Tuesday, January 19, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 19, 2021

I haven't seen a news story about this yet, but 
this billboard, at 125th St. and 2nd Ave. in New York,
the scene of a Martin Luther King Day protest led by
Joyce McMillan of JMacForFamilies, 
seems like a good way to start the week in review. 
UPDATE: Here's the story.

● Toward the start of the pandemic, several major news organizations challenged the racist myth that as soon as the eyes of overwhelmingly white middle-class professionals no longer were on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents would unleash upon those children a “pandemic of child abuse.”  Now, one of those organizations, the Associated Press has revisited the issue.  

● Tomorrow many parts of the federal government will have new leadership.  But a lot of progressive advocates in child welfare hope the Biden Administration will keep one leader on the job: Jerry Milner, who ran the Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau.  This story from The Imprint explains why.  And if you agree, you can sign this petition. 

● Thanks to outstanding reporting by USA Today Network reporters, Florida journalism is beginning to come to grips with the foster-care panic that has swept though that state. But Florida lawmakers have not. 

● Speaking of failure in Florida, Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami Law School has an in-depth analysis on his blog of a new report on the Florida CASA program.   

● Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School argues that in helping children achieve permanency we need to aim for real permanency – relational permanency – instead of what amounts to paper permanency. He writes: 

As we embark on a new year within the child protection system, might we flip the script and adopt a new prevailing narrative – that we identify what relationships matter to the child, unequivocally support them, and then use our legal tools to allow the child to benefit from those relationships. Might we better serve families by refusing to permanently destroy relationships between children and their parents that are important to children? 

The Arizona Republic reports that Arizona’s family police agency (a more accurate term than child welfare agency) will be subject to two years of federal monitoring as a result of complaints that it did all sorts of awful things to families whose first language isn’t English. 

Among other things: The Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) failed to provide documents about what parents had to do to get their kids back in a language the parents actually could read.  Also, according to Sylvia Herrera of the Barrio Defense Committee, which gathered many of the complaints cited by the Office of Civil Rights in the federal Department of Health and Human Services:

Parent aides, who supervise visits between parents and their children, would bar parents from talking to their children in Spanish, out of concern the parents might say something inappropriate that the aide could not understand … 

Herrera said she was heartened that the agreement requires the civil-rights office to monitor DCS' language services for the next two years. "However, it does not address the fact that hundreds of families were destroyed by DCS practices that lead to foster care and eventual adoption to non-relatives instead of family reunification," she said. 

No agreement, she said, can undo the harm that has already been caused because a family didn't get the help it needed to navigate the system.

No word on whether this means, from now on, “Professional Kidnapper” t-shirts will have to be translated.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Florida journalism begins to face up to foster-care panic; Florida lawmaklers do not.

USA Today Network stories also reveal how the Florida Department of Children and Families effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend. 


Confronted with the fact that his agency overlooked
horriffic abuse in foster care and routinely tears children
from the arms of battered mothers, Florida DCF Secretary
Chad Poppell offered, at best, a mea minima culpa.

                In 2014, bad journalism set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  A Miami Herald series, falsely scapegoated family preservation for child abuse deaths.  In fact, efforts to keep families together, led by two leaders of the state child welfare agency, Bob Butterworth and the late George Sheldon, had made children safer.

             The Florida Legislature responded predictably. It passed a bunch of laws encouraging even more needless removal of children from their homes, escalating the panic.

             In 2020, good journalism exposed the harm done to children by the Herald’s bad journalism.  USA Today Network Florida reporters demonstrated how the foster-care panic overloaded the system, prompting the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the assortment of privatized “lead agencies” that together mismanage Florida child welfare to turn a blind eye (to an even greater degree than before) to horrific abuse inflicted on children in foster care.

             Then the reporters published a series of stories about children needlessly torn from their mothers and consigned to the chaos of that same horrific system because the mothers were victims of domestic violence.

             Last week, some Florida legislators responded predictably – accepting at face value meaningless assurances from the current “leader” of Florida DCF, Chad Poppell.

