Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Put CPS on a “Scarsdale diet”

OK. So now it turns out that, according to her attorney, Madlyn Primoff, the high-powered lawyer from Scarsdale, had only intended to scare her squabbling 12-year-old and ten-year-old daughters a little when she evicted them from her car in downtown White Plains. But by the time she drove around the block, the children were gone.

The 12-year-old caught up with the car somehow, but the ten-year-old already was at a police station when Primoff reported her missing. Primoff spent a night in jail; then the whole family was reunited.

Here's what almost certainly will happen next:

Primoff tells the judge how sorry she is and what a lesson this has been to her.

The case either is dismissed outright, or she gets an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

Child Protective Services (CPS) continues to do nothing.

Case closed.

All that is as it should be.

But here's how it would play out had this been an impoverished Black mother who left her children in downtown Yonkers:

The criminal case is dismissed - but the kids stay in foster care, where they've been from day one. Because Yonkers police notified the child abuse hotline immediately, and CPS launched a full-scale investigation. Within 48 hours, the children are interrogated, stripsearched and thrown into their first foster home – separated indefinitely from everyone they know and love. (After all, if mom is "unstable" enough to throw her kids out of the car …)

The criminal case has no bearing on Family Court, where, days later, they're still waiting for the results of the "psychological evaluation" of mom. (After all, if she'd do something like throw her kids out of the car…)

The "psych eval" finds "borderline temperament disorder." I'm making up the diagnosis – but these kinds of evaluations always find something. See the current issue of Child Welfare Watch for an excellent discussion of how they really work in New York. Or check out the Michigan Race Equity Review, which documents cut-and-paste psych evals, in which evaluators take boilerplate they wrote about one case and apply it to another.

So mom is sent to counseling, parent education and, especially "anger management." (Because if she was mad enough to throw the kids out of the car…)

The kids stay in foster care. If they're lucky, they get to see mom once a week for an hour, under supervision.

More months go by as mom completes her "service plan." The kids have been split up and sent to separate foster homes. The ten-year-old is on at least one psychiatric medication, in order to control her anger and depression, which, of course, was caused by being taken from her mother and thrown into foster care.


One year later, the family is reunited. By now, the children are in still another foster home. Several studies indicate odds are at least one in three that one of them has been abused in foster care.


Mom finally finishes jumping through all the hoops. But now CPS decides it doesn't like mom's housing, and she's not getting her kids back until she finds a better place to live. Nationwide, several studies have found that 30 percent of America's foster children could be home right now, if their parents had decent housing.


Because of all the time spent complying with the CPS "service plan," and visits scheduled only during working hours, Mom loses her job. She can't get her kids back until she finds another one.

And that's why we need to start treating cases involving poor people the way we treat cases involving rich people. That's why we need to put Child Protective Services on a "Scarsdale diet."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

UPDATED APRIL 27:In Michigan, it’s Ismael Ahmed’s budget vs. Ismael Ahmed’s commission

UPDATE, APRIL 27: The Task Force issued its final report today.  There appear to be almost no changes from the draft discussed below.  But the press release has that Orwellian tinge one comes to expect from child welfare agencies after awhile.  It describes the report as urging the Michigan Department of Human Services to "continue reforming its child welfare system to further focus on community-based services that strengthen, preserve and re-unify families..." [emphasis added] when, in fact, DHS has been moving in the opposite direction.

When Ismael Ahmed was brought in to run the Michigan Department of Human Services, he replaced a far more knowledgeable director who had committed the ultimate crime in Michigan child welfare: trying to put the needs of the children ahead of the needs of the state's "foster care-industrial complex" – it's network of powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care.

    So perhaps it was inevitable that, almost from the moment he took the job, Ahmed made clear that he would do pretty much whatever the providers wanted him to do.

Of course he also sought cover by doing what leaders of child welfare agencies in trouble always do, naming what I've come to call an OBRC – Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission. In this case, he named an 85 member Child Welfare Improvement Task Force, which included plenty of representatives of the foster-care industrial complex (and, commendably, current and former foster children) - but almost no birth parents.

