Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why C-F-S-Rs are C-R-A-P

Normally, it would be just the kind of story I'd love – the kind I'd rush to send to the NCCPR Child Welfare News Exchange, my e-mail list of more than 300 reporters around the country who cover child welfare: An editorial singing the praises of Alabama's reformed child welfare system for doing an outstanding job of keeping children safe.

After all, any visitor to knows that this organization repeatedly has cited Alabama as, relatively speaking, a national model. (A member of NCCPR's Board of Directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the landmark class-action lawsuit that helped make it a model). Indeed, Alabama's success appears to be a thorn in the side to the trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America – if a recent snide crack from a top CWLA official using misinformation to try to smear the reforms is any indication.

But I didn't send the story, and I won't. That's because, while there are plenty of good data to support the contention that Alabama does a very good job of keeping children safe, including independent monitoring reports and overall data on reabuse, the editorial wasn't based on those data.

Instead, the editorial was based on Alabama's performance on its second Child and Family Services Review. And CFSRs, as these federal reviews of child welfare systems are known, are C-R-A-P.

The methodology is so absurd that a Ouija board or a coin toss would be as likely to produce an accurate picture of a state's child welfare system.

And that makes them dangerous. It's easy for good systems to fail and for bad systems to get an undeserved seal of approval. For example, during the first round of CFSRs, the Washington D.C. system was one of the few rated as doing a good job of keeping children safe. This was at a time when the system was so dreadful it had become the only system in the nation placed in receivership and run directly by a federal court. Arizona also got a passing grade for safety on its first CFSR. There, again, I could have used this to my advantage when, in 2003, the Governor started a foster-care panic that still hasn't ended. But children in Arizona were not safe then. They are even less safe now, thanks to Arizona's perennial panic, and most recently, thanks to some particularly shoddy journalism from a newspaper in Tucson – but that's a story for another day.

The major reason CFSRs are worthless – or worse - is that the CFSR ratings are based largely on an examination of only 65 cases from three counties in each entire state. The margin of error in a sample that small is so huge that it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions. For example, based on this tiny sample, the Alabama CFSR concluded that the state prevents children from being reabused 100 percent of the time. They're good in Alabama – but they're not that good.

Defenders of this inane process say that the CFSR reviewers also look at statewide statistics. But when the state stats and the tiny sample produce different conclusions, the sample takes precedence. And the state data have flaws of their own. For starters there's the fact that one state, Kansas, has found a way to cheat – exploiting a loophole to keep thousands of foster care placements out of the statistics. (See NCCPR's report on Kansas child welfare and these previous posts: Turning foster children into unpersons , What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot, It's not Oz, it's Kansas)

Another problem is the way statewide performance is measured. For example, one measure is average length of stay. That actually gives an advantage to lousy systems that take children at the drop of a hat and then "throw them back" in a month or two. States that do a good job at avoiding taking children in the first place are penalized, because their average length of stay is almost certain to be higher. And, in fact, Alabama lost out on this measure.

This is only the start of what's wrong with the process. Other problems include the ability of an administration to politicize the process – and there is evidence the Bush Administration did just that in one state. There is much more in NCCPR's full analysis, The Trouble With CFSRs which I've recently updated.

None of this should be taken as criticism of the newspaper that wrote the editorial. The paper is in fact one of the smartest in the nation when it comes to child welfare – more than a decade ago, they may well have saved the Alabama reforms when a lousy governor was trying to sabotage them. Rather, this is an appeal to all reporters to temper their understandable love of a scorecard with some checking into how the score was calculated.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Happy endings

Want to see why it's so hard to change anything in child welfare? The answer is in this story from the Star Ledger in Newark, N.J. Actually, you don't have to read the whole story (though it's quite a good story) you just have to read the very last line.

The story deals with New Jersey's massive child welfare reform effort, an effort built around securing permanence for children in all directions – not just adoption. There are four case examples, one involving primary prevention, one involving family preservation (though the term is not used), one involving reunification and one involving adoption. Even the adoption story reflects something new for New Jersey: A state once profoundly hostile to kinship care in any form now works hard to help relatives adopt.

Each example ends in success – at least for now; there is no way of knowing what will happen to any of these families in the future. In other words, each of these stories had an equally happy ending.

