Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UPDATED, MARCH 26: The “surge” that failed

There is an update at the end of this post

There's a very depressing number that wasn't available for a long time and now, finally, is public.
The latest issue of Child Welfare Watch
a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future, has the number: 49. That's the number of child fatalities in cases previously known to the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) in 2008. That's the highest single-year figure since 1993, which is as far back as I've ever been able to find data. And the total for the most recent three years, 134, is the worst three-year total.

That means, by the standard used most often by media and politicians, the "surge" in New York City has been a huge failure. What surge? The surge in "get tough" rhetoric from ACS, the surge in new policies encouraging things like automatic confiscation children born to mothers who already have children in foster care, and, most of all, the surge in removals of children from their homes – all of which followed the death of Nixzmary Brown in January, 2006.

I'm not terribly keen on using fatalities as a measure, even in New York City, one of the very few places where, arguably, the system is large enough to detect a pattern. But more reliable measures, reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster care "recidivism" also show that the surge has failed.

And, as anyone who has read this Blog from the beginning knows, none of this is hindsight.

Back in late 2005, when The New York Times was linking every death of a child "known to the system" to efforts to keep families together – and claiming that there had been a "series" of such deaths – we pointed out that there was no such series, the rate of such deaths was about the same as in previous years. (The reporter who made the claim later would famously explain that "it was a series – but not statistically.") We also said the most likely way to increase such deaths was to overload a child welfare system with false allegations, trivial cases and needless removals of children, therby making it even harder for caseworkers to find the children in real danger.

So now, entries into foster care are up 55 percent from their record low in 2005, and what does ACS have to show for it? A real series of deaths of children "known to the system" and a deterioration in more reliable measures of safety as well.

Meanwhile, ACS faces drastic budget cuts, the subject of a City Council hearing yesterday. According to the Times, "council members said laying off workers at the agency risked another disaster like the case of Nixzmary Brown …" which just goes to show the infinite capacity of some politicians for doublethink.

In fact, the disasters never stopped – the number of such disasters actually increased, with all those new workers simply chasing down all those new allegations. Now, some of the workers will be gone – with no change in the mentality that encourages anyone and everyone to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, and no change in the pressure on the remaining workers to rush cases needlessly into court and take children first and ask questions later.

And the doublethink isn't limited to politicians. According to The Daily News, ACS "'looked at the system and said this is what's necessary to prevent [a case like Nixzmary Brown] from happening again,' said Jennifer Marino Rojas of the Children's Defense Fund. 'Now they're cutting back.'"

No, Ms. Rojas. The cases like Nixzmary Brown never stopped happening. You, and much of the media, stopped paying attention because the cases didn't fit the storyline: that ACS' get tough on families approach had somehow made things better. When it actually made things worse, everyone looked the other way.

Try to imagine what things would be like if ACS still were taking fewer than 5,000 children per year instead of more than 7,400. For starters, children would be safer, because workers would have more time to find the children in real danger.

But also, ACS would be spending less money. Because not only is keeping children in their own homes the better, safer option for most children most of the time, it also happens to cost less. A large chunk of the ACS budget gap is caused, in fact, by all that needless foster care and all that time and money spent dragging cases into court – because ACS workers are now so afraid to leave children in their own homes without a court backing them up.

The last time I wrote about ACS, I said it might be time to change the title of NCCPR's report on the agency. No doubt about it; that time has arrived.


In desperately trying to spin the huge increase in deaths of children “known to the system” ACS is falling back on the crutch it’s been using to explain every failure for the past three years – it’s all supposedly because reports alleging child abuse have gone up.

Of course deaths of children known to the system have increased, ACS says, after all, there are more children actually known to the system.

But there is one big problem with that reasoning:

Depending on which set of numbers you use, the increase in reports since 2005 is anywhere from 23 percent to 26 percent. The increase in deaths of children previously known to ACS is from 50 to 60 percent.

Unfortunately, a story in today’s Times doesn’t allow for an apples-to-apples comparison – it compares the increase in reports from 2005 to 2008, but the increase in entries into care only from 2007 to 2008.

Second item from the ACS Department of Spin: We shouldn’t pay attention to deaths of children known to the system anymore, since some of them are accidents. Now ACS tells us we should pay attention only to homicides.

Hard to know where to begin on that one.

For starters, deaths of children known to the system has been the measure of choice for the media in New York ever since the Times claimed there had been a “series” of such deaths in late 2005, and blamed them on efforts to keep families together. (It also tends to be the measure of choice for media all over the country.) There was no such series – back then the rate of such deaths had been largely unchanged for several years.

Now that the deaths really have increased, even as ACS takes far more children, suddenly we’re supposed to ignore this number?

Actually, this isn't the first time ACS has tried to persuade New Yorkers to do just that. After the death of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995 was followed by a huge increase in removals of children - and an increase in deaths of children "known to the system" the agency pulled the same stunt. Here's how the Times reported the story back then.

Also, while a category like deaths known to the system can include some accidents, as the Daily News explains, looking only at those labeled homicide leaves out an enormous number of cases where ACS may have some culpability.

The way child abuse deaths are defined can be remarkably subjective. For instance: In a family with a history of alleged neglect, a toddler manages to get out the back door, wanders off and drowns. Accident or “neglect”? It may well depend on whether the water was a pond behind a trailer park (neglect) or the pool at a McMansion (accident). (See Drowning in Misinformation Jan. 6, 2008.)

And what do you think ACS would have said about using deaths of children “known to the system” as a measure had they gone down?

Finally, as I noted in the original post above, and every time I’ve commented on the spike in child fatalities in New York City since it first became known two years ago (and since NCCPR warned it was likely three years ago): I’d much rather use better measures such as foster care recidivism and rates of reabuse.

Those measures also have deteriorated since the surge in removals. Someone might want to ask ACS about that, if only to watch the spin machine go into overdrive.