Monday, April 23, 2007

A long, long trail of double standards in Georgia

I don’t generally indulge in celebrity gossip on this blog, but, as it happens, there are some lessons in the story of Alec Baldwin and the tirade he left on his daughter’s cell phone voice mail. It turns out to be the starting point on a long trail of double standards.

Baldwin is involved in a messy custody fight and his two-and-a-half-minute obscenity-laced tirade against his eleven-year-old daughter may cost him visitation for a while. But so far, no one has called child protective services – and he certainly hasn’t been hauled off to jail.

It was a somewhat different story for a grandmother in Georgia a few years ago. She, too, was caught yelling some really awful stuff at one of her grandchildren, a 13-year-old. But there never was any allegation that she had physically abused any of her grandchildren.

The grandmother’s mistake was screaming while she was on hold with a radio station, while the radio station was recording the conversation. The radio station called the authorities, who sprung into action. Grandma wound up jailed for 19 days, and ultimately put on probation for six years.

Worse, the grandchildren were taken away for a year. Fortunately, an aunt was available; but still, it was one more trauma for children already taken from their parents. So while it is quite likely that these kinds of tirades do emotional harm to children, in the case of the grandmother, authorities responded by doing even more harm, instead of responding by providing some help to grandma to ease the stress that led to the shouting, and help her to find better ways to cope in the future.

But this case is only the beginning of a long trail of double standards in Georgia.

On the very day that this grandmother was sentenced, another case was making news. This time it involved a mother who, after returning home late from a trip, suddenly realized she’d left a suitcase at the airport. She rushed back to the airport knowing her four-year-old daughter was alone, but sound asleep.

But the little girl woke up. She got out of the house and was found by police walking by herself in the middle of the night near a busy intersection.

Mom did not serve even a minute in jail. And, fortunately, the little girl did not have to serve any time in foster care. That probably had something to do with who the mother was - at the time she was the Chief Juvenile Court Judge in Fulton County. Her mistake forced her to resign from her judgeship, but nothing more.

And, in fact, the child welfare agency did the right thing.

Taking the judge’s daughter away only would have punished the child for her mother’s mistake, a mistake that, from all available evidence, was an aberration. Indeed, the child might well have believed that she was being punished for wandering out of her house by being taken away and placed with someone else. At a minimum, she would have faced far more danger to her psyche in foster care than any danger she would face left with a mother who is unlikely to leave the girl alone ever again.

So the agency was right, though possibly for the wrong reasons.

Because even all “home alone” cases don’t get the same treatment in Georgia.

That’s the lesson from a third case -- the case of a mother with a very similar situation who lacked the clout of a judge, or even of a foster parent.

Early in January, this mother’s two-year-old son managed to get out of the family home and wander down the street. Fortunately a neighbor spotted the boy before he got too far.

But this time, the child welfare agency took away all four of this mother’s children and put them in foster care. They were returned after six weeks, but that’s more than enough time to do serious emotional harm to a two-year-old. It also raises a question: If everything wrong could be fixed in six weeks, was it really necessary to remove the children at all?

But that’s only part of the story. It turns out that this little boy apparently is quite skilled at getting out of houses. He did exactly the same thing while in foster care, this time in the middle of the night in 43-degree weather.

Naturally, the child welfare agency reacted identically - removing all children from the foster home.

Just kidding.

According to Atlanta television station WXIA-TV: “…the Department of Human Resources, who oversee [the state child welfare agency] said that officials ‘immediately looked into it, and determined foster parents had taken reasonable security precautions. Measures were taken so it could not happen again. It was an unfortunate but unusual situation.’"

DHR said the foster mother involved in the case won't face any sort of disciplinary action. Again, probably the right call. But no one has said why the birth mother wasn’t afforded the same opportunity to take “reasonable security precautions.”

Maybe it’s because she’s never been a juvenile court judge.

