Friday, January 18, 2019

NCCPR in WitnessLA on a California newspaper's shameful revival of "crack baby journalism"

As 2018 turned to 2019, The New York Times published two stunning editorials with profound implications for child welfare – and for journalism. Unfortunately, at almost the same moment, the Orange County Register was making the same mistakes The New York Times was warning against.

Read the full column at WitnessLA

And there will be more about the failures of the Register stories on this blog on Tuesday.

Friday, January 11, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today: New York Times editorial series shows how decades after media and child welfare got “crack babies” wrong, the damage lives on

Editorial writers rarely do their own reporting. Most of the time they comment on what reporters for their publications have found, or what they’ve read elsewhere.

But when editorial writers have done their own reporting, they’ve produced some of the nation’s best journalism about child welfare.  The year 2018 ended with an outstanding example: An eight-part series of editorials in The New York Times.

The primary theme of the series is the erosion of the rights of children as a result of fetal personhood laws – or related government interventions even when there is no law.  The examples cited include cases in which pregnant women have been criminally prosecuted for falling down stairs or having a miscarriage and other examples that sound like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

But two of the eight parts zero in on how the child welfare system has made everything worse, for the mothers and their children. Indeed, those two parts make the case that hysteria over so-called “crack babies” in the 1980s and 1990s, – a hysteria driven as much by the political left as by the right - and the resulting demonization of poor black mothers, gave enormous fuel to the fetal rights movement.  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Foster care in New York: What’s worse than being “docked for the time you were up in the sky”?

Do 19th century railroad barons and  21st century child
protective services agencies really have anything in common?
Unfortunately, yes.

When I was in middle school music class, we learned a 19th Century folk song about the workers who built the railroads – and how they were oppressed by their bosses.  It’s called Drill Ye Tarriers Drill.  It tells the story of a man named Jim Goff who was blown “a mile in the air” by an explosion.  What happened next?  See the lyrics below – or just let The Weavers tell you:

Next time payday came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked "What for?" came this reply:
"You was docked for the time you was up in the sky."

Of course that’s just a folk song.  In real life no one would ever - - ah, but any regular reader of this blog will know where this is going.

Meet child welfare’s Jim Goff.  Her name is Stella B. – she doesn’t dare give her full name for fear of reprisal from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  But here’s what happened to her, as described in this excellent story by Rachel Blustain for the New York City publication City Limits:

Stella B., says she never had the opportunity to be properly investigated because her children, 8 and 17, were removed on an emergency basis and placed with a relative after she was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and held for eleven days—a fact confirmed by a letter from the Manhattan district attorney’s office—while child protective services “indicated” a case of neglect against her. [Emphasis added.] A case is deemed “indicated” when investigators contend they have found enough evidence to support the claim that a child has been abused or neglected.

The consequences vary from state to state, but typically it means you are listed on a “central registry” for years, sometimes decades and are barred from any job involving working with children.  And, of course, as in Stella’s case, it can be much worse:

Because of that indication, her children were kept out of her care for four months, and even after their return, her case remained indicated until recently, when she appealed the finding. She allows me to look at the document from New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services that shows the judge’s determination, several years after the fact, that being kidnapped did not make her guilty of neglect. [Emphasis added.]

The theme of the story is the urgent need for high quality family defense – and the need to provide that defense as soon as an investigation begins – as opposed to Stella B’s case, where, as the story notes: “She was provided a lawyer only after ACS took custody of her children and indicated her case.”

Sure, one hopes that 21st century child protective services leaders are more humane than 19th century railroad barons.  And sure, one hopes you wouldn’t need a lawyer at all to explain to a child protective services agency that being a kidnapping victim does not make you guilty of neglect.

But since that seems to be too much to expect of CPS agencies, we really ought to bring in the defense lawyers early.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

On our Florida blog: Tampa Bay Times exposes a crisis made far worse by the Tampa Bay Times

The Times tells us all about the enormous harm done to children when they are moved from foster home to foster home - without ever mentioning the Times-fueled foster-care panic at the root of the problem.