So for starters, let’s review what Poppell and the legislature – as well as the Herald and its ally in pushing Florida to relentlessly tear apart families, the Tampa Bay Times – want swept under the rug.

The USA Today Network journalists found that the system

 …sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth. …

The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care. …

 As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.


At a legislative committee meeting on Jan. 12, Poppell offered up what can best be called a mea minima culpa

 “I won’t belabor the point, the quality of the work was poor,  We did a bad job,” he said, adding “DCF shouldn’t be finding out about these things in the newspaper.”

 But he neglected to mention that he had done everything he could to prevent his own agency, or anyone else, from finding out.  As the USA Today story notes:

DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.

Taking children from battered mothers

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, the legislative committee barely touched the issue of abuse in foster care.  And when it comes to the issue of the harm done to children taken from battered mothers, they don’t seem to have said a word. 

So let’s review what the journalists found.  Here’s how one of the stories begins: 

Her memory of the midnight attack was muddled, but her battered body bore the story. 

Purple bruises peppered her arms, legs and chest. Blood dried on her busted lip. Dark, swollen skin circled her bloodshot right eye. Hospital scans confirmed her ex-boyfriend’s attack had inflicted internal trauma too. 

Now, hours later, he was in jail and Leah Gunion was home again. Concussion-weary and tender, she tucked her toddler back into bed and sat down to nurse her infant son. An 8 a.m. knock at the door disrupted her first moment of peace. 

A woman waited at the threshold. Her polo shirt bore the insignia of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Thinking she was there to help, Leah let her in. 

For the next six weeks, Leah would battle the state for custody of her children, though DCF investigators never suggested that she injured her kids. They didn’t accuse her of using drugs or failing to provide for her boys’ basic needs. 

But she had lost consciousness from being beaten and strangled, briefly leaving her children unsupervised. They ordered Leah to never be alone with her children, or risk losing them. 

Ultimately her children were indeed taken away.  It happened right after a domestic violence counselor assured the mother it wouldn’t: 

 “She was very afraid that day of the department,” [the counselor] recalled. “And I stood right here in this building and said, ‘You’ve done everything right. Don’t worry about the department. They’re not going to take your kids.’” 

Because a police officer with a bodycam was there to provide backup, we can see what happened next:


Does Poppell know the research?

             Poppell tried to dismiss the cases as isolated while at the same time justifying tearing children from the arms of battered mothers on grounds that the children had been emotionally abused.          

But research shows that while witnessing domestic violence can harm children, emotionally, taking children from nonoffending parents harms those children far more.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  That’s why in one state, New York, as a result of a class-action lawsuit, the practice is illegal.  (NCCPR’s vice president was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that lawsuit.)  In Florida, in contrast, DCF’s approach can be summed up as: please pass the salt. 

            As the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote in an editorial. Poppell ... 

...should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents  – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. 

            One reason the emotional trauma is so great in these situations: Children assume they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The Florida stories illustrate just that.  Leah Gunion’s children ultimately were returned, but ... 

Her toddler, whom DCF and police had picked up from day care, asked what he’d done wrong. “He thinks he was arrested,” Leah said, something she’d previously told him happens only to bad boys. 

            As for the claim that such cases are isolated, here’s what the USA Today Network reporters found: 

[I]n defiance of widely accepted best practices, Florida aggressively removes children from parents – most of them mothers – who have been battered by an intimate partner, a USA TODAY investigation found. … While other states have moved away from that approach, DCF cited domestic violence as the reason it removed more than 3,500 children from biological parents in 2018, an increase of nearly 1,400 from 2013. It is the primary reason for 25% of removals this year. … 

USA TODAY identified 22 domestic violence victims who were willing to share their stories and provide case documents that normally are hidden from public view. … Taken together, their experiences reveal a system stacked against women who are abused. Caseworkers and judges treat them like criminals on probation, even when their children have not been physically harmed, and impose a level of scrutiny that many parents could not pass. Any failing can be used against them to remove their children or delay reunification. 