The CWITF is huge, it's clunky, it's bureaucratic – complete with "logic models," a committee to "synthesize" the work of other committees and enough use of Power Point to ensure that Microsoft survives the recession – and it leaves birth parents out. In short, it's a pretty good metaphor for Michigan child welfare. So Ahmed, who co-chairs the commission, may have figured he'd get a set of provider-friendly recommendations and that would be that.

But it's not quite working out that way. And while NCCPR certainly isn't the only reason, we'll take credit for part of it. Last fall, we promised to work to push the CWITF to offer more family-friendly recommendations. We did not promise to ask nicely – they tried that for decades in Michigan and it didn't work.

In multiple posts to this Blog, in op ed columns and meetings with reporters, in our comprehensive report on Michigan child welfare and in our Michigan Rate-of-Removal Index, both available here, we were, as always, blunt. That won't change when we issue our next report, on Michigan's misuse and overuse of institutions, in May.

And it worked.


Even as still another child abuse tragedy, likely the result of overloading the system with false reports and trivial cases, is making headlines in Michigan, over and over again, a draft of the Task Force report says what NCCPR says: Michigan takes away too many children and does too little to reunite the children it takes. And it does more than speak generally. On point after point – the state's war against grandparents, the need to seek flexibility in federal funding (which Michigan once had but threw away), in supporting Michigan's pioneering Intensive Family Preservation Services program and so on, they say what we said – only their version is duller.

Of course there still are some very serious gaps. There is not a word about bolstering due process protections for families. The foster care-industrial complex is still hard at work trying to sneak its agenda into the fine print (which may explain why a clearly labeled link to the draft report disappeared from the Task Force website after the draft's existence was revealed by The Detroit News. If you want to use the link above, better do it quickly before it's removed as well.) And the funding recommendations are pie-in-the-sky; relying largely on the Oliver Twist approach: Go to the federal government and say "please, sir, we want more." That's because a Task Force with so many providers on it is never going to say the obvious: If Michigan would stop warehousing so many children in institutions, it would have plenty of money to bolster prevention and family preservation.

Nevertheless, we commend the Task Force for joining NCCPR in understanding that wrongful removal drives everything else, and joining in our demand that the system be rebuilt to emphasize keeping families together.

There's just one problem: Ismael Ahmed doesn't believe a word of it.


That can be seen in DHS's proposed FY 2010 budget.

All of the data below come from
Michigan's Children, Budget Basics for Child Advocates, March 17, 2009. The information applies to the budget as proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The proposed budget moves in precisely the opposite direction from that recommended by the commission it would feed the powerful private agencies that institutionalize children - the tapeworm in the child welfare system - at the expense of impoverished families.

These cuts are not required by Michigan's economic crisis. On the contrary, the proposed budget increases funding for taking children from their parents and holding them in foster care even as it cuts funds to avoid needless destruction of families. The cuts in prevention could be reversed – and prevention funding increased – simply by changing priorities and curbing the misuse and overuse of what is both the worst form of care for children and the most expensive: Institutionalization.

Consider what the proposed Granholm-Ahmed budget does to prevention and family preservation programs:

Families First, Michigan's national model Intensive Family Preservation Services program, which has been cut over and over, including the elimination of all state funding – replaced by TANF surplus funds: Even as demand for this program is sure to increase as the Michigan economy collapses, there will be no additional funding for Families First.

Family reunification services, to help families take care of children once they finally get them back from foster care: Again, no increase to the miserly $3.98 million allotted to the program now.

Zero to three secondary prevention: All funding eliminated.

Teen Parent Counseling: All funding eliminated.

Family Group Decision-making, an approach similar to a key component of the Family to Family program – a prime target of the foster care-industrial complex: Funding significantly reduced. (Family to Family is an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which helps to fund NCCPR.)