The real lesson in all of these cases is this: Sometimes, parents do things that are really, really dumb. Once they realize this, they usually don’t do it again. Sometimes they need some help to be sure they don’t do it again. To ignore that option in favor of the trauma of foster care is dumber than anything done by the judge, the mother, the grandmother - or even Alec Baldwin.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Arizona ACLU steps in

The Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona has written to the Attorney General’s office on behalf of Robin Scoins in connection with the controversy discussed in the previous post to this blog. In the letter, ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Daniel Pochoda writes:

“We are troubled by the manner and results of this process and are assisting Ms. Scoins at this stage. Application of the lobbying registration requirements in this context has First Amendment implications and will likely result in chilling rights of speech and to petition the government.”

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Arizona Corollary to the Liebling Doctrine

One of the best-known press critics of the 20th Century, A.J. Liebling, may be best remembered for this quote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now, the major daily newspapers of Arizona have provided, by example, a corollary of sorts.

It all began with an effort by a powerful state legislator to abuse state law to intimidate a citizen into silence.

From time to time I hear from Robin Scoins of the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute. Like those who found many such grassroots organizations around the country, Ms. Scoins got involved after having her own run-in with child protective services. (Her story is included in an excellent cover story in the alternative weekly Phoenix New Times.)

Like most such organizations I’ve encountered, AZFRAI has one staff person, Ms. Scoins. She is unpaid. Any meager expenses come out of her own pocket. She certainly does not hold lavish legislative receptions, take lawmakers to fancy dinners or make huge campaign contributions.

In short, she is a citizen petitioning for redress of grievances, much the way people living on a street with a lot of accidents might form the “Citizens Committee for a Traffic Light” and speak at public hearings of their local City Council.

The equivalent of the City Council member who doesn’t want to spend money on a traffic light is Arizona State Rep. Pete Hershberger. Hershberger chairs the committee that deals with most legislation affecting child protective services. And he is among the legislature’s most ardent backers of the take-the-child-and-run approach that increased the number of children taken from their parents in Arizona by 40 percent from the end of 2002 through the end of 2004, with removals staying at that same high level ever since. (As usual, this was sold as a means to curb child abuse deaths and, as usual, such deaths went up instead.)

Hershberger usually opposes what Ms. Scoins favors and vice versa. You would think being a powerful state lawmaker opposing a one-person-unpaid-staff-all-volunteer-citizen-group would be enough for Hershberger.

But in February, Hershberger sent a letter to the Arizona Secretary of State urging her to launch an investigation into whether AZFRAI and Ms. Scoins are “properly registered” as a lobbying group and lobbyist respectively. He sent copies of his letter to the Attorney General and the Maricopa County Attorney.

The Secretary of State ruled that Ms. Scoins did, indeed, violate the law by failing to register, and referred the matter to the Attorney General. Ms. Scoins also appealed to the Attorney General’s office.

When Ms. Scoins sent me Hershberger’s letter, I went to the Arizona Secretary of State’s website and looked through the 199-page “Lobbyist’s Handbook” (a lot of those pages are sample forms, but still…). One would hope that the solons of Arizona could craft a law able to distinguish between Robin Scoins and Jack Abramoff. But I’m not a lawyer. And after wading through a lot of dense prose, I still can’t tell if, as a result of some absurd technicality, Ms. Scoins can be forced to fill out a lot of forms to prove she isn’t spending anything and be forced periodically to pay a $25 filing fee which, while small, still would be a burden to an impoverished single parent.

But the office of the Arizona Attorney General is, of course, filled with lawyers. And, apparently, they have a lot of time on their hands. Because not only did they weigh the “evidence” forwarded by the Secretary of State, they also, on their own, poured through committee hearing minutes in search of a smoking gun.

And, by golly, they found it! Apparently, as the Attorney General’s office sees it, had Ms. Scoins simply testified as Robin Scoins there would be no problem. But because she created AZFRAI, (even though she is the only staff of AZFRAI, is paid nothing, and has no funding), AZFRAI has to register because it has a lobbyist – Ms. Scoins – and Ms. Scoins has to register for being the lobbyist for AZFRAI.

