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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 15, 2020

There's a lot of news this week, but one story stands out: 

From Mother Jones, an x-ray of the soul of a child welfare agency – in this case, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  There is so much that is so important that I hesitate to pick out just one part – but I was particularly struck by the comments of a former caseworker, whom the reporter calls Sarah: 

Once, when Sarah was having trouble finding the parent she was looking for, she saw a white woman standing outside the apartment building. She told the woman that she was with ACS and asked if she knew the elusive parent. “What’s ACS?” the woman asked. Sarah was astonished. “I never met one single Black family that asked me, ‘What’s ACS?’” she said. “There’s one group of people walking around not knowing that ACS exists, and there’s another group of people walking around living in fear of ACS.” … 

Most of Sarah’s calls came from schools. When Sarah showed up to investigate a case, she would be greeted by a predominantly white panel of school authorities—the teacher, the guidance counselor, the vice principal, the principal. After many interviews, Sarah concluded that in most cases the problem was not with the parents, but the schools. … 

As you read the story consider: The New York City system is better than most. So wherever you are, things probably are even worse. 

Read the full story here 

One of the big cities that’s worse -- much worse -- is Los Angeles, where children are taken away at well over double the rate in New York City; in fact, L.A. tears apart families at the second highest rate among America’s biggest cities.  As a first step toward changing this, Black Lives Matter L.A. has launched a campaign to end partnerships between police and the Los Angeles family policing agency, the Department of Children and Family Services.  You can read about it – and sign the petition – here. 

Mother Jones also has a story about the number of foster children forced to sleep in hotel rooms, offices and other makeshift accommodations. The story also notes similar problems in Oregon. But unlike Washington state media, which have a decades-long history of ignoring the state’s high rate of removal, Mother Jones made sure readers knew that’s an important part of the problem. 

● All of these problems are, of course, compounded by child welfare’s failed response to COVID-19, something we address in our new report: Child Welfare’s Pandemic of Fear: How the false, racially-biased "master narrative" about COVID-19 and child abuse hurts children. 

● The report includes a discussion of the real child abuse triggered by COVID-19 – child abuse inflicted by governments when they use COVID as an excuse to cut off all visits and delay reunification.  MedPage Today has a story about the harm that kind of abuse has done to children. 

● NCCPR also has an essay in the latest issue of the Administration for Children and Families Children’s Bureau Express: To Be Relentless for Children, We Must Be Relentless for Families

● And see also excellent essays from NCCPR President Prof. Martin Guggenheim, University of Michigan Law School Prof. Vivek Sankaran, Child Welfare Advocate Lexie Gruber, Nico’Lee Biddle of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, Sandy Santana, executive director of Children's Rights, Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy, Children's Home Society of Washington, Paul Vincent, former director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, consultant Chuck Price, Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of Children’s Villageretired state and tribal court judge William Thorne, and Children’s Bureau director Jerry Milner and his Special Assistant, David Kelly. 

● When New York State passed a law suspending the statute of limitations so adults could sue over sexual abuse inflicted on them as children, legislators probably had in mind suits against churches and scout troops.  But the Albany Times Union found that a lot of the suits have been filed against foster parents, group homes and residential treatment centers.  That should be no surprise, because as the headline – quoting NCCPR – put it: “Predators go where the prey is.” 

The most chilling part of the story may be the callous response from the head of the agency whose institution was the subject of several of the cases discussed in the story.  I mention this because his agency is a nonprofit that has been around for nearly 200 years.  That’s worth keeping in mind while reading The Imprint / San Francisco Chronicle investigation of a for-profit McTreatment chain – Sequel (yes, them again).  

It’s not that having for-profit institutions is a good idea – it’s that, often, the nonprofits stink, too. 

● Many of the problems worsened by COVID-19 have their roots in the failed system of “mandatory reporting,” put in place with no evidence it would work.  Dr. Mical Raz has written a book about how we got into this mess and what should be done about it.  She discusses her findings here. 

● A critical solution to child welfare’s many failings is high-quality family defense, which has been shown to significantly reduce foster care with no compromise of safety.  The sooner the lawyer gets involved, the better it works, as a program from Legal Services of New Jersey demonstrates.  The program provides representation as soon as the child protective services agency finds family problems rooted in poverty that it can’t solve on its own.  From the story: 

Since the inauguration of its prevention work in 2018, LSNJ has received more than 200 referrals from across New Jersey and not one child involved in those cases has been removed. Accordingly, over 300 children have remained safely with their families and avoided the trauma of being separated. 

Perhaps most notable – this success wasn’t a result of LSNJ having to fight the child protective services agency – in fact, it’s the agency that refers the cases to LSNJ lawyers in the first place.  That mature approach is something lawmakers interested in following New Jersey’s lead should  consider when they hear fearmongering from less forward-thinking child welfare agency leaders about how, somehow, legal representation supposedly will jeopardize children. 

● And finally, the wonky part of the roundup: The Imprint has a new way of measuring family separation.  I have a column discussing its potential, and its limits.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

NCCPR releases new report on child welfare's failed response to COVID-19

 Child Welfare's Pandemic of Fear examines the false, racist master narrative about child abuse and the coronavirus, a narrative that has done enormous harm to children. Read the full report here.


Here's the Executive Summary:

CHILD WELFARE’S PANDEMIC OF FEAR

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

The impulse is understandable.  For generations, we’ve read horror stories about parents beating, raping and murdering their children. The stories often are followed by statistics leaving the impression that there’s a child abuser under every bed.  No wonder people would assume that a decline in reports alleging child abuse, because “mandatory reporters” don’t have their “eyes” on children due to COVID-19, is cause for alarm. 