Community protection and permanency: funding significantly reduced.

Marriage and fatherhood initiatives: all funding eliminated.

At least as important as many of these relatively small, specific prevention programs is concrete help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, which so often is confused with "neglect." Those programs also take a hit:

A long-planned meager increase of $2 per person per month in Michigan's dismal cash assistance rates: eliminated.

Incentive payments for welfare recipients who fulfill all federal work requirements for three months: eliminated.

Funds to help with the basics of getting a job: transportation, car repair, appropriate clothing for work etc: cut significantly.

Low income day care, so children are not taken away from parents who must work but can't find anyone to care for the children: Cut by 1,500 cases, and a rate increase for providers is eliminated.


And it looks like it's all going to feed the tapeworm.

Because in this proposed budget, the big private agencies that live off a steady supply of foster children do just fine, thank you. No cuts. No level funding. On the contrary, they rake in a total of more than $22 million in additional funds in the form of a $10 per day increase in "administrative" costs, plus a $7 a day increase in their per diems – the amount they are paid for each day they hold a child in their institutions.

In addition, under this budget Michigan's poor people would be required to subsidize the caseworkers who investigate them when their poverty is confused with neglect and then take away their children.

That's because, even as so much else is being cut, the budget proposes to spend $78.4 million to hire 850 additional child welfare staff, including 279 new child protective services workers, 216 child welfare supervisors, 87 foster care workers, 62 permanency planning workers 66 administrative support positions, 49 new administrative positions, 17 private child placing agency monitoring staff, 74 team decision-making facilitators, and a new data collection unit.

A small portion of that hiring makes sense, and some of it is required by a class-action lawsuit settlement between DHS and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" – but not all of it.

The settlement requires that caseloads for investigators and foster care workers be cut – but it does not specify that this has to be done by hiring more workers. It could, in fact, be done by creating a rational mechanism for screening calls to Michigan's child abuse hotline. The need for such a mechanism was a key finding of the Michigan Race Equity Review. That way, workers would spend less time investigating false allegations and trivial cases.

And it could be done by increasing prevention and family preservation efforts so fewer children are taken away. The same money Ismael Ahmed wants to use to hire more investigators and foster care workers could save both children and dollars by being used to hire prevention and family preservation workers instead.

But that is beyond the vision and imagination of DHS and CR.


In fact, the new hiring probably will do little or nothing to actually reduce caseloads – rather it is almost certain to further widen the net of coercive intervention into families, leaving Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.

And that will suit the foster care-industrial complex just fine.

Even where new hiring specifically is required by the consent decree, there is no justification for taking the money for those hires out of poor people's pockets. And CR could have stopped it. They could have demanded that poor people be "held harmless" for meeting the costs of any settlement.

There was a time when CR might have done just that. But that was a long, long time ago.

As for the giant Task Force: Either it got out of Ahmed's control or it was a sham from the beginning, designed to divert attention from his real agenda. NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare, Cycle of Failure, began by describing how the state's children have been betrayed by DHS and the foster care-industrial complex. Given what appears to be Ahmed's real agenda, the Task Force process is likely to be one more betrayal of children, particularly the young people who served on the Task Force itself.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

