after a baby is born, when one medical professional, volunteer or other hospital-affiliated person after another is traipsing in and out of the room, the family will be handed a packet of information about the help available through “Hello Baby.”  A nurse may also discuss the program with the family.

The program offers three tiers of services.  Tier 1 is automatically available to everyone without having to surrender their data.  That tier is simply information about help that’s already out there.  Tiers two and three provide more intensive help to individual families. But to get that help you must accept having the child labeled by an algorithm as at moderate or high risk of abuse.

You have to opt out

The program automatically assumes you have given permission for this massive invasion of family privacy – it’s the equivalent of a “default setting” on an app you may download without realizing how much data you surrender in return. (Or just think of all the data you may have given to Facebook to share at will because you didn’t find the right button among the settings.)

The “Hello Baby” document is vague about the whole opt-out process.  But it appears you get very  You get one notice – in the form of a postcard mailed to your home a few days after the child is born. Along with a reminder of the benefits of “Hello Baby” somewhere on that postcard will be a notification that you must specifically opt out of being run through the database – otherwise you and your child are slapped with that risk score whether you really wanted to participate or not. 
little chance to actually opt out.

The material made available by Allegheny County does not mention how much time you have to opt out before your name is run through the database.  Nor does it say anything about expunging a risk score if you choose to opt out after the county has already done it.

And what, exactly, are you deemed at risk of doing?

According to the county:

The model was built to stratify families based on the likelihood that there may be future safety issues so significant that the courts require the County to remove the child from the home before the child has reached their 5th birthday.

Think about that.  From the moment your child is born, you risk having that child labeled at high risk for being taken away and consigned to foster care. From the moment you say “hello, baby” you may be at greater risk of someday having to say “goodbye, baby.”  In effect, “Hello Baby” creates a ticking time bomb in the form of an electronic record that might go off if, say, an angry neighbor calls a child abuse hotline, or if you’re caught pot smoking while Black.

To avoid that risk you have to be alert to the chance to opt out, and if you opt out you risk losing out on what might be genuinely useful assistance.

We’ll never, ever misuse all that data we have on you – we promise!

County officials solemnly promise not to use the data that way – they say they’ll use it only to target help, and won’t make it a part of child abuse investigations. But even the promise has a loophole:

As the county’s “Hello Baby” overview puts it:

The County pledges that this Hello Baby analytic model will only be used to provide voluntary supportive services as described here and updated over time. [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, they will issue a signed document to that effect.  What could possibly go wrong?

I think Allegheny County really means it when they say they won’t pull away the football – sorry, misuse the algorithm – for now.  But there is no institutional safeguard in place. There is nothing to stop the leaders of the agency that created “Hello Baby” and crave having data on every child from birth from changing their minds whenever they damn well feel like it. 

When might that be? How about the first time there’s a child abuse tragedy and word leaks out that the family had been labeled “high risk” at the time of the child’s birth? That’s when the demands will come to make this information available immediately to child protective services and to use it to immediately trigger a CPS investigation – or worse.

That’s not the only problem.  The extra help families will get is likely to be provided by people who are “mandated reporters” of alleged child abuse and neglect.  There are penalties for failing to report and no penalty for mistakenly calling in a false report. So mandated reporters always are under pressure to make “CYA” referrals. Now, these mandated reporters will enter the home already knowing that a “scientific” algorithm has determined the family is “high risk” for abusing and/or neglecting their child. That’s bound to color the judgment of the helpers when deciding whether or not to phone in a report alleging child abuse or neglect.

It’s still poverty profiling

In order to counter the charge of poverty profiling, the county has tweaked the algorithm – slightly. But their claims are disingenuous at best.  Thus, they claim: “Unlike the Allegheny Family Screening Tool model, the Hello Baby model only relies on data where the County has the potential to have records for every family it only uses universal (rather than means tested) data sources.”

But the key weasel word there is potential.

Because right before making this claim, the county acknowledges that they probably will use “child protective services, homeless services and justice system data.” 