“Nowhere to call home,” says the headline on a big story in the Tampa Bay Times at the end of last year. “Thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm.”  The subhead declares that “A Tampa Bay Times investigation finds Florida’s overburdened foster care system repeatedly bounces children from home to home and family to family.”

Tampa Bay Times investigation?  Really?  All they had to do was turn on a television and watch the stories on WFLA-TV.  The television station broke the story and beat the you-know-what out of the Times on it all through 2018.

The Times catch-up story goes on to describe the terrible toll taken on children by being moved from placement to placement. It does add some data giving a sense of how often it happens in Florida in general and Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in particular.  Any story reminding people of this institutionalized child abuse has value, even one that adds little to what WFLA already told us.

How the Times made the whole problem worse

But the biggest problem with the story is the problem with all of the Tampa Bay Times reporting on child welfare over the past few years.  In a state that’s been in the midst of a media-fueled foster-care panic since 2014, and where, by some measures, the panic is worst in the Tampa-St Petersburg area. The Tampa Bay Times has spent years committing journalistic malpractice, helping to fuel the panic by denying the very existence of the problem that drives everything else: needless removal of children.

Read the full post on our Florida blog.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Group home industry admits what we’ve always known: It’s $ first, kids second

● Their public face is all about how they don’t even think about money (except that they wish they had more of it to help those poor, helpless children, of course.) But when they think we’re not listening the talk is all about “capital” “revenue” and “equity portfolios.”

● And when they think we’re not listening they admit that tens of thousands of children warehoused in institutions don’t need to be institutionalized.

No, the people who run residential treatment
centers are not like Montgomery Burns
on The Simpsons. But financial incentives for
needlessly institutionalizing children are very real.

 Discussions about financial incentives in child welfare usually revolve around incentives for governments.  Sometimes that discussion is oversimplified with claims that governments “make money on foster care.”

Actually they don’t.  But the reality is almost as bad. A series of perverse incentives lead to a situation in which governments sometimes lose more money by helping a family than they lose by just consigning the children to foster care – even though the help for the family costs less in total dollars.  So even though governments don’t literally make money on foster care, there are financial incentives to misuse it and overuse it.

Another set of perverse incentives encourages quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements, by paying bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.  Even when the adoptions fail, the states still get to keep their bounties.  There is no similar incentive for reunifying a family.

Incentives for private agencies

But there is another set of even worse incentives that gets far less attention: incentives for private agencies. Such agencies typically provide most of the worst, and most expensive forms of “care” – group homes and institutions. In some states and localities they also oversee foster homes. 

These agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in their care.  So of course, they have a profound incentive to encourage needless removal of children and then hold them in foster care for a long, long time. 

This does not mean that your typical private agency leader is like Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, gleefully rubbing his hands each time another child is placed in his group home or institution.  Rationalization is powerful. So the group home industry, (a term that encompasses all forms of “congregate care” from your basic group home to your “residential treatment center,”) convinces itself that, contrary to a massive amount of evidence, the children really, truly benefit from being institutionalized and really, truly have to be in their care for a long, long time.

(The term group home industry itself was coined by the director of a residential treatment center who had a crisis of conscience and had to fight the industry when he sought to vastly reduce institutionalization and emphasize services to children in their homes or foster homes.)

Nonprofits can be greedy, too

The various components of the group home industry are typically, though not always, nonprofit organizations.  That’s a big blind spot for journalists.  Reporters are trained to be skeptical of government and of big corporations. But there is surprising naiveté about the so-called “independent sector.”  But the will to survive can induce in nonprofits a form of greed that is as corrosive of common decency as the worst corporate behavior.

And that brings me to a column written by Jennifer Jones and Theresa Covington, two leaders of the so-called Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.  That’s one of those Orwellian names so-beloved in child welfare. It’s actually a trade association for human services agencies, including many that run group homes and residential treatment centers.