In a letter sent to Ms. Scoins last Friday, the Attorney General’s office noted that Ms. Scoins “testified on behalf of AZFRAI” in support of legislation last year. But the real “smoking gun” was the fact that she gave legislators a handout which included her “Institute’s Recommendations.” Indeed, notes the Attorney General’s office, “the recommendations identify AFRAI [sic] next to your name on each page.”

Looks like Robin Scoins has been busted.

Though there are criminal penalties for failing to register, Ms. Scoins probably will not be punished, since such violations must be “knowing.” And the A.G.’s office says that since Ms. Scoins is not paid, she will not have to pay any fees, just fill out a lot of forms.

In fairness to the Attorney General’s office, it can be argued that it is their job to apply the letter of the law, unleavened by common sense. But whatever the letter of the law, there is no way Hershberger’s actions in bringing this complaint are in the spirit of the law. And it is a clear violation of the spirit of another law: the First Amendment.

Hershberger would ultimately tell New Times that "I was just curious. My understanding is if she's representing someone other than just herself, paid or unpaid, she has to register. That's to protect the public and let them know who's representing who. . . . Now it's up to them. If she didn't do anything wrong, okay, I’m done with it.”

But if that were the case, Hershberger simply could have walked up to Ms. Scoins at a hearing and said something like this:

“You know, Robin, I realize you’re not paid and have no budget, but I’ve been looking at state law and, technically, you may need to register as a lobbyist. Could you please check with the Secretary of State? I want you to know that, even though we strongly disagree, I respect any citizen’s right to dissent, so if they say you have to register, I’ll pay the fee, and I’ll have a member of my staff help you with the forms.”

But, of course he did none of that. And copying in the Attorney General and the Maricopa County Attorney makes Hershberger’s apparent goal plain: to bully and intimidate a citizen who has done no more than disagree with his point of view on legislation. If he succeeds it will have a chilling effect on any citizen who dares to band together with a few others to disagree with a powerful legislator.

And it has one more detrimental effect that journalists should be concerned about: These kinds of disclosure laws generally are good laws; it is very much in the public interest to know when big special interests are using their power and money to influence lawmakers. One need only recall the controversy over Vice President Cheney’s refusal to make public who attended meetings he held for advice on energy policy to understand that, at both the federal and state level, these laws need to be strengthened.

But any time anyone tries, powerful special interests conjure up hypothetical horror stories about how the laws will quash free expression by “the little guy.” Now, thanks to Rep. Hershberger, they don’t need hypotheticals - they’ve got a real case. What can serve powerful special interests better than a legislator apparently abusing well-intended disclosure legislation to bully a citizen?

Naturally, since this case implicates two pet causes of journalists, freedom of expression and full disclosure, Arizona’s big daily newspapers rushed to cover this story.

Just kidding.

Weeks after I let NCCPR’s “Arizona List” of journalists know what Hershberger was doing, only New Times reported the story. I’ve found not a word in any major daily; certainly not the state’s largest daily, The Arizona Republic. It was encouraging when the Republic columnist who most strongly supports using CPS to tear apart impoverished families briefly expressed an interest in the story – but nothing came of it.

And it’s not hard to understand why. Though it has modified its position a bit over the years, the Republic still generally champions a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare – and it is largely a no-dissent zone on the issue.

So unless they also read New Times, Republic readers are unlikely to know nothing of Hershberger’s apparent attempt to intimidate Ms. Scoins. No news story. No editorial. No columnists taking up the issue. (There was one brief post to a Blog on the Republic website summarizing the New Times article.)

(And if anyone is wondering what NCCPR would do were we ever called upon to defend publicly the rights of those with whom we disagree - it happened a couple of years ago in Georgia. A judge threw some Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) out of his court after they criticized how the court was run. An editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal- Constitution called seeking a quote about how outrageous this is.