But that winds up contradicted by the very last line in the very last example, the adoption story: a quote from a lawyer who helped a grandmother adopt her grandchild. The lawyer declares that when it comes to court proceedings in child welfare, adoption is "the only happy thing a judge and an attorney can be part of."

Of course the lawyer did not read the story before making that comment. But she knows about the existence of court proceedings to keep a family together and reunify a family. Yet it does not even occur to her that these, too, are happy things that a judge and an attorney can be part of. Oh, if you specifically asked her I'm sure she'd say "Uh, yes, of course, that's happy too." But when it comes to how she really feels, the all-important "gut feeling" - for this middle-class attorney, only the outcome that fits the rescue fantasy is really, truly happy.

And she is not alone. In fact, I'd say it's how the overwhelming majority of attorneys, judges, caseworkers – and reporters – feel at the gut level. And no wonder. Almost all journalists have a friend or a colleague or a relative who has adopted; they know birth parents who have had children returned to them only as story subjects, if that. So there's not the same kind of joy that comes from seeing the pictures of a new (adopted) member of the family passed around in the newsroom.

As for the lawyers and judges, you don't see them making special arrangements to open the courts on Saturday and hold special celebrations to reunify a group of families en masse. But they do it all over the country, every year, for adoption. And these ceremonies are duly noted in scores of treacly news stories, some of which even include quotes about this being the one time there is happiness in the courtroom.

Child welfare systems get the message. They know that almost the only time they're guaranteed good press is when they get those adoption numbers up, and nobody is going to look too closely at how it was done. (The Star-Ledger story stands out precisely because it is such an exception). Add to that the incentive of federal bounties for every finalized foster-child adoption over a baseline number and it's easy to see why the adoption tail wags the child welfare dog. That creates all sorts of unhappy endings in the form of legal orphans, children whose rights to have any contact whatsoever with their parents were terminated but for whom no adoptive home ever was found. At its worst, the constant pressure for adoption-at-all-costs creates the unhappiest ending of all: the death or near death of a child at the hands of adoptive parents – as happened in a notorious New Jersey case involving four starved adopted children (a case which occurred before the recent reforms in that state).

Efforts like the one underway in New Jersey now are exceptional, and they are very difficult to sustain. The political pressure to roll back such reforms is enormous and it increases whenever there is a new horror story for opponents to exploit – as one can see not only in New Jersey but also in states like Michigan and Georgia where far less robust reform efforts are constantly under siege.

That's only to be expected, as long as, in their hearts, people feel that, in child welfare, there is only one possible happy ending.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Updated report on Kansas child welfare

WICHITA - Today NCCPR releases an update to our report on Kansas child welfare. There’s also a new press release. But things are moving fast, and perhaps even the update needs updating to address a concern that’s already arisen about our call to replace the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Don Jordan.

The concern is that this might merely give Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius an easy way to avoid the real issues. She could replace Jordan with someone no better. She still would fail to address the take-the-child-and-run mentality that permeates SRS. And, of course, it wouldn’t address all the known problems in the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office – problems that are serious and real regardless of whether one believes Jordan’s allegation (subsequently recanted) the assistant district attorney’s bully, scream at, yell at, cuss at and threaten caseworkers.

Indeed, it could be argued that, were Jordan replaced, the D.A.’s office might somehow declare victory and claim to be vindicated. And, indeed, the Governor, after finally breaking her silence on the issue, has evaded all the real problems.

Those are valid concerns. They are illustrated by an editorial in today's Wichita Eagle which calls for Jordan's resignation - but only because he supposedly maligned the D.A.'s office. (Although for the first time I am aware of, the Eagle expressed concern about the high rate of child removal in Sedgwick County).

But one can’t solve these problems by leaving in place a social services agency leader who is, at best ineffectual; someone who, when he speaks to you might be telling you what he really things, or might just be “pandering.” If anything, it now will be harder for any caseworkers who may feel they have been bullied, screamed at, yelled at, cussed at, and/or threatened to come forward, since their boss now is on record as not believing it really happened.

Rather, the message must be that Don Jordan must be replaced for the right reasons – not because he said bad things about the D.A.’s office and then took them back, but because he can’t be trusted when he talks to you, because he’s tolerated massive, needless removal of children from their homes, and because he’s tolerated Kansas exploiting a loophole in federal regulations (or exploiting the federal government’s failure to enforce those regulations) too keep thousands of foster care placements out of official statistics.

