Friday, August 29, 2008

Vindications up to 253

    Texas CPS has now moved to say, in effect, "oh, never mind" in cases involving more than half the children taken from the YFZ ranch, according to The Deseret News. In effect, CPS is admitting that the suffering inflicted on these children when they were confiscated and thrown into foster care was entirely unnecessary. Only one child has been returned to foster care.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The case of the mismatched shoes, and other ways CPS workers waste their time

    The call was one of more than 150,000 that are taken each year by Florida's child abuse "hotline." Someone was on the phone alleging that a child was in danger. Had the caller heard the child screaming in the night? No. Had the child complained about being mistreated? No. Had the caller seen welts and bruises? Uh, not exactly.

    No. The warning sign that this child was in grave danger was his or her shoes. One was red and one was blue.

    But because the call came from a school official and a school official is a mandated reporter, and because it happened in Florida, the Case of the Mismatched Shoes became a full-scale child abuse investigation. And a full-scale child abuse investigation is not a benign act. Even when it does not result in removing a child from the home, it can scar that child emotionally for years, maybe for life.

The news story in which this example turns up offers no details. But typically, a full-scale investigation means an inherently traumatic interview of the child, in which he or she may be asked everything from whether he thinks his parents love him, to whether they beat him, to detailed questions about sex (to see if he knows "too much," often deemed a "warning sign" of sexual abuse).

    Until recently in Florida, the questioning would be followed by a mandatory stripsearch to see if there were any bruises. That still is a common part of such investigations all over the country.

    Other investigations have been started in Florida for almost as little reason.

    In Sarasota County, a private school phoned the hotline over what a newspaper aptly described as a "you show me yours, I'll show you mine" incident involving two preschoolers.

    Or consider this incident from the town of Fernandina Beach:

A first grader allegedly pulled down another boy's pants in a school bathroom. And he placed his hand, palm up, on a chair just as a girl was about to sit there. She never did. The school guidance counselor and principal demanded that the boy's teacher call the hotline and report the five-year-old as a possible sexual predator.

"I said 'let me talk to the mother first'" the teacher would later testify. "Then [the guidance counselor] said 'No, you may not talk to the mother because the mother may be in on it too.'"

The teacher refused, so the principal made the call. The teacher was suspended and the school board tried to fire her, but backed down when an administrative law judge ruled for the teacher. But at least she was an adult. The five-year-old became a suspect in a child abuse investigation, questioned not only by the Florida Department of Children and Families but also by a Sheriff's detective.

    That's why the threshold for starting an investigation, and putting children through so much trauma, needs to be raised.

    Bob Butterworth, the reform-minded Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, who left that job this month, recognized that. One of his last acts was to begin the process of creating a rational method for screening calls to the Florida child abuse hotline. His successor, George Sheldon, is following through.

It's about time.

    I know of no state which does a really good job of screening calls to its hotline, (though New Jersey reportedly is improving) but Florida has been particularly lax. And it's not just family preservation advocates who think so. Back when the head of DCF was a fanatic about taking away children, she commissioned a study of the hotline, carefully selecting someone to do the study who shared her fanaticism. But even he couldn't stomach what was going on. The study concluded that at least 35 percent of calls passed on for investigation should have been screened out.

    The reason that's a problem is not only the trauma inflicted on children in tens of thousands of cases. It's also the fact that the false reports and trivial cases overload frontline workers. As a result, the study concluded, workers have less time for each investigation, increasing the likelihood that serious abuse will be missed.

    "The hotline is supposed to be a gate," the researcher who conducted the study said. "They've got the gate rusted, stuck open." As a result, cases pile up, creating a backlog of uncompleted investigations.     "I equate that to the game of playing Russian roulette. It's just a matter of time before some child in the backlog pool is really badly injured."

    Not long after, the mandatory stripsearch requirement was repealed. But nothing was done to bolster screening.    

    But now that Florida is reforming, there is the usual hand-wringing from those who feel any trauma inflicted on a child is justified as long as it's done in the name of cracking down on child abuse. It's the usual set of hypothetical scare arguments: "What if…" "Maybe…" "There just might be…" And that's true. But the chances that the child with mismatched shoes really is being abused at home are a lot slimmer than the chance that he was traumatized by the investigation. And the odds are greater that, all the time, money and effort investigating the Case of the Mismatched Shoes was diverted from some child in real danger who was overlooked.