Perhaps worst of all, Florida DCF effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend: 

Worried their children could be taken again, eight mothers say they’re now afraid to call 911 if they’re in danger. Four mothers told USA TODAY they believe their children were abused or medically neglected in a foster home. 

“The thing I regret most is that I ever called 911,” said a Martin County mother of two whose sons spent eight months in foster care after she reported to police that her boyfriend hit her and threatened her with a gun. “But I could also have been killed that night. Which one do you pick?”


The Florida Legislature responds – NOT! 

On Jan. 12, Poppell spoke at a meeting of the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.  He admitted that DCF had wrongly dismissed a large proportion of the allegations of sexual abuse in foster care – now that the journalists had overcome DCF’s own efforts to hide the problem.  He promised the agency will look more carefully in the future. 

But he implied that the official figure of 92 children with such allegations in fiscal year 2020 is accurate.  In fact, study after study shows that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 

Having just admitted that his investigations of abuse in foster care are sloppy and miss a lot of such abuse, Poppell then went on to claim that abuse in foster care had declined since 2007.  I trust the problem with that claim is obvious. 

As for the foster-care panic, Poppell claimed, of course, that all those children were taken to keep them safe.  But, as always happens with foster-care panics, it backfired.  Independent monitors found that the one time child safety really improved in Florida was when Butterworth and Sheldon were running DCF and doing more to keep families together. 

By overloading the system, the foster-care panic didn’t just make foster care less safe, it also made it harder for caseworkers to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

But safety wasn’t the real reason for taking away all those children.  That was made clear by Poppell himself – inadvertently – when he pointed out that the number of children torn from their families has returned to about where it was before the panic.  

But why? If all those children were so unsafe they needed to be taken away in 2014, why not now? 

      There are two possible explanations for the rise and fall in entries into Florida foster care: 

1.              1. By amazing coincidence, child abuse in Florida spiked at precisely the same moment the Herald was publishing its stories, and then it magically declined again. 

2.              2. Thousands of children were needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, consigned to the chaos of foster care, suffered emotional trauma akin to that suffered by children torn from their families at the Mexican border and, in some cases were horribly abused in foster care itself – all so Florida DCF could appease the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

             So, which is more likely? 

1,280 “great things” per child? 

Speaking of unlikely, Poppell also declared that “a million great things happen in this system every day.” 

I did the math.  On average, 781 children come to the attention of DCF every day – that’s the number of children who are investigated as alleged victims of child abuse and neglect.  So if Poppell is right, his agency is so magnificent that it does an average of 1,280 great things for each one of those children!  Kinda makes you wonder why the outcomes for children who go through the system are so rotten, doesn’t it? 

And yet, instead of holding Poppell to account for any of this, his token initiatives about abuse in foster care reportedly were “well-received.” Another news account said “For the most part, the Senate committee members appeared pleased with Poppell’s responses.” 

Of course they were.  Poppell simply ignored the problem at the root of all the others – taking away too many children.  That’s the problem for which the legislature is complicit. 

The chair of the committee State Sen. Lauren Book had earlier written that “The USA Today investigative series will serve as a blueprint for me to follow in examining these issues.”  

But if she, or any other committee member, so much as uttered a word at the hearing about what was being done to the children of battered women, no news account mentioned it. 

So if you’re really going to use those stories as your guide, Sen. Book,  

● Will you introduce legislation to make it illegal to tear a child from the arms of mothers whose only crime is to, themselves, be the victims of domestic violence? 

● Will you demand that DCF stop taking away so many families needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect? 

● Will you demand that DCF return to the reforms initiated under Butterworth and Sheldon, reforms shown by independent monitors to make children safer? 

● Will you demand that Florida create a program of high-quality interdisciplinary family representation like the one in New York City that has spared so many children the trauma of prolonged needless foster care, with no compromise of safety? 

● Will you at least demand that DCF follow this sound advice from the News-Journal and start 

...[examining] a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations that assigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care.