Replacing Jordan must be only step one – other recommendations, including the urgent need for change in the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office, are discussed in NCCPR’s report.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Don Jordan tries to un-ring the bell

Say this for the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, Don Jordan: He does know how to pander.

First he was caught on tape saying that assistant district attorneys in the state's largest county, Sedgwick, have been bullying his caseworkers into including things in sworn affidavits that the workers don't actually believe. Actually he didn't stop at bullying. Jordan also accused the ADAs of cussing at, screaming at, yelling at and threatening the caseworkers.

When he found out his comments would become public, he called Ron Paschal the deputy district attorney in charge of the child abuse unit to apologize. According to Paschal, Jordan explained he was merely "pandering" to the family advocacy group to which he made the remarks, Citizens for Change.

Yesterday, Jordan released a statement in which he tries to reconcile these statements. Of course that's impossible. Mostly he just panders to the D.A.'s office – and in the process only digs himself in deeper.

The statement tries to treat the original comments as one little slip-of-the-tongue; a bit of infelicitous phrasing. He says he was merely trying to suggest that the stress of dealing with child abuse cases "can lead to a lack of civility." The record shows otherwise. As The Wichita Eagle reported last week, and again today Jordan's original comment went on at some length and, as noted above, used not only the term bullied but all those other choice words as well.

Of course, we don't know what assistant district attorneys say to caseworkers in private. But we do know that the District Attorney's office publicly has sought to bully SRS as a whole into taking away more children, exploiting a high-profile tragedy in 2006 to claim the agency was doing too much to keep families together. Indeed, deputy district attorney Ron Paschal even speculated that a change in state regulations had led to fewer children being taken from their parents. In fact, removals went up. So it's important that even if Jordan loses his job over this, as he should, that doesn't then let the D.A.'s office off the hook for its overall take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, which has traumatized hundreds of children needlessly while doing nothing to make children safer.

Jordan goes on to say that "the disputes I was referring to in my comments and for which I was not clear, have nothing to do with the veracity of the information provided in legal documents." But on the tape, Jordan is heard not once, but twice saying specifically that the affidavits contain information the workers themselves don't believe. He said there are times when workers "have no belief in what it says." And then later he comes back to that same point: "I am working on our staff that we do our assessments properly and we not get bullied into writing things we don't believe."

Jordan also claims now that a practice he once said was enough of a problem to require "working on our staff" now was merely what he'd heard in "anecdotal accounts provided to me over the years by line social workers and their managers." But if he's been hearing this for years, why hasn't he looked into it? Why hasn't he done anything about it? Jordan's statement also reveals something else: The problem is not confined to Sedgwick County.

One other item was notable in the statement. Up to now, we've had only Paschal's word for it that Jordan told him he was merely "pandering" to Citizens for Change. In his statement, as published in The Eagle today, he confirms it.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney actually said it best in her response to Jordan's comments when the story first broke: "You can't un-ring the bell."

I'm on my way to Wichita today. I'll be speaking at a Citizens for Change news conference tomorrow and a public forum on Saturday. I expect to have more on this on the Blog tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

“They lie, they lie, they AWFULLY lie”

The quote, which I've cited on this Blog before, is from an anguished mother in New York City back in 1992, speaking to the now-defunct New York Newsday. Her baby had died because of a defective cradle. The evidence that the death was an accident was so overwhelming that I am confident even the fanatics in Florida who want to label practically everything neglect would agree. But that didn't stop the child welfare agency from taking the surviving children for six months. It probably would have been longer, if not for the work of an excellent Newsday columnist at the time, Carole Agus. There's also plenty of evidence for the mother's comment in this particular case.

Most of the time, workers don't lie outright. The bigger problem is the tendency of all of us to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear. That's why the law should require that all interviews in child protective services investigations be tape recorded.

But now there are startling new accusations that caseworkers in the largest county in Kansas are being bullied and browbeaten into including information in sworn affidavits that the workers don't really believe, in order to hype the case for removing children. What makes these allegations so starting is who is making them: the caseworkers' own boss – the man in charge of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Don Jordan.