    The truth is there always will be screening in child welfare. The choice isn't screening or no screening. It's rational screening – in which hotline operators are trained to ask questions and apply reasonable criteria – or irrational screening, in which reports cascade down on overloaded workers and get screened in or out based on which one happens to be on the top of the pile that morning.

    Either way some children in real danger will be missed. But a rational system of screening makes it more likely that more such children will be found.

    Now that Florida is figuring that out, I wonder when other states will as well.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

The vindication count reaches 150

    The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Texas authorities are now seeking to dismiss or have dismissed cases involving about 150 FLDS children. That's 150 children whose traumatic removal from their families, warehousing in dreadful conditions in the days after the raid on the YFZ ranch, and subsequent institutionalization across Texas, until appellate courts intervened, was all for nothing. And still, only one child has been returned to foster care. So once again it's worth remembering what Texas CPS kept saying in defense of its actions: that this is what they always do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Crisis at NPR! Whole Foods faces recession!

On June 1, I posted to this blog, not for the first time, about the racial and class bias that permeate coverage of child welfare at National Public Radio. I cited as one example the fact that the network managed to do four separate stories on a report about trans-racial adoption and talk only to white people. I also said this bias can be seen in other coverage as well, citing this example:

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.

Apparently, management at NPR likes its stories about the working poor filled with sneer and snide, because Smith got a promotion of sorts. He filled in as anchor of Weekend Edition Sunday this week. And this time, he did a story from a place where, clearly, he is far more comfortable than among transit workers: a Whole Foods supermarket. It seems that this home of the $8.00 chocolate bar is having a tough time in the age of $4.00-a-gallon gasoline. So Smith accompanied some college students on a tour in which a Whole Foods functionary pointed out that there really were some bargains to be had. And, without a shred of irony, he included in the story a comment from an analyst who said the chain could use a dose of humility.

No snide remarks or sneering comments this time. When Whole Foods suffers, all of NPR feels their pain.

More fiction from The New York Times

There has been another tragic death of a child "known to the system" in New York City. A two-year-old boy died under what are, so far, mysterious circumstances, a month after being returned to his home in Queens.

That gave the The New York Times the chance to regurgitate the fiction that has driven the paper's coverage of child welfare for nearly three years now. According to the Times:

New York City has fluctuated on the rigors of the threshold it uses to determine when a home is so dangerous that a child must be taken from it. In the late 1990s, the city began pursuing a policy of leaving children in homes whenever possible. But beginning in the fall of 2005, there were several cases in which children from homes that had had dealings with children's services ended up dying at the hands of a parent. The most notorious case was that of Nixzmary Brown, who was beaten to death by her stepfather in January 2006. Child welfare officials began tightening standards again, and this spring, New York City enacted a policy that allows the authorities to remove newborns from their parents' homes in all but an 'extraordinary instance' if the parents previously had children taken from their custody and their case is still open.

The part that is pure fiction is the part that says there were several deaths of children known-to-the-system beginning in the fall of 2005. In fact, the rate at which children "known to the system" were dying at that time was no different from the rate of such deaths all the way back to 1993. Nothing had changed at all, for better or for worse. But, just as in today's story, the Times used the deaths in the fall of 2005 to create a phony link between such fatalities and efforts to keep families together.

The result was a huge surge in removals of children – which, of course, overloaded the system and led to caseworkers missing more children in real danger. There was a real change in the rate of deaths of children known-to-the-system in 2006 – they went way up, in fact they set a record. But as I've noted before, the newspaper of record has never put that record in the newspaper. More significantly, more reliable indicators of child safety, reabuse of children and foster-care recidivism have worsened as removals have surged. (The stats are available in NCCPR's report on New York City child welfare.)

Longtime readers of this Blog know that the reporter who keeps offering up this fiction did, once, attempt to justify her claims about a series of deaths beginning in the fall of 2005. "It was a series," she explained during a panel discussion the following year, "but not statistically."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vindication: 76, foster care: 1

    The number of FLDS children whose cases Texas CPS has asked to have dismissed now has reached 76. In other words, Texas CPS effectively admits that all the suffering it inflicted on those 76 children when they were taken away in the first place was unnecessary. One child has been ordered returned to foster care.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Unfinished business in Florida

Late last month on this Blog I praised the work of Bob Butterworth who just left the job of Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. He began a transformation of what was once one of the worst child welfare systems in the nation, including the first significant reduction in entries into foster care in a decade.