UPDATED, APRIL 23: The high-powered lawyer and the token booth clerk

CASE #1: A high-powered Park Avenue lawyer who lives in a $2 million home in Scarsdale is driving through downtown White Plains in Westchester County. As first reported by the Westchester County, N.Y Journal News, her 12-year-old and 10-year-old daughters are in the back seat, arguing, as siblings often do. Mom stops the car, orders the children out, and drives off. The 12-year-old runs after the car, catches up and mom lets her back in. But the ten-year-old apparently isn't as fast. A stranger sees her crying, buys her ice cream and notifies police. The ten-year-old gives her home address and phone number. At about the same time, mom calls the police to report the ten-year-old missing.
CASE #2: This one has appeared on this Blog before. Here's what the mom in this case is like, according to the New York Daily News.
Her oldest eight have graduated or are in college or the military. The ninth is in high school. … Her older children, now ages 15 through 29, say they always received Christmas presents, went on vacations, participated in sports and arts programs and that their mother knew the administrators and teachers at each of their schools. "She does for 10 of us what some parents do for one," said [the mother's] 20-year-old daughter, a student at Sullivan County Community College. … [The mother] brags that none of her kids have criminal records, were pregnant as teens or abused drugs. "If I was dumb enough to have a large family, I owe it to myself and the world to produce responsible citizens," she said.
But this mother is no high-powered corporate lawyer. She lives in Co-Op City, in the Bronx, not Scarsdale. And she staffs a token booth in a subway station. To keep that job, she had to leave her seven-year-old son home alone, briefly, after school until an older child could get to their apartment to babysit. "My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son," she said.
We all know where this is going, right? Guess which case resulted in a child trapped in foster care for months, and which case did not. Hint (as if anyone would need one): After the Daily News publicized the Co-Op City case, the child was freed from foster care.
But no news account concerning the Westchester case mentions either child spending so much as one minute in foster care.
Yes, the Scarsdale Mom was arrested. But the judge quickly modified his original "order of protection" in the case to let her see her children again, apparently without restriction (as opposed to say, one hour a week, at best, which is what poor people usually get). Mom is free on $1,500 bail.
The two cases involve different child welfare agencies. In New York State, individual counties, and New York City run their own child welfare systems. So this is not a case of the same agency behaving differently. Rather, it's simply a glaring example of the double-standards that plague child welfare in general.
Some might argue that the Scarsdale children were not placed in foster care because they could simply remain with their father. But that's not how it's done with poor families when there's a father in the picture. Typically the father is treated as a suspect. He's not going to get those children until he's been put through the wringer. Didn't he know his wife was "unstable"? (If a poor person suddenly threw her kids out of the car at, say, 125th St. and Lenox Ave. you may be sure she'd be deemed "unstable." Isn't there a "failure to protect" issue here? At a minimum, one would expect Dad to have to go through a "psych eval" before CPS was sure the children would be safe with him.
I'm not suggesting that's what should have happened here, of course. On the contrary, were these children placed in foster care it would only make everything worse for them. I don't think the "poor person's standard" should be applied to rich people. I just wish that, once in awhile, the rich person's standard would be applied to poor people.
UPDATE, APRIL 23: It’s amazing how solicitous reporters can be when the story involves people like us.
NCCPR’s database of child abuse, foster care, and other child welfare news coverage now runs to more than 40,000 stories over 12 years. A lot of those stories involve criminal charges – including cases in which a parent was too poor to keep a home from becoming filthy, or a single parent was forced to leave a child home alone to keep her job and tragedy followed (a kind of tragedy analyzed with rare sensitivity some years ago by The New York Times.) A fair proportion of those stories include mugshots.
But never before have I seen a line like this in a follow-up story:
“Many sites posted her understandably unflattering Police Department mug shot.” The story containing that line was accompanied by a more flattering photo.
How considerate.
Of course the “alleged perp” in this case was Madlyn Primoff, that high-powered Park Avenue lawyer from Scarsdale who kicked her kids out of the car. The story appeared in the Westchester Journal News today.
It’s worth remembering that if, in fact, things happened as news accounts say they happened, Primoff really did harm her children. Not physically – downtown White Plains in broad daylight is quite safe. But effectively abandoning a ten-year-old by the side of the road, not for a few minutes to make a point, which is harmful in itself, but for much longer – has the potential to do a lot of emotional damage. (Fortunately, the Primoffs can afford the therapy.)
I’m not saying the Journal News was wrong to give Primoff this kind of a break. On the contrary, the kindness is commendable; just as Westchester child welfare authorities were right not to punish Primoff children for her mistake by throwing them into foster care.
But a lot of poor people who face child endangerment charges are guilty of far less than Madlyn Primoff, if accounts of the Primoff case are correct. Those poor people, in contrast, sometimes are guilty of no more than making a forced choice among bad options.
But no one worries about their mugshots, or gives them a chance to look better in the paper the next day.
Once again, it would be nice if we started applying the “Scarsdale Standard” to poor people.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“Enhanced interrogation” in the war against child abuse

    As newspapers do their "one year later" stories about the raid by Texas CPS on the YFZ Ranch, we're learning more about what happened to more than 400 children torn from their families – and why.