So unless Allegheny County’s jails are filled with wealthy white-collar corporate criminals, and its homeless shelters are filled with people spending the night because they misplaced the keys to their mansions in Sewickley and other wealthy Allegheny County suburbs, this is still poverty profiling.  And, of course, they include data from any previous encounters with child protective services – and CPS intervenes to a vastly disproportionate degree in the lives of poor people.  (As noted in many previous posts, CPS agencies often confuse poverty with neglect.  So if you use a previous “substantiated” allegation of child neglect to raise a risk score you are not countering bias, you are simply automating it.)

And, of course, both the justice system and the child welfare system are notorious for their racial bias – raising the risk that “Hello Baby” amounts to racial profiling as well.


Another ethically-challenged ethics review

As noted earlier, even the “ethics review” for AFST commissioned by the county itself – the one co-authored by a faculty colleague of one of the designers of AFST – emphasized that one reason AFST was ethical is that it was not triggered until someone actually phoned in a call alleging child abuse and neglect.  It was deemed ethical in part precisely because it did not seek to slap a risk score onto every child at birth.

How do you get around this little detail? Simple. Commission another ethics review from someone who is likely to tell you what you want to hear. 

So Allegheny County turned to Deborah Daro.  Like most people in child welfare, Daro really wants to help children, and she’s devoted her life to the cause.  But Daro spent much of her time at the group that now calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America – and she did so at a time when PCAA was fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse, and taking data out of context.  They were particularly keen on minimizing the role of poverty in what we label abuse and neglect. I discuss this in detail in the section of this 2010 blog post called “PCAA’s record of extremism.” But don’t take my word for it – back in 2003, PCAA came startlingly close to admitting as much, declaring:

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities.

Then Daro moved to the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.  The same 2010 blog post documents Chapin Hall’s bias, and some of Daro’s work there. 

More recently, Chapin Hall has been a leader in minimizing the role of racial bias in child welfare, and in fueling foster-care panic in Illinois.

And nearly a decade ago, Daro herself wrote a paper advocating for something very much like “Hello Baby.”  She called for:

Universal assessments of all new parents that carry the dual mission of assessing parental capacity to provide for a child's safety, and linking families with services commensurate with their needs.

So, in effect, Allegheny County asked Deborah Daro to offer an opinion as to whether using an algorithm for the kind of intervention she herself has been promoting for decades is ethical.  Apparently, she said yes. 

I say “apparently” because the actual document does not appear to be available on the Allegheny County DHS website.  Neither is a second ethics review done by Michael Veale a “Digital Center Fellow” at the Alan Turing Institute in London.  In fairness, I am aware of no biases on Veale’s part concerning child welfare. But his biography reveals no knowledge of or experience in the field.  So he was at the mercy of those who commissioned him to understand how child protective services agencies really work.

An intellectually honest ethics review would require bringing together a panel of experts who have strongly divergent views on child welfare and predictive analytics and seeing if they could formulate an ethical framework for using such an algorithm in child welfare.  But of course if Allegheny County tried that they would risk getting answers they don’t want to hear.

You don’t need an algorithm to target help

A crucial false premise behind efforts such as “Hello Baby” goes like this: Funds are limited, so we need this kind of algorithm to target help to the families who need it most.  But no such algorithm is necessary.  That’s because the families that need the most help have one thing in common: They’re poor.  So all you have to do is offer the high-end “Hello Baby” services to families of infants born in hospitals that serve the county’s poorest communities.  And, while you’re at it, make sure the help addresses concrete needs of poor families instead of just forcing them to run a gauntlet of counseling sessions and parent education classes.

The “Hello Baby” overview paper claims this won’t work because it’s “based on the incorrect assumption that poverty is the singular driver for abuse.”  But that is setting up a straw man.  No one says poverty is the singular driver for abuse.  But poverty is, by far, the most important driver of what we deem to be abuse and, especially, neglect. 

The “Hello Baby” document goes on to claim that other causes are “untreated mental illness, substance use disorder and intimate partner violence.”  But if you’re middle class your mental illness probably won’t go untreated – because you have the money to treat it.  Your substance use won’t be deemed a disorder, because middle-class parents can use substances pretty much with impunity. And an algorithm that checks criminal justice and homelessness records to determine risk isn’t likely to catch wealthy drug users, now is it?)