Writing in what they apparently consider their safe space, the Chronicle of Social Change, they effectively admitted that what really concerns many of their members is: Money, money, money.

The column deals with the so called Family First Prevention Services Act. They claim that “One of the areas that will be most impacted [sic] by the bill is residential care.” (In fact, that part of the law is so strewn with loopholes that, unfortunately, the “residential care” industry is unlikely to be impacted – or even affected – much at all.) They go on to write about how they’re conducting “a series of cohort initiatives to help inform and advance a transformational shift …”

True confessions, part 1:

But two elements of the column are striking. First, this trade association that includes so many residential treatment providers admits, in writing, that a huge proportion of the children their members have institutionalized don’t need to be in institutions.

They write:

“Therapeutic Residential Care,” as it is known, focuses specifically on providing treatment for youth who have a mental health diagnosis or have experienced trauma and need help regulating their emotions. … However, according to recent data, more than 4 in 10 children who are currently in residential care have no mental health diagnosis, medical disability or behavioral problem that would warrant such a setting. [Emphasis added.]
… Recent research suggests that young children living in residential programs are at a higher risk for developing physical, emotional and behavioral problems. These young children are also less likely to be placed in a permanent home than those who live in foster care.

The “recent research” comes on top of the vast store of research that has told us as much for a long, long time. Back in 2005, Shay Bilchik, who then was running another trade association for agencies that has an Orwellian name, the Child Welfare League of America, admitted that they lack “good research” showing residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

What’s new is that now the so-called “Alliance” is admitting it as well, and suggesting that tens of thousands of institutionalized children should not, in fact, be institutionalized. (The 4 in 10 number is an underestimate. There is no evidence that residential treatment is successful for any population – but, hey, it’s a start.)

True confessions, Part 2:

So, what is it that is stopping the Alliance’s member agencies from abandoning this largely worthless endeavor?  After all, these agencies tell us over and over that their only concern is the best interests of the children, and they don’t even think about what the agencies themselves need. 

But now Jones and Covington tell a different story:

This shift requires residential providers to make significant changes in policy, practice, budget, historical programming and organizational culture. The growing evidence base continues to point to this change movement as being in children’s best interests and necessary, yet providers continue to seek out clearer and more efficient pathways to understand this new reality and make this transformation a reality.

Translation: We might be willing to do this, but only if we don’t lose any money, or, God forbid, go out of business.  Money first, kids second. 

Jones and Covington cite figures from one of their member agencies indicating that residential treatment brings in a disproportionate share of its revenue. And, they write,

Many child welfare providers and operators of residential treatment facilities have a tremendous amount of equity and capital in their physical structures and campuses and a large portion of their organizational identity is encompassed in their role as residential providers.

Translation: If we do what’s best for the kids, where will we get our money?  We’ve got all that equity and capital to think about! 

Jones and Covington continue:

It can be challenging for leaders and board members of these organizations to still deliver on their stated mission when such a large part of that mission is being transformed.

But if the stated mission is institutionalizing children, then the mission is crap and it should be scrapped. 

Jones and Covington again:

Child welfare providers are among the oldest community-based nonprofits in the country, with a significant number of them owning and operating facilities that began as orphanages more than a century ago.

Actually, they’re still orphanages.  “Residential treatment” is largely an exercise in rebranding. 

And finally, Jones and Covington tell us:

These physical campuses make up a large part of their equity portfolio and many organizations are hesitant to make the leap to repurpose or divest these resources.

But why?

If all they care about is what’s best for the children, as they keep telling us, they should be thrilled to follow pioneers such as Children’s Village, EMQ Child and Family Services and Youth Villages which all have dramatically altered their mission to put far more emphasis on services in children’s own homes, in foster homes.

Unless of course, what they really care about is self-preservation.