This story begins in March, when Jordan met with a grassroots advocacy group, Citizens for Change. SRS had promised to consult with Citizens for Change, and other groups, as part of its efforts to comply with findings from its federal Child and Family Services Reviews. As reported Sunday in The Wichita Eagle:

During a meeting with the advocacy group Citizens for Change on March 18 in Topeka Jordan was recorded saying:

"But in Sedgwick County oftentimes we end up writing things because it's what our social workers get bullied by the District Attorney's Office into writing. So they really have no belief in what it says."[Emphasis added].

Later in the meeting, Jordan said: "I am working on our staff that we do our assessments properly and we not get bullied into writing things we don't believe. But then the reality comes down to, you send a 25-year-old social worker into a room with a 15-year county ADA (assistant district attorney) who is willing to yell at them, cuss at them, scream at them and threaten them, you know."

When Jordan found out his comments would become public – and only then – he said he should not have used the term "bullied." He has not, however, rescinded the terms "yell" "cuss" "scream" and "threaten."

It was also only after he learned his comments would become public that Jordan rushed to call the deputy district attorney in charge of child abuse investigations in Sedgwick County and say he was really, really sorry. In fact, according to the deputy D.A., Ron Paschal, Jordan said he'd merely been "pandering" to Citizens for Change. [UPDATE: A story in today's Eagle (June 19) indicates Jordan and the D.A.'s office may have, in fact, discussed this matter earlier. But whenever it happened, Jordan now confirms the comment about "pandering."].

That's possible, of course. But it's hard to see why Jordan would make such explosive comments, when there are far easier ways to pander. The usual approach is to pull out a yellow legal pad, take copious notes (or pretend to) lean in toward the speaker, nod a lot, say "mmm hmmm" and "I see" and then, at the end say something like "I can certainly see why you're so upset, and we are definitely going to look into this." If Jordan really was just pandering when he made those comments about bullying, cussing, screaming, yelling and threatening, then he's taken pandering to a whole new level.

We also know that Kansas takes children at one of the highest rates in the nation and Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, might be a contender for child removal capital of America. But it doesn't show up in official figures. That's because the state found a loophole in federal rules for reporting entries into care. (see Turning foster children into unpersons , What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot, It's not Oz, it's Kansas, and NCCPR's report on Kansas child welfare). It's a sleazy tactic and, when it comes to statistics abuse, we know of no other child welfare system in the nation that has sunk so low. But the federal government has chosen to look the other way. And we know that a lot of the impetus for the high rate of removal in Sedgwick County comes from the District Attorney's office. But that office denies any bullying of caseworkers.

Meanwhile, the county's judges whom, one would hope, would be first to demand an independent investigation, instead are making clear they desperately want to cling to their rubber-stamps and avoid any serious attempt to weigh evidence. The judges say they haven't seen any bullying. But if bullying is going on, surely the judges don't expect it to unfold before their eyes in open court, do they?

But there is one thing we know for sure: If Paschal's description of Jordan's comment is accurate, then Don Jordan has made at least one statement that is blatantly false. We just don't know which one – the one about bullying or the one about pandering.

We also know that if caseworkers are caving in to pressure to hype their allegations against birth parents, then they are violating federal law which requires those workers to make reasonable efforts to keep families together. If, on the other hand, that claim from Jordan was just "pandering" then Kansas is violating its obligations concerning its Child and Family Services Review. Those obligations include meeting with Citizens for Change. If Jordan said he was just pandering, then he was merely going through the motions, holding the meeting to say he held the meeting, rather than to actually exchange ideas or improve the child welfare system. I presume this is not what the federal government had in mind when it approved Kansas' plan.

So NCCPR has joined Citizens for Change in calling on the relevant federal agency, the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate Kansas SRS. But we're not optimistic. The Children's Bureau is the same agency that said it saw no problem in Kansas' scheme to keep thousands of foster care placements out of official statistics.

But the feds aren't the only one who bear responsibility here. A major share of the blame – and full responsibility, now that it's all out in the open - rests with Don Jordan's boss. She tolerated the manipulation of statistics. Will she also tolerate a cabinet secretary who either panders or allows his caseworkers to be bullied – or maybe both? The buck stops with Jordan's boss – the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius.

What are you going to do about it, Governor?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

NPR: Where the birth parent-bashing never stops

Every time I think the folks at National Public Radio can't sink any lower, they manage to surprise me. On Friday, one of the network's two flagship programs, All Things Considered devoted three segments to foster care. Reporter Michelle Trudeau's first sentence of her first story began with a false allegation against hundreds of thousands of families, presented as fact. Without even the pretense of attribution, Trudeau said:

"A child is placed in foster care only as a last resort, when parental maltreatment or neglect is extreme and unremitting."