Most important, there is now a wealth of research documenting the simple fact that what we deem to be child maltreatment can be fixed primarily by transferring just a little more wealth to poor people.

So why do we need a giant Orwellian child welfare surveillance state to “help” these families? We don’t.  We only need it to target them, control them, and quite possibly, take away their children.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending Oct. 1, 2019

Having been away for most of September, I’m sure I missed a lot, but here are a few excellent recent stories – and one outstanding law review article.

● How many times are children taken from their parents each year? Officially, about 269,000. In reality it’s probably more than half a million.  That’s one of the important findings in a law review article by Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan of the University of South Carolina School of Law, called America’s Hidden Foster Care System.  

By its very nature it’s hard to measure, but Prof. Gupta-Kagan has pulled together the available data and credibly estimates that the “hidden” system is about as big as the one we all know. In the hidden system children have even less protection from needless removal than in the system we know.  And the vastly overhyped Family First Act, which is supposed to prevent needless foster care, actually may make this problem worse.

Some of these concerns are not new.  I first wrote about what I called the foster care Twilight Zone in 2009.  And I discussed the problems in detail in this column for Youth Today in 2016.  But Prof. Gupta-Kagan has done an outstanding job of explaining the issue, adding new information about its scope, and recommending solutions.

● What happens when a profession not known for humility is granted enormous power by another profession steeped in secrecy with no accountability?  As the Houston Chronicle and NBC News reveal in their joint investigation, pretty much what you’d expect.  And, as noted in this previous post, child abuse pediatricians, whose failures are exposed in the story, are grasping for even more power – and demanding that their colleagues do less thinking.

● The previous round-up includes a link to a story by Delia Goncalves of WUSA-TV in Washington D.C. about how D.C. public schools sometimes call the child protective services agency to pick up children when parents are late to get them after school.  On Sept. 2, the station  broadcast a follow-up story, including NCCPR’s perspective.

● On the Rethinking Foster Care blog, Vivek Sankaran argues that the almost universally-invoked standard “best interests of the child” is profoundly dangerous because it is so subjective.  He writes: “…[c]hild welfare cases are really about who gets to decide what they think is best for a child. Before a parent is found to be unfit, they get to decide. While a child is in foster care, a court or a child welfare agency might get to decide. If a child has achieved permanency with an adoptive parent, or a guardian, they get to figure this out.”

And there are several important stories from New York:

● Whenever you think the child welfare system can’t get any uglier, someone turns over another rock and a whole new batch of ugly turns up.  Writing in The New York Times, Eli Hager of The Marshall Project exposes a law in New York State that allows child protective services agencies to take away the children of unwed fathers, even when there is not even an accusation that those fathers hurt their children.  The children can be taken away permanently if they are taken from their mothers, and the fathers don’t pay “child support” – or, as it should properly be called, ransom -- to the foster care agency holding the child. (And, even if the fathers could afford this, and even if it were a good idea, there isn’t even a mechanism to make the payments.) Eleven other states have similar laws.

City and State New York has a story about a bill that would enact modest reforms to New York’s central registry of alleged child abusers, and slightly raise the standard caseworkers must use before checking off the box on the form that can wrongly list someone on that registry.

● WNYC Public Radio has a story about bills before the New York City Council that attempt to reduce needless removal and racial bias in the City child welfare system.

● And the Chronicle of Social Change follows one case that illustrates the value of New York City’s system of high-quality defense counsel for families.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

NCCPR in the Everett, Wash. Herald on the Snohomish County CASA scandal

Thanks to The Herald and reporter Noah Haglund for the comprehensive account of the scandal engulfing the Snohomish County Court Appointed Special Advocates (formerly Vollunteer Guardian Ad Litem) program (“Lying, spying and destroying evidence spur guardian reforms,” The Herald, Aug. 18).

In some ways, the most damning revelation about the program isn’t that its staff and volunteers as the story put it, “repeatedly crossed legal and ethical lines.” It’s not the “lying, spying, [and] withholding and destroying evidence” that the trial judge found “pervasive and egregious.”

The most telling revelation comes in the form of one step that the Snohomish County Superior Court felt the need to take in order to claim it was “fixing” the program.