    We'll never know the single worst moment for the children. Perhaps it was the initial removal from the Ranch. Perhaps it was the terrible conditions where the children were interned for the first days after the raid – essentially their own private Guantanamo. Maybe it was being sent to institutions hundreds of miles from home. But for many of the children, especially the youngest, the worst moment probably came a year ago yesterday, when they were taken from their mothers.

    None of the mothers had been accused of abusing the children. They had not been accused of arranging underage marriages. Some were accused of "failure to protect" children from underage marriages – which, in fact, is a euphemism for sexual abuse. Most were accused, in essence, of living in the same place where other mothers may have failed to protect children from this kind of sexual abuse. This is much like the all-too-common practice of taking children from battered women simply because the women had been beaten and they had "failed to protect" the children from witnessing the beating. A class-action lawsuit led to a ban on this pernicious practice in New York City. (NCCPR's Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the case.) During the trial one expert testified that, for the child, being taken from his mother under these circumstances is "tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound." The approach of Texas CPS boiled down to "please pass the salt."

    Initially the explanation from Texas CPS was the same chilling explanation they gave for everything they did wrong in this case: "It's what we always do." And, as I've noted before, the most frightening thing about the entire FLDS case is that this particular claim is true.

    But now, it turns out, in the FLDS case, CPS actually tried to be a little kinder to the children. It's well known that many of the children were allowed to stay with their mothers at first, only to be torn from them after their first days in internment. Now we know CPS was pressured into taking the children from their mothers.

But who would do that? Who would know – or care - so little about child development that they would go out of their way to impose an extra measure of misery on helpless children? Who would be so caught up in their own self-righteousness that they could advocate something so cruel?

    CASA, of course.

    The San Angelo Standard Times reports that it was the local chapter of Court-Appointed Special Advocates that "pressed CPS and the court to remove the mothers, something that eventually occurred April 14."

    In several previous posts to this Blog, I've written about the enormous harm CASA does to the children it is supposed to help – and who most CASA volunteers genuinely want to help. I've written about the major national study, commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, which shows that the program accomplishes almost nothing except to prolong foster care and reduce the chance that children will be placed with relatives – while doing nothing to make children safer. And I've written about the vile racism by a performer at a CASA fundraiser in Kansas.

    And now we find similar poor performance by CASA in the FLDS case.

    The CASAs don't even pretend they thought the children actually would be abused by their mothers. No, their only argument was that some of the mothers "began to inhibit efforts to elicit truthful answers from their children." That isn't necessarily cause to take any of the children from those mothers, much less tearing all the children from all of the mothers. What CASA is saying is that it's ok to inflict cruelty on hundreds of children to get "the truth" out of them and build a case against someone who may have abused some of them.

In fact, it might have been easier to question some of the children once their mothers were completely out of the picture – just as it probably is easier to get a story out of a terrorism suspect if you waterboard him. And yes, it's even possible that the information gleaned this way from hundreds of children who were never abused might reveal a child who was abused or prevent some other child from being abused. It also may be that if you waterboard hundreds of innocent people, and a few real terrorists, you might prevent a terrorist attack.

    But there is no more justification for "enhanced interrogation" in the war against child abuse than in the war against terror.