          And one more thing: Will you demand that Florida child welfare do what you say you are going to do and use the USA Today series as a blueprint – instead of taking its cues from the Miami Herald?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 12, 2021

● The Daytona Beach News-Journal has an excellent editorial highlighting how Florida child welfare tears apart families, and traumatizes children, when a parent’s only “crime” was to have been, herself, a victim of domestic violence. Citing the excellent work of USA Today Network reporters in Florida, the editorial declares that 

– the system is too often “stacked against women who are abused,” treating them as if they were at fault for being beaten into unconsciousness or trapped by poverty in an abusive relationship. Their children are traumatized, torn away from their mothers when they most need their comfort. And in case after case, the USA Today reporters documented a system dead set against reunification  – even when records reflect that the children were never physically harmed. 

The editorial suggests that the Florida Department of Children and Families examine 

a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations that assigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care. 

The editorial said DCF Secretary Chad Poppell 

should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents  – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. 

That also would be good advice to reporters at the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, whose fomenting of foster-care panic has done so much to create the problem.  

● There is a way to report on the question of child abuse and COVID-19 without descending into racially-biased fearmongering. In a story this week, the Arizona Republic shows how to do it right

Most notable are comments from a group that once was the foremost proponent of a “take the child and run” approach to child welfare in Arizona: 

Molly Dunn at the Arizona Children's Action Alliance said she's less worried about the drop in calls than she was in the spring.  “We don’t know what will happen when things get back to normal," said Dunn, director of child welfare and juvenile justice for the alliance. "But when I look at the research, I’m less concerned. The real threat is the economic stress that families are under." … 

"We don’t need to redouble (efforts) to detect child maltreatment, we need to redouble efforts to reduce the economic stressors that could lead to abuse or neglect," Dunn said. Programs such as eviction protection, improved unemployment benefits and help with necessities, such as food, could go a long way to reducing that stress, she said. 

Worries about the reduction in "eyes on the child" due to teachers not having physical contact with kids might be overblown, Dunn said. 

● NCCPR has updated our report on child welfare in Minnesota.  The bottom line: There’s been progress, but what constitutes progress in Minnesota still would be considered an obscene rate of tearing apart families in many other states. 

● Adapting an idea pioneered in New York City, The Imprint reports on how family defenders in Los Angeles now are hiring parent advocates to help families get through the system – and help children get home sooner, or not get taken away at all. 

● And for those who need still more evidence of racial bias in child welfare, check out this story from MDedge.  From the story: 

[A] 2018 systematic review found that Black and other non-White children were significantly more likely than White children to be evaluated with a skeletal survey. In one of the studies included, at a large urban academic center, Black and Latinx children with accidental fractures were 8.75 times more likely to undergo a skeletal survey than White children and 4.3 times more likely to be reported to child protective services. 

"And let me emphasize that these are children who were ultimately found to have accidental fractures," [Dr. Tiffani] Johnson said. 

Meanwhile, in an analysis of known cases of head trauma, researchers found that abuse was missed in 37% of White children, compared with 19% of non-White children.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 5, 2021

The Imprint has a story about key issues in child welfare and juvenile justice in 2020.  Here’s the part I hope they notice at the Biden transition team: 

Bluntly put, there are a lot of blue-leaning child welfare folks who hate Trump but love what they’ve seen from the U.S. Children’s Bureau during his tenure. Under the leadership of Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner and his right hand, David Kelly, the office has focused on advocating for a movement upstream toward maltreatment prevention and a reduction in the use of foster care. The duo also spearheaded an expansion of federal child welfare financing to help states pay for more, and better, legal representation for both children and parents involved in child welfare cases. 

There is a push by family preservation advocates to persuade the Biden transition team to keep Milner on to continue under the new leadership at Health and Human Services (HHS) … 

● Two weeks ago, I highlighted these stories from USA TODAY Network Florida about the swatch of destruction cut through families by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Now, a story of another such family. Elizabeth Brico writes in Filter about what the termination of her children’s rights to her has done to them: 

This could have been an opportunity to teach them about resilience, resolve and recovery. Instead, it has become a powerful lesson in self-loathing. The state chased permanency—but the only permanency achieved is the grief that now permeates all of our lives. 