The only reason I can't call that a baldfaced lie is that I don't think she would make this false allegation on purpose. More likely she was just astonishingly sloppy and ignorant, accepting anything she heard from anyone who shares her preconceptions, without bothering to check. And since it conformed so well to the NPR mindset, nobody else checked either. The segment, and two which followed were right in keeping with NPR's record of relying almost exclusively on white, middle-class alleged experts to bash the overwhelmingly poor disproportionately minority families who lose children to the system. The network is now up to seven child welfare segments in less than a month that relied exclusively on white, middle-class voices. (See At NPR: The ultimate "Blackout" describing how the network managed to broadcast four segments on a new report on transracial adoption without ever speaking to an actual Black person).

As for Trudeau's broad brush attack on hundreds of thousands of poor, minority parents, study after study has found huge numbers of children in foster care primarily because the parents' family poverty is confused with neglect. Summaries are available in NCCPR Issue Paper #5. And plenty of people who have run child welfare systems freely admit as much. Again see their comments here. At a minimum, the reasons children come into foster care is a point of dispute; but Ms. Trudeau offers up the NPR party line as fact - as usual, no dissent is allowed.

There are plenty of birth parents who did not engage in extreme unremitting maltreatment – or any maltreatment at all - who could tell their stories on NPR; I've even sent statements from two of them to NPR's ombudsman - but once again NPR shut them out. Instead, NPR opted for a commentary from a white middle-class judge rattling off horror stories.

Even when children are taken because of real maltreatment it is rare that this maltreatment is "extreme" or "unremitting" – and that explains the results of that study cited often on this Blog, the one involving 15,000 cases which found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. Though widely reported elsewhere, as far as I know, not one word about that study has been uttered on NPR.

But I've come to expect nothing different from a network whose arrogance reminds me of nothing so much as the old joke about the slogan for the phone company when it was a monopoly: "We don't care, we don't have to."

What's the matter with Kansas?

The guy in charge of the state's child welfare agency is caught on tape - and tied up in knots. See this story from The Wichita Eagle.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Credit where it’s due

The Poynter Institute is a non-profit organization that describes itself as "a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists." The Institute also owns a newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. Although Poynter's website may be best known among reporters as the home of the industry's foremost news and gossip column, there also is a section called "Everyday Ethics." That section devoted an excellent column to the work of the reporter who has led the field in coverage of the FLDS case, Brooke Adams of The Salt Lake Tribune. The column offers several reasons why her reporting has been so much better than much of what's turned up in the national media and the Texas press. In the column's comments section, I added one more:

Not only Brooke Adams, who is superb and indefatigable, but many of her predecessors on the child welfare beat at the Salt Lake Tribune, such as Kirsten Stewart and Ashley Broughton, took nothing at face value from anyone – but listened to everyone. They were open to all points of view, relentless in checking out everyone's claims, and, most important, willing to be as skeptical of those presumed to be the "good guys" as they are of those stereotyped as the "bad guys." The Deseret News, though owned by the Mormon Church, [which can't stand the FLDS] also was notably open-minded and enterprising in some of its later coverage.

In contrast, a couple of the key Texas reporters have always drenched their coverage in sneer and swagger and routinely shut out any of us who might suggest that child welfare agencies sometimes go overboard and harm children in the process. To them, CPS is always right when it takes children and only wrong when it leaves them in dangerous homes.


My thanks to a reader of this Blog, who has found a second newspaper outside Texas and Utah siding with CPS, one that's bigger than the one in Croydon, Indiana. The Providence Journal weighed in back on May 31. The reader took issue with them in a letter to the editor that was not published. But at least the Journal is consistent. Rhode Island takes away children at one of the highest rates in the country, and I've never known the Journal to object. I remain amazed, though not surprised, that so many other newspapers have deluded themselves into thinking they're practicing some sort of weird, cowboy child welfare in Texas. They rightly condemn Texas CPS, but it never occurs to them that the same stuff is going on in their backyards every day.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The “Dirty Harry” of child welfare?