(The editorial writer knew that, though CASA may be the most sacred cow in child welfare, NCCPR believes it to be an enormously destructive force - one more thumb tilting the scales of justice against families. (To see why, see this excellent story from Youth Today). But the editorial writer figured we would see this as a matter of principle, and support the right of any observer to free speech and access to the courts, even observers with whom we usually strongly disagree. She was right. She got her quote.)

I began this post with the Liebling Doctrine: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Here’s the Arizona Corollary: Freedom of speech will be defended only when we agree with it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Because it worked so well the first time?

Seven years ago, this story appeared in the San Antonio Express News:

MARCH 31, 2000:

San Antonio Express-News
Ad campaign focuses on child abuse awareness; Injury by neglect increasing in S.A.
By Suzanne Hoholik

The TV commercial shows two young girls walking hand-in-hand along a city street, a dog rooting around a trash Dumpster behind them.
They're alone, with no adult supervision, and almost walk into oncoming traffic.
The message: leaving your children unattended is neglect - a crime.
"I think what most people don't realize is that neglect can be child abuse," said Marla Sheely, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. "Things that areas simple as leaving a child alone in the bathtub can
be dangerous and even deadly. I don't think parents realize that some simple things like that can be abuse."
TDPRS launched a three-year campaign Wednesday to heighten public awareness about child abuse and neglect. …

The one thing just about everyone in Texas agrees on is that, in the past seven years, there has been, at best, no improvement in child welfare. There are a lot of indications that things have gotten worse, especially in San Antonio. (For details see NCCPR’s report on child welfare in Texas).

So, after seven years of failure, what did authorities come up with this year?

APRIL 3, 2007:

San Antonio Express-News
Officials resolve to fight abuse of children
By: Nancy Martinez

A young woman in a wedding dress walks down the aisle professing her love for a man with a killer smile and a killer laugh. When she gets to the altar, she finds a tiny casket. "But who knew that he had killer hands?" she says.
Two women are shampooing their hair at a salon and talk about how a boy was wearing long sleeves to hide his bruises -- that it was hard to believe no one had reported his abuse to Child Protective Services.
Bexar County CPS officials shared the public service announcements Monday with about 150 state, county, city and CPS officials Monday to kick off Child Abuse Prevention Month. The announcements will be broadcast locally to encourage people to pay attention to signs of child abuse and to report their suspicions.

The awareness campaign kicked off the way it does every year, with officials vowing -- in vague terms, generic pledges and poetic declarations -- that child abuse must stop. …

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Some (still) unanswered questions in New York City

A high-powered panel spoke at the Hunter College School of Social Work last week on the topic “One Year Later: A Forum Reviewing the Status of Child Welfare in New York City.” (When it comes to child welfare, nobody in New York City has to ask: “One year later than what?”)

There was the city’s “Public Advocate,” Betsy Gotbaum, who co-hosted the event and who has never missed a chance to exploit a child abuse tragedy. The commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, John Mattingly was present. So was Brooklyn Family Court Judge Susan Danoff. Also taking part, one of the city’s most astute advocates, Ilze Earner of the Immigrants and Child Welfare Project, and one of the system’s most perceptive critics, Andrew White of the Center for New York City Affairs. White edits the center’s Child Welfare Watch reports.

I wasn’t there, but from what I hear, a lot of important questions were not asked. Before getting to those questions, a few caveats:

● ACS is a much better agency than it was in the first years after Elisa Izquierdo died in late 1995. In fact, in spite of everything that’s happened, it’s a much better agency than its predecessor was before Elisa Izquierdo died. Mayor Bloomberg, John Mattingly and Commissioner Mattingly’s predecessors, William Bell and Nicholas Scoppetta, deserve a lot of credit for that.

● ACS is a much better agency than most of its big city and big state counterparts and that, also, is largely a function of good leadership.