● State laws that require hospitals to turn in to the family police (a more accurate term than child protective services) any pregnant women who allegedly has a substance use disorder do enormous harm to children needlessly taken from their parents at birth, and discourage women from seeking prenatal care.  Alexandria Kristensen-Cabrera, an M.D.-P.hD. student at the University of Minnesota, has a column in MinnPost supporting legislation to modify the law in Minnesota. 

● On the national level, Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, and Amelia Franck Meyer, founder and CEO of Alia Innovations, write in The Imprint about what “building back better” would mean in child welfare.  “Instead of building a system that keeps children safe from their families,” they write, “it will be one based on keeping children safely with their families.” That will require “revolutionary action,” they write, but “We believe that the options of fixing what exists now (evolutionary change) and building a new way of work (revolutionary change) are not mutually exclusive.” 

Also in The Imprint, Prof. Vivek Sankaran writes about how child welfare can “smother” families 

…through our shaming and judgment. By piling needless requirements upon them. By expecting them to trust us even though we can’t make the time to develop authentic relationships with them. By not always fulfilling our commitments and legal obligations. 

● On The Imprint’s podcast, family defenders in Colorado talk about the devastation of families due to child welfare’s failed response to COVID-19, including a mad rush to terminate parental rights.  It starts at 17 minutes in, and see especially the results of a survey starting at 26 minutes in.  MedPage Today has an in-depth overview of the effects of COVID on child welfare.  And NCCPR has more in our report, Child Welfare’s Pandemic of Fear.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 22, 2020

Once again, one story stands out:

●Last week, when I urged people to read this outstanding story from Mother Jones about the horrors family police agencies (a more accurate term than child welfare agencies) inflict on families, I wrote: “As you read the story consider: The New York City system is better than most. So wherever you are, things probably are even worse.”

Case in point: Florida.  These stories from USA TODAY Network Florida are not easy to read.  That’s not because they aren’t beautifully written.  But they force us to face the anguish inflicted on children torn by family police agencies from mothers whose only crime was themselves being victims of abusive husbands/boyfriends.

In particular, consider whether you are ready to see this police bodycam video when a battered mother has her children taken, even after her domestic violence counselor assured her she’d done everything right and it wouldn’t happen.

“She was very afraid that day of the department,” [the counselor] recalled. “And I stood right here in this building and said, ‘You’ve done everything right. Don’t worry about the department. They’re not going to take your kids.’”

Here’s what happened next:

● Unfortunately, brilliant reporting such as this, and the Mother Jones story, remain the exception.  Most of the time, the biases and tropes that characterize the “crime beat” also characterize child welfare reporting – something first pointed out by the folks at Rise when they highlighted this story from NiemanLab called “Defund the Crime Beat.”

The story begins this way:

Let’s be honest: Crime coverage is terrible. It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism. It creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve. …

I don’t think most child welfare coverage, even the worst of it, is clickbait. Most of it is produced with the best of intentions.  But that means it may be even harder for journalists to face up to the rest of the critique.  Much child welfare coverage is racist, classist and fear-based and creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve. See for example the master narrative about child abuse and COVID-19.

● Another case in point: The lack of skepticism about predictive analytics in child welfare – particularly the Orwellian model in place in Pittsburgh.  But even had that system never embraced this dangerous fad, that system, one whose history I know particularly well, is a huge disappointment. Let’s put it this way. Once it was a national disgrace, then it became a national model.  But now it’s a disgrace again.

● The voices of families themselves can help counter false narratives. Rise has been elevating those voices for 15 years.  Rise Director Nora McCarthy and Training Director Jeannette Vega talk about the work of Rise, and the need to change the system on The Imprint’s weekly podcast.

● Two excellent stories bring to light the huge problem of “hidden foster care,” in which families are coerced into “voluntarily” placing children with relatives.  Even the minimal due process protections of out-in-the-open foster care don’t apply, and the placements are not even reported in official figures – so states can pretend to be reducing foster care when they’re actually sweeping it under the rug. 

Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan, who coined the term “hidden foster care,” writes in The Imprint:

[H]idden foster care raises a set of concerns. Foremost is whether these children truly need to be separated from their parents. While parents nominally agree to hidden foster care, they do so following agency threats. …

To be clear, parents have the legal power to place their children with family members, and we should protect that power. But such decisions must be voluntary. When a state agency threatens parents and kin that children will be placed in stranger foster care unless a family member agrees to take them, voluntariness is seriously in question.

And Roxanna Asgarian has a story in The Appeal about how all this plays out in a state that appears to be among the worst offenders – Texas.

● Diane Redleaf writes in The Imprint about why the Biden Administration needs to prioritize ending child welfare’s longstanding confusion of poverty with neglect: 

We seem to have a pathological need to pathologize families, instead of helping them with their obvious needs. We have to get over this serious disorder, starting with a better diagnosis of our own problem.  

● Also in The Imprint: A story about how Los Angeles County child welfare’s poor response to COVID-19 has made a bad system even worse.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

RETREAT FROM REFORM: When Marc Cherna first took over child welfare in Pittsburgh it was a national disgrace. Nearly 25 years later, he leaves it – a national disgrace all over again

● “I’m glad I’m leaving this place in very good shape,” Cherna says. In fact, he’s leaving it almost as bad as he found it.  Pittsburgh tears children from families at a rate nearly as high as it was when Cherna arrived in 1996; a rate far higher than many other cities, including Philadelphia.

 ● There were some good years in between, and things aren’t AS bad as they were in 1996. But make no mistake; Cherna has failed – and not just because of predictive analytics.  That’s why Pittsburgh needs to find a new leader who will radically change direction – as Cherna did, before he retreated from reform. 

By Richard Wexler, NCCPR Executive Director 

A story in The Imprint about the decision by Marc Cherna, the longtime director of the Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) Pa., Department of Human Services to retire begins with one of Cherna’s favorite lines: 

When Marc Cherna first came to work in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County’s child welfare system was floundering. Plagued by child deaths, burdensome caseloads, staff burnout and attrition and a lot of negative media coverage, it was, Cherna readily acknowledged, “a national disgrace.” 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also used the quote, calling it “a phrase he’s used frequently.” Indeed he has,  But there’s more to it. 

Actually, the full quote is: “Allegheny County once was a pathetic national disgrace. Today, it is a shining national model.”  I know this because I’m the one who said it, in a CNN interview in 2002.  At the time it was true.  

But it hasn’t been true for awhile.  So let me update my quote: “Allegheny County once was a pathetic national disgrace. Then it became is a shining national model.  Now it’s a disgrace again.”  And almost all of it, good and bad, is because of Cherna. 

Marc Cherna

I’ve watched him in action from the beginning; in fact, slightly before the beginning.  In the
mid-1990s, I served on a search committee that unanimously, and with great enthusiasm, recommended Cherna and one other candidate for the job. 

For awhile that was something to brag about. Early on, Cherna significantly reduced the number of children in foster care and made more modest, but real, reductions in entries into care. He put housing counselors in child welfare offices and provided transportation to visits in a county where getting around without a car is notoriously difficult. He supported open court hearings and was a pioneer in emphasizing kinship care. 

But by 2010 the whole effort had stalled – even though it hadn’t gone nearly far enough.  Then things started going backwards. 

Yes, the number of children in foster care was cut in half.  But that’s because the original number was insanely high.  The reduction actually stopped dead in its tracks in 2011.  The most recent number published by the county, for January 1, 2018 – the number Cherna brags about – is, proportionately nearly, 50 percent higher than the state and national averages.  It’s even a little higher than Philadelphia, long excoriated, rightly, for being an outlier in holding children in foster care.  All of these comparisons factor in rates of child poverty.  Oh, and by September 30, 2018, the number of children trapped in foster care in Allegheny County had risen again

That isn’t even the worst of it. 