And there's more about the Snohomish County CASA scandal here.

Monday, September 2, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Sept. 1, 2019

● First up, two items on the Snohomish County CASA scandal.  Just one day after the law firm that exposed the scandal asked a key funder of CASA to investigate, that funder, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said it is looking into the issues raised by the scandal.  I have a blog post on it, and a summary of the issues in this op-ed for The (Everett, Wash.) Herald.

● Just in time for back-to-school, school districts are ramping up their use of child protective services to harass families.  WUSA-TV exposed a particularly egregious example in Washington, D.C.  I have a blog post about it, including a link to WUSA’s story.

● One year ago, a British online news site, The Tortoise held what it calls a “ThinkIn” in the Bronx.  But let the reporter explain:

It was about masculinity and the issues facing the city’s young men. A civil rights lawyer made an intervention in the kind of tone that cuts through the noise. People weren’t so scared of the police knocking on the door, she said. What families in the Bronx most feared was a different wing of the state; it was child protection workers, because that’s when you might face the worst and lose your children.

Not only did this lawyer’s comment lead to a very good story about child welfare in New York, it led to several good stories about the depressingly-similar problems in the British system.  All of the stories are here.

● A federal appeals court ruled against a mother wrongly placed in Hawaii’s central registry of alleged child abusers.  The statute of limitations for appeals had expired – but only because the mother never knew she was in the registry in the first place, and the state never bothered to tell her.  Though the court felt it was forced to rule against the mother, one judge issued a scathing opinion blasting the state for the ultimate Catch-22.  Honolulu Civil Beat has the story.

● More than a year ago, the Associated Press exposed the use of coerced “voluntary” foster-care placements arranged by a county child protective services agency in North Carolina.  These are off-the-books placements in which child protective services says if you don’t place your child “voluntarily,” usually with a relative, they’ll take you to court and place the children with strangers.  It’s actually a common practice all over the country – but in Cherokee County, NC, it was so egregious that the state actually took over the county agency for a while.

Now, Carolina Public Press has dug even deeper and found that things were actually even worse; including a possibly illegal rush to terminate parental rights, and the state knew what was going on for months before acting.  The story is a bit confusing; it’s easier to follow if you read the AP stories first.

● Even as that was being exposed, the North Carolina Legislature actually was considering legislation to further run roughshod over the rights of children to live with their own families.  I discuss that bill in this blog post

● And a lawsuit in Vermont highlights the issue of wrongful removal in that state, which takes away children at one of the highest rates in the country.  VTDigger reports.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Weaponizing CPS: In DC, if you’re late to pick up your child from school, you may have to pick him up from Child Protective Services (assuming they let you have him back)

UPDATE, SEPT. 30: See NCCPR's perspective in this follow-up story from WUSA9

Remember the school district that got national attention for threatening to turn families in to child protective services if they couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s school lunches?

It turns out it’s not just one school district.  The Philadelphia Inquirer found that in Southern New Jersey alone, at least eight school district that have policies allowing schools to do the same thing.

In New Jersey, as in Luzerne County, Pa., where the practice first came to light, the child protective services agency made clear schools should never do that, calling such threats “a misuse and misrepresentation” of the agency.

But in Washington, D.C., the CPS agency gave a disturbing non-answer when asked about a practice in the District that is as bad or worse: turning in parents for alleged neglect if they’re so much as a minute late picking their children up from school.

The practice was revealed by WUSA-TV, after they heard from a parent.  

She, and other parents at Paterson ElementarySchool, received a “welcome back” to school letter from the school principal that is anything but welcoming.  It is so dripping with condescension and filled with boldfaced, underlined, all-caps finger-wagging admonitions that one can only wonder: If this is how they treat the parents, what is it like to be a student there?

But one threat is particularly disturbing:

If you choose not to have your child remain in the Afterschool Program, then he/she MUST be picked up promptly at 3:15 p.m. For those students that are not picked up on time (3:15pm) the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) will be contacted, and parents will be required to pick their child up from their office." [Emphasis most definitely in the original]

Notice the part about the afterschool program.  It’s not as if the school would be empty by 3:30.  On the contrary, when a parent is simply stuck in traffic, or has some kind of emergency, or just thought it was someone else’s turn to pick up the child, presumably the school could simply allow the child to sit in at the afterschool program.  (And if, by some chance there’s some stupid bureaucratic rule prohibiting this, then surely there are adults who could stay a little later to watch the child.)