    But even as Florida newspapers were filled with stories about Butterworth's last day and the naming of his interim successor, George Sheldon, a small story in a small newspaper , Hernando Today, illustrated how much more needs to be done, not only in Florida, but almost everywhere.

    It was one of those barely-more-than-a-police-blotter items about a young mother who fell asleep one afternoon and didn't know her three-year-old had managed to open a deadbolt lock and get out the front door of their house, something he apparently had done at least once before. He was found in the front yard wearing only a diaper. Someone called the police. They found a home "in disarray with piles of dirty dishes and bottles of medication and toxic household cleaners within easy access of the child." The three-year-old and his infant brother were taken away, and the mother was criminally charged.

    There is some risk in pointing out this case. If there is an "advocates handbook" out there, it probably says one should point out only cases in which the alleged victim is pure as the driven snow; what I've come to call a "60 Minutes-class victim."

    But those cases are at one end of a continuum, with the horror story cases of sadistic brutes who torture their children at the other. Most of what child welfare agency workers see falls in between – like this case. And that means the success of any effort to fix DCF, and almost every other child welfare agency in the country, will rise or fall on how cases like this one are handled.

    I imagine a lot of people will share the sentiment of the first person to comment on the Hernando Today website, "Chris 100602" who wrote:

The saddest part of this story is that they will give this bright young child right back to this sad excuse for a mother, and she will quash and smother anything he may have been able to accomplish in his life if given half the chance.

Indeed, that is almost certainly the first reaction among a lot of DCF workers, including whoever decided to take these children in the first place. And that makes it a perfect example of flunking the "balance of harms" test.

We all can see the risk in leaving these children at home: Teen mother, messy home, dangers in easy reach.

    But no one involved in the case saw the dangers of removal: The fact that this three-year-old is now probably terrified about never seeing the mother he loves again; the fact that the terror may well be compounded by guilt; a belief that he is being punished, why else would they have taken mommy away? The fact that this fear and guilt may cripple the child emotionally for life. The fact that if the foster care drags on long enough there is a one-in-three chance he'll actually be abused in foster care itself.

    As for the infant, also taken, I often have cited a major medical center study of Florida infants born with cocaine in their systems, one group placed in foster care, one group left with mothers able to care for them. Even for these infants, those left with birth mothers did better. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine. (No that doesn't mean you can just leave children with addicts, it does mean drug treatment for the mother almost always is a better first choice than foster care for the child). There is no allegation of drug use in this case. So imagine how much the infant in this case is suffering now. (The story doesn't say exactly where the children are. If they're with extended family that cushions the blow, but harm still is done.)

    And remember that study of 15,000 typical cases – the one that found that, on average, the children left in their own homes, even with little or no help, did better than those placed in foster care? This is precisely the kind of case that the study examined – a typical, everyday, "in-between" case. If anything, many of those 15,000 cases probably were worse. So while Chris100602 probably reflects public opinion, I know 15,000 children who probably would like to take issue with her, if they could. Still another study found that only one in five foster-care alumni does well in later life. So, no, foster care doesn't give a child "half the chance" to accomplish anything in life – it's more like one-fifth of a chance.

    And then there's the second comment. The person posting this comment claims to be the mother's big sister. She says she tried to help her sister to no avail, and ultimately called DCF to turn in her sister a couple of weeks earlier. But, she says, DCF didn't do anything then.

Let's assume that's all true. That only further illustrates how DCF got it wrong. If it's all true, this is a classic example of a child welfare agency believing there are only two options, "all" or "nothing" – that is, take away the children or close the door and go away.

    Depending on what DCF found on that first report, there might well have been plenty of cause to offer help. That help could have included partnering with the sister – helping the big sister find and provide concrete help to her younger sister (assuming the relationship hadn't soured too much as a result of the call to DCF).

    And when DCF came back the second time? There was nothing wrong that couldn't have been solved with a locksmith and some housekeeping help. Then do some in-home help and monitoring. Send in someone to teach the mother, but not with a wagging finger and a lot of theory. Send in someone who also would provide concrete help – roughly the equivalent of one of those "nurse home visitor" interventions that the child welfare establishment loves. (Done right, it really is an excellent program). I don't think this case even rises to the level where something more intense, like Intensive Family Preservation Services is necessary.