The point-in-time number is not the most important when determining if a community is ripping apart families too quickly. For that, you need to look at entries into care over the course of a year.  The picture there is even more dismal.  The reduction in entries during Cherna’s early years was more modest – about one-third.  Again, the county’s own data on first entries into care show the reduction in first entries ended in 2011 – in almost every year since they’ve gone up.  By 2017 almost all the gains had been erased – children were being torn from their parents at nearly the same rate as when Cherna started. (Look closely: Although line superimposed on the county’s own graph, below, suggests steady decline, the bars themselves show a pattern more like a repeating U. The line distorts the visual impression made by the actual bars in the bar graph.) 


These data measure first entries into care.  The county report doesn’t include early data for entries and re-entries combined. By that measure the county might look a little better, since, in recent years the county has reduced the proportion of re-entries.  Nevertheless, when comparing total entries into care – entries and re-entries combined -- to other cities, the rate at which children are taken from their parents in Pittsburgh is obscene. 

 Over the course of a year, Pittsburgh tears apart families at a rate 50 percent higher than Pennsylvania’s longtime exemplar of bad child welfare practice: Philadelphia. (See data tables for all Pennsylvania counties here.)  The rate of removal in Pittsburgh (total entries divided by impoverished child population) is more than triple the rate of New York City and Chicago.  In fact, were Pittsburgh big enough to be among the nation’s ten largest cities, its rate of removal – more than 32 total entries of children into foster care every thousand impoverished children - would be worse than at least nine of them.  Again, these figures factor in rates of child poverty.  

There is no evidence that Pittsburgh is a cesspool of depravity with vastly more child abuse than all these other cities.  There is no evidence from anywhere in America that taking away huge numbers of children makes them safer – and considerable evidence to the contrary

The kinship care excuse 

The response from Allegheny County to these figures is likely to rely heavily on the fact that Pittsburgh places a larger proportion of children in kinship foster care – relatives instead of strangers – than the other cities.  

That’s true – thanks largely to the pioneering work of Dr. Sharon McDaniel and her agency, A Second Chance, Inc.  That agency really is a shining national model. It may be the only genuinely positive legacy of Cherna’s tenure.  But here, too, there are limits. 

For starters, kinship foster care is still foster care.  Yes, it’s almost always the least harmful form of foster care, but a kinship placement still can be enormously disruptive and still do harm. 

But also, Pittsburgh is such an extreme outlier that even if you compared only the number of entries into care in which children are placed with strangers in each city, Pittsburgh still would come out badly.  Indeed, Pittsburgh’s seemingly outstanding record in using kinship care may be in part because Cherna’s agency places children with relatives who, in some other cities, would not have been taken from their homes at all. 

How it all plays out 

Case in point: A case portrayed in this story in the Post-Gazette as a success.  The story is all about how much a caseworker for a private agency, Three Rivers Youth, did to help this family – including yes placement with a nearby relative, after the children were taken, and how grateful the mother is for that assistance. 

But look at why the Allegheny County Department of Human Services took the children in the first place: 

There were several holes in Ms. Roberson’s cramped home in the Hill District, giving rodents and other pests unfettered access to rooms where she and her five children ate and slept. She said she was having trouble getting her landlord to repair them. 

Once Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families caught wind of the disrepair, along with other issues such as some of her children’s truancy, [her children] were placed into foster care. 

This is a classic example of one the biggest single problems in child welfare – the confusion of poverty with neglect. (Where were the housing counselors?) All of the help from Three Rivers Youth could have been provided without resorting to taking away the children.  And it appears that housing still is the reason this family has not been reunited.  According to the story: 

With [the Three Rivers Youth caseworker’s] help, Ms. Roberson said she is focusing on goals to help get her life back on track — moving to a new, safer home in West Mifflin so she can get her children back, getting her GED and eventually finding a job and learning how to drive. [Emphasis added.] 

This is exactly the kind of misuse and overuse of foster care that some of us on that long-ago search committee hoped hiring Marc Cherna would prevent.  For a few years, it did; but no longer.  And the problems don’t stop there. 

● Cherna’s deputy and, presumably, a possible successor, Erin Dalton wrote an appalling apologia for foster care, dismissing the enormous, and enormously well-documented trauma inflicted on children when they are torn from their homes. 