This cruel policy appears rooted either in making things more convenient for the school or contempt for the families who send children to Patterson Elementary School.

Guess who goes to Patterson Elementary

If you haven’t already guessed, the student population is 99 percent Black.  The other one percent is Hispanic/Latino.  One hundred percent are listed as economically disadvantaged.  These are precisely the parents who generally have the most stress in their lives, and are likely to find it hardest to always get to the school at precisely 3:15pm.

Officially, this appalling infliction of trauma on children is district-wide policy – but do you really think they’d get away with this at a school in tony Georgetown?

Worse than the threatening letter is the fact that schools in the District have, in fact, been carrying out the threat, and CFSA has been going along with it. 

Back when the Pennsylvania school lunch story broke, and the county child welfare agency responded the right way, I wrote this:

I suspect that, while most CPS agencies wouldn’t have endorsed what the school district did, they wouldn’t condemn it either – since their party line is report! report! report!  Call in with anything and everything, no matter how absurd, they say, and let our “professionals” decide.

And sure enough, CFSA lived down to my expectations.  According to WUSA:

[CFSA] Deputy Director Robert Matthews said that in many cases, they call mom or dad to find out they’re just stuck in traffic. CFSA couldn’t tell WUSA9 how often this happens because they don’t keep records of that. But he said they work with schools to track families down. 

Wait. Don’t schools also have telephones?  Why doesn’t CFSA tell the schools to do this themselves – instead of traumatizing children first?

What CFSA should have said is:

We are not in the business of doing the school district’s scut work for them.  We have real cases of abuse and neglect to investigate.  And we’re not here to inflict trauma on children for your convenience.  We will refuse to send our overloaded caseworkers to your school just because a parent is late to pick up a child, and we demand that you immediately stop calling us in such cases.

Instead, they said only this:

Situations like this do not automatically mean it’s a case of neglect or cause for investigation.

Well, isn’t that reassuring.  There are several problems with this.

From the 19th Century, when Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Children were known in poor neighborhoods as “the Cruelty,” to today, children in those neighborhoods know exactly what an agency like CFSA is all about.  They have to. For one thing, one recent study says a majority of African-American children will be the subject of a child abuse investigation at some point in their childhoods.

So children have every reason to be scared when caseworkers show up at the school and take them to the CFSA offices downtown.

And while this is not automatically deemed cause for investigation, that call is the equivalent of issuing CFSA a fishing license to poke and pry into every aspect of a family’s life.  Since any family subjected to this is likely to be poor, and poverty often is confused with neglect, the trauma of that first trip to the CFSA office could be only the beginning.

In my previous post, I said this keeps happening because we allow it to happen:

Half a century of horror stories that bear no resemblance to what CPS agencies typically see, combined with politicians trying to score points by “cracking down on child abuse” have led us to this: a child welfare surveillance state where everyone is under constant suspicion and CPS is the weapon of choice for all sorts of bureaucratic bullies.

In DC the problem is worsened by the local Child Advocacy Center, which, undoubtedly means well, but winds up stoking paranoia. Take a look at the repercussions.

There are two legislative bodies that could put a stop to this practice in Washington, D.C.: The schoolboard could bar schools from calling CFSA just because parents are late picking up their kids, or the D.C. Council could bar CFSA from acting on such calls.  Presumably D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser could do the same.

But the bigger issue is this: As long as we are driven by fear, and as long as child welfare agencies are the enablers, school districts, among others, will be able to exploit that fear for their own convenience.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Another bill takes a swing at drug using parents – if it passes, guess who’s going to get hit

            The story on the online news site North Carolina Health News is headlined “Foster care bill could allow faster termination of parental rights.”  Written by the site’s founder, Rose Hoban, it is a far better take than most on issues involving child welfare and drug use, showing rare care and sensitivity.