Suppose a police department got caught routinely refusing to read suspects their "Miranda" rights. Suppose the department coerced confessions from suspects and, in various other ways, broke the law. Suppose that most of the time they never got caught because the accused had lawyers who never really fought for them, and just negotiated plea bargains. But then, suppose, a couple of lawyers finally took the cases to higher courts – which threw out the convictions because of the illegal behavior of the cops.

Now, suppose the police chief reacted as follows: "We don't have to actually follow the law ourselves because, you see, we're the cops, and our only job is to do whatever it takes to catch anyone we think is a crook. The courts, on the other hand, don't care only about protecting innocent citizens from crime, they also have a mandate to coddle criminals. So we cops don't actually have to make a good faith effort to follow the law on our own – we only have to do it when the court makes us."

Frankly, a fair number of Americans might go for this – after all, fictional cops like Dirty Harry are very popular. But at least a sizable minority would be appalled – and certainly most who call themselves civil libertarians would be outraged. Indeed, few police chiefs who held this view would say it out loud.

But, as always, it's depressingly different in child welfare. One of the sleazier arguments made by Texas CPS in the YFZ case, ever since the appellate court ruled against the agency, is the one where they imply that the courts ruled against CPS because only CPS really, truly cares about children, while the courts have "other concerns." That was bad enough, with its implication that somehow, traumatizing hundreds of little children and placing them at enormous risk in Texas foster care was some kind of defense of child safety and if you disagree you must care more about "parents rights."

But Albert Hawkins, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the Texas child welfare agency, has now taken this argument a step further. Responding to still another editorial condemning the YFZ raid, this one in USA Today, Hawkins wrote this:

While Child Protective Services remains strictly focused on the protection of children, the courts have a different role. It's in the courts that the safety of children must be weighed against the rights of parents [emphasis added].

Leaving aside the nasty bit of deck stacking where Hawkins equates things like minimal due process and having minimal evidence before traumatizing hundreds of children as somehow equivalent to protecting "parents rights," just consider the implications of his comments that there is, essentially no constraint on CPS doing whatever it pleases until the case gets to court. That is, of course, especially frightening since, in most cases, the courts offer no check or balance at all.

Kind of makes you wonder if, when higher-ups at CPS first heard that the families actually would appeal their response was "Go ahead – make my day."


There are alarming signs that, in Texas, a lot of people are going to learn only the wrong lessons from all this. First, of course, are all those editorials claiming the criticism of CPS is "hindsight" and "second guessing." But there are plenty of us who said this was wrong from the start, including the Parent Guidance Center and the excellent Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.

More important, in an otherwise excellent editorial, the San Antonio Express News, which usually covers child welfare better than any other paper in Texas, made a crucial mistake. To the paper's credit, they refused to fall for Hawkins' line about how not removing children harms only the parents. On the contrary, the editorial explicitly recognized that the wrong decision either way harms children. But then, alas, came this:

The state, reflecting the spirit of the law, normally exercises extraordinary care in removing even a single child from parental custody. In this case, the state removed children from an entire community on the flimsiest of evidence — phone calls alleged to have come from one girl who claimed to be an abuse victim. Authorities now believe a woman in Colorado fraudulently placed those calls.

Everything after that first sentence is on the mark. But, in fact, the state rarely exercises extraordinary care in these cases. On the contrary, the decisions often are arbitrary, capricious and cruel. It is commonplace for child welfare agencies to take children needlessly and to leave children in dangerous homes. If the Express-News, and others don't get that the decision-making in this case was tragically typical, all of the suffering endured by the YFZ children will be for nothing.


Let's not forget the April 24 commentary in the Houston Chronicle by Jim Shields of Justice for Children, which began as follows:

I spend my days fighting to save the lives of victims of child abuse, so I have a unique perspective on the turmoil of the past few weeks at the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints compound near the West Texas town of Eldorado. … I think that we all need to take a deep breath and allow "the system" to do its work. And I am very hopeful that the children of Eldorado will be well served this time because it is my experience that "what's watched, works." In other words, the cracks, or gaping chasms if you prefer, in our child protective systems will be closed because the whole world is watching.

Recognizing that I am, of course, unworthy even to read the words of a man who "[spends his] days fighting to save the lives of victims of child abuse…" I nevertheless feel compelled to point out that the eyewitness accounts of the mental health professionals sent in by Texas itself show that what was watched didn't work at all.