Meanwhile, back at the whine cellar …

And, of course, no column by a trade association of providers would be complete without whining about how they don’t get enough money for whatever it is they provide. So, Jones and Covington write:

The theory of change represented within the [Family First] bill requires a robust array of home- and community-based services, yet there was no federal funding put in the bill to help states build up that part of the system. So, state legislatures and local governments are going to need to make further investments into developing this part of the system in order to keep children in the least restrictive, most family-like settings. 
Actually, that’s not quite true. As the authors note in the same column, Family First does include some funding for reforms. It allows money once limited to substitute care to be spent on better options – though the options are severely limited, so very little money actually is likely to be available.

But more important, you get the money for alternatives to institutionalizing children by not institutionalizing children. 

Institutions are not just the worst form of care, they’re also the most expensive.  So pretty much anything else you do for a particular child will cost less than institutionalizing the child. So all you need to do to “make further investments” in better alternatives is to take the state and local money you would have spent to institutionalize children and spend it on those better alternatives. 

That is, if all those concerns from agencies about “capital” “revenue” and “equity portfolios” don’t get in the way.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Scandal at a New York RTC illustrates how Congress managed to make the plight of sex-trafficking victims even worse

The vastly overhyped “Family First Act” comes complete with a “presents for pimps” loophole.  That will encourage more tragedies like the one at Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls.

It’s always cause for celebration when a place that institutionalizes children is forced to close.  So tomorrow is a day to celebrate.  The residential treatment portion of Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls, an institution in Westchester County, north of New York City, is scheduled to shut down. 

But don’t celebrate too much. A new federal law actually makes it easier to keep such institutions going, and set up new ones.

The shutdown of the residential treatment portion of Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls won’t happen because the agency that runs it, the Jewish Board Family and Children’s Services, had a crisis of conscience. It will happen because the pressure from upset neighbors and state regulators became too much. What was upsetting them? Oh, just the usual: violence and sex trafficking.
The mere fact that an overwhelming body of research finds residential treatment to be a failure never seems to be enough in itself to shut these places down.  Neither is the fact that almost none of the young people institutionalized in such places really need to be there.  There is nothing an RTC can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound programs, in which all the help a child needs is brought into the child’s own home or a foster home.

Further evidence for this can be found just by looking at what was done when Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was forced to start shutting down, a process that started nearly a year ago.  According to the Rockland / Westchester Journal News:

When it was announced Cedar Knolls would close, there were 54 youths staying there out of a capacity of 78. The youths were expected to go back to their families or be placed with foster families. The final six children are to be transferred a facility in New York City, a spokeswoman told The Journal News on Thursday. [Emphasis added.]

Which raises an obvious question: Why were they institutionalized in the first place?

Yes, most people who work in and run such places mean well. Their intent is to help vulnerable children and they've convinced themselves they're doing just that.  But the evidence says otherwise.

To really understand this story, it’s worth taking a trip through time.

1990: “Love knows no locksmith.”

The first time I read about Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was when it and a sister institution, Linden Hill, were exposed as hellholes by New York Newsday.  It was 1990, and reporter Michael Powell found that the institutions were

plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

When confronted, the institutions did what they so often do: They blamed the children.

In one case, a teenage boy with a history of aggressive sexual behavior allegedly forced a 14-year-old girl to have sex with another boy. The director of Linden Hill said the sex was consensual. “Do you set up a situation that is locked down or do you allow kids to try their wings?” he said.  “[You ask] how could it happen? Well, it’s almost inevitable. Love knows no locksmith.”

In a just world, the 1990 expose should have been enough to shut these places down. 

Unfortunately, a few years later, in spite of such high-quality journalism, it was New York Newsday that actually shut down.  Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls kept right on collecting hundreds of dollars per day per child to “treat” children, even though, as noted earlier, the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure. 

2017: All those runaways

Twenty-seven years after that first New York Newsday expose, the young people at Hawthorne- Cedar Knolls were “trying their wings” once again – running away in massive numbers; massive as in 73 percent of them in a single year. 

The New York Times reported that though the institution supposedly was treating victims of sex trafficking, the fear was that the runaways were falling victim to sex traffickers.