    Why bother doing all this? For those who care only about money, it will cost less than foster care. For those who care about children, it will leave those children far better off than they probably are now – terrified and guilt ridden somewhere in foster care. This kind of intervention is the kind that would really give these children that "half a chance" that Chriss100602 naively believes you get from foster care.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A due process agenda for families

    Tomorrow (August 11) NCCPR formally releases Civil Liberties Without Exception: NCCPR's Due Process Agenda for Children and Families. It is a compilation of recommendations we have made over the years to ensure the rights of children, by bolstering justice for their families.

    For an example of why such an agenda is needed, take a look at an outstanding series of stories that ran in the San Jose Mercury News in Santa Clara County, Ca. earlier this year. The series documented the pathetic level of representation often provided to indigent families – and how that hurt their children by consigning them needlessly to foster care. The series also documented how children often are denied the chance to appear in court and speak for themselves, or even know about court dates.

    Both issues are extremely important – but guess which one got results.

    Yep. The Governor signed legislation to strengthen children's rights to be present and to speak at hearings.

    The expose of the failure of the firm representing parents in Santa Clara County produced results of a different sort. The firm announced it would end its work when its current contract expired. The county put the work up for bid. At least four firms bid for the business. Three promised revitalized, aggressive representation. The fourth probably made such promises too, but it's made up of the same lawyers who had the old contract. They reorganized, changed the firm's name, and promised to do better this time. As the Mercury News reported, their leader, John Nieman, was among the few to oppose a recommendation by a blue-ribbon commission to require more oversight of such firms to be sure they were really doing a good job. Instead, he said the problems would be solved if governments paid the lawyers more and mandated lower caseloads.

    Do I really have to tell you who won the contract?

The decision disgusted the director of a program co-coordinating appeals for indigent parents in California. Said Michael Kresser, executive director of California's Sixth District Appellate Program: "Dependency court remains a secretive, insular place where the rights of indigent parents to effective representation are sacrificed in favor of judicial expediency and entrenched insider groups." In a letter urging rejection of the incumbent firm because of its "extremely passive" approach, Kresser said "such representation harms not only the parents, but the interests children who are needlessly removed from their homes due to lack of effective advocacy for their parents."

Kresser's description could be applied to almost every such court in the United States. As another expert, who trains appellate lawyers across the country told the Mercury News: "There are still too many attorneys who are routinely appointed to represent children and parents who are 'potted plants.'"

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Updated Aug. 8: Some FLDS families are exonerated

Texas Child Protective Services has effectively admitted that 32 of the children torn from their families on the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado never needed to be thrown into foster care.

That's not how they put it, of course. Rather, they say they dropped the cases because, according to news accounts, CPS found no evidence of underage marriages or the families "agreed to take appropriate actions to protect their children."

This is a perfect illustration of why state laws generally say that one should not take a child first and ask questions later unless CPS has strong evidence of imminent danger – and why it is so tragic that such language routinely is ignored.

There never was any indication that if a child was not taken from the ranch today, she'd be married off tomorrow. And, it should be recalled, CPS took infants, toddlers, and other children nowhere near puberty. There was time to find out that these families were innocent without subjecting their children to the trauma of separation from everyone they know and love. There was time to find out these families were innocent and/or willing to "take appropriate steps…" without interning the children in their own private Guantanamo during the first days after the raid. There was time to find out that these families were innocent without inflicting emotional scars that may never heal.

"My little guy was just a baby," the law guardian for a child believed to be among the 32 told the Deseret News. "There was no reason for them to be in the system."

Unfortunately, this news was buried in stories that focused on the fact that CPS is trying to put eight FLDS children back into foster care.

UPDATE: The Deseret News focused on the exonerations in a follow-up story today. That story quotes a lawyer for four of the innocent parents, who says: "This decision may come four months after the raid, but it proves that the courts were right — these mothers are good parents, and their children were never at risk."

But even the cases in which CPS is trying to return children to foster care illustrate how CPS got it wrong the first time. In these cases CPS took the refreshingly novel approach of doing the investigation first. In most cases, they zeroed in on specific instances where they allege mothers "allowed" underage marriages and declined to sign "safety plans." The plans required the mothers to promise not to allow underage marriages and to limit children's contact with men allegedly involved in such marriages.

That doesn't mean CPS is necessarily right this time. There still may well be ways short of removal for CPS to accomplish its goals. And there can be good reasons not to sign the "safety plan." As The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

Attorney Stephanie Goodman, who represents [one of the mothers] said she advised her client against signing a plan that "will only be used against [her] in the future.