It’s not unusual to see stories about the effects of opioid use on children in which reporters consider parents too subhuman even to talk to (Case in point: The Washington Post.) In contrast Hoban’s story begins with such a parent, brings out her humanity, and shows her successful reunification with her child.  Although I’ll spend much of this post citing parts of the story with which I disagree, Hoban goes to unusual lengths to present all sides.

            But (paragraphs like the one above are almost always followed by “but…”) I do disagree with one central premise of the story.  Hoban writes:

At issue is the tussle between the rights of children who have troubled parents to live less chaotic lives, in foster care, or with perhaps adoptive parents, and the rights of birth parents to take the time to get their lives in order, to win back their rights to raise those children.

            That is the standard framing of the issue.  But the problem with bills like the one in North Carolina, known as House Bill 918, is not that they hurt parents – the problem is that they hurt children.

Lessons from the last “Worst Drug Plague Ever”

            That is a lesson we all should have learned from the last “Worst Drug Plague Ever,” crack cocaine.

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine. 

Similarly, consider what The New York Times found when it looked at the best way to treat infants born with opioids in their systems. According to the Times:

[A] growing body of evidence suggests that what these babies need is what has been taken away: a mother.  Separating newborns in withdrawal can slow the infants’ recovery, studies show, and undermine an already fragile parenting relationship. When mothers are close at hand, infants in withdrawal require less medication and fewer costly days in intensive care.
 “Mom is a powerful treatment,” said Dr. Matthew Grossman, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital who has studied the care of opioid-dependent babies.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child. 

Indeed, as I discuss in this column for the trade journal Youth Today, child welfare’s entire approach to substance abuse exists at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance.

The chaos of foster care

That Florida study is only one example of why House Bill 918 would hurt children. 

The story says that part of the issue is the right of children to have “less chaotic lives, in foster care or with perhaps adoptive parents...” Sometimes that’s what happens; often it isn’t.  Foster care is enormously chaotic.  That’s one reason why study after study after study has found what that Florida study found: in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children in foster care.

That’s true even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are.  But another series of studies finds abuse in at least one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

Yes, I know. The story quotes proponents as suggesting families are lining up to adopt these children.  But that’s also what they said when they fooled Congress into passing the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.  (I say fooled because some of those making the case at the time knew that wasn’t true.)  In any event, it didn’t work. Instead, terminations far outran adoptions, and the number of children “aging out” of foster care with no home increased. 

Attacking kinship care

The bill also seeks to undermine the least harmful form of foster care, kinship foster care, in which children are placed with relatives instead of strangers.

            The story also quotes a lawyer for a county social services agency whining about how hard it is to find relatives.  That simply gives away the fact that a lot of the impetus behind this bill isn’t what’s best for children, it’s what’s easiest for agencies. 

In Allegheny County, Pa. to cite just one example, 56 percent of foster children are placed in kinship foster care.  It’s not impossible; it just takes more effort, and a true dedication to putting the interests of children first – because (yes, it’s that pesky research again) study after study has shown that kinship foster care is better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

There also are the usual trendy claims about brain science, bonding and trauma.  It’s not that those issues aren’t real, but those favoring a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare have been cherry-picking from the research.  For example, one of the worst “Adverse Childhood Experiences” a child can endure is removal from a parent. Yet those who cherry-pick from the research propose what amounts to trying to fight trauma with trauma.

As for bonding, that too is real, and really important.  But look at what those Florida infants are trying to tell us, and what we’re learning about how to treat newborns with opioids in their system: Don’t break the bond these children were born with.   More generally, bonding is a lot more complicated and nuanced than simply running a stopwatch and declaring that the child is bonded with, and only with, whoever had her or him the longest.

Indeed, one should be especially wary when child welfare agencies play the bonding card – they tend to deal it from the bottom of the deck.  In fact, the Trump Administration is using it to try to justify keeping apart some of the children torn from their parents at the Mexican border.

Racial and class bias

I was surprised that there was nothing in the story about the two factors that are at the root of almost everything in child welfare: Race and class.  The biggest single problem in child welfare is the confusion of poverty with neglect, compounded by the racial bias that permeates the system.

The North Carolina bill would add even more power to a system riven by racial and class bias. What this bill, and others like it, really would do is turn the child welfare system into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.