Once again, the institution blamed the victims. The Times’ explained the supposed “dilemma” for such places: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run, then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

The headline on the Times story was: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?” But the story omitted the answer: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.  That, apparently is exactly what happened to most of the children at Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls, but only when the institution was pressured into closing.

Surely when 73 percent of the residents run away in a single year, it’s time to consider the possibility that the problem is the place they’re running from.

2018: A pipeline to prostitution

Now, the Times is back with a follow-up story.  The fears were correct.  As the story puts it:

On Thursday, the breadth of a pipeline carrying young women out of Hawthorne and into prostitution became clearer. Nineteen people were charged in a sex-trafficking ring that exploited young women and girls as young as 13 years old, federal prosecutors said.
At least 15 victims were in the child welfare system, including nine who were residents of Hawthorne, the prosecutors said. …
“These were especially vulnerable victims,” the prosecutor, Elinor L. Tarlow, said. “They didn’t have stable residences. They didn’t have family support. They didn’t have guidance.”
She said the accused traffickers capitalized on that vulnerability. “They approached victims as if they had a romantic interest in them,” she said. “They offered them a place to stay and then they pushed them into prostitution.” [Emphasis added.]

One wonders what that former director of Hawthorne’s sister institution might have said in response.

The good news: No one from Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls has been accused of being part of the alleged trafficking ring, or even knowing about it. The bad news: It all went on right under their noses.

As for all that violence reported back in 1990?  Well, let the Journal News tell you. This story about Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls and another RTC in the area was published last Friday:

Things got so bad at local residential treatment centers for troubled youth that town police were responding to incidents on the two campuses multiple times on the same day.
In recent years, more than one squad car had to be dispatched on each call because of the potential for violence, with about one-third of all Mount Pleasant police calls tied to the two facilities and its young residents.

The “presents for pimps” loophole

Anyone could have seen all this coming.  Predators go where the prey is.  The role of group homes and institutions in making sex trafficking easier has been documented over and over.

And that’s what makes the callousness and cynicism of America’s group home industry so breathtaking.  They used the desperation of Members of Congress to pass the vastly overhyped  so-called “Family First Act” to make tragedies such as this even more likely.

The law puts some very minor, easy-to-evade limits on when the federal government will help foot the enormous bill for institutionalizing children in group homes and residential treatment centers.

But the group home industry chafed at even these minor restrictions. So they added what should be called the “presents for pimps” loophole.  The spigot of federal dollars stays open for:

A setting providing high-quality residential care and supportive services to children and youth who have been found to be, or are at risk of becoming, sex trafficking victims

Never mind that such settings are probably the worst possible place for such children and youth.

The ugliness is on the inside

Even the Times accepted one time-honored ploy of children’s institutions everywhere. The latest story declares that

Hawthorne Cedar Knolls was on idyllic, green grounds. It was landscaped to give some peace and stability to the emotionally troubled teenagers who were placed there.

The Journal-News, which, in the past, has done some of the most sophisticated journalism in America on residential treatment, fell for it. They accepting an invitation last year for an “exclusive tour” of the place, and then wrote a story (with 25 photos) that begins:

Passing through the hallways, the residence areas at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls could be mistaken for college dorms.
Couches lining common rooms. Pastel-colored walls with busy bulletin boards. Phrases like "I am beautiful" scrawled on the chalkboard-like backs of bedroom doors.
It's a setting where young people are encouraged to be creative and grow. It's also a setting where they are offered help to handle the hardships that life has dealt them.

It’s all straight out of the group home industry propaganda playbook. They claim the very presence of their lovely landscaping creates a “therapeutic milieu.”  Except, again, there is overwhelming evidence that, no matter what the “milieu,” residential treatment doesn’t work.

The actual target of the “therapeutic milieu” is visitors.  It exists so the people who run such places can say: “How can you call us an institution? Look how pretty everything is – we’re so home-like.”  The milieu is intended to convince visitors that such places must be doing good things for children and couldn’t possibly be abusive.

Yes, the grounds of residential treatment centers often are pretty.  It’s their souls that so often are ugly.