But the claim is built on a foundation of myth. Accepting it risks scaring vulnerable families away from seeking assistance, it risks deluging caseworkers with false reports, stealing time from finding children in real danger. It even risks increasing the spread of COVID-19. 

At the root of the problem is what’s been called “health terrorism,” an ends-justify-the-means approach to advocacy that says it’s o.k. to distort the true nature of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.”  (The phrase did not originate with us. It was used by a group that admits to having engaged in it.)  So when we hear that reports alleging child abuse are down, we assume that thousands of children are being tortured – just like in the horror stories. 


In fact, pore over the federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment report and you find that nationwide, of every 100 calls to child abuse hotlines 91 are either so absurd they are screened out or they are found to be false after an investigation – even though in most states, all that is required to “substantiate” an allegation is a caseworker’s guess that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred.
 

Another six calls involve “neglect.” On very rare occasions neglect can be horrific. Far more often it simply means a family is poor.  If a family doesn’t have enough food that is not a reason to call a child abuse hotline.  It’s a reason to call a foodbank. Housing instability should be dealt with through housing vouchers. 

Three of every 100 calls have even the potential to be the kinds of horror stories we think of when we hear the words “child abuse.”  

Although child protective services agencies like to portray themselves as benevolent helpers, that is not how they are seen in poor communities – especially poor communities of color.  In those communities, they are just another police force.  At best, they put families under constant surveillance, adding enormous stress and sometimes driving families deeper into poverty. At worst, they take the children and consign them to the chaos of foster care. 

RACIALLY-BIASED MESSAGING 

Even as we are supposed to be in the midst of a racial justice reckoning, we have not stopped to consider the bias that underlies the messaging about COVID-19 and child abuse.  What we’re really saying is: Now that fewer mostly white middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents will unleash brutality upon them in pandemic proportions. The racism in that message should be obvious.

Yes, the pandemic is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope is to beat up their children? 

The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated PressThe Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab challenged it. So has Chapin Hall, the child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago. 

Of course, some might argue even all this damage to poor families of color is worth it to find those very few children in real danger.  But the deluge of false reports only steals worker time from finding those children. And now, there are new dangers:  If a poor family has to worry that the person dropping off a food basket also is peeking through the door looking for “symptoms” of child abuse, will they ask for help when they’re hungry?  Will they accept a neighbor’s offer of respite via a Zoom call with the kids if the neighbor thinks s/he somehow should be sensing if the child on the screen is really being abused and calling a child abuse hotline?   

If the fearmongering encourages more frivolous calls that means more caseworkers inspecting homes, looking through cupboards and closets, and sometimes stripsearching the children looking for bruises. That increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 to families and caseworkers alike.  And, of course, the fearmongering can lead politicians to suggest it might even be worth risking increased transmission of COVID by prematurely reopening schools for in-person learning. 

The challenge of COVID-19 brings with it a rare opportunity to rethink our approach to so many aspects of our lives. It’s a chance to rebuild child welfare in a way that makes all children safer.  But only if we finally free ourselves from the grip of health terrorism.

Read the full report here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 8, 2020

● All over America, millions have been placed on so-called central registries of alleged child abusers. It’s done with little or no due process.  Like so much else in child welfare, it harms the children it is meant to help.  What the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says in this excellent editorial about Pennsylvania’s registry applies to most of the others as well. 

● I have often written about how child welfare agencies use funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a child welfare slush fund. Money is diverted from TANF, which is intended to help poor people become self-sufficient. into payments for foster care and child abuse investigations. In this column for the San Antonio Express-News, Andrew Brown of the Texas Public Policy Foundation zeroes in on how this money is misused in Texas. 

The “health terrorists” are hard at work in Michigan, conflating poverty with neglect and promoting that racially biased narrative about child abuse and COVID-19. NCCPR  has a column in Bridge Michigan: COVID-19 breeds a pandemic of fear, not a pandemic of child abuse. 

● In The Imprint, Kenyon Lee Whitman and Brianna Harvey write about The Disenfranchisement of Black Foster Youth. 

● And in the San Francisco Bay View Michelle Chan writes about how the child welfare system failed her as a child, and then failed her again as a parent. 

● What can be done about it? The founders of the upEND Movement examine the issues in depth in this article for the Journal of Public Child Welfare. 

UPCOMING EVENTS 

● TODAY at Noon Eastern: The Shriver Center on Poverty Law has a webinar on The Carceral Web: How the Foster and Criminal Legal Systems Perpetuate Injustice. You can register here.

● As we return to tighter restrictions as a result of the latest surge in COVID-19, we should not repeat the mistakes of last March, when it became an excuse to further undermine due process for families. That’s the message in this letter from the director of the federal government’s Children Bureau, Jerry Milner. 

Milner writes: 

As previously communicated in March, we strongly encourage all child welfare agencies to consider decisions thoughtfully regarding whether to file for termination of parental rights in instances where services and supports have been interrupted or have been less available, where family time has been inadequate, or where court operations are unable to offer hearings of needed breadth and depth. Such decisions should always be made on a child-by-child basis and include thoughtful review of the unique circumstances affecting the child and family. 

There will be more about this at a webinar on Tuesday December 15 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern sponsored by the Children’s Bureau, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The webinar will focus on “the critical need for continued access to justice and judicial oversight in child welfare proceedings during the ongoing public health crisis.” You can register here.