And it is frightening to contemplate what would have happened had the courts ruled the other way. Texas CPS assured us they would have no trouble handling more than 400 additional children. But early on news accounts began appearing about the enormous suffering being endured – not by the children, but by the CPS caseworkers, who couldn't get paid for overtime or even reimbursed for what they spent on gas as they traveled around the state following the children they themselves had placed all over the state.

If Texas CPS couldn't even manage to process a few extra forms, imagine how they would have handled things like ensuring visits between parents and children and making sure the children were not abused in foster care.


Though by far the most important tragedy is the harm to children's lives, has a very good story about all the money Texas taxpayers have squandered on the case so far. (It's written by Ashley Broughton, a very good reporter who, some years ago, covered child welfare for The Salt Lake Tribune). This story puts the state cost at $7 million. Other stories have covered this ground, and offered different estimates, but in this piece Broughton gave some examples of how that money could have been spent instead:

For comparison, $7 million would pay for 137 police officers in the city of Mesquite, Texas, at a salary of $51,060, according to a figure from a job posting. It would also pay for 180 new teachers at the average statewide salary of $38,857 given by the Texas State Board for Educator Certification and would more than double resources available for a state program aimed at children of incarcerated parents, according to the state's budget for fiscal 2008-09. In that budget, the program receives $5 million.

Allow me to add a few other examples: $7 million could have put 1,400 families through Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention at $5,000 per family. These programs have a far better track record for safety than foster care. (They're discussed in detail in NCCPR Issue Papers 10 and 11). This money also could have provided $600-a-month rent subsidies for a year for 972 families, so their children would not be taken away because of housing problems. They could have provided $100-a-week in day care assistance for 1,346 children, so those children wouldn't be taken away on "lack of supervision" charges. And they could have put 378 parents through inpatient residential drug treatment programs (at $18,500 per parent) where their children could have remained with them – again, something far better for children than being thrown into foster care.

Of course, not all the $7 million was wasted. It made sense to investigate carefully and make case-by-case determinations concerning whether any children were abused or at imminent risk of abuse. So spending money to investigate was reasonable. Of course, given how the investigation was conducted, it could be argued that this money was wasted as well.


The USA Today editorial was the 12th I've found outside Texas and Utah to tell CPS it screwed up. Three more, The Baltimore Sun, the Toledo Blade and The Day in New London, Connecticut, are on the fence. And I finally found a newspaper that favors the CPS position: the Croydon, (Indiana) Democrat.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

At NPR: The ultimate “Blackout”


As far as I'm concerned, the two finest writers in broadcast journalism today are Byron Pitts of CBS News and NPR's Scott Simon. So of course it was good to hear Simon devote one of his weekly commentaries on NPR's Weekend Edition to a case in which a child was wrongfully placed in foster care.

Of course, it also was the only variety of such case that ever seems to interest NPR: The extremely rare example of the long arm of child protective services extending into the upper middle class. It was the case of the child of two University of Michigan professors, taken from his father when he accidentally gave the boy Mike's Hard Lemonade at a baseball game.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the story made it onto NPR. In fact, part of the reason this story got so much attention, starting with this excellent column in the Detroit Free Press, is that the family's lawyer asked NCCPR for advice on calling attention to it. But the other part is simply because this was one of those very rare times when the system harmed somebody journalists at NPR, and elsewhere, can identify with. Read about this case and it's going to send a chill up the spine of middle class professionals as they think: "This could happen to my child."

But terrible as the ordeal was for this little boy, it is nowhere near as bad as what is endured by the overwhelming majority of the 300,000 children taken from their parents every year (something the parents in this case themselves have taken pains to acknowledge). But, of course, that overwhelming majority is overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority. And readers of this Blog know exactly what NPR thinks of the parents in those kinds of cases. An NPR editor, Andrea DeLeon, callously dismissed them as "these people," saying: "I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the [child welfare] system is functioning well today." (In other words, in NPR's world view, poor parents who lose their children must be scum, so why would they care if the system is hurting their children? Only middle-class parents who lose their children could possibly be innocent.) For details see the earlier post on this Blog: NPR: It still stands for No Parent Response.

The same bias could be seen in a segment of NPR’s series This I Believe, (a series so drenched in pretentiousness that the producer calls himself a “curator.”) A middle-class adoptive mother spends the entire commentary telling the world how wonderful she is because she adopted a boy from China – and implies that in all of China not one Chinese ever loved the boy.