● Cherna’s agency works hand-in-glove with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) – where the extremism can be seen in their support for urging doctors to do less thinking before jerking their knees and reporting their slightest suspicion of child abuse.  UPMC and Cherna’s agency also are being sued for an alleged “plan or agreement” that amounts to harassment of pregnant women who so much as smoke marijuana. 

Allegheny DHS has not earned our trust 

All of this, of course, is before we even reach the issue for which Allegheny County child welfare now is best known: It’s embrace of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, an Orwellian predictive analytics model.  It began with those subject to reports alleging child neglect.  Now, with some modificiations to the algorithm, Cherna’s agency is attempting to stamp an invisible “scarlet number” risk score on every child in the county at birth – a score that could haunt the child for a lifetime. 

I’ve written about how dangerous this is many times (see the links in the previous paragraph and our overview here). So now, I just want to focus on the fact that the way the Allegheny Department of Human Services has sought to market the scheme, in itself, illustrates why neither the plan nor the agency is worthy of our trust. 

● They said that unlike other algorithms that purport to predict who is likely to abuse a child, AFST is transparent; everyone can see what goes into creating the algorithm. But in fact: You can see the ingredients but the weight for each ingredient and even whether it counts in favor or against the accused remains secret.  That makes the ingredients list nearly useless. 

● They said they did an ethics review and got a glowing report.  Well, yes. That’s likely to happen when one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague of the co-designer of the algorithm. In fact, they co-authored papers together.  The review itself is startlingly superficial, citing only papers written by either the designers of AFST or the reviewer himself.  

Even then, the favorable verdict was premised on the idea that the algorithm would be used only in cases where there had been a report alleging child abuse or neglect, not on every child.  (See below about that.) 

● They said that the algorithm curbed racial bias.  But only because the algorithm led to investigating more white families, not sparing more Black families from the enormous trauma of needless investigations. 

● They brag about their algorithm predicting actual child abuse -- based on a study which found that it fails up to 99.8 percent of the time.  (The study was done by the designers of the algorithm itself – in cooperation with UPMC.) 

● When they went full Orwell and created the version of AFST in which the aim is to stamp the risk score on every child at birth in order to target prevention programs, they had a problem: The ethics review that supported AFST was premised in part on not doing just that.  So, they commissioned another ethics review – but once again, they made sure to choose reviewers who would tell them what they wanted to hear

● To counter the charge of “poverty profiling” they said that unlike the AFST algorithm the one they hope to use on every child at birth, called "Hello Baby" “only relies on data where the County has the potential to have records for every family." 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.” 

● They say Hello Baby is voluntary. But it’s voluntary only in the sense that you are automatically assumed to have agreed to surrender your data unless you are constantly on the alert for your one opportunity, in the first days of your new baby’s life to opt out.  

So ask yourself: If Hello Baby is so great, why does Allegheny County have to, in effect, sneak it past the very people its proponents say are most likely to benefit, instead of being open and aboveboard about exactly what it is, and letting people opt in if they really want it?  If it’s as wonderful as Marc Cherna says, people should be lining up to take part. 

Cherna also says Hello Baby is to be used strictly for targeting prevention; the data from one part of Cherna’s agency won’t be shared with that other part of Cherna’s agency that does the child abuse investigations.  But how long will that last?  What happens after the next high-profile child abuse tragedy? Also: The prevention workers who go out – knowing that the family is “high risk,” and therefore possibly predisposed to see neglect whether it’s there or not -- also are mandated reporters of “child maltreatment.” 

The Hello Baby data are kept out of the hands of child protective services only as long as Marc Cherna or his successor or his successor’s successor decide to keep it that way.  If they change their minds Allegheny County parents can’t change their minds and take back their data.  And the way Cherna and his colleagues have sold AFST and Hello Baby doesn’t inspire confidence. 

Next steps 

Cherna plans to retire on March 5.  But there’s no need to wait.  Allegheny County’s political leaders should do right now what they did in 1996: name a committee to conduct a nationwide search.  Perhaps they’ll find another leader like Marc Cherna – the Marc Cherna from 1996, not the one from 2020.