    Of course no CASA wants to hurt a child; on the contrary, they genuinely want to help children and keep them safe. But once you decide the ends justify the means …

    The CASAs go on to dismiss the anguish of mothers seen on television when their children were taken. They say the mothers were faking it. "Most of that was just staged," one of the CASAs said. How do they know? Because the mothers on TV weren't the same mothers they were working with. But CPS took children from all the mothers, not just the ones these particular CASAs were "working with." (Also, as it happens, CPS' justification for taking the children was that the YFZ Ranch functioned as one family. If that's true, then it stands to reason that all the mothers would grieve for all the children. You can't have it both ways.)

And it gets scarier.

    Almost anyone who followed the FLDS case will recall the courage of 11 mental health professionals sent by Texas CPS itself to the places where the children were interned in those first days. They put their careers on the line by breaking confidentiality oaths to tell the world just how horribly the children were being treated. Their statements are available here. Again, these are statements not from advocates for the parents but from professionals sent in by the State of Texas. And what do the CASAs say about this? They suggest it never happened.

    According to the Standard Times: "Although not explicitly questioning the truthfulness of the claims, the CASA workers said they saw none of the alleged incidents detailed in the reports." Talk about being "in denial."

    And, it appears, the CASAs only wish the children were still far from everyone they know and love. They condemned Texas CPS – not for inflicting all this damage in the first place, but for supposedly dropping cases too quickly after the courts ruled that the removals were illegal.

    Toward the end of the story, even one of the CASAs admits that "There were definitely some of the cases where the children shouldn't have been removed and should have been returned quickly." But she expresses no remorse for this, or for her role in it; no sympathy for the suffering these children endured when taken from the ranch and then from their mothers. Rather, she simply declares that "these are children who were removed for a reason."

    Well, yes. But that doesn't mean it was a good reason.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

And they didn’t make any mistakes, either!

    The commissioner of the agency that oversees CPS in Texas repeated the promise: If another case like the FLDS case arises, Texas CPS will deliberately break the law.

She didn't put it that way, of course. But, just like her spokesman, Patrick Crimmins, Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said Friday that, were the same kind of case to arise again, her agency would respond in the same way. And that "way" was found to be illegal by Texas courts.

    In fact, Heiligenstein went further. According to the Houston Chronicle, Heiligenstein said her agency, in the story's words "made no mistakes" during the entire FLDS raid and its aftermath. No mistakes at all. Not a one.

Those wretched conditions in which the children were interned in the first days – according to CPS' own therapists? Not a mistake. Taking away huge numbers of children from families the agency now effectively admits were innocent? No error there. The enormous emotional trauma inflicted on the children? Somebody else's problem, I guess.

    And what is it that outweighs all this harm? (Assuming for the moment that Heiligenstein even understands this harm at all?) The fact that "we educated FLDS mothers and children about abuse, what it looks like and how to report it." So that's why they took all those children. I'd sure like to know how they conveyed these lessons to the infants and toddlers.

    Of course, odds are that's not really what these children learned at all. From all accounts, these children lived in a world where their self-proclaimed "prophet" told them the outside world was a terribly dangerous and frightening place, where people were out to get them. So chances are, what they really "learned" was to believe their "prophet" was right.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Texas CPS promises to break the law

    Hard to believe it's been a year since Child Protective Services seized more than 400 children from the YFZ Ranch in El Paso – and almost a year since the Texas Supreme Court found that the seizure was illegal. But it looks like the only lesson CPS may have learned is to be careful what they say.

In their "one year later" stories, The Salt Lake Tribune and the San Angelo Standard Times both report that Texas CPS says if they faced what CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins called "the exact fact situation" again, they would do exactly the same thing again – take away all the children. But the Texas Supreme Court ruled that taking away all the children under these exact circumstances is illegal. As in, against the law. Did CPS forget that small fact – or do they just plan to break the law on purpose next time?

Apparently, it occurred to someone at CPS that this degree of candor was unwise, because when Crimmins spoke to The Deseret News he said: "There's no way to predict how exactly we would react."

Of course, that assumes the Deseret News interview came later. If the News talked to Crimmins first it suggests that Crimmins' bosses told him to take a harder line, and never mind the law.