● In the year since Nixzmary Brown died, the courage Mayor Bloomberg has shown in not pulling the plug on reform, not firing Mattingly, and not issuing demagogic calls for a foster-care panic, has been extraordinary. (One need only compare him to his counterpart in Philadelphia to see how much worse things could be).

● Commissioner Mattingly deserves enormous credit for pushing ahead with important long-term reforms, of which the recently-announced change in financial incentives (see the previous entry in this Blog) is only the latest. He’s also letting contracts for institutional providers of defense counsel for families, reducing the proportion of children in the worst forms of placement, group homes and institutions, and making progress in increasing kinship placements, an area where New York has lagged behind other progressive systems. (Commissioner Mattingly came to the job from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps to fund NCCPR).

All that said, there are still some things I hope someone asks the next time a reporter runs into someone who was on this panel:

To Public Advocate Gotbaum:
● You say there should be an independent ombudsman’s job created to watch over child welfare. Were you aware that one existed – in your own office - the day you walked in the door? The office was created by your predecessor as Public Advocate, Mark Green. It was run by a very capable leader, Hank Orenstein. Did you know Orenstein ran what was probably, at the time, the best such office in the country? Why didn’t you keep him? Why not bring him back? Why not at least put his office’s outstanding reports back on your website?

To Judge Danoff:
● Before becoming commissioner, John Mattingly served on a panel of national experts created by a settlement of a lawsuit against the city child welfare system. At that time, Mattingly co-authored a report which found that judges, with remarkable candor, said they rubber-stamped ACS decisions to remove children even when they felt ACS hadn’t made a good case - because they were afraid of what would happen to their own careers if they sent a child home and something went wrong. Have you ever done that?

To Comimssioner Mattingly:
● ACS has bragged that even as the number of children entering care has soared, the number in care on any given day has remained about the same. That raises the possibility that there is a lot of churning going on – children taken away, perhaps because of a hair-trigger mentality, then ACS realizes it was a mistake and sends the children home in a matter of weeks or months, much the worse for the experience.

At one point, before Nixzmary Brown died, you said you wanted to target cases in which children were in care for three months or less to see if there were ways to avoid placement. Has the proportion of such cases increased? If so, does that suggest some of these removals are not necessary? If not, what accounts for so many new entries and little increase in the total number of children in care?

● Ever since Nixzmary Brown died, ACS has maintained that there was no increase in needless removals because the ratio of removals to reports alleging maltreatment did not change. But that is no longer the case. According to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report, from July through October 2006, the number of reports increased 27 percent over the same months in 2005. But the number of removals increased 52 percent. So is the reverse also true – if removals are increasing faster than reports, does that mean some of these removals were not necessary?

● Schools, in particular, are now said to be a major source of a huge number of false reports and trivial reports. Those reports subject children to enormous trauma when their families are investigated, and drain away resources from finding children in real danger. Yet Mayor Bloomberg’s nonstop message can be boiled down to: Turn in anyone and everyone for anything and everything, and let ACS sort it out. How much collateral damage, in the form of traumatic child abuse investigations, should children have to endure as a result of such a policy? And doesn’t this also simply overload your own workers, reducing the chances that they will find children in real danger?

● If you were an inner-city parent who wanted to, say, challenge your child’s special education plan, could you honestly say you wouldn’t feel afraid to do so, given the speed with which some schools reportedly are using calls to ACS as a weapon? What about cases where a school official is not trying to coerce anyone, but is simply afraid for his own job if he doesn’t make a call, even when he believes it is absurd to do so? Will mandated reporters ever be taught what not to report, as well as what to report?

To anyone who wants to answer:
● Does the rate of deaths of children previously known to ACS tell us anything about overall child safety or not?

If the answer is yes:

● Why did deaths get so much attention toward the end of 2005, even before Nixzmary Brown died, when the rate of such deaths was, sadly, not unusual, yet there has been far less attention now, even though we know that such deaths increased by 50 percent, to a record high of 45 in 2006, even as removals of children increased significantly?

If the answer is no:

● Same follow up question.