But perhaps the ultimate example of NPR’s astounding myopia came last week, when a report was released calling for modifications to a federal law on transracial adoption. The report is pretty good, and, if there’s time, I’ll write about it in a future post. But for now, I want to focus on how NPR covered it.

Transracial adoption is a hot-button issue for two groups: African-Americans, especially impoverished African-Americans, and childless upper middle class white couples. Guess which group the people at NPR identify with? We know this first of all because the network really pulled out all the stops, something it almost never does on child welfare issues. Four separate NPR programs devoted time to this study, including what looks to have been a full hour on Talk of the Nation. And in every single one of those segments everyone interviewed was someone like myself - middle class and white. In all of these segments about transracial adoption, even the one on Tell Me More, a program geared to minority audiences, NPR could not find even one real live Black person to talk to.

The report deals with the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, a federal law which essentially demands a Stephen Colbert-style “I don’t see color” approach to transracial adoption. Under MEPA, if a Grand Wizard of the KKK wanted to adopt a Black child, it would be illegal to disqualify him. The new report, from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and endorsed by several other pillars of the child welfare establishment, says this goes too far. The report found that MEPA compromises the quality of transracial placements without increasing their quantity.

Of course, it makes sense to have the director of the Donaldson Institute on as a guest in segments about the report, which NPR did. It also makes sense to have on one of the nation’s leading family-bashing extremists to defend leaving MEPA exactly as is. NPR did that as well. And it makes sense to interview white parents who adopted Black children. But that’s where NPR stopped. The problem isn’t who NPR included, it’s who NPR excluded – the same people NPR almost always excludes when the topic is child welfare.

Someone in the office of NPR’s ombudsman challenged me on my description of everyone in these stories as middle class. After promising to read the transcripts, she rather snidely added: “I'd be interested in reading about how they were described as middle class.” Well, yes, there was no such overt description – and I didn’t check their tax returns either. But when the parent being interviewed has nine children, six of them adopted, moves from “a white suburb” to downtown Minneapolis, doesn’t complain even once in the entire segment about financial problems, and tells the interviewer that, “I'm not the latte-drinking MBA in Woodberry, which is a fancy suburb, anymore” it’s a pretty reasonable inference. (And, as I asked the ombudsman’s office staffer: If it turns out that they weren’t all middle-class but were only exclusively white, does that make it o.k.?)

The Talk of the Nation program also reflects a problem analogous to a common, and valid, criticism from the Left concerning coverage of issues that are more overtly ideological. The spectrum of permissible opinion ranges from the center to the right, with a serious Left perspective excluded. The Talk of The Nation program reflected the same bias: There was the centrist position, that MEPA goes a tad too far and needs some tinkering, and the extremist position that it should remain untouched. The possibility that MEPA needs more than a little tinkering – a possibility most likely to be raised by an actual African-American, was excluded.

The problem is most pronounced in child welfare coverage, but it can turn up elsewhere as well. Shortly after a transit strike ended in New York City in 2006, NPR’s Robert Smith reported on a rally of transit workers – who, in New York City, are largely minorities. Every soundbite from the leader of these workers, who spend their workdays on crowded busses and rat-infested subway tunnels, was followed by a snide comment from Smith – whose job entails no physical labor more strenuous than pushing the “record” and “play” buttons of his tape recorder at the same time. And when a motorist was insufficiently outraged at being inconvenienced by the rally itself, Smith even fed him his lines. You can listen to the story here. And then I hope you’ll consider doing what I did when I first heard it: Taking the money you might normally give to your public radio station this year and sending it to the New York City Transport Workers Union instead.

NPR’s ombudsman has said they might actually hold a brown bag lunch on the topic of class bias – but with NPR personnel only. They won’t be inviting any of “these people” – actual birth parents who lost children to the system. No, it’ll just be a gathering of NPR people – you know, a bunch of Volvo-driving-latte-sipping-Whole-Foods-Shopping aging Yuppies. Oh, wait, was that unfair? Completely. And as soon as NPR actually lets “these people” become a regular part of its child welfare coverage, I’ll apologize. Meanwhile, however, when it comes to stereotyping, if you’re going to dish it out, you ought to be prepared to take it.