"My client is verbally and physically implementing the safety plan and CPS has the right to ensure by unannounced visits that she is keeping and providing her child a safe and stable environment," Goodman said.

But at least this time CPS is going about it the right way. The children will remain in their homes at least until a court hearing on September 25, where all sides can be heard. But there still is a problem: That hearing will be before Judge Barbara Walther, the same judge who rubber stamped the mass removal of the children in the first place.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Some things are just evil

…and what child protective services in Arizona did to an eight-year-old boy last week certainly qualifies.

The boy already had endured the death of his younger brother, allegedly at the hands of his mother's boyfriend. It was another of those cases where, if news accounts are correct, there were more "red flags" than at a Soviet May Day parade. That's why the Arizona Daily Star, which regularly ignores other failings of CPS, even to the point of downplaying fatalities in foster care, was interested this time.

One of those who is furious with CPS, and has said so, is the boy's father, Oscar Silva Jr. Silva also has brought a lawsuit, which probably is how the Star found out about the case and learns of new developments.

The Star story, including Silva's criticism, ran on a Sunday, a day Silva is allowed to visit his surviving son. The boy saw the story and was, of course, curious about it. So Silva let him read it. Silva also had visits on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But not anymore. Last week, the Star reported that hours before the Tuesday visit, Silva was notified that visits were suspended at least until a meeting with his CPS case manager. The nominal excuse: Silva had discussed the case with his son, violating a verbal agreement.

Now, on top of everything else, this boy not only is deprived of the love and comfort of his father, he also gets a truckload of guilt - as he tries to imagine what he did wrong to be punished by losing the chance to see his father. CPS claims that there were behaviors by the father "seen as potentially harmful to the child." Any such behaviors can't come close to the actual harm done by the agency. (Now that CPS' cruelty has been publicized, it appears the agency is backing off; claiming they're just changing the location and supervision of visits. Right.)

I can believe that whoever made this decision managed to convince himself or herself that it was for the child's own good. Rationalization is powerful. That doesn't make what CPS did here any less evil. As is so often the case with agencies that have vast power and no accountability, this was really about payback; about showing who's boss.

And no one has done more to enhance this power than the very reporter who wrote the story. Working hand-in-glove with a favored politician, they've started a foster-care panic in the Tucson area that's raged above and beyond the statewide panic that began in 2003 and never stopped. (See NCCPR's Arizona Report and these previous Blog items: Arizona: State of willful ignorance and An Arizona newspaper's double standards are showing).

Story after story portrays birth parents as the only danger to children, and leaving children in dangerous homes as the only mistake CPS makes. And in almost every story, the reporter makes sure to toss the pol a softball question of the "This is really outrageous, don't you think?" variety, to which the pol replies: "Why, yes, it is absolutely outrageous, and that's why I…" Then the pol rubs a little salt in families wounds by stereotyping all of them as hopeless meth addicts – and portraying addiction as a "decision" freely made and no more complicated than the pol himself choosing which tie to wear to be sure he looks his best on camera.

This only further increases CPS' power to take away children, like Oscar Silva's surviving son, and do whatever it wants to them after they're removed.

Why, then, is it so hard for so many Arizona journalists to believe that an agency this arrogant, this powerful and this unaccountable often mistreats children by wrongfully taking them away in the first place? Why are so many who know full well that CPS is wrong in this case, so willing to believe every word when CPS says they only take children when absolutely necessary? Why do so many Arizona journalists accept and amplify the pol's vicious stereotyping of drug abusers - and his willful ignorance about drug abuse - without allowing a word of dissent? Who do so many Arizona journalists respond to the failings of CPS by urging that an organization which so flagrantly misused its power in this case should get more power?

And how many more children are suffering right now because of this very credulity and the foster-care panic it encouraged - especially in the Tucson area?

If anyone is wondering why the surviving child isn't living with his father, so am I. But apparently the reporter never asked. And, to top it off, the reporter blew the lead. He wrote: "A father whose son was killed while under CPS watch had his visitation with his surviving older son cut off after talking to the boy about a Sunday Arizona Daily Star story on his brother."

If the reporter really understood who suffers when parent and child are separated he would have written: "An eight-year-old boy, already coping with the death of his younger brother under CPS supervision, had his visits with